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Enhancing Acquisition in the EFL Setting
Joan Saslow and Allen Ascher
These three Rs ensure memorablility in the EFL setting :


Issue 1


I studied it for ten years and I cant speak a word!

Adult EFL learners need English to communicate with both native and non-native speakers of English. Content of lessons and materials should reflect that reality.

Such is the self-critical lament heard everywhere people study English outside of the English-speaking world (the EFL setting). Is the setting itself interfering with the learners ability to remember language well enough to use it competently and confidently? If so, why should this be? What can be done about it? And, if English is so hard to learn, why does everyone keep trying? Todays adult learner knows that in virtually any profession, English is an essential skill. World economies and cultures are increasingly interconnected and interdependentpolitically, socially, and technologically. Multinational companies consist of confederations of offices in numerous countries, and English has thus become a convenient lingua franca. Indeed, according to Ricardo Schutzs study, 75% of all international communication in writing, 80% of all information in the worlds computers, and 90% of Internet content are in English. More than ten years ago, the British Council reported, English is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air-traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science, technology, diplomacy, sport, international competitions, pop music, and advertising. And we know that the importance of English has only increased since then. As one example of the primacy of English in international business, in fiscal 2002 the global Japanese company Matsushita employed 245,922 people worldwide, only 28% of whom were Japanese. We need English-speaking managers who can explain Matsushitas corporate philosophy to overseas affiliates and train employees there, said Shigeru Mizuno of the management development team.

Adult EFL learners lack exposure to repeated English input outside the classroom, so lessons and materials must serve as delivery vehicles of realworld language input. This is key to avoiding fossilization.

Adult EFL learners need to feel they are making progress. Ensuring that students view tangible progress on a daily basis reinforces their enthusiasm for learning English.

2005 Joan Saslow and Allen Ascher

And it has been commonly agreed that, of the English speakers in the world today, between 60 and 80% are not native speakers. The British Councils landmark English 2000 project predicted that over a billion people would be studying English by the year 2000. In fact, according to David Crystal in 1997, A conservative estimate is that 1,200,000,000 to 1,500,000,000 people in the world are reasonably competent in English. So, if English is an essential life skill for all who work, travel, or merely inhabit todays world, how can English language educatorsas a professionaccelerate, promote, and ensure communicative competence in EFL learners? Essentially, the question is: How can we make English unforgettable?

inadequate vocabulary, and almost all have difficulty understanding rapid native speech.

Qualitative factors affecting learner achievement. More importantly, the success of

English instruction in the EFL setting is also compromised by qualitative factors: the paucity of authentic English input and the almost total lack of opportunity for authentic practice outside the classroom. No teacher alone can possibly provide enough quantity or quality of input, nor construct enough opportunities for practice, to even come near to matching the impact of an authentic English-speaking environment. Materials must, therefore, be the teachers partner in repairing the deficits of the setting.

Quantitative factors affecting learner achievement. In light of the

fact that many learners feel shame at their lack of communicative ability, especially their poor ability to understand and use spoken English after years of instruction, its important for us to examine our expectations. Just what are reasonable expectations, given the reality of the EFL setting? One simply cant ignore the purely quantitative element in estimating total instructional contact hours in this setting. A typical academic year is between 30 and 40 weeks, with instructional times varying widely: normally from as few as three hours of instruction per week to five; more, of course, in intensive courses. However, calculating five hours of instruction per week for 35 weeks yields 175 hours. A hundred seventy-five hours might seem like a lot of instructionuntil one realizes that there are only 168 hours in one week! So one years study amounts to not much more than one weeks time!

A hundred seventyfive hours might seem like a lot of instruction until one realizes that there are only 168 hours in one week! So one years study amounts to not much more than one weeks time!

