Humanising Language Teaching
The Common European Framework is more of the wrong thing
Antony Bamber, UK and Italy
( This paper was first presented at the British Council Conference in Acireale, Sicily in March 2003.)
[ Editorial note: as 75 million people prepare to become citizens of the European Union in May, 2004, language teachers in these States ( Poland is the biggest, with a population of 40 million) may find themselves invited to re-organise their teaching in line with the Common European Framework, a hefty document that not everybody finds easy to read. In this context Antony Bamber's criticism of the CEF makes interesting reading.
If you do not work in Europe this article may be of only academic interest, but, who knows, people in the ministry in your country, may come to view the CEF as something to import, so maybe you should know a bit about it.]
I have divided the essay into 3 parts. The central part 4-8 can be read separately as a critique of the Common European Framework CEF, but part 1 and part 3 are I think necessary in order to explain how I come to feel so antagonistic towards CEF. To do battle with CEF you have to also deal with all the conventional wisdom that lies behind its conception.
1. Background to my critique of CEF ( The Common European Framework).
It is obvious that any criticisms of CEF will only be possible from some very non CEF standpoint. I have met Italian inspectors who view me as almost heretical in my criticism of what seems to them to be CEF's self evident truths. This is important. As one British Council director said to me with a wry shake of the head, "CEF is a big beast". We need to know why it has, like a hungry pike, devoured all other fish in the river. If we are to mount an effective critique of CEF it has to be from a strongly different premise.
My criticism grows from my teaching experience. I have taught for 35 years and for 25 years I have run a summer language school for foreign children. It has surprised me how little most children know after years of school. In 2002-03 I and my wife taught some 50 classes in Italy (each for 12-20 hours) as part of a chalk face teacher training project. We therefore saw more than 800 pupils.
2. "Grid lock". The mania for tick boxes.
CEF is part of the larger cultural trend in Europe for what one could call a nosey managerial lack of trust in the competence of subordinates. Box filling "descriptors" are the result of not trusting that subordinates do their job properly: in our case, teachers. The trouble with this kind of managerial mistrust is that it is incredibly demotivating. It is also desperately time consuming and mistrustful. Teachers, in good faith, try to position pupils within the amorphous target categories of CEF or Britain's national tick boxes, but this complicated and time consuming record keeping treats the teacher as an imbecile. Not only this but any such authoritative definition of what language teaching should do runs this risk: suppose the whole monolith were mistaken in its premise yet everyone had been forced to follow it? Remember the British Council manager's forlorn description of "CEF as "a big beast"
The boxes of CEF are arranged as A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 C2 levels and these are supposed to bring rigour to teaching and to thus "force up standards", but I have seen examples of a school's tick boxes of the "Portfolio" (which derive from the CEF grids) which were effectively pure fiction: the pupils abilities were nowhere near the descriptors that had been ticked! The vagueness of the descriptors just encourages cheating and superficiality! These tick boxes remind me of something I read by Tim Brighouse, of Birmingham education authority. "No one forgets a good teacher but who remembers an inveterate filler in of boxes and teacher of "targets"? He says that under present proposals the teachers of 3-5 year olds in England and Wales (imagine the fate of the older kids!) will be required to tick 117 boxes for each pupil. Now for an average class this equals a total of 3515 boxes for one class in a year. And then?? The fantastic Primary school head teacher of my older children's school, became a taxi driver. He was driven out by the mad, managerial folly of making teachers fill in target boxes of rubber exactitude THAT NO ONE READS!! "Who", he asked the OFSTED inspector,"will read these pages that I have lost my week end filling in - you"? he asked. The inspector admitted they would be unread before they were binned.
3. The underpinning of CEF:
" The distinction-"Acquire" versus "Learn"
CEF is an integral part of the accepted wisdom that, in my opinion, has failed pupils. The sheer conventionality of CEF explains why my criticism seems so outlandish and heretical to some. In general we could say that this conventional wisdom has absorbed the theory behind "The Communicative Approach". It was invented on the basis of an insight of doubtful relevance in the context of schools. The insight went like this. We learn our mother tongue unconsciously. We "pick it up". I prefer this metaphor to the more canting Latinate "acquire". The communicative approach was based on the distinction between the Germanic word "learn" that had served well and the Latin word "acquire". Supposedly classrooms could become acquiring places like the L1 home. But we cannot be said in any meaningful way, to "acquire" languages in school. We learn them, or even learn by heart, with heart, through heart - ie by motivation, desire, enjoyment, entertainment. But somehow or other we have to learn them, or end up as I have seen many, knowing nothing: having acquired nothing either! I have seen the vast majority of children at Secondary level who do not understand or use correctly the present tenses in English after 7,8 years! How come that the "acquiring" system has failed them so badly?
