Friday, 1 July 2016

The rise of the pronouns

Pronouns, that most boringest part of 'parts of speech', the substitute of the grammar world, dutifully standing in for other, cooler words, has been given a new lease of life. Until recently if you wanted to say 'Tom likes pronouns and Tom uses them every day.' and not sound like someone pretending to be a human being, you could simply switch the subsequent 'Toms' for 'he' and you'd be all set.

The only really controversial aspect of pronoun usage was which one to use to replace singular nouns For instance, in the following sentences what is the missing word standing in for 'someone?
Someone left  ______ phone in the classroom

Traditional grammarians and the kind of people who would insist you say "I figuratively died!" in case they get confused, argue that as 'someone' is singular, the pronoun should also be singular. 'she', 'he' and 'it' were the choices on the table but surprisingly(!) they went for 'he' as "the Masculine gender is more worthy than the Feminine." ho-hum. Thus our sentence would read ''someone left his phone in the classroom.'

Ironically, as Henry Hitchens notes it was a woman who promoted the idea that the singular pronoun should be male. Ann fisher, author of the popular A New Grammar (1745) believed that 'he, him and his' could be used 'to cover both male and female in general statements.' 

In modern times 'singular they' has become increasingly acceptable, to the extent that almost everyone reading this would accept 'Someone left their phone in the classroom'. Singular they also neatly solves the gender neutral pronoun issue. When talking about a generic subject such as:
A teacher who talks too much will alienate their students.
And so with even style guides accepting 'singular they' it seemed as if the war was over. But in recent years there has been a disturbance in the force, as if millions of grammarians suddenly cried out in terror...

the current pronouns of English

The recent and quite dramatic media focus on Trans rights and 'gender nonconforming' people has shaken pronouns from their moribund slumber. The peak of media focus on trans issues was when 66 year old former Olympian Bruce Jenner announced that 'for all intents and purposes, I'm a woman.' Bruce became Caitlyn and he became she

Those who opposed or mocked this transition were accused of 'misgendering' -the crime of using the wrong pronouns (There is even a twitterbot designed to (rather inaccurately) enforce correct pronoun use). This sudden upheaval in grammatical terms led to some confused. Should we, for instance when talking about the Olympic achievements of this athlete use his or her? Did Bruce or Caitlyn win the 1974 decathlon? Is Jenner her children's father still, or is she now their mother?

This confusion though is nothing when compared to 'non-binary' or 'gender nonconforming' individuals. A few years back Facebook introduced more inclusive pronouns for such individuals, around 58 more to be exact. The boring old male and female are still there, but joining them are 'two spirit', 'agender', and 'bigender'. And these new genders bring with them new pronouns. The university of Milwaukee, for instance, has a page offering advice to the confused. they list, among commonly used pronouns 'singular they'. This may sound similar to the 'singular they' mentioned earlier but is, in fact, a very different beast. This 'they' is used to directly replace 'she' or 'he' in all sentences.

For instance, Jack Munroe, a food blogger and minor celebrtity has recently come out as Trans and has decided that her pronouns are they/them/their. Personal choice is a good thing, but things start to get a bit confusing when language is used in this way. In the first sentence of this paragraph for instance, I should have written 'has decided that the pronouns they would like...' and in not doing so I might be considered thoughtless and at worst possibly a bigot. 

Asking the entire English speaking world to change the way the language works for your benefit is an impressive demand. Wikipedia attempts to get round this by constantly referring to her as 'Munroe' (ironically recreating the very problem pronouns solve):
Despite working every day, Monroe was unable to make ends meet. By January 2014, finances had improved, and Monroe was able to move into a small 2 bedroom flat with their son.
There are limits to this though and Wikipedia eventually has to actually use said pronouns, resulting in the grammatical horror below
It was at this point they changed their name from their birth name to Jack Monroe - 'Jack' being short for "Jack of all trades", their nickname.
So Wikipedia has accepted this, as have some news organisations like the BBC, for instance, who when writing about Kit Wilson state:
As a child, Wilson never felt entirely female or entirely male. They figured they were a "tomboy" until the age of 16...
That this doesn't really work becomes clear when we read sentences where who the pronoun refers to has to be explicitly spelt out in parenthesis:
Earlier this year, Wilson asked friends to call them "Kit," instead of the name they (Wilson) had grown up with...
Here, the usefulness of pronouns as a class of word is nullified entirely. And there is a greater problem which at first isn't so obvious. You can see it in the sentence below from Wikipedia.
Jack Monroe is a writer, journalist and activist...
Can't see the issue? That's because you're used to normal English grammar. Allow me to explain

