What Teachers Need to Know (and What’s Stopping Them) (with Stephen Krashen)

We talk with Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, about the teacher research knowledge gap: what do teachers need to know about second language acquisition, what are the barriers stopping them and what we can do to solve this problem. We discuss open access journals, the Grateful Dead compressible input, compressible output and evidence based language teaching.

Image from qimono

What Teachers Need To Know (And What’s Stopping Them) (With Stephen Krashen) - Transcript


Ross Thorburn:  Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the TEFL Training Institute Podcast. This week, I'm very excited to tell you that our guest is Professor Stephen Krashen from the University of California. This episode, I ask Stephen Krashen about what teachers need to know and what stops them from finding out. Enjoy the interview.


What Teachers Need to Know About Language Learning

Ross:  Stephen Krashen, welcome to the podcast. Can you start off by telling us a bit about what the teachers need to know? What sort of research and concepts, maybe, from second language acquisition do teachers most need to know about?

Professor Stephen Krashen:  What I want to do is talk a little bit about theory, what I call the 40 years war.

Stephen Krashen:  It's actually longer than that. God! You know how it is when you discover that your old pair of pants is 30 years old and your new pair is 20 years old?

Stephen Krashen:  That's the situation I'm in. Anyway, the 40 years war is really now nearly the 50 years war. This all started in the '70s. It's a war between two hypotheses. One of them, which I think is the good guy, I call the comprehension hypothesis. It's very simple, says we acquire language and develop literacy when we understand what we hear, when we understand what we read.

Credit where credit is due. I am not the inventor of this idea. I have been mostly responsible for public relations and seeing if it's true or not, but there are several people who were there before me. In the field of literacy, Frank Smith, raging genius, in my opinion. Kenneth Goodman, the whole language people were, in my opinion, all there. They had it.

We learn to read by understanding what's on the page. We learn to read by understanding messages. In the field of second language acquisition, people like James Asher, Total Physical Response, he was there before I was. Harris Winitz, a foreign language expert in the States, was there before me.

A whole number of people had the idea pretty well. I do try to cite them in my work. This is what we've been working on since the '70s. We acquire language when we understand it. Here's the interesting difference, the rival hypothesis, we call skill building. Skill building and comprehension idea are complete opposites in terms of cause and effect.

Comprehension hypothesis says the cause is comprehensible input. The cause is understanding what you hear and what you read. The result is vocabulary, grammar, writing style, all these things. Competence, in other words.

Skill building reverses it. Skill building says the first thing you should do is study. Do things consciously and work hard. Memorize vocabulary. Learn grammar rules. Practice them in output. Get your errors corrected. Make sure it's right. Do this again, again, and again. Then someday in the distant future, you will be able to use the language.

I call this a delayed gratification hypothesis. Not happiness now, but happiness later. Comprehension hypothesis says happiness now. In fact, it's got to be pleasant or it won't work. You have to have input that you understand and that you pay attention to. You'll only pay attention to it if it's interesting, if you like it, if it means something to you.

The problem with skill building is that the delayed gratification never comes. In my opinion, there is not a single case of a human being on this planet who has ever acquired language using skill building. Every time you see someone who got good in a language, they've had comprehensible input. It's never there. It never exists without that.

In our studies, where we compared comprehension and skill building, which is really all we've been doing for the last now 40 years or so, comprehensible input always wins. It has never lost in all the experimental research, not one. It's more effective, and it's more pleasant.

My observation, and it's backed up by the research, if you look at kids in a skill building class, 95 percent of them hate it. The five percent who like it become language teachers. These are the people who love grammar, who think diagramming sentences is fun. I know because I was one of them, and I still am.

It took me years to overcome my fascination with Noam Chomsky and grammar, etc. They really, really like it, but that's not how language is acquired. Two things. Comprehension hypothesis, the research supports it, does not support skill building. The comprehension hypothesis makes language acquisition pleasant and fun. Skill building makes it torture.

This is win‑win, but here's the problem. For the general public, the skill building hypothesis is considered to be an axiom. People are not aware that there is an alternative. For all civilians, and even a few in our field, skill building is the only game in town.

If you think we learn language by study, hard work, all the ways we torture students in school, all the grammar, exercises, all the tests, all the quizzes, they make perