New job, new beginnings

As some of you might already know, next month I am moving to a new academic home at the University of Graz, where I will join the ELT Research and Methodology (Fachdidaktik) centre of the Institut für Anglistik.

Among other things, I’ll be responsible for teaching two undergraduate courses to future language teachers: an Introduction to Foreign Language Didactics, and an Introduction to Applied Linguistics. I also expect that I will be able to carry on with my writing on the ways in which Complex Systems Theory can usefully inform ELT.

As with every transition, there are inevitably mixed feelings to manage. There is the question of achieving closure about what is left behind; and there are feelings of anger and frustration about the state of the academe in Greece; but most of all, there are feelings of anticipation and excitement about working with the brilliant team of educators and researchers at Graz. These are exciting times ahead!

Language research, performance and the creative arts

If you happen to be in or around Leeds next month, you might be interested in a one-day seminar organised jointly by the University of Leeds Centre for Language Education Research (CLER) and members of the AHRC-funded Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, Law and the State project.

The seminar, which will take place on Friday 16 October (9.30-4.30) is titled Language Research, Performance and the Creative Arts, and it aims to “bring together language researchers interested in the arts” with a view to possibly creating a community of interested people. It is envisaged that there will be a small group of people attending (around 35 people), so there is going to be ample opportunity for active participation. There is no expectation that participants have experience of working with the creative arts.

Provisional timetable

09.30-10.00 Registration
10.00-10.15 Welcome (Lou Harvey & Jessica Bradley)
10.15-11.30 Presentations (titles tba)
10.15-10.40 Jessica Bradley, University of Leeds
10.40-11.05 Zhuomin Huang, University of Manchester
11.05-11.30 Lou Harvey, University of Leeds
11.30-11.45 Break
11.45-12.45 Roundtable discussion
12.45-13.15 Lunch
13.30-14.45 Presentations from the AHRC Researching Multilingually team (titles tba)
13.30-13.55 Richard Fay, University of Manchester
13.55-14.20 Katja Frimberger, University of Glasgow
14.20-14.45 Gameli Tordzro, University of Glasgow
2.45-3.00 Break
3.00-4.00 Roundtable discussion
4.00-4.20 Discussant – James Simpson, University of Leeds
4.20-4.30 Close

There is no fee for attending the seminar. If you are interested in participating, you need to contact the organisers, Lou Harvey (l.t.harvey[at] or Jessica Bradley (j.m.bradley [at]

Featured image: The Ziff Building at the University of Leeds, by Mtaylor848 @ Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

How can complexity inform ELT? Diane Larsen-Freeman has some ideas

Yesterday, I blogged about this symposium that aims to explore the ‘connectivities’ of ELT, i.e, the ways in which ELT bridges languages, cultures and disciplinary boundaries. The more I think of the symposium topic, the more interesting it seems; but at the same time, I am becoming increasingly conscious that ELT theory has perhaps failed to provide a convincing account how to straddle the faultlines that run across the field.

And this reminded me of a video I watched recently, where Diane Larsen-Freeman, the co-author of Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, discusses complexity theory, and the ways in which it can help us to think beyond the dichotomies that are somewhat too prevalent in ELT theory. I’ve embedded the video below and written up an overview, in the hope that it may be of help in case anyone is interested in preparing an abstract for the symposium (or if you just have a general interest in how complexity can inform ELT).

The video

Just to provide a brief summary, Larsen-Freeman starts by defining complex systems as systems that are made up of many interacting components, which produce higher-order phenomena through their interaction. She uses a bird flock as an example of a complex system: when you approach a feeding flock of birds, they all rise in unison like a single super-organism, and perhaps unexpectedly, they evidence coordination despite the fact that there is no central organiser.

She then goes on to point out that complexity can help to challenge dichotomies that have pervaded our thinking about English Language Teaching, such as process vs. product, form vs. meaning, etc. She argues that while these dichotomies often provide us with useful heuristics, but can unhelpfully obscure any connections between the phenomena they describe.

With this in mind, she suggests that complexity can offer a way to look into the connections between three dichotomous pairs that come up often in the ELT literature:

  • grammar process & product: Complexity helps us to understand how grammatical regularities originate in language use, rather than from the top-down imposition of formal rules. Emergent regularities then become sedimented into patterns, through a process of ‘grammaring’, and it is these patterns that then constrain future use.
  • lexis & grammar: This dichotomy has already been challenged by empirical work in corpus linguistics, which has raised awareness of lexico-grammatical phenomena. Lexico-grammar ranges from fixed phrases to semi-lexicalised patterns, and complexity theory can help to account for their use.
  • learners & learning: Larsen-Freeman cites evidence from emprical research including her own, which have suggested that while learners share a common learning process, they also go through unique developmental trajectories. In this case too, complexity can help us understand how the trajectories interrelate with shared learning processes.