Verbs match pronouns. We say 'I am' not (usually) 'I is' or 'I are'. We say 'he is' we don't (usually) say 'you is', 'they is' and so on. Jack Munroe and Kit Wilson's preferred pronouns are 'they' which takes the verb 'are' (they are friends). When we use someone's name we assume the pronoun in order to work out the verb. That is, when I say 'John is tired' the reason I use 'is' and not 'are' is because John = he. As Jack Munroe does not equal 'she' or 'he' but 'they' the sentence should read:
 Jack Monroe are a writer, journalist and activist...
 This is such a normal part of our language that even those trying hard to use the right pronouns are getting it consistently wrong. Below are some examples of what writers should have written about Jack Munroe (I have corrected and highlighted the verbs):
Munroe were born in southend on sea
Munroe have three siblings 
Munroe were unable to arrange work 
Monroe are non-binary transgender and go by singular they pronouns 

This might seem like a fad or something that could never possibly catch on, but the recent case of Leo Soell might give you pause. Soell, who identifies as neither male or female, won a $60,000 settlement for, among others things being subjected to 'improper gender pronoun use' after her colleagues refused to call her 'they' (they 'they'?). New York City human right's commission states that failing to us an individuals preferred pronouns, such as 'Ze' or 'Hir' is discrimination and may result in a fine. This is a major switch in the way the English language is used. As Deborah Cameron* notes:
Even if the majority of non-traditional pronoun-users choose the same few forms (e.g. ‘ey’, ‘they’ and ‘ze’), it will still be necessary to memorize each person/pronoun pairing separately, because there is no rule we can use to predict an individual’s preference. That isn’t just a minor adjustment to the existing personal pronoun system. It’s a fundamental change in the way pronouns work.
For hundreds of years grammarians pushed back against the common and reasonable usage of singular they. The few were able to demand acquiescence from the majority and be considered justified by dint of their supposed linguistic authority. But even grammarians never had the power to bring legal proceedings against those who used the language in way they disagreed agree with. 

In 2016 individuals can demand that every single other person apply an exceptional and arbitrary set of grammar rules to them and expect to be accommodated. It took hundreds of years for singular they to become accepted but now the floodgates appear to be open. 

*For a much more detailed look at this topic, check out Cameron's blog here. 

Friday, 27 May 2016

Try this it works! Error correction for speaking

I first met Chris Smith at IATEFL 2014. I was drawn, like a moth to a flame, to his talk entitled "error correction for speaking: An evidence based approach" (write up here) How could I resist? I didn't agree with all of Chris' conclusions but I did enjoy his talk and when I ran into him in the pub the other day I invited him to write a guest blog post. Here it is!

Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach - See more at:
Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach - See more at:
Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach - See more at:
Error correction for speaking: an evidence-based approach - See more at:

(Chris is an EAP tutor in the ELTC at the University of Sheffield You can follow him here.)

There are lots of ever-present arguments and controversies in EFL, but few are as persistent as whether error correction for speaking actually has any effect. One of the principles of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is that students should be allowed to speak, communicate and develop fluency. Concurrent with that have been ideas to reduce error correction (EC) or even avoid it all together. Are these good ideas? What evidence is there about EC?

A short history of EC in EFL

(Although I wasn’t there, so feel free to tell me it wasn’t that way!)

Tracing a rough history of error correction in ELT, back in 1960s, a behaviourist influenced Audiolingual approach dominated. This argued that errors should not be tolerated, with correction being immediate and direct (Richards and Rodgers, 1986, p58) because they would propagate bad language behaviour.