In our view, however, most textbooks used in the EFL setting dont provide adequate or repeated input; almost none recycle material enough for it to be remembered, and the amount of practice included doesnt approach the quantity necessary to create confident competency. And textbooks tend to approach classroom learning as a linear process, with vocabulary and grammar taught one following the other like footsteps on a march, until the syllabus is covered with virtually no integration along the way. In contrast, the language-learning experience in an environment in which the learner is surrounded by the target language is more three-dimensional, with exposures and practice reinforcing each other and the students facility growing geometrically. It is, as Diane Larsen-Freeman puts it, dynamic, complex, and nonlinear. Multiple, varied, and repeated exposures to target language provide an inescapable echo; immediate opportunities to practice abound, and previously learned language can be continually observed in similar, though not identical, contexts. The environment itself makes language unforgettable. No wonder study in an English-speaking country is such a powerful learning experience. The dilemma, then, facing the profession is how to overcome the quantitative and qualitative factors inherent in the EFL setting that make achievement of communicative competence seem so elusive.

No one would expect to master a language in just a few weeks, but quantitatively that is what several years of instruction actually is. Taking that into account, the level learners reach after four or five years is really quite good; perhaps they are what Crystal called reasonably competent, in spite of their self-criticism. We know the level most learners reach from instruction alone: although there are wide differences among learners, most speak hesitantly yet functionally with grammatical errors and

The importance of models. Many deliberate

choices can be made in the EFL setting that will greatly increase the impact of instruction. Although the classroom can never fully duplicate the experience of living, traveling to, or studying in the English-speaking world, it can be much enriched. The following section will examine pedagogical devices that promote memorability and greatly increase acquisition and competence. An unfortunate aspect of currently popular methodologies has been a reduction in input for observation in the classroom. Describing his experience teaching Bosnian zero beginners in the U.K., author Robert ONeill describes the frustration of learners confronted with what he describes as production-obsessed methodology and its relentless insistence on elicitation. Students needed more opportunities to process language before being expected to use it productively. It has been our experience, having taught adults of all levels in both the EFL and the ESL settings, that in the ESL settingwhere students have an opportunity to observe spoken and written English outside of classit is reasonable and beneficial to devote most class time asking them to produce. In the input-rich ESL setting, students are consolidating and using language observed in the environment. Less class time needs to be devoted to classroom presentation and observation. In the EFL setting, on the other hand, which is input-poor, insisting that students speak without enough opportunity to observe leads them to silent panic, the consequence of which is that only the most able students participate in class. A further consequence of depriving learners of opportunities to observe new language is that their language becomes fossilized, and their ability to engage in discussions doesnt grow commensurately with the time they spend in English study. Cultural factors also confound the problem of overreliance on elicitation. Students from some cultures are naturally reticent and less likely to speak up. But even adult learners who are not particularly shy, no matter how motivated and anxious to speak, are often ashamed to reveal their lack of ability and embarrassed to speak incorrectly. So, paradoxically, some features of our communicative methodologies work against the very communicative goals we strive for. We believe it is impossible to overestimate the importance of observation as a first (and ongoing) step. Michael

Lewis talks about the need for opportunities to observe, hypothesize, and experiment with new language. Supporting this concept is the fact that most learners who experience immersion in another languagesuch as occurs when traveling or living in another country report that snatches of observed or heard language remain in their memory and that they silently repeat that language to themselves like a refrain, further leading to its memorability, acquisition, and use. Therefore, when input from the environment outside the classroom is lacking, the classroom and learning materials themselves must serve as the vehicle for that input, bringing language back numerous times for the student to notice and remember in the same way. Though input must form an important part of English language instruction in all settings and at all levelsits inclusion in classrooms and materials is all the more crucial in the EFL setting. Input should consist of aural and written modelsconversational and non-conversationalthat students can observe and practice. In the last century, during the audiolingual phase of language teaching history, dialogs formed the core of instruction, and the mechanical repetition and substitution drills used to practice them led to their rejection as non-cognitive behaviorism. Though the criticism was valid, the fault lay more in the pedagogy of (what many saw as) mindless parroting than in the dialogs themselves. That fact notwithstanding, in the EFL setting one of the most regrettable consequences of the reaction to audiolingualism was the reduction or even disappearance of conversation models in the communicative, learner-centered, and taskbased textbooks that followed. But learners need models of the way people really speak English to make up for whats lacking in the environment. Such models are an essential point of departure on the road to expression and should not be neglected. A model, however, is not only something to observe: it is an effective productive practice medium. Here also recent materials have de-emphasized or ignored the crucial first step of using the conversational model for personalization. Following a comprehensive study of the most widely used English course books, in 1996 Saslow reported: Another casualty of recent teaching approaches is practice: safe, controlled, limited practice of new language. Often this step is skipped, and students are expected to produce new language freely before they

