The conflict between short-term and long-term goals is a big one for ELT.
In most subjects, teachers work with a batch of students in something called a “course” in 3- to 5- month intervals. We tailor our expectations of the course to that time frame, generally not asking students to do something impossible like master the complete works of Puccini or lose 20% body fat in the 18 weeks between handing out the syllabus and proctoring final exams. Instead, we find a way to subdivide the task that we know we want them to have mastered within the next 4 years into semester-long segments, and call that our course. Not all the works of Puccini, but 2 of them. Not 20% body fat, just 5%. Not all of a foreign language, just 500 words and the first 10 grammar points.
There is a problem that many language teachers see in taking that approach to planning a foreign language curriculum, which is that learning another language is less like learning musical scores and more like learning to walk (or in anti-evolutionists’ favorite gambit, evolving an eye) – there are no sensible partway points at which to divide the long and error-ridden process into 4-month units. Like walking and eye-volution, all successes are prefaced by many more instances of clear failure, and progress may look exactly like failure until it suddenly doesn’t. Half an eye doesn’t do its owner 50% of the good of a complete eye, and there is no reason to think that 2 years of college Spanish is 50% as good as 4 (or 1 year 25% as good, or a semester 12.5%). Assuming (yes, assuming) a full college Spanish curriculum does its job of producing competent Spanish speakers, chopping it into semesters may work against this goal rather than helping students towards it by inducing short-term-goal myopia in course planners and students alike.
(I recognize that evolutionarily intermediate eyes actually did have utility – but half of a modern human eye certainly doesn’t.)
That bit about “500 words and 10 grammar points” represents a common way of doing things, but it happens to be supported by no actual research or theory (prove me wrong in the comments). A mantra among people who think of SLA like I do is “students do no learn what you teach when you teach it.” Going through grammar points in any order, but especially those set out in order of “simplicity” like most textbooks, doesn’t lead to their acquisition. Like the freemium synthetic syllabus, at best it gives students a reason to keep trying while their interlanguage continues working with the limited input and practice it’s receiving. However, it is not optimal for their long-term learning, taking time as it does away from the input, interaction, and reactive grammatical instruction that has been shown more to move interlanguage along the rails it’s stuck on. Therefore, it is not justifiable to assert that if learning Spanish means learning 200 grammar points in order, 1 semester of Spanish should mean learning 25 of them. Learning grammar isn’t an incremental process and can’t be divided down to numbers of discrete points per term.
The fact of interlanguage should be liberating, but working in an academic system forces you to pretend the chains are still on. The existence of interlanguage allows teachers to be patient and frees them from the burden of constant grammatical correction. You can’t force the interlanguage train to change course (although you can speed it up somewhat) so there’s absolutely no point in my getting mad at or hectoring students who make the same errors over and over again or even backslide on things they “learned” last quarter. Something like the definite article isn’t going to appear without it meaning something to the student first, and that requires a rich, long-developed understanding of how other articles and nouns work in English that is nuanced even when not native-like. However, if the syllabus requires that definite articles be on the final, I need to drill them into students even if there is no representation of English in their minds that has a space for them.
The conundrum of “Given the inability of the language learning enterprise to fit into the time frame demanded of an academic year, how do you plan a semester-long language course?” has struck me again here in the USA, in the form of credit vs. non-credit ESL. Non-credit ESL (example here) is the less prestigious of the two, comprising mostly adult immigrants. Credit ESL is aimed at learners looking to graduate with an Associate’s degree or transfer to a nearby university. Because credit ESL has matriculation up to regular college writing classes as its major goal, it is both more closely aligned with the interests of the education system as a whole and more respected among ESL teachers. It also works on an assumption similar to that introduced above, that long-term learning goals can be evenly divided into semester-long chunks. Pass one semester-long course, you’re 25% of the way to being a functioning academic writer. Two semesters, 50%. And so on.
Non-credit ESL is freer of these concerns. It is more similar to the brand of ELT that I am most used to – teaching in Japan. In fact, it was pointed out to me in a discussion with a seasoned ESL veteran that almost all the Japanese ELT experience on my CV probably reads as “non-credit ESL” – not the big leagues – to employers here. I have to agree that they have some similarities, many of which are in non-credit ESL’s favor, mostly, in my mind, due to the fact that non-credit ESL and EFL in Japan are free from curricular concerns to take a long view of student learning outcomes. Below are some of the ways in which non-credit ESL and Japanese EFL play a long game with English mastery, to their advantage.
First, no trained ELT professional in Japan expects students to make massive improvements to their interlanguage in one semester, so they feel free to play a long game by working their motivation and integrativeness much more than their grammatical accuracy. This doesn’t always work, but when it does it produces outcomes that stretch out far beyond the academic year. When it doesn’t work, it’s still at least as effective as working with a synthetic syllabus (i.e., forgotten after college). I had an interesting JALT encounter with a teacher who I felt played way too long a game with her preschool students, but I have to admit that the students that her methods worked on will probably be motivated for many years after they’ve forgotten her name.
Second, you can put more of your efforts toward slow forward motion on the interlanguage train rather than a few discrete items that will be on the final exam. In Japan, the final exam (at least at my former place of employment) is quite easy and curved to the point where something like 90% of students get a B or C (not great for motivation, that). Free to somewhat ignore the discrete-item final, teachers have more of their time and resources available for projects with no test payoff like Extensive Reading libraries and conversation lounges. These may not show up in improved test scores on the district-mandated grammar test that term, but they do motivate, check the SLA theory boxes, build statistical grammar knowledge, and by the way actually also result in great improvements in grammaticality.
Third, because grammar is not necessarily an objective, teachers feel free to experiment with methods that at first glance appear not to be teaching English at all. Many of my JALT meetings were basically on variations of CLIL, based on things like lifehacks, music, tourism, and fashion. We were aware of course that as English teachers we had a responsibility to leave our students with better English (now or in the future) than we found them with, but we were also liberated from having to deliver results in the form of more correct grammar every few months. This resulted in some very interesting pedagogical discussions as well as we tried to work out why our students did so much better in classes like these than ones that were more clearly “about” English.
The crucial point of this post is: Why bother with the short game at all when everyone knows language acquisition has to be a long game? Is there any justification for biannual grammar tests besides token gestures toward “traditional” academics?
…Now the part of the post where I seem to contradict myself:
ESL may justify its focus-on-forms structure in an extremely long game, where students hearing “Were I to V, S” years after they transfer and graduate may finally find a place for it in their internal English language system, while still living in the US years after their actual ESL courses. In the sense that credit ESL allows students to (rather than prepares students to) write academic English, which allows them to graduate from university, which facilitates the rest of their lives in the US, at which point they will finally start to understand the grammar they only learned as explicit knowledge in credit ESL, its grammatical focus is justified (in a tautological sort of way).