English Teaching, Vol. 55 No. 1, 2001
A Web Design Content Course That Holds Students Accountable for Classroom English
Busbee, Everette. (2000). Post-Theory and Method Research: A Web Design Content Course with Accountability for English. English Teaching, 55(1) 247-267.
This paper details a college 1st-year English content course in Web design. The course's "surface goal" is computer literacy, and its "deep goal" is improved English skills. In addition to knowing the subject matter, the teacher needs TESOL training and/or experience, primarily in order to be able to control oral presentation enough to maintain its comprehensibility as the level of English difficulty is gradually increased over the course. This course teaches English effectively, it is argued, for three reasons. First is the immediacy and relevancy of classroom communication (for producing an English Web site) in a situation with more student accountability for comprehension than in standard language classes. Second is the relative simplicity of Web design's vocabulary and grammar. Third is skills integration as students listen to lectures, discuss their work with the teacher, read HTML instructions, and write Web content. The author argues that, given English teaching's growing distrust of theory and method and an accompanying concern about the value of much experimental research (all of which is reviewed), descriptive research such as this can be the most valuable for improving classroom teaching, especially if it details complete courses (or large units) that have worked well for an experienced teacher.
What is possible to achieve in a Korean college English language class that is well-supplied with computers? Or more modestly, what are some of the things possible in such a class? Or more specifically, what is possible in such a class for 1st-year students? "What is possible" questions in EFL are normally answered narrowly or broadly, with little middle ground. Narrow answers often originate from controlled experiments investigating a limited possibility, as in Master's (1996) work on the effect of instruction and practice on accuracy in the use of the English articles by advanced students. In this study a group receiving six hours of instruction and practice increased its average test score from 77 to 83%, and an untreated control group went from 76 to 78%. The difference was significant, and a replication showed similar results, so we can say it is quite possible to provide six hours of instruction and practice in the use of the English articles and obtain a four-point increase on a test over a control group. However, this kind of research result is what Heilenman (1995) calls into question as being statistically significant without necessarily being of practical significance. Should we devote some 15% of an advanced 3-credit EFL course to the articles to get a test score increase of four points?
The second type of answer for the question of what is possible, normally generated by theory, is much broader. An example is that it is possible to teach language effectively through the intermediate level solely by presenting Comprehensible Input (CI), with no explicit instruction in language form (Krashen, 1981, 1993). In analyzing such assertions, a teacher can call upon a "sense of plausibility" that is derived from a personal concept of a causative relationship between teaching and desired learning, with a "measure of credibility" involved (Prabhu 1990, p. 172).
To have meaning for the classroom, answers to "what is possible" should be both broad and plausible. Breadth can be derived either directly from theory, or indirectly, as when narrow experimental findings are expanded by theory into a claimed broad applicability. Rare indeed are controled experiments that investigated the effectiveness of a broad (that is, extended) classroom procedure, mainly because such experiments must be large and complex (and hence expensive) to achieve statistical rigor.
It is indicative of the state of our field that, try as we may, theory/method and practice now have little overlap. The past decade has seen such a steady decline in the status of theory and method that, as Prabhu (1990, p. 173) puts it, the issue is not whether a certain kind of teaching is "a good or bad method, but more basically, whether it is active, alive, or operational enough to create a sense of involvement for both the teacher and the student." Our sole interest is whether something works.
Research dedicated to answering the question of possibility should be at the front of our field, as long as the answers are broad enough to be practically significant and plausible, and are of a sufficient length to provide a coherent course or unit, not just one more "teach-nique."
II. Background and Purpose of this Paper
This paper describes a Korean college 1st-year English course that is computer based. The "surface goal" of this course is computer literacy, which, much like English literacy, is a product of time spent "doing it" with some kind of meaningful purpose. The "deep goal" of the course is improved English. Although the term "byproduct" is often used for learning in a content course, I find it difficult to decide whether the improved English is a byproduct of the process of becoming computer literate, or whether the computer literacy is a byproduct of the process of improving English.
Although I have developed a number of traditional EFL courses in each of the four language skills at my university over the past nine years, for the past six years my responsibilities have included developing and teaching major-elective computer content courses. I also teach a required two-semester advanced computer sequence, and in addition to the 1st-year Web design course described in this paper, I have taught Web design to 2nd- and 3rd-year students.
Before describing the Web design course, I will discuss content courses and why I think they work -- the high level of communication derived from the accountability demanded of students. I will then argue that, given the decline in theory and method in EFL, research reports that describe in detail complete courses or large units that have worked well for an experienced teacher are have the greatest potential for improving the effectiveness of English teaching in the classroom. This requires a short review of the decline of theory and of method in EFL.