The pendulum began to swing the other way with Communicative Language Teaching prevailing in the 1970s until we find the Natural Approach in the 1980s, stating: “Our view is that overt error correction of speech, even in the best of circumstances is likely to have a negative effect on the students’ willingness to try to express themselves” (Krashen and Terrell, 1988, p177). So the argument here is that EC is worse than useless! Firstly it doesn’t work and secondly it will kill any desire to communicate in the student. Krashen’s position creates two separate points although in this post I’ll focus mainly on the first: whether EC is actually effective in terms of acquisition or learning.
Krashen’s ideas were very influential in EFL literature. Harmer (1991, p49) warns against intervention during communicative activities. Ur (1996, p247) recommends correcting for accurate production but not for fluency exercises. Edge (1989) argues that EC should only be given on recently taught items and that learners need uninterrupted communication. Hedge (2000, p290) reports that trainee teachers are often advised to avoid correcting insensitively and causing anxiety or embarrassment.  

Types of corrective feedback

A previous post, from Leo Selivan, talked about the way applied linguistics does not use the same terminology as teachers, and this is true in error correction literature too. This is perhaps understandable since EFL literature is aimed at training teachers, while applied linguistics research is required to be peer-reviewed. Nevertheless it makes it confusing when different terminology is used to describe the same topics.

Numerous taxonomies of error correction techniques can be found (e.g. Harmer, 1991; Lyster and Ranta, 1997; Ur, 1996), all describing the same things, but often doing so in different ways. For example, Ur uses “explanation”, while Lyster and Ranta use “metalinguistic feedback” and Harmer uses “echoing” whereas Lyster and Ranta use “recast” (albeit with a slightly different definition). Most journal articles seem to follow Lyster and Ranta’s terms now, but this may be difficult terminology to grasp for teachers trained with teaching manuals.

In broad terms, we can divide EC into 3 groups: implicit correction, which can involve repeating in correct English (recasts) and negotiating meaning, but where the discourse is not stopped to highlight an error; explicit correction, which can use a variety of techniques, but crucially, where the teacher ensures the error and correction are noticed; and delayed correction, where the teacher allows conversation to continue but then later picks up on errors made, perhaps writing several on the board and eliciting corrections and explanations.

Evidence on the effectiveness of error correction

There have been a number of observational or experimental studies in which two or more groups of students are given instruction, with one control group receiving no EC, while the other group(s) receive(s) (different types of) EC. Here are a few, which are all describing spoken EC studies.

Lightbown and Spada (1990) analysed 4 different classes of 10-12 year olds over a 5 month period. They did not intervene in the teacher’s styles, but by observing and noticing the differences between teachers, they concluded that fluency, accuracy and communication could be developed best by a teaching approach that includes EC.

Carroll, Roberge and Swain (1992) compared adult learners at 2 different levels, one group getting EC and the other not, for instruction on particular vocabulary and grammar points. They found positive results, stating “correction clearly had an effect on learning in all the conditions tested” (p.185).
Carroll and Swain (1993) examined the effects of 4 different types of EC in separate groups against a control group of no EC. All 4 groups significantly outperformed the control group when tested on the target grammar point, with the group receiving explicit correction with an explanation performing the best.

Lyster and Ranta (1997) asked whether all types of feedback are equally effective. Their experiment yielded data which suggested explicit EC was more effective than implicit EC. This suggests it is important for teachers to make sure students realise that a correction has been provided.

Loewen (2005) analysed 17 hours of classroom interaction, counted 491 instances of explicit correction of non-target language and devised individualised tests to check recall of this. He found positive results, concluding “incidental focus on form does have some effect on L2 learning” (p381). This contradicts what was recommended in some earlier teaching manuals, which recommended only correcting target language, and not correcting at all during fluency activities. Loewen’s evidence suggests correcting at any time can produce improvements in language development.

Ellis, Loewen and Erlam (2006) found that explicit feedback was more effective than implicit feedback and that the benefits became more evident over time, suggesting explicit feedback aids long term acquisition, so this supports Lyster and Ranta (1997).

