ELT Theories: Too Many and Too Theoretical?

ELT Theories: Too Many and Too Theoretical?

ELT Theories: Too Many and Too Theoretical?

Willy A Renandya, 22 April 2022

ELT continues to be a dynamic field characterized by the flourishing of theories (often conflicting) that try to explain the hidden processes of language acquisition. During the heyday of the audio-lingual method, for example, ELT experts spoke highly of Skinner’ stimulus-response theory which they believed could account for the process of language learning.

However, the euphoria didn’t last long. Skinner’s behaviouristic theory of learning was later abandoned when Chomsky’s cognitive learning theory gained traction. The next few decades after Chomsky saw the proliferation of learning theories (e.g., skills learning theories, social learning theories, genre-based theories etc) that coloured the ELT field.

It’s worth noting that some of the theories look at learner internal factors (e.g., processing mode and capacity, aptitude, motivation, cognitive and metacognitive strategies), while others examine learner external factors (classroom related factors, learning resources, socio-cultural-political variables, etc) that can explain the mysterious process of language learning.

Still others take a middle of the road view and consider both internal and external factors in theorizing about the nature of language learning.

The proliferation of theories is often warmly welcome by academics, especially those whose main job is to do research and publish their work in academic journals. New theories often mean new opportunities to engage in research. New research means more published articles, etc.

However, there are at least two groups of people who find the plethora of theories bewildering and confusing, i.e., students majoring in language education and practicing teachers.

Imagine a pre-service teacher who is taking a course on language learning theories. This course typically introduces them with a host of language learning theories from behaviourism, humanism to social cognition. Each theory is usually discussed in relation to specific language learning methods, e.g., Audio-lingual method, Suggestopedia, Total physical response, CLT, TBLT, etc.

They may complete the course with an excellent grade, but come away feeling totally confused. This is how I felt when I was a student many years ago.

Similarly, classroom teachers often feel overwhelmed when trying to understand the theoretical assumptions that underpin the myriads of language learning theories in the professional literature. Many have shared with me that while they appreciate and value the work of ELT experts, they continue to struggle when it comes to deciding which theories are most applicable for their unique teaching contexts.

What they need is a more focused discussion on which theories are most relevant for each of the following key stages in language learning. For each stage, I put forth questions that teachers normally ask.

Stage 1: Experiencing the language

What kinds of oral and written texts would give students rich and meaningful experience of the target language? How long and how short should they be? How much or how little new language should the texts have? What kinds of scaffold need to be done to increase students’ experience with the texts? Finally, which language learning theories should teachers refer to?

Stage 2: Discovering language patterns

What can teachers do to increase the likelihood that students will notice the language features and patterns found in the texts? Would traditional language practice exercises suffice? Should teachers use a deductive or inductive approach? Which language learning theories should teachers use to get students to engage in focused noticing of the language features?

Stage 3: Using the newly acquired language patterns

Should teachers engage students in mechanical, meaningful, or communicative practice? Which one is most effective for lower, mid and higher proficiency students? For younger and older students? Is it necessary for students to practice the newly learned language patterns in authentic situations outside the classroom? If so, how? Which language learning theory should teachers use when  designing their instructional procedures?

Stage 4: Reflecting on the first three stages

What can teachers do to help students capture, assess and evaluate their learning? What have students done well? How do teachers help students to identify areas of weaknesses and guide them in improving on their performance? Are there tech tools that students can use to reflect on their learning? What language learning theory should teachers make use of to help students become more reflective language learners?

Stage 5: Consolidating newly acquired language patterns

As learning is an on-going process of constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing, what can teachers do to encourage students to consolidate and extend their learning? Should consolidation be done in the classroom? Should it be done beyond the classroom? If done outside the classroom, what kinds of support can teachers provide to their students? What tech tools can be used to support the consolidation process? What theory is suitable for this stage?

To conclude, teachers will learn a lot more when theoretical ideas are discussed in relation to what concerns them most, i.e., how theoretical ideas can be used to help them design their lessons.

Further reading

Instructed SLA: A Practical Guide for Teachers

What makes a good language teacher in a changing world?

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