III. COMMUNICATION & ACCOUNTABILITY
One of the few things our field generally accepts is that English is learned most efficiently when discourse is real, when learners participate in English conversation for a real and immediate purpose. A criticism of the traditional audiolingual approach of PPP -- Present, Practice, Produce -- is that it tended to ignore the final P (Johnson, 1996). Elis (1993) has even ridiculed PPP as normally meaning Present, Practice, and more Practice. CLT was supposed to solve this problem, but has not done so. It is doubtful whether the artificiality of role play and communicative activities can ever lead to a genuinely communicative environment.
No such doubt exists about the communicative environment of a course conducted in English and dedicated to the subject matter, because this situation requires authentic communication using the integrated language skills. Writing about a massive Hong Kong program designed to teach English by using it as the medium for teaching various academic subjects, Goldstein and Liu (1994, p. 711) wrote that "today language teaching through content teaching is considered communicative par excellence."
In additional to being communicative, a content course, with its easily-tested subject matter, holds it students more accountable than the typical language course. Another of the few things our field agrees on is that motivation and its closely allied expenditure of effort are central in the successful learning English, and accountability increases motivation to attend to communication. Such accountability”may explain the success of Total Physical Response (TPR): Students are motivated to listen intently so they do not continually make errors that are so publicly visible.
It could be said that because EFL and content courses both have a grading system, a differential in grade-oriented accountability should not exist. However, for EFL courses, it is difficult to correlate a semester grade with effort exerted and/or learning accomplished during that class. This is because language learning is cumulative over a period of years, is so complex that gaps in learning are inevitable, and is performance based so testing is difficult. Grades for a Web design course, on the other hand, can be better correlated with effort/learning because the subject can be covered reasonably in one semester, is relatively and so should not have large gaps in learning, and is knowledge-based so testing is easy, although a Web site is turned in at the end of the semester. Students seem to be aware of the difference between grading in a traditional conversation class and a content course, and they gauge their effort accordingly.
(Student motivation to attend to spoken English relates to the issue of CI. I do not wish to minimize this controversy, but there is a consensus for Sheen's (1994a, p. 135) conclusion that "Obviously, CI is an essential element of the acquisition process. The crucial question concerns the sufficiency of CI alone to bring it about." Although I have never seen it mentioned in the literature, the crucial parameter is clearly not whether input is comprehensible, but whether it is comprehended. Ignored CI becomes Incomprehensible Input. Motivation to understand is central.)
Accountability relates in another way to the computer in the classroom. Salomon (1984, p. 647) refers to the "amount of invested mental effort" (AIME) devoted to an undertaking. He says print is difficult, but television is easy, so students relate to television shallowly. In an update, Eagleton (1999) contends that if we allow computer activities to become trivial and do not hold students accountable for them, computers will be perceived in the same way as television. Is there as much accountability, for example, in a typical Internet surfing class, which is after all, given the nature of the Internet, a reading class, as there is in a typical EFL reading class?
IV. National English Goals and Teacher Qualifications
The surest way to advanced fluency in English seems to be to study as an undergraduate abroad for two or more years, although many Koreans obviously do become fluent within the country through traditional language classes (and just as obviously this requires concurrent massive individual study -- reading, listening to tapes, and learning vocabulary). For Korea to attain its goal of a high national level of English proficiency through study within the nation may ultimately require a sizable number of rigorous college courses to be taught in the English medium, primarily by NSs. Such courses are not for all students by any means, nor even for a majority, but they can become a solid segment of the English-language program.
For a content course to be successful depends largely on two things. First is appropriateness of subject matter, with the goal being subjects that can be rigorous while not requiring heavy reading or the mastering of complex concepts. A purely intellectual course such as Introduction to Philosophy or American History would require extensive reading at a level simply beyond the capacity of the average student at even the better Korean universities, and the vocabulary, grammar and concepts would be complex. On the other hand, Web design is a good candidate, with its "everyday" vocabulary and grammar, its menu and dialog manipulations that are so conducive to TPR-style teaching, and its visually-rich realia.
Second is the qualification of the teacher, who must know not only the subject matter, but also how to teach English. Snow (1991, p. 326) pointed out that becoming "familiar enough with the content material to put it to meaningful use...is one of the most difficult, yet indispensable, requirements of content-based teaching." But subject-matter knowledge is not enough, for a Web design course taught by a Web designer freshly in from America would probably be unsuccessful. The teacher must be able to choose a level of English -- difficulty of vocabulary and grammar -- and a delivery style that, while authentic, is designed to make the English input comprehensible. And the teacher must constantly rachet up the level of English as appropriate for the increasing level of the students. Probably at least a year or two of reflective experience teaching EFL classes is needed for teachers to be able to sufficiently control the English for a content course.
V. Richly-detailed Descriptive Research
Articles in the "prestigious" EFL journals normally discuss theory or describe experimental work testing theory, or else describe the effect of a certain treatment on learning. However, the former may have no pretentions of practical value in the classroom (Markee, 1997), and the latter, while statistically significant, often involves small differences of no practical value for teaching (Heilenman 1995; Lazeraton 1991).