CEF follows the conventional rejection of grammar-centred learning and gives the only alternative: an extension of the phrase book method! The CEF however is not a phrase book but an exhaustive description of what such a phrase book method would have to flesh out. It contains 33 pages of grids and all these grids are divided into fussy but rubbery "descriptors" which vainly try to describe all uses of language and all divided into A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 C2 levels. CEF follows the phantasma of "natural learning" and "real situations", but this means that the material used in schools will be excruciatingly boring. "Alors qu' est ce que tu fais le matin quand tu te leves"? "Je me brosse les dents". (English secondary school lesson that was fulfilling the CEF type curricula "Daily routines"!). A phrase book approach imprisons: you rehearse THAT situation, but suppose your interlocutor says something unexpected and not in the script! Furthermore, such everyday material is so boring! To forestall this limitation in the phrase book method, CEF has tried to cover every imaginable use of language. By contrast, a grammar centred approach is much more manageable and is also liberating and of infinite recyclability; as long as it does not consist of the numbingly inappropriate old fashioned grammar of previous ill repute with its abstract rules and as long as an alternative includes a lot of vocabulary work.
The test of our teaching methods should be this. Will students be put in a position to produce autonomous English without having to rely on just those "situations" that their text books and CEF have prepared them for in "airport phrase book" fashion.
4. CEF is badly written. Stodgy prose, stodgy minds?
The "Common European Framework" is badly written. With all its repetitive reference to "language competence", how could it be this incompetent? It is rubbery with imprecise precision. Is it Brussels English? My attempted translation is in brackets:
What hope for English in Europe! This is the Ebola disease of our language!!
5. "A rose by any other name". Taxonomic madness.
Let's look in a bit more detail at CEF. I've read the book three times. Not an easy read. It contains a lot of what I call Latinglish: precise vagueness. European committees will create a new pidgin English. A boneless monster like my example above of Euro gibberish.
If I am indignant it is because I have seen the chalk-face results of this obstinate wrong headedness and seen the blind inspectors treating the wounds! (an influential school inspector of Lombardia angrily warned me against "going round undoing all our work, with such talk")! Incidentally, try playing this parlour game: read the 6 levels ( A1 A2 etc) of any grid. Cut them up and cut off the letter/number category and then try to reassemble the 6 in the right order! Difficult!. Then do the same with 2 grids and reorder the 12 unnamed "descriptors"!
6. How do you teach these indistinct categories and are these test categories the best ground plan of a didactic approach
There is an odd fact of language noted by Wittgenstein. He called it "picture theory". Some concepts or events are resistant to sequential verbal description. The more you describe, the unclearer it gets! Wittgenstein noted this after seeing a lawyer demonstrating in court with tables, the sequence and circumstances of a crash between 2 cars. What would have required 33 pages was in fact quite simple to understand. This picture theory is also supported by what we could call less grandly the "IKEA theory". You put up their assembly shelves with a picture, not an explanation! In the CEF there are 33 pages of "descriptor" grids! A verbal swamp!
CEF has tried to classify language so that a system of comparable cross-European tests can be made in all the languages. Such tests will be used for all the firms who employ workers moving across Europe. "One of the aims of the CEF is to …describe levels of proficiency required by existing standard tests, examinations so as to FACILITATE COMPARISON". Behind this bureaucratic tidiness the difficulty remains: how do you teach these indistinct categories and are these test categories the best ground plan of a didactic approach? Will they" force up" the ability to speak autonomously or just encourage a narrow range of phrase book type coaching of students, (those students who acquiesce, that is) and will the teacher boxes just encourage cheating and window dressing by the schools which are now considered to be "businesses" and need to convince the "customers". ?
7. CEF's disingenious disclaimers about hospitality to all methodologies.
What worries me is what effect will the vague precision of the CEF categorisation have on teaching. Here are some of CEF's contradictions of intention. It is here that we must nail the CEF.
