Why I dig at arguments about Krashen…

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I read Stein’s (@kevchanwow) Why I Dig Stephen Krashen at iTDi.pro this morning and felt compelled to provide a slightly different perspective.

Stein writes how he digs Krashen which leads into an announcement for a Krashen course that costs $59-$89 US dollars depending on the type of course one chooses. One of iTD.pro’s principles is that Every teacher deserves access to professional development. I would add …for a fee to this statement, not to criticize but to reflect honesty. I’m sure the course is well worth the investment.

My perspective on Stein’s piece is less about an argument against Krashen as it is interpreting Stein’s argument about Krashen. I am not an expert on all of the ideas the linguist holds, but do have an opinion on how Stein outlines his premises about the professor and how others might interpret this from a practitioner’s perspective.  My views are likely to fall just outside the Overton Window.

In ELT, policy recommendations are called ‘best practices’.

I can appreciate the attempt to introduce Krashen as an influential figure, but bringing up the term best practices seems irrelevant. Whether the term emerges from top-down or bottom-up influences, it still relates primarily to a set of practices that are expected among the rest of the faculty. As long as best practices aren’t imposing, and if they emerge transparently from open dialogue among all educational stakeholders, then fine, let’s use the term. If not, let’s not.

When people talk (or write) about Stephen Krashen, they most often write about the finer points of how he formulates his hypothesis.

Here, Stein introduces one of Krashen’s six hypotheses, the i+1. This led me to ask, well how do you feel about the other five? Can one dig Krashen and be selective in which hypotheses best apply to language learning contexts? Should an argument about an entire individual derive from only one hypothesis (or a few hypotheses)?

SLA theorists want to know what exactly is “i” and how can we go about measuring ’+1’. 

Perhaps, but this is not the underlining problem. The problem is that language educators (not theorists) oftentimes want to know what exactly i is and how to get to +1. It’s the practitioners who expend wasted effort in this pursuit that is the issue. I’ll get back to this point later.

…the best input is so interesting and relevant…

If one wishes to attribute this idea to Krashen, then fine. But there have been other researchers, practitioners, etc. who have advocated this as well. I agree with Krashen that an individual who forgets the message being encoded in the foreign language is something to strive for, but how does this directly relate to i + 1 within Stein’s argument? From a practical standpoint I disagree with i + 1 while agree with authentic learning scenarios where language learners (I know, I said “learners”) use language as a means to an end – where does that leave me? Although related, comprehensible is different from interesting, meaningful, and relevant. And this distinction has a lot to do with trying to know exactly what i is and how to get to +1…if it’s something we (language educators) even should be doing (I would say it’s not). Imagine a language educator reflecting on the following each moment of each class: Does every student comprehend, understand, know, etc. each vocabulary word?  Does every student find the text interesting, meaningful, relevant, necessary, etc.?  How would a teacher even go about finding this out?  And if she could find this out, what next?

But even as people have busily and sometimes heatedly been arguing over these points, Stephen Krashen has not given up an inch.

This just sounds like the Stephen Krashen pep squad. I would stick to the key ideas supporting each premise and avoid congratulating Krashen for his determination.  Stein is a follower of Krashen and the reader should respect that.  No need to bring it into the argument.

…as his detractors have grown increasingly obsessed with knocking down his theories, something pretty remarkable has been happening around them. Teachers and publishers have increasingly worked to find and produce more interesting and engaging texts in which, if content is not the primary concern, it at the very least doesn’t play second fiddle to issues of teachable grammar points

Assuming a cause and effect relationship here might be a stretch. I think it’s more likely that others (those who are not Krashen) also had some influence on the production of more interesting and engaging texts. And is it possible that educational stakeholders have also become more discerning individuals, even without any changes to texts (or even texts that have become worse) over the years? I would like to think so.

In reading classrooms, teachers spend more time letting students actually read and less time ’teaching’ reading. 

Ok, perhaps…but wouldn’t it be more useful to get students learning on their own, outside of the confines of the classroom? And if so, then shouldn’t we be assisting language educators to this end? And what’s Krashen say about the role of the language educator in promoting reading strategies with their students? Stein mentions towards the end of the post that Krashen is for learner autonomy? What does he say about learner autonomy and extensive reading? Is it productive to spend a lot of time reading in class? What does Krashen say about this?

I’m not saying that Stephen somehow directly orchestrated all of these changes… [but] Stephen has managed to move the Overton window, the ideas that can be entertained as a best practice, more than any other language theorist. 

So, Krashen has indirectly moved the Overton Window (i.e., not saying that Krashen has directly orchestrated these changes) more than anyone else? So if there were (hypothetically) 100 language theorists, Krashen could have indirectly orchestrated changes by say 2% to each of the others respective 1%? And does Krashen promote theories or hypotheses? Throughout the argument, the terms hypothesis and theory have been used interchangeably, as if synonymous.  When words are synonymous and not overly technical, this practice is acceptable; but in this case, these terms have distinct meanings which I feel are each relevant to the overall thesis.

Stephen’s ideas have directly led to the Extensive Reading movement as well as, at least indirectly, influencing text comprehensibility and vocabulary acquisition research. 

So if Krashen has influenced others by 2% (to everyone else’s 1%), he now has directly influenced others on the extensive reading movement? And this direct influence is the result of indirect influences…?

The fact that we can walk into a classroom with some assurance that a text in which 98% of the words are known will allow students a fair chance to understand the remaining 2% from context (Hu & Nation, 2000) is the research driven answer to the question of what actually constitutes ‘i +1’. 

So it’s a “fact” that we (language educators?) can enter a classroom with some assurance (vague) that a text in which 98% of the words (as if somehow this were measurable from a practical standpoint) are known (vague – what is it to “know” a word and how would one measure this from a practical and real sense) will allow student a fair chance (again, vague) to understand (depends on how one defines the term, Bloom or Wiggins and McTighe (2005) or someone else) the remaining 2% from context (And what’s specific about 98%/2%? So it’s impossible to gain meaning from context when the reader doesn’t understand 3%, 4%, 5%, etc. of the text? And wouldn’t it depend on the type of text? reader? etc.).

Ideas as diverse as avoiding error correction during fluency activities, the importance of learner-autonomy and a need to introduce students to ways to seek out comprehensible input outside of the classroom, and even negotiated syllabus design that eschews a traditional sequenced grammar, are all to some extent influenced by Stephen’s theories.

Actually, aren’t they still Stephen’s hypotheses? If they have become theories, let me know. If you want to build an argument as to why you dig Krashen, I would focus on these points that you mention here: using different error correction techniques, learner autonomy, and most importantly guiding language learners to becoming more discerning language learners (readers, writers, speakers, listeners, etc.). Even looking at building a community syllabus through teacher-student negotiation is a more interesting, meaningful, and relevant talking point than Krashen’s hypotheses. If Krashen supports these ideas, then we should all dig Krashen.

My main argument against Krashen’s ideas is the terminology used: i + 1, acquirer/acquisition, acquisition-good and learning-bad, comprehensible…, natural order, etc. Many interpret (which is more relevant than what Krashen specifically says or means) these notions as being dichotomous, all or nothing, black or white, having it or not having it, fixed, etc.  (Language) learning is just too complex and is best viewed in terms of degree. I don’t believe the words associated with Krashen’s beliefs quite get us there.

What are your thoughts about Krashen’s ideas, Stein’s argument, and/or my interpretation?