English teaching's recent reassessment of its theory has seen theory labeled as an object of suspicion by a leader in the field (Spolsky, 1990), and method has fared no better. Kumaravadivelu (1994) maintains we are now in a Postmethod search for an alternative to method instead of an alternative method. There also appears to be an emergent reassessment of the primacy of experimental research. In a 1997 interview (Kluge, 1997), Rod Ellis states that a development in English teaching he is most dubious of is an increasing reliance on experimental research (which he considers problematic), as opposed to descriptive research. McLaughlin (1990, p. 618) echoes this, writing that "experimental research has its value, but I would argue for a catholicity of outlook when it comes to method -- single-case studies can be more valuable than carefully controlled laboratory research or large-scale multivariate analysis in furthering our understanding."
A further weakness of much EFL experimental research is its low quality. Crookes (1991, p. 763) says, "We now recognize that many published SL studies are no more than pilot studies, which would have been greatly improved by doing the actual study with a decent n [sample] size." Sheen (1994, a and b) demonstrates how proponents of theories may support their ideas by restating conclusions drawn by the authors of research reports without critiquing the rigor of the research -- the isolation of variables, the sample size, the description of the experimental regimen -- and without looking at research that supports an alternative view. Even if there is sufficient sample size and good experimental design, we must still, as Heilenman (1995) suggests, become aware of the basic limitations of scientific research into the extremely complex area of SLA.
We normally think of research rigor as derived from a well-defined experimental design and an appropriate statistical analysis. A description, however, gains its rigor from completeness and an unbroken appeal to the reader's sense of plausibility. Writers who make their claims and draw their conclusions with meticulous care will tend to retain their credibility, but this credibility can be squandered with just a single indiscretion.
Of course this requires a kind of trust that can be abused, but this is not unique to descriptive research. Experimental research in the field of EFL often utilizes an already-existing classroom of students as subjects, and because these students are rarely equal, within-group variation is often striking. Getting a consistent and cleanly-administered treatment can be difficult with such students as subjects, when different teachers provide different treatments, or when the author of the study provides both treatments but clearly believes more strongly in one of them. However, these problems may be glossed over. Conclusions may be unwarranted, and a good eye is needed to catch this, for we are inclined to accept without much question a conclusion based on the visually powerful p<05, which in fact never tests the validity of an experimental design.
VI. The Decline of Theory
Chapelle (1997, p. 20) asks, "Why is there such a dissonance between even the most technically sophisticated work in CALL and SLA research?" She then answers, "One reason appears to be a lack of confidence in what SLA research can reasonably be expected to offer." Another problem with theory is that it may be so narrow that it offers little of value to the classroom. Hatch, Shirai, and Fantuzzi (1990, p. 698), to support that the "limited scope of [SLA] theory is not well recognized," provide a long list of major areas not touched upon by theory. However, theorists imply that their theories are broad enough to supply a base for language teaching.
Still, theoreticians are higher on the pecking order. The attitudes this engenders, both in the theorists and the practitioners, are predictable. While teachers make principled decisions based on their students welfare and comply with the rules laid down by theoreticians, an attitude common among theoreticians is seen in Long and Richards (1987, p. 27). "A lot of trees have given their lives in the service of writers of prescriptive pieces on language teaching. One way of cutting down on the need of so much paper [is] to take account of theory and research in SLA....SLA theory and research is a more likely source of sound ideas than convention and intuition. (Teachers intuitions differ alarmingly.)"
Theorists carry this denigration of the teacher a step further by failing to include knowledge gained by the teacher in the classroom (Hatch, Shirai, and Fantuzzi, 1990). It is as if the teacher were invisible.
The past few years has seen a trend against this feeling of superiority, brought on by a growing reflection on a haunting fact in the field -- no study of any convincing size or depth has documented that Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) produces the results predicted by theoreticians, yet CLT has been the prevailing paradigm of those theoreticians for many years. Accordingly, the claims of theorists are being subjected to ever harsher criticism. In a paper dedicated primarily to getting SLA theory into mainstream language education (and hence a paper generally positive to theory), Markee (1997, pp. 87-88) quotes Krashen's (1983, p. 261) claim that given a limited amount of time, "the most practical, the most valuable information we can provide [teachers] is a theory of second language acquisition." Markee does not mince words, but concludes that "the claimed practicality of SLA theories is nonsense....[M]any SLA researchers do not even accept that their work has any application to the classroom." Even when they do, "their claims of practicality usually amount to divisive nonsense”"because they place great weight on theoretical matters and little weight on the "grounded insights" of teachers." Markee's respect for teacher insight differs from that of Long and Richards (1987).