Now the CEF states (p.8) that it has "no intention of being prescriptive about methods of language teaching: non-dogmatic, not irrevocably attached to any one of a number of competing linguistic or educational theories or practices". However the sheer scale of the 33 grids is a massive foreclosure on didactics. They will be taught to. They are already conditioning text books.
despite the "no intention.." this on P. 18 sounds rather menacing!! "An open "neutral" framework of reference does not of course imply an absence of policy". AND " but CEF also deals with processes of language acquisition and learning as well as teaching METHODOLOGY". I was present in Sicily at a presentation of a NEW course book by Longman, in which the authors were happy to claim that their book was " a plurilingual, pluricultural” approach. (one of those politically correct notions that are barely relevant to the pupils I've seen.) Apparently this "approach" entails a "paradigm shift". What a canting appropriation of a serious intellectual concept in order to SPEAK BIG. It is obvious, has always been obvious that learning another language lets one in to another "forma mentis", lets you see out of previously walled up windows in the human experience. Up to a point! But I've heard fluent English speakers of Italian still talking with the mind set of Britannia! So it's a "paradigm shift", this "plurilingualism"? Something big like Galileo or Newton's "paradigm shift"? No, this "paradigm shift" is typical of the inflated tone of the CEF. Out with multi-lingual and in with plurilingual!
P.21 "a conceptual grid which users of the CEF can exploit to describe their system"!! BUT this is ingenuous. If such a "conceptual grid" becomes central and referential for description of any system it will become THE system: and surely that is precisely the aim. The makers of the CEF did not spend all that time and money just making a check list. In fact I was present in Sicily at a presentation of a NEW course book by Longman, in which the authors were boasting of how it "delivers" the necessary language "competences" to satisfy the CEF. It looked a mortifying book for the pupil and the poor teacher will have to progressively tick a passage through various grid labyrinths.
P.21 "the description also needs to be based on THEORIES OF LANGUAGE COMPETENCE", but whose definition of competence and whose valid theories were referred to by this European committee? They will resemble those of the guiding wisdom - the importance given to "functions" and all the language use possible within this or that "domain". (the framework for language teaching in the last 20 years has been according to "functions" and everyday situations). The trouble is that, whereas though these "functions" made for boring banal situations, they were at least manageable and limited in number, the CEF, while repeating this boring "paradigm" of language, is "functions" with knobs on!
8. "CEF's grids and boxes will force up standards". Italian school inspector.
One day in Bolzano, I heard an Italian inspector of schools bring glad tidings to teachers in Bolzano and announce that: "these grids of the CEF "descriptors"", would "force up standards". Just by being there! However, these descriptors are very difficult to teach to as they are so vague. Teaching material needs to be much more sharply focused than the CEF grids permit. What matters is the material's ease of memorisation; its interest, and whether it is subject to repetition and revision and thus to memorisation. Pupils in school need FOCUS on forms. They need to become very familiar with the formalities of the language, while also speaking them. A young child hears forms that only subsequently fill out with full meaning. It seems that we have been missing some fundamental points about the much quoted young learner of L1.
Think, the basis of all this bad teaching is the following truth misapplied: when we learn our mother tongue as infants, we don't have lessons or use grammar rules. Good. So we were supposed to apply this fact in the class room. We should "acquire" and not "learn" This was a sort of 1968 ripple. Learning should become painless "acquiring". "Learning" was teutonic in its overtones of hard work. "Acquire" was the humanistic face of '68! This was despite the interesting genius of the language that had invented the phrase "learn by heart"! Passionate, feeling learning!
In the classroom for 3 hours a week (maybe only 2 after deducting interruption time!) there is no time for steady intuitive "acquisition" - and anyway, whereas the young child gets lots of very delimited and focused repetition, the school child has a chaos of text book and the company of variously motivated companions.