are readywith the inevitable results: minimal expression and lack of confidence. Since models maximize both exposure and practice, they contribute to making language unforgettable. However, keeping in mind the pitfalls of audiolingual methodology, intensive practice and personalization of modelsrather than mindless substituting of poorly known vocabulary into themis what makes them valuable. Controlled personalized practice of a good model prepares the learner to later pull practical language out of his or her pocket and transfer it to diverse speaking situations. And for students who need to use Englishtodays studentsthis practice phase must not be skipped.

In the classroom, this conversation can be practiced numerous times, each time with a different partner, inserting true and personalized information to contribute to its memorability. Moreover, an implicit corollary benefit of this conversation model is that it permits practice of can and have to, making it an extremely efficient way to increase its impact on the learning process. Beginning and intermediate students in the EFL setting derive great value from this sort of controlled practice and it should not be denied them. Not all models, however, impart equal value. To contrast, lets look at an ineffective conversation model that doesnt lead to memorability. B: Can you help me? Im trying to copy this memo. A: First, open the cover and put the paper on the glass. B: Like this? A: Yes. Then, choose the number of copies you want. Next, close the cover and press the START button. B: Thanks for your help. Lets apply the same test. On the surface it appears to be practical: one often asks others for help operating something or doing something. However, upon examination we see that it is only practical insofar as it only applies to the specifics of operating a photocopier. The only productive purpose it serves is for rote memorization, whicheducators agreeprimarily fosters short-term memory. It cannot easily be transferred (or personalized) because a completely new set of vocabulary items would be needed to make any changes to the request for help in the model. It can only be used to discuss working a photocopier. If we convert the model to a conversation guide, as above, it is difficult to imagine a pair of beginning-level students using it to ask for help in operating, say, a microwave oven or a vacuum cleaner. B: Can you help me? Im trying to _____. A: First, _____. B: Like this? A: Yes. Then, _____. Next, _____. B: Thanks for your help.

What makes an effective conversation model? Conversation models are most valuable
when they are practical, short, and transferable to other situations. The following beginning-level model exhibits these three characteristics: A: Why dont we play basketball sometime? B: Great idea. Whens good for you? A: Tomorrow at three? B: Sorry, I cant. I have to meet my sister at the airport. A: How about Wednesday at five? B: That sounds great. The model above is practical: its an exchange that often occurs when two people want to get together for some sort of activity (not only sports!), so students can readily see its value. Its short, and therefore easy to remember. And its transferable: all parts of this conversation model can change to fit reality; for example, different activities can be suggested, different days and times can be substituted, and other excuses can be offered. As an illustration of transferability, see the following conversation guide of the same conversation model. Having learned activities vocabulary earlier, students can manipulate the conversation model in their own way. A: Why dont we _____ sometime? B: Great idea. Whens good for you? A: _____? B: Sorry, I cant. _____. A: How about _____? B: _____.