Theory has suffered a loss in the perception of its value and has even become an object of suspicion (Spolsky, 1990). An example of the harm a theory may inflict on teachers (and ultimately students) that most of us are familiar with is the virtual banning of grammar from the language classroom by such theoreticians as Krashen (1993, p. 725), who wrote, "In my view, the research says that the effects of direct instruction are typically short lasting and do not become part of acquired competence. The effects of grammar teaching still appear to be peripheral and fragile." This has come under extraordinary attack, with Schmidt (1990) concluding that we have little evidence that languages can be learned without being aware of the language, and that, on the contrary, paying attention to the language may be necessary for acquisition in an adult.
Fotos (1994, p. 323) addresses the predicament of language teachers being presented two opposites as the one truth. "A compelling body of evidence...that formal instruction on language properties is related to the subsequent acquisition...present[s] a dilemma for many teachers who have become committed to the use of communicative approaches to language learning [in which] teacher-fronted grammar instruction is omitted." But teachers have a defense. As Pennycook (1991, p. 752) but it, "We can decide that some teaching practice is good not by asking, Is it communicative? or Is it OK to teach grammar again now? but by asking what it is we wish to accomplish with our particular students in our particular contexts."
VII. The Decline of Method
In our Postmodern Era, incredulity seems to be so woven into the fabric of our lives that we are allowed, even in such a reputable academic publication as The Modern Language Journal, to use the condemnatory "nonsense" twice in one paragraph (Markee, 1997, pp. 87-88). Wilson (1997), an Information and Learning Technology (ILT) academic, states that we now distrust explanations meant to cover everything, including grand theories and myths that try to explain why things in our professions are the way they are. As a result, many fields, including language teaching, are undergoing a critical self-analysis. With language teaching, the process seems to have begun with a reanalysis of our history.
This history is far from settled, with contemporary writers on the subject generally falling into two camps, those who see a progression of ever-better methods (language teaching's "Big Story") and those who see a constant reshuffling of ancient methods. Kelly (1969, p. ix) writes that we don't really know "what is new or old in present-day language teaching procedures," and adds that there is a "vague feeling that modern experts have spent their time in discovering what other men have forgotten." Kelly concludes that the entire body of ideas about language teaching has remained basically unchanged for 2,000 years. In a review of histories of language teaching, Pennycook (1989) gives examples of writing from the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. After the spelling is modernized, the examples could easily be accepted as coming from mainstream articles in our leading contemporary journals of language teaching. Nothing is new, yet those of us in the field of language teaching are barraged with books, video and audio tapes, and software touted as "new and improved."”
The history of language teaching may be dichotomized as a result of the sizable overlap of those who write about the history of language teaching and those who write commercial materials for language teaching. Caravalos (1984) feels that the failure to remember that new ideas are really old may not be innocent, in that the huge industry of English teaching will by any means defend it interests, including its profits.
Kumaravadivelu (1994, p. 27), referring to a Postmethod Condition, concludes that "After swearing by a succession of fashionable language teaching methods and dangling them before a bewildered flock of believers, we seem to have suddenly slipped into a period of robust reflection." Kumaravadivelu gives three characteristics of the Postmethod Condition: 1) a search for an alternative to method rather than an alternative method, 2) teacher autonomy, and 3) a principled pragmatism that he says is based on Widdowson's (1990, p. 30) idea that "the relationship between theory and practice can only be realized within the immediate activity of teaching."
We do not encounter the results promised by theorists because nothing they offer is really new. It seems reasonable to suspect that from any period of history, at least before theorists muddied the water, most wise and experienced old language teachers who could speak the language they were teaching were probably teaching about as efficiently as it is possible to teach humans a foreign language. History indicates it is naive to believe that prior to the 1970s nobody knew the secret was communication.
VIII. THE WEB DESIGN COURSE
The "deep goal" of this content course is language learning through many hours of genuine communication. The effectiveness of this indirect process diminishes whenever much class time is spent directly teaching and learning English. Input is therefore always meant to communicate. The "surface goal" of this course is computer literacy, which, much like English literacy, seems to be a product of time spent "doing it" with some kind of meaningful purpose. It is assumed that anyone who has put together a coherent group of quality Web pages will in the future be able to quickly learn any computer process, regardless of the subject. (This requires, of course, that everything on those pages be student-constructed rather than "stolen" from other pages on the World Wide Web, including buttons, banners, images, text, and even animations. It also requires that Web pages consist mainly of student-generated content rather than lists of links that are more often than not so obvious as to be of little value.) Students use Photoshop for image production and manipulation, a process involving such in-depth computer concepts as making a banner via a "tool box," sizing images by pixels, manipulating RGB color, and compressing images for the Web. Students also directly code HTML, construct a coherent file structure, and upload and maintain Web sites with an FTP program.