Larsen-Freeman concludes her talk by suggesting some implications of these insights for English Language Teaching. For example, she suggests using iterative learning processes, that allow for creative repetition of language. She also recommends creating affordance-rich learning experiences, from which each learner might learn in different ways.

A word of caution

When engaging about a new, analytically powerful, and somewhat broad theory such as complexity, there is a danger of believing that this is the ‘correct’ way of thinking, and that previous approaches were ‘wrong’. I would argue that complexity is neither the ‘right’ way to thing about ELT, nor is it ‘wrong’; it is just one tool, out of many that make up our analytical toolbox. There are times when using complexity may not be the most appropriate analytical choice – to build on the toolkit metaphor, this might be like using a spanner to hammer a nail on a wall. There are other instances though, for which complexity is ideally suited to generate new insights, and I would argue that exploring the ‘connectivities’ across ELT theory one of them.

Featured image credit: Fractal flame (Wikipedia) CC BY-SA

Call for papers: Strengthening connectivities in ELT: pedagogies, disciplines and cultures

One of my PhD supervisors used to say that English Language Teaching is work on borders: the borders between languages, between cultures, and between disciplines, to name a few. I was reminded of this adage by a call for papers for a symposium in Singapore next May, titled Strengthening connectivities in ELT: pedagogies, disciplines and cultures. Here are some more details, from the conference flyer, in case anyone’s interested:

The CELC Symposium 2016 aims to provide a platform for examining how ELT, in higher education today, is multi-pedagogical, interdisciplinary and intercultural. Specifically, we are interested in papers that focus on connections between different disciplinary ideas and methods as well as socio-cultural, institutional and digital contexts that variously shape and are, in turn, enhanced by pedagogical engagements within the language and communication classroom. “Strengthening connectivities in ELT: pedagogies, disciplines, cultures” thus seeks to explore how the three paradigms are evolving and how they continually interact with and impact one another.

There will be four thematic strands in the symposium, namely:

  • Curriculum design and materials development: EAP, WAC, content-focused writing, business and professional communication, embedded instruction
  • Classroom pedagogies and practices: collaborative learning, flipped classrooms, multimodality, blended instruction
  • Assessment: formative and summative evaluations, diagnostic and achievement testing, student feedback
  • Language education and society: interpersonal and intercultural communicative competence in a global age, bilingual and multilingual education, ELT and ideology, language and power

Keynote addresses will be delivered by Professor Suresh Canagarajah (Pennsylvania State University, @sureshcanax), Professor Paul Kei Matsuda (Arizona State University, @pmatsuda) and Professor Ryuko Kubota (University of British Columbia).

People interested in presenting a paper at the symposium are requested to submit an abstract (200-250 words, title 12 words max, plus five key words) and a 50-word bio-note. Abstracts are to be uploaded here by 15 November 2015. These will be evaluated on the basis of relevance to the Symposium theme and originality of approach, and may be accepted as parallel papers, workshops, demonstrations, posters or colloquia. Notification of acceptance will be given by 15 January 2016.

Important Dates

Deadline for abstract submission 15 November 2015
Notification of acceptance 15 January 2016
Early bird registration deadline 31 March 2016
Presenters’ registration & payment deadline 4 May 2016
Registration system closes 10 May 2016

The conference will be held at the National University of Singapore, from 25 to 27 May 2016. You can find additional details about the symposium, the organisers’ contact details and information about financial assistance at the conference website.

Featured Image by Dungodung (Own work) @ Wikipedia shared with CC-BY-SA-3.0

“I honestly can’t understand what’s so bad about taking a language test!”

“I honestly can’t understand what’s so bad about taking a language test!”

This remark, uttered in genuine exasperation, was delivered by a member of the governing board (Επιστημονικό Εποπτικό Συμβούλιο) of the University of Ioannina Model & Experimental Schools, where I used to work a while ago. We had been in a long meeting, during which the motion had been tabled to encourage our Year 6 pupils to take a language proficiency examination, and to use our school’s resources to help them prepare for the test.

The idea was, we were told, that pupils would then leave primary school with a “valuable” certificate proving that they had attained the A2-level of the Common European Framework. Plus, they would have gained useful experience in test-taking, which, in the exam-oriented context of Greek education, was a skill of self-evident value. Less obviously, the project would also provide a raison d’ être for the stillborn Level A of National Language Proficiency Certificate (Κρατικό Πιστοποιητικό Γλωσσομάθειας), a language test that had been developed by the Universities of Athens and Thessaloniki a couple of years before, and had failed to attract much commercial interest.