The learner would need to know the names of different parts and operations for each machine substituted for the photocopier (that you push a vacuum cleaner and choose attachments, that you select a time and place food on a turntable in a microwave, etc.) Experience and the necessity of covering the syllabus tell us, however, that bringing random vocabulary in and not practicing it is distracting and causes us to lose continuity and impact. Such conversation models are not useful or practical in classrooms in the EFL setting since they dont provide transferable input or contribute to the memorability of the original model itself. And returning to the quantitative factor, working with such a model wastes the scarce time students have in which to learn English. Activities must all contribute to the enrichment of the learning experience. When examining textbooks that have conversation models, then, it is recommended that one examine the models to see if they can be personalized by using known vocabulary and structure so they contribute to memorabilityand therefore usabilityin the world outside a classroom.

whether content is relevant or irrelevant to their real needs outside the classroom. Relevant content in a textbook is irresistible; irrelevant content is irritating and viewed as a waste of time.

Lets start by examining how adult EFL learners may use English. As mentioned earlier, the odds that they will use English to communicate with non-native speakers of English are as high, if not higher, as the odds that they will use it with native speakers. They may use it while traveling, Adults can see working, or studying in an English-speakimmediately whether ing or non-English speaking country. And they may use it to communicate with content is relevant or native speakers and non-native speakers irrelevant to their who are visiting their own countries. Some practical contexts that come to real needs outside mind in those settings are: ordering the classroom. and paying in restaurants, renting cars, Relevant content in a checking into and out of hotels, finding a doctor in a foreign country, helping textbook is irresistible; someone find a dentist who speaks irrelevant content is English in ones own country, complaining when something goes wrong, meeting and irritating and viewed greeting people whose cultures are differas a waste of time. ent from ones own, apologizing, asking for information, describing ones own culture and traditions, etc. In the not-so-distant past, the orientation of textbooks and lessons was entirely to prepare students to communicate with native speakers of English and to be familiar with the culture of what Kachru calls the inner circle. The content of materials teaching American English was heavily infused with information about the culture of the United States, and the content of materials teaching British English provided similar information about the culture of the United Kingdom. The assumption that anyone learning English should be prepared to function in an English-speaking country or culture was unquestioned. But todays adult student is preparing to use English for international communication in a variety of situations whether in foreign countries or at homein which he or she may encounter unfamiliar cultural norms from a variety of cultures. The content of material and lessons must now reflect that. The center of most students Englishspeaking worlds is no longer the United States or Britain.

Relevant content for adult students. Adult

learners around the world have certain characteristics that should guide us to effective decisions about content and pedagogy. Meeting these needs can make English irresistible to adults. Adult learners: choose to enroll and pay money for it (unlike adolescents or children, who are enrolled by others). have a real need for English, and therefore demand practical content. have limited time, either because they have a job or must learn English FOR a job. dont want to be infantilized by the classroom experience; they are adults and dont want to be embarrassed by their mistakes. need to observe results. All topics, themes, models, and content presented should have obvious practical use. Adults can see immediately