The assumption that this leads to broad computer literacy appears to hold up in subsequent courses: when I introduce CALL programs, students who have taken my Web design course tend to grasp the mechanics of the programs very quickly. The rest of this paper will deal solely with the deep goal, the English-learning goal, of the Web design course.
As theory and method are not supposed to play much part in this paper, perhaps it is time to state directly what I think we know about learning and teaching English for adults, particularly college students:
1. Success in learning English is directly proportional to the effort expended by learners. That is, learners who write a lot develop better writing skills, students who read a lot develop better reading skills, and students who listen and speak a lot develop better conversational skills. English is learned by doing English often and in large amounts, and with concentration.
2. Although it is true that, as Crawford-Lange (1983, p. 95) so elegantly put it, "Learners should communicate about something: it does not matter about what," it is still true that effort expended on communication increases with an increase in the interest of the subject.
3. Students expend more effort toward listening and reading when the content is of immediate practical value.
The Web design course is designed to elicit considerable effort from students to speak, read, write, and listen to English. This results not from a combination of communicative activities, pair work, and role play, but from the very nature of the course, with its interest and accountability. While word processing and even programming could be turned into a TPR-sort of class, they clearly lack the interest (and variety of process) of constructing a Web site. In my nine years of teaching standard college English courses and six years of teaching computer-based content courses in Korea, content-course students as a whole approach the English more seriously and expend more effort.
Aside from appealing to the reader's sense of plausibility, I offer a bit of indirect evidence: Overseas universities may waive the TOEFL for transfer students who have successfully completed two years as an undergraduate in an English-speaking country. No such waiver exists for attending a language school in an English-speaking country for two years.
Additional evidence of the superiority of a Web design course comes from the responses to two questions on a questionnaire I gave at the end of my most recent freshman Web design class (31 students). The responses were anonymous, and I am reporting the results of the first question as an indicator of student frankness.
1. This class was suddenly changed from a grammar class to a computer class. Was that a good change or a bad change?
Bad change (anti-computer), 16
Good change (pro-computer) 15.
(Given that they clearly knew my own pro-computer sentiments, this indicates that at least 16 students did not choose an answer to please me. From later informal conversation with students from this class, it seems that they felt a grammar class would have required far less work.)
2. You also took English Conversation I this semester. Which was more important for your English, and how much more important?:
English Conversation - a lot more important, 0
English Conversation - a little more important, 0
The same - 0
Web Design - a lot more important, 31
Web Design - a little more important, 0
(Such unanimity is rare in questionnaires.)
1. THE ENGLISH PRESENTED IN CLASS
Perhaps the most basic decision to be made by the teacher of any content course is to what extent the English will be altered for comprehension. There was once a strong movement, led by theoreticians and methodologist, toward the use of "authentic materials," with authentic being defined as unaltered material produced for native speakers. However, Widdowson (1990, p. 163) defended altered material for the classroom as "a way of short-circuiting the slow process of natural discovery" so that learning will "happen more easily and more efficiently than it does in natural surroundings." And as Swaffar (1985, p. 17) concludes, "The relevant consideration" for authenticity is whether "there has been an authentic communicative objective...." Besides, there is not much oral or written material produced for NSs that is simple enough for typical 1st-year students at any Korean university. (I will discuss the issue of level of difficulty below.)
Accordingly, my oral presentation style conforms to Enright's (1991) suggestions as to how spoken English can be altered for a content class, but these suggestions are intuitive. A simplified list includes 1) a slower yet natural-sounding rate of speed, 2) clear enunciation, 3) controlled vocabulary and limited use of idioms, 4) gestures, 5) repetition, rephrasing, and exemplification, and 6) checking for understanding.
As the cost of computers has fallen, the cost of software has gained importance. However, all programs used in this course except Photoshop are either part of MS Windows (Notepad; Internet Explorer), freeware (Netscape; Arachnophilia for HTML editing; WS_FTP LE for uploading files), or standard installations on computers at Korean universities (HWP or MS Word). Photoshop is expensive, and few universities can afford it outside Computer Graphics courses. However, Paintshop Pro is far cheaper, especially for an older version, and is often on college computers. It offers fewer opportunities for practicing English, but it should suffice.
3. THE INTEGRATED LANGUAGE SKILLS
The Web design course integrates the four language skills. Lectures and written instructions are listened to and read, I have many conversations with individual students about their Web sites, and student writing usually forms the heart of their Web sites. Enright (1991, p. 389) notes that "each of the four language processes" support "learning of the other processes." "Skill separation," according to Kamaravadivelu (1994, p. 39) "is a pedagogical artifact that has been shown to be inadequate for developing integrated functional skills." If we like, however, we can simply conclude intuitively that dividing the four skills makes little sense.