As I've said, the communicative approach is naturalist; it wants a "natural" language "acquisition", and the non-grammar learning of childhood. Marvellous dream but not possible in school. Firstly the language acquisition of childhood is so specific and dynamic that Chomsky coined a term for its specificity, "LAD "the language acquisition device". It is no longer operative after a certain age. That's why my 4 year old daughter at barely 4 has 2 languages already tucked away! The miserable 2-3 hours of school language, with all the interruptions and distractions, are light years away from the focused, contextualised and continual exposure of childhood. As for the communicative approach, there is nothing in a classroom that is communication other than the few phrases that a teacher may use such as "have you all finished", etc. The "communication" of text books is mere imitation. A child learning the mother tongue has to understand, in a sense his life depends on it. In school all this pseudo communication just annoys and bores students. It would be much better to give them, as we do, grammar focused plays in which they genuinely are asked to act rather than the dull conversations organised around the functions to which the CEF gives second life to. Further we should use the exciting real life material of newspapers if we first boil down and simplify the language. This simplification is, in my experience, best done by choosing material that allows for a repetitive use of the various target grammar structures: In this way a pupil is in a position to make the intuitive recognition of the regularities of language: which is called grammar!
So what do I recommend to put in its place? Simple. We put grammar back at the centre of teaching. The change of teaching approach in the CA and its text books completely repositioned grammar; put it in the back seat. Now in one way this demotion of grammar was thoroughly justified. It is a subversive truth that none of us learnt our mother tongue through a grammar. Good, but what does that mean for the classroom? The classroom is not an L1 environment, but contrariwise, the environment of the child is not "natural" either. A child is given cleverly modified and focused language by its mother. Mothers are in fact very good language teachers! A lot of the theorists who wanted natural learning in the classroom might have spent more time considering some of the artifices of the native child learner and its parents.
It is true that the grammar method before the communicative approach was wrong, just as the communicative approach is wrong because unrealistic. There is a third way! Lets not go back to old fashioned grammar but forward to new fashioned grammar. This new grammar will be with very few rules. It will be more a system of organising material rather than those pedantic rules which no one can remember. The material will be presented through the eye of grammar. It will be grammar specific and grammar focused but it will see grammar as not just frightening, dead, abstract stuff but the sinews of expression (see our grammar plays on www.middlesmoor.com ). It is simple grammar, visualised and reduced. This kind of grammar sets us free. It is to quote the title of that book by Murphy that has outstripped all others; "grammar in use". Marvellous irony: Murphy is a heretic who has made oodles of money because he has given people what they find useful. The democratic virtue of good business!
Who need be afraid of grammar? Grammar is simply a name for those regularities of language which allow us to differentiate action in time (tenses), make refinements of quantity and quality assessment ( quantity words, comparatives and superlatives) etc. These islands of grammar form groups: archipelagos of interrelated structures. As long as we use them to navigate a language, and move straight into speaking activities, teaching and learning becomes simple.
Make students learn by heart, to give them initial confidence and mouth-tongue exercise. Invent games for more extemporising uses of the structures around likely human situations. Make them write and act their own "grammar plays".
Just look again at these grids from the CEF. The mind reels under their delirious soft exactitude that is trying to pin down language. Think of the Present simple and try to list its CEF type range of communication competence that are activated by use of the present simple! "Talk about your future plans", "tell someone what you like to do", "inform or be informed of train and bus time tables", "describe to a doctor your symptoms and your worries about them", "tell someone about the sports and leisure activities", "tell someone about the usual weather you have", "tell someone about your daily routines at work or at home", "complain about someone's annoying habits" etc etc That isn't a bad tally is it for poor old grammar category "present simple" So who is so terrified by grammar? Now contrast this with just one more tense the Present Continuous".with its list of communication potential. You HAVE TO teach these contrasting tenses together. The present continuous and the Present simple need to be taught together: along with the exceptions, because most learners of English as a second language have so much difficulty with them both TOGETHER. . Yet one poor student in Brescia told me that after my lesson she had finally understood something that had been muddled for 4 years. I do not mean that we go banging on about rules. What I mean is that we keep returning to the quick definitions while AT THE SAME TIME using focused speaking material that digs the memory furrow deeper. Remember at school there is so little time: so get focused!!
10. Teachers don't need systems. What matters is the piecemeal accretion of activities that work!
We want no more new approaches, no more revolutionary wheezes. What system makers don't realise is that each of us has his own "system". It fits us like a glove. A system is not self evident to anyone except the originator. We are all in love with our own creations. We need to beware of doing anything more than offering a POSSIBLE extra string to everyone's bow. We don't need presumptuous systems like CEF that are gorged on Brussels money and which through their backing become monstrous and devour all around them.
tell me what you think: email@example.com
our website: http://www.middlesmoor.com sections for teachers.