Cultural fluency. While its not the role of the text-

book, the teacher, or the lesson to teach students detailed cultural information about people they may or might not Supposing a communication goal of, Learn to order encounter in their lives outside of class or outside of their and pay for a meal in a restaurant, the following is a country of origin, it is helpful to prepare students to cope sequence of presentations and activities that could make with anticipated differences. Cultural fluencymaking up that class session: students aware that certain traditions are likely to be different from their ownenables them to 1. Vocabulary presentation: Foods. communicate appropriately and to avoid 2. Vocabulary practice: A contextualized In our experience, embarrassment. For example, a student controlled practice exercise follows so when newly learned traveling for business or pleasure may that students understand and can use that need to take a taxi but be unsure about language is not used vocabulary in a specific, limited context. whether the driver will expect a tip and if 3. Conversation models and controlled and elicited repeatedly so how much. Students can learn how to practice: Ordering from a menu, making ask a hotel concierge, Is it customary to it is quickly forgotten; food choices, expressing preferences tip the taxi driver?or answer such a or at best it becomes in food. question from a visitor. Or if business 4. Additional social language: Comavailable to the learner travelers attend a company meeting outmunicating with a waiter or waitress (for side of their home country, they should only receptively. example: Were ready to order, Well feel able to say, Are most people in the Unfortunately, many take the check, please, Do you accept office on a first-name basis? or Excuse credit cards?). me. I dont know the custom here. How textbooks fail students would you like to be addressed? or 5. Listening comprehension: Students in this regard. Please call me Kim. They should also hear a series of conversations between feel prepared to answer such questions people eating in a restaurant and predict from a visitor to their country. This kind what they will say next, using the social language from of language content is irresistible to adults because the list above. they all know the potential embarrassment that ensues 6. Free practice: Groups of students practice the commuwith feeling awkward or, even worse, with doing somenication goal: order and pay for a meal. They role-play thing that would be offensive to people of another diners and servers at tables, using real menus and their culture. When irresistible language content is included in own personalized responses. They apply the new vocabua course or textbook, students are motivated, pay attenlary, the conversation models, and the additional social tion, and re-enroll: all conducive to language mastery. language they learned in the lesson. In this way, students Seeing ones own progress. Another essential leave class knowing they have achieved the goal and seefactor in creating irresistible instruction is enabling ing that they can do something they couldnt do before students to see their own progress. Students who see they came to class. This confirmation of progress develconcrete success are enthusiastic about studying English, ops enthusiasm and contributes to the irresistibility of and nothing motivates like success. In a recent study by language instruction. the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Integration and multiplication. In our experiLiteracy (NCSALL), two of the three supports to learner ence, when newly learned language is not used and persistence demonstrated in adult learners were establishelicited repeatedly, it is quickly forgotten, or at best it ment of a goal by the student and progress toward becomes available to the learner only receptively. reaching a goal. Unfortunately, many textbooks fail students in this To provide students with that support, students should regard. As writers trying to construct an ideal offering for have an opportunity in each class session to understand the student learning in the EFL settingand in an the goal and observe their achievement of the goal. Goals attempt to make English unforgettablewe have taken must be stated, and all presentations, exercises, and the position that there cannot be too many exposures to

activities that follow should contribute obviously to the achievement of the goal. As an example:

target language. Integration and multiplication of new language is crucial if instruction in the EFL setting is to attempt to approach the quantity and quality of input in the English-speaking environment. The challenge, then, is how to present learners with an adequate number of classroom exposures (exposures here includes both observation and practice) to new language so they will remember it. One traditional means of multiplying exposures is to have students incessantly repeat the new language in order to memorize it. Unfortunately, as we know, this memorizing tends to be short-term. Repetition is also boring and de-motivating. Lets look at two simple qualitative and quantitative approaches that increase classroom exposures to new vocabulary. A qualitative way to maximize exposure without being repetitive is by constructing context shifts in which the same new vocabulary or grammar appears naturally. Clothing vocabulary, for example, taught in an early unit in a textbook can be re-entered later in a unit on shoppingand anywhere else possible. Language used to express regrets about purchases in an early unit can be re-entered in a unit later on machines. Changing the context or topic refreshes the learners interest and recycles language in an efficient way. A quantitative way to maximize exposure is by changing the vehicle that exhibits or carries the language. Using vocabulary as an example of a quantitative approach to multiplication and integration, as materials writers, we consider the following amount of integration in the list below to be a bare minimum. Both within the textbook unit where it is presented, as well as in subsequent units, vocabulary should be embedded and recycled in: reading selections and realia listening comprehension tape scripts example sentences in grammar charts grammar exercises conversation models and opportunities to practice them video scripts songs Instructors should expect that their materials provide these multiple exposures and intensive, systematic recyclinganything less leads to forgetability.