Although language teaching often focuses on practicing speech production, listening has a history of being recognized as central to language learning. Nida (1957), after observing how Africans went about learning the language of the tribe they married into, concluded that learning a language is primarily a process of learning to hear it. TPR is listening based. Littlewood (1984), in response to the comprehension-based research of 20 years ago, wrote that speech production is not as central to the basic learning process as has been assumed, and that as a consequence, large class size is not as detrimental as once thought.
TPR is an excellent source of input. TPR may generate visions of happy active children learning English, and indeed Blair (1993, p. 27) feels that TPR offers "a less demanding, more leisurely route to the acquisition of comprehension skills...." I do not know the origin of this myth that TPR is undemanding, especially given the high public visibility of the confirmation or disconfirmation of comprehension. In college language education, TPR can be quite demanding, but it must go beyond the trivial "Stand up. Walk to the door. Go back to your seat. Sit down." The possibilities of TPR are far greater, as Blair (1991, p. 27) demonstrates with the following example: "If today is Friday, Maria will jump up and clap her hands." The counterpart in a Web design course is "If the image is too dark, slide the middle triangle to the left."
Moving from methodology to theory, although Krashen's (1983) assertion that CI alone will lead to acquisition has come under attack, Sheen (1999a) has stated that while it is obvious that CI is necessary for acquisition, its sufficiency is another question. However, to say that it is necessary is essentially meaningless: it is difficult to imagine learning English without hearing spoken English that is understandable.
We can, if we like, strip theory and method from this discussion of listening and the Web design course: We know our students have difficulty comprehending spoken English, and we should therefore provide them with a situation in which they are inclined to listen intently for extended periods to English they can understand. That is, we learn by doing.
The lessons presented below are pretty much for bottom-up listening, but the sentences continually build upon single themes, such as improving scanning. The goal of top-down comprehension is to help listeners and readers understand English that is beyond their level of English. However, top-down comprehension is of limited power and so of limited value. Guessing can lead to many unexpected -- and often undesirable -- consequences, as I, the husband of a Korean woman, can attest to. It is obvious that guessing has little value in international trade, computers, and medicine, and that a job that involves communicating with native speakers of English requires excellent bottom-up skills.
There is even evidence that guessing at unknown words is ineffective unless the guesser knows at least 95% of the vocabulary involved (Laufer, 1989; Liu and Nation, 1985). This would seem to indicate that top-down skills cannot be put to any use by beginning and intermediate students. That few of Korea's 1st-year college students are advanced in indicated by Song's (1999) study of a group of 66 Seoul National University students, mostly 1st-year. With reading material on the 10th-grade level, the students had an average guessing-corrected comprehension rate of about 40%, and it appears that the reading speed was about 75 words per minute, which is less than 20% of the speed that would be expected of 1st-year American college students. A similar situation seems to exist in Japan. Yoshida & Kitao (1986, cited in Kitao and Kitao, 1995), found that a group of [unspecified] Japanese college students who were asked to quickly read [unspecified] material read 105 words per minute with a comprehension rate (that I corrected for guessing) of about 40%.
(1) AN EARLY LESSON: SIMPLE DIRECTIVES
The following is a typical early lesson, a simple exercise in writing the first HTML file in Notepad. Comments are in italics.
1. Open Notepad. How do we open Notepad? (This should be a Total Physical Response [TPR] exercise, not an exercise in which students duplicate what they see being done on a big screen. Therefore the teacher should repeat directions or gives variations several times before demonstrating on the large screen, which will be valuable in making the verbal input comprehensible.) First, click the Start button. Then move your mouse up to Programs. Next, move your mouse to Accessories. Finally, move your mouse to Notepad and click. (Many opportunities arise during the course to present process sequences.)
2. Type this: (The teacher shows a file on the large screen.)
<title>Kim Chul-soo's Page (The teacher says: Use your name.)
<body>Hello! (The teacher says: Choose what you want to say.) </body>
3. After you finish typing, save your file. Pull down the File menu. When you get an injection, the doctor says, "Pull down your pants." (Korean students almost invariably learned the meaning of the word injection in high school, but not shot. New NS teachers do not understand this, because to them shot is the easier word. In fact, the range of Web design courses I teach -- 1st-year through 3rd-year -- requires that the teacher present carefully-graded levels of English. Because it would be impracticable to write out each lecture -- and a reading of the lecture would not have the life of a spontaneous presentation -- the teacher must be intimately aware of student language limitations. To teach this course, a teacher must be knowledgable in both English teaching and Web design.) Pull down the file menu and click Save. A dialog box will appear. What is a dialog? Yes, a conversation. Usually, a dialog is between people. But this dialog is between you and the computer. You tell the computer, "I want to save this file." (Throughout this, the teacher is aiding comprehension by pointing to the students, the computer, or himself as he says "you," "the computer," or "I.") The computer gives you a dialog box. It asks you some questions. And you answer the questions. The computer asks. "What do you want to name the file?" You (Teacher points to students.) answer, "I want to name it 'kim-in-sook.html.'"