In the meeting, I argued fiercely against the proposal, and managed to block the initiative at that time, but judging from the governor’s exasperated remark, I must have been less successful in explaining why I thought that this was a terrible idea.

Fast forward to 2015

Over time, testing has become a somewhat more prominent part of language teaching, in Greece at least, and I suspect in other settings as well. In my thesis, I noted that for many Greek students, getting a language certificate such as Cambridge FCE is thought to be more important than actually learning the language (p. 152 et seq.). A similar observation is reported in a paper by Jo Angouri, Marina Mattheoudakis and Maria Zigrika, who tell us that:

[a] parent mentioned to one of the authors recently, “I told my daughter I expect you to get (names certificate); you can learn the language later when you need it” (p. 192)

Added to this, there is a widespread public perception that regular universal testing can help to restore some accountability to the Greek education system. In fact, just yesterday, it was suggested to me that the solution to many problems that Greek education faces involves “taking certificates, e.g., for foreign languages at every level (primary school [should confer an] FCE)”

Much as the public’s confidence in language testing has increased, there appears to be growing skepticism about their effects and effectiveness, among some professionals at least. This skepticism is, in part, pragmatic: there is mounting frustration as education professionals realise that emphasis on testing has failed to deliver a betterment in learning, and may in fact be associated with possible compromises in the quality of teaching. In part, it is also associated with the ‘critical turn’ of ELT, i.e., an increased readiness to ask questions about who benefits and who is harmed by our professional choices.

So what is wrong with language testing?

I suppose that this is the point where I would be expected to list my objections to language testing. Rather than do that, however, I will draw on a recent blog post by Richard Smith, in which he summarises his contribution to the ELT Journal debate at this year’s IATEFL convention. Just as a reminder, the motion for the debate was that Language testing does more harm than good, and you can find a great summary in Lizzie Pinard’s blog.

Richard begins by making a useful distinction between classroom-based assessment, which can be valuable to teachers and learners alike, and the large-scale, high-stakes tests that are provided by commercial enterprises or national school systems. Of the latter, he notes that these tend to dominate and constrain teaching. Moreover, they are associated with adverse psychological effects, including even suicides. In addition, they are used as instruments of neoliberal policies, and often result in excluding the weaker and less privileged students from education and the workforce. Quoting Bernard Spolsky (1995: 1), he points out that language testing is not really about ‘helping students learn’, and that examinations are used instead ‘as a method of control and power – as a way to select, to motivate, to punish’.

He also notes that language testing adversely affects education in at least two ways:

First, as UK- or US-based test producers increasingly succeed in selling their tests and accompanying ‘systems’ to education authorities and institutions worldwide, there is a Trojan Horse effect – the utilitarian goal of ‘proficiency’ comes to predominate at the expense of other, less obviously testable but important educational values, for example, intercultural understanding, language learner autonomy and literary appreciation (cf. Paran and Sercu 2010). Secondly, these global tests – however technologically innovative, scientifically based and ‘adaptive’ they may seem to be (Kerr 2014) – are acting increasingly as a conservative brake on attempts to innovate away from native speaker norms in favour of more flexible, dynamic and localized conceptions of language-in-use (Original emphasis).

Richard concludes his remarks with a call for holding the power of English Language testing to account and resisting it – but he acknowledges that it is far from clear what form such resistance might take.

An example of resistance

Going back to that meeting I described at the beginning of the post, I managed to prevent the introduction of the new policy by agreeing to implement it – provided four conditions were met:

  1. No resources would be taken away from the teaching provision. If the board insisted on their idea for exam preparation, they would have to timetable additional hours.
  2. The language test would be selected following a thorough and transparent review of all commercial options. In other words, the examination that the ministry and the board were keen to impose would not be selected by default, unless they waived examination fees.
  3. Student participation would require informed consent from students and their parents; at minimum, I expected a meeting where the benefits and drawbacks of the test would be explained in detail.
  4. Poor performance at the test would entitle students to remedial teaching, and funding would have to be ringfenced for remedial teaching provision.

The governors who were in favour of introducing the examination backed down when confronted with these arguments, suggesting that their ideological commitment to testing was not matched by a commitment to bearing the cost for the test. I should also note that this, and similar, acts of resistance eventually meant that I had to move on from that school, so I would not readily recommend them – although personally, I have no regrets.

Featured Image: ‘Examination’ by Thomas Galvez @ Flickr, CC-BY-2.0

Αχιλλέας Κωστούλας Ιστοσελίδα και Ιστολόγιο


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