Although the challenge to learn a language in the EFL setting is formidable, with quantitative and qualitative factors compounding the difficulty, we believe creating an environment within the class that attempts to duplicate quantitative features of the native language setting is the most appropriate instructional design for lessons and materials. Materials need to provide a high quantity of intensive, authentic, yet comprehensible input for learners to observe before they make it their own. New language needs to be deliberately and systematically recycled to ensure maximum exposure. And numerous opportunities to practice must be provided to make up for the lack of such opportunities outside of class. Finally, recognizing the unique needs of the adult learner, content should be carefully chosen for its practicality and relevance to how the adult learner may use it in the real world. Daily opportunities should be constructed to allow learners to observe their own progress. Irresistible and motivating content provides something learners not only can talk about, but that they will want to talk about. Thoughtful recycling will ensure memorabilityand subsequently experimentationboth enhancing and maximizing learner achievement.


Joan Saslow is co-author, with Allen Ascher, of Top Notch: English for Todays World. She was Series Director of True Colors: An EFL Course for Real Communication and of True Voices, an EFL Video Course. She is the author of Ready to Go: Language, Lifeskills, and Civics ; Workplace Plus: Living and Working in English ; Literacy Plus ; and of English in Context: Reading Comprehension for Science and Technology. Ms. Saslow has taught in Chile and the United States in a variety of programs. She taught English at the Binational Centers of Valparaso and Via del Mar, Chile, and French and English at the Catholic University of Valparaso. In the United States, Ms. Saslow taught English as a Foreign Language to Japanese university students at Marymount College and to international students in Westchester Community Colleges intensive English program. She also taught workplace English at a General Motors auto assembly plant. Ms. Saslows special interest is in distinguishing the needs of the EFL and the ESL learner and creating materials appropriate for each. She has an M.A. in French from the University of Wisconsin.


Joan Saslow

An award-winning communicative course for adults and young adults that sets new standards for reflecting how English is used as an international language. Over 3 million students worldwide have learned English using the Top Notch program. Now available in Second Edition, with ActiveTeach and ActiveBook to make teaching and learning easier. Other topics forthcoming in the Other titles available:


Developing Cultural Fluency Beyond Model Conversations:

Developing Cultural Fluency

Beyond Model Coversations: Enabling Real Discussions Enabling Real Discussions A Learner-Supportive Grammar
For more free downloadable resources and details of online professional development, visit:

A Learner-Supportive Grammar

Allen Ascher, formerly Director of the International English Institute at Hunter College in New York, has been a teacher, teacher-trainer, author, and publisher. He has taught in language and teacher-training programs in both China and the United States. Mr. Ascher specialized in teaching listening and speaking to students at the Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute, to hotel workers at a major international hotel in China, and to Japanese students from Chubu University studying English at Ohio University in the United States. Mr. Ascher taught students of all language backgrounds and abilities at the City University of New York, and he trained teachers in the TESOL Certificate Program at the New School. Mr. Ascher has an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from Ohio University. Mr. Ascher is co-author, with Joan Saslow, of Top Notch. He is author of Think About Editing: A Grammar Editing Guide for ESL Writers. As a publisher, Mr. Ascher played a key role in the creation of some of the most widely used materials for adults, including True Colors, NorthStar, Focus on Grammar, Global Links, and Ready to Go.

Allen Ascher

British Council: English 2000. In David Graddol. The Future of English? The British Council. 1997. John P. Comings, Andrea Parrella, and Lisa Soricone: Helping adults persist: four supports. NCSALL. 1999. David Crystal: English as a Global Language. Cambridge. 1997. B.B. Kachru: Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: the English language in the outer circle. In R. Quick and H.G. Widdowson (eds) English in the World. Cambridge. 1985. Michael Lewis: The Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications. 1993. Joan Saslow: Real language: the vitamin for the student studying English outside the English-speaking world. Longman. 1996. Ricardo Schutz: O Ingles como lingua internacional. 2003. Sower, C. (1997). An attitude of inquiry: An interview with Diane Larsen-Freeman. The Language Teacher, 21 (7), 27-28, 37. Shinichi Yanagawa: English, the lingua franca of business. Daily Yomiuri On-line. August 10, 2003.

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