Then the computer asks another question. The computer asks, "Where do you want to save the file?" You answer, "I want to save it on the desktop." What is the desktop? (The teacher points to the desktop.) What color is your computer desktop? Yes, your desktop is black.
Your computer asks, "Where do you want to save your file." You answer, "I want to save it on the desktop." So the question is "where to save the file," and the answer is "save it on the desktop." (This demonstrates straight repetition, which occurs easily and naturally, and rewording, a skill a teacher may have to develop. All this adds to the comprehensibility. Reworded English is itself CI, and this is even true for straight repetition that is judiciously interspersed throughout the lecture.)
Continue clicking the folder-with-the-arrow icon. It is at the top of the dialog box. You will come to the desktop. Check the name and check the desktop. Now hit the enter key.
Look for your file on the desktop. Can you find it? Double-click the icon for this html file. You will see your page in the browser. Is it beautiful? (End of presentation.)
If the italicized comments were removed, this lecture would be a little over a page long, including the repetitions. The core of information covered is quite small, but the amount of input is large, and it has an immediate and practical use. In Korea, no matter what the university, a student's first content course, if it is rigorous and taught 100% in English, will normally be the first major occasion in which English is listened to for information that will have to be put to use in an immediate and practical manner.
In addition, the larger meaning of the communication is relevant for many students. Needing to meet a class requirement (in this case the construction of a Web site) is a great motivator of students the world over, but for many students Web site construction is seen as relevant and interesting in itself. Of course relevance is in the eye of the beholder, but it would appear that a college student of today who feels constructing a personal Web site is uninteresting will likely feel that an English conversation class is even less interesting. At any rate, students know that effort devoted to listening will be reflected in the quality of their (public) Web site, and that a mediocre Web site will indicate a casual attitude toward listening. Indifferent listening in an English conversation class rarely if ever has such clear-cut consequences.
Finally, this is high-tech TPR. As the teacher gives instructions he walks around the class and looks at the monitors, which are an immediate indicator of comprehension. TPR seems to be a way of teaching English that sees more praise in the journals than use in the classroom. I have asked English teachers why this is true, and a common response is that the number of commands that can be given in a classroom are limited. The lecture above includes the following verbs as directives: check, choose, click, continue, double-click, fill in, hit, look for, move, name, notice, pull down, save, type, and use. This just touches upon the possibilities.
(2) A MIDDLE LESSON: TERMS OF LOCATION
The sequence of lesson topics is chosen mainly to follow a logical development of the subject matter. That is, the above lecture must precede a lesson on the construction of complex HTML tables, and a lesson on the hexadecimal system must precede the lesson on Web color. However, there is considerable leeway in deciding when to switch back and forth between Photoshop and Arachnophila (the HTML editor). If the HTML lesson due next happens to be more difficult than the next lesson due in Photoshop, the latter can be chosen.
I will state directly that I am not implying a great leap forward in listening skills, for I wish to retain my credibility. However, I will report that after two or three weeks, or about six to nine hours of classes, half to two/thirds of which is my lecturing TPR-style, most students have made very noticeable strides in listening. This should be quite plausible to the reader, given that students cannot escape the demand for intense concentration, which soon becomes a habit. For my tape-based top-down listening course there is no such gain.
The following is a lecture appropriate for the middle of the course. Terms of location are in bold type.
I will use Photoshop tools to make a banner. Making a banner is easy. Of course you have to know the tools. Colors and shapes are important, too. If you think about colors and shapes, your banner will be better.
Here is the top of the banner, and here is the bottom of the banner. Here is the right side of the banner, and here is the left side of the banner. Here is the upper left corner of the banner, and here is the upper right corner. Here is the lower left corner of the banner, and here is the lower right corner. Here is the middle of the banner.
I am putting a small light-blue triangle in the upper right corner. Now I am putting a large dark-red circle in the lower left corner. Below the light-blue triangle, I am putting a small light-green rectangle. To the left of the rectangle I am putting a medium-purple oval. Above the oval I am putting three very small circles. I am making the left circle black. I am making the right circle white. I am making the middle square medium-gray. I am writing xyz inside the large dark square. And I am putting the number 125 to the right of the red square. (Here follows a 10-minute TPR lesson involving instructions from the above lecture.)
A limitation of conversation classes is providing sufficient practice to make comprehension instant and automatic. The TPR lesson that follows the lesson above reinforces the patterns, and when the teacher later demonstrates drawing a banner, the patterns will be reinforced again. And note that although the vocabulary in this lesson is simple, even advanced English students in Korea often have trouble with verbal descriptions of location, and also with the "everyday English" of "putting your name at the end" or "making the first word larger." Finally, everything in this lesson involves useful English. The computer, Photoshop, and English are being learned, but computer terminology and jargon are hardly involved.
