The TESOL President’s Blog
To understand the world of TESOL 2.0, I have previously looked at changes in the system that provides English language education and the tools of the classrooms where students learn the language. The privatization of education and the rise of technology are factors that teachers across disciplines must adapt to. But there is one major change that is more specific to TESOL: evolving understandings of what it is we are teaching when we say we teach “language.”
How do you describe what you teach? If you describe it based on what is in your textbooks or curriculum standards guides, odds are you will talk about knowledge, skills, and competencies. You will talk about vocabulary as well as the rules and patterns that allow us to turn vocabulary into utterances. You may talk about enabling students to read a certain amount of text or take notes from a lecture, in which case you are talking about the ability to do something with language. Finally, you might talk about what is often described as pragmatic or sociolinguistic competency: knowing how to make an email polite, use voice when writing an essay, or sound authoritative when giving a research presentation.
Clearly, how we describe the language we teach depends on who our students are, our perceptions of what they have already learned, and our understanding of their goals and needs. It also depends on our own professional training. Influenced by the vestiges of communicative language teaching, we may talk about what an individual should learn in order to interact in society, for example: “airport survival skills” or “strategies for making friends in new social settings.” Adopting a more functional approach to language, we might talk about selecting the right forms from the options provided by a particular register and then embedding them in the right genre to achieve an intended social meaning. What is interesting about these descriptions, however, is that even though they are talking about social uses of language, they still frame language as something that belongs to an individual. Regardless of the vocabulary that forms the basis for our curriculum descriptions, we are still teaching skills and knowledge that belong to and help individual students.
In 2014, the TESOL Research Agenda argued that one of the major change drivers in TESOL-related research today is a changing understanding of what language is:
With respect to theory, the last decade has witnessed significant new views about the nature of language itself and the uniqueness of learning what has traditionally been referred to as English as a second language. Cognitive perspectives of language as a mental code mastered by an individual are being complemented by views of language as a continually emerging, socially mediated, and self-organizing resource for identity construction and interaction (Atkinson, 2011).By placing greater emphasis on the variability of what any individual has “acquired” at any given time, these new perspectives have also signaled the need to consider the multiple languages that many individuals are being exposed to and using in different ways from infancy through puberty and into adulthood (Ortega, 2013; Taylor, 2009). These new views, in turn, have opened up research questions about what there is for language learners to learn and for teachers to teach. (p. 8)
The implications of this changing theory of language are huge, because saying that language is socially mediated means that it is no longer the property of an individual. As Merrill Swain and others have argued, we should no longer talk about teaching students “language,” but rather “to language.”
I do not think that we have fully realized yet what this revolution will mean when we begin translating it into exercises facilitated by digital communication tools and guided by curriculum standards. We are beginning, however. Diane Larsen-Freeman in a keynote address to the 2014 TESOL international convention laid out a number of pedagogical principles that could be drawn from her work with complexity theory, but she summed them up as the need to teach learners rather than language. This means creating exercises that help students notice and appropriate forms and patterns that work well in their interactions with people and texts. It means teaching the art of negotiation so that learners have the chance to associate forms and patterns with meanings that are mutually comprehensible and, finally, the art of recycling bits and pieces of previous interactions.
With my own teaching of first-year university writing, I have always struggled with the formulaic notions of “the essay” that students seem to start my class with. When I ask them what an introduction is, they will tell me that it is where you say what the essay is about, present your purpose for writing, or maybe preview what you will say in the essay. When my students say this, they are talking in terms of what they must say. They view the text as something they own and create, not as a site of interaction between a writer and a reader. So I have begun challenging my students with the claim that the introduction is where a writer grabs a reader’s attention and convinces the reader that there is something they can learn from reading further. When I do this, I am recycling what I have read about differences between reader-based and writer-based prose, but I am also trying to help them see their writing, not as a fixed form on a screen but as a starting point for multiple interpretations.
In a TESOL 2.0 world, what it means to teach learners to language in written, spoken, and recorded interactions with others will present us all with such challenges.