Some studies have been less conclusive than those described; however, the general trend is for research to demonstrate that EC has a positive effect on language development. There has been controversy over implicit corrections, including recasts, as learners may not notice them. However, the research shows them to have some beneficial effect (it’s worth remembering that although the speaker may not notice the correction, other learners might). In an overview of recasts,  Long (2007, p76) stated: “There is mounting support from research in both first and second language acquisition for the claim that [negative evidence] does affect competence, facilitating language development when it occurs.”

There is even stronger support for explicit EC where the teacher makes sure the learner notices they have made an error. The studies above found it to be more effective than implicit EC. In a comprehensive overview of studies into corrective feedback, Ellis (2008, p885) states: “There is clear evidence that corrective feedback contributes to learning.”

So, when it comes to evidence based EFL, we can conclude that the evidence shows that error correction works. I would also assert that if people want to argue that it does not work, they cannot merely cherry pick one or two articles that did not find a link. They would need to show why all the clear evidence mentioned above (and more) is wrong. So going back to Krashen and Terrell, they asserted that EC is useless, and this idea has been dogmatically perpetuated. However, this is demonstrably wrong. The evidence shows that EC clearly is effective.

Another aspect of Krashen and Terrell’s argument was that EC will raise an affective filter, discourage communication and prevent learning. This is an idea that keeps being brought up and I presented about this at IATEFL 2015. The recording of that is available here, so I won’t repeat the content of that at length. Suffice to say that when I investigated my students’ (EAP pre-sessional) attitudes to EC, they overwhelmingly said they believed it to be effective, they did not find it embarrassing and they wanted more of it than they were getting, which flies in the face of the affective filter concept.

Implications for classroom practice

EC works, students know this and want more of it, particularly explicit corrections with explanations. If students are making mistakes, they want to know, want to be told why it’s wrong and want the correct form provided. This is how they can improve the accuracy of their speech.

So more class time should be given over to EC, form-focused instruction, feedback on production, working with what students are saying and helping them to say it better. If you plan a stage where the students speak for 5-10 minutes related to a language point, you can include a post speaking EC stage, telling them you are going to correct any mistakes or try and improve their language, by asking a display question to each student.

If you are listening to a student and the focus is meaning, you may not want to stop them in the flow of speech but you can make a note and come back to it later. If your students are involved in a discussion task, let them get on it with it, but make notes, and once the task is finished, do some language work. All of these things need time, so they need to be considered at the planning stage.

And if you are unsure whether your own students would respond as positively to more error correction, ask them. You can include it on a needs analysis form, or as a separate survey, so that you can adopt an evidence-based approach


CARROLL, Susanne and SWAIN, Merrill (1993) Explicit and Implicit Negative Feedback: An Empirical Study of the Learning of Linguistic Generalizations. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 15, 357-386.

CARROLL, Susanne, SWAIN, Merrill and ROBERGE, Yves (1992). The role of feedback in adult second language acquisition: Error correction and morphological generalizations. Applied Psycholinguistics 13, no. 2 173-198.

EDGE, Julian (1989) Mistakes and Correction. London, Longman.

ELLIS, Rod (2008). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, OUP.

ELLIS, Rod, LOEWEN, Shawn and ERLAM, Rosemary (2006). Implicit and Explicit Corrective Feedback  and the Acquisition of L2 Grammar.

HARMER, Jeremy (1991). The Practice of English Language Teaching (New Edition). Harlow, Longman.

HEDGE, T (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Second Language Classroom. Oxford, OUP.

KRASHEN, Stephen D. and TERRELL, Tracy D. (1988) The Natural Approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. Hemel Hempstead, Prentice Hall.

LIGHTBOWN, Patsy M. and SPADA, Nina (1990). Focus on Form and Corrective Feedback in Communicative Language Teaching. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12, 429-448.

LOEWEN, Shawn (2005). Incidental focus on form and second language learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 27(03), 361-386.

LONG, Michael H. (2007). Problems in SLA. London, Lawrence Erlbaum.

LYSTER, Roy and RANTA, Leila (1997). Corrective Feedback and Learner Uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 20, 37-66.

RICHARDS, Jack C. and RODGERS, Theodore S. (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

UR, Penny (1996). A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge, CUP.