(3) A LATE LESSON: SIMPLE "IF" PATTERNS
A single program like Photoshop can provide a variety of grammatical patterns limited only by the imagination of the teacher. The following "if" patterns are examples. Notice how a teacher can present the same pattern many times. With Photoshop, the pattern "If you want the photo to be ____, then increase (or some other computer action) the ________." has dozens of possible completions.
If you want the photo to be larger (or smaller), then increase (or decrease) the scan percentage).
If you want the text to be larger (or smaller), then increase (or decrease) the number in inside text="3".
Here are other "if" patterns that can be used. But one basic guideline is that for any particular lesson, only one pattern should be used, or else students will tend to blend the grammar of different pattern. This is especially true for 1st-year students.
If the scan is still too fuzzy, you should sharpen it more.
If the colors are still too dull, you should brighten them more.
Web material can be assigned for reading, but it should be simple. It is sometimes easy to forget that for some material, such as how to bake a cake, 100% comprehension is the goal, and there is probably not much practical difference between the results of a recipe 80% understood and one 60% understood -- both results are inedible. Further, for this class I wanted students to gain information via reading and re-reading perhaps a time or two, not via laborious translation. Again I point to Song's (1999) work with 1st-year Seoul National students that indicates such low reading comprehension rates for even 10th grade material that their reading has no practical value as a reliable source of information.
The following is from a downloaded Web tutorial written for "kids." Notice how repetitive the patterns are, and this is "authentic material."
You can place the words wherever you want inside their cells by using the align command. Let's take a look:
align=right pushes everything against the right side.
align=left pushes everything against the left side.
align=center centers everything in the middle.
But there's more! We can also line stuff up vertically, pushing it to the top, bottom, or middle of the cells. We use valign:
valign=top pushes everything to the top of the cell.
valign=bottom pushes everything to the bottom of the cell.
valign=middle centers everything in the middle vertically.
The subject of the writing for the Web site is determined by the student, which of course personalizes it and adds to its relevance. The daughter of a bakery owner made a Web site dedicated to bread. The producer of a drama by the English Education Drama Club constructed a site based on the detailed description of the production. A woman whose large telescope attests to her interest in astronomy built a huge site about the stars. Other ambitious sites were about butterflies, trips to the Chirri Mountains, flowers, aviation, and remote-controlled models. Most students included descriptions and photos of their families and friends.
Writing is an on-going project throughout the semester, with regular deadlines for emailing me work in progress. Deadlines keep the students writing regularly and also allow the teacher to escape editing everything at the last minute. Some students write quite a lot (although not nearly so much, of course, as in a composition class), and they seem to enjoy seeing their sites grow. Other students, however, write as little as possible, and end up with unfocused Web sites based almost entirely on graphic images.
As I wrote above, the Web design course is primarily input-based. However, with my class sizes running from about 15 to just over 30, there is considerable opportunity for oral production. I keep students on their toes by asking quick questions throughout the class, and I "train" students to ask questions if they do not understand. While students are doing such things as going through written Web tutorials or scanning images, I spend time visiting students to talk about their Web pages, and I normally pull the neighboring students into the discussion. Students do talk in class, and the speech is immediately relevant, and because students know that comprehension is important, meaning is often negotiated.
The central idea of this paper, that a Web design course is a good vehicle for teaching English, has as its theoretical foundation the modest and uncontroversial idea that students who work hard doing English learn better. The methodological foundation is equally modest: a trained language teacher uses the scaffolding of a Web design content course to set up interesting situations in which students have an immediate need to communicate in all four language skills, motivated by a combination of personal pleasure and accountability. It is of course true that not all students find pleasure in the construction of a Web page, nor do all students respond responsibly to accountability. However, these students would hardly be more interested in, nor respond more responsibly to, a traditional conversation class with a traditional text.
Given the growing importance of computers in our economic lives, the byproduct of the Web design course -- computer literacy -- is a worthy one. Being able to use a computer for one complex process implies the ability to quickly put those skills to use in other computer processes, much like learning to use English to communicate about one complex subject implies the ability to quickly put those skills to use in communicating about other subjects.
This description of the Web design course is meant to provide enough detail to "test" its plausibility, and to put it, or part of it, to use in the classroom. This kind of publication is the most valuable for teachers, not descriptions of statistically-backed but narrow experiments, and not publications describing programs that, while broad, are backed only by someone's theory. Long and Richards (1987, p. 27) admonish that "SLA theory and research is a more likely source of sound ideas than convention and intuition." They then interject that "Teachers' intuition differ alarmingly." I think it is more valid as "Teachers' intuition is a more likely source of sound ideas than SLA theory and research," because it is obvious that "Theoreticians' ideas differ alarmingly." The heart of the art of teaching remains an experienced teacher's intuition tempered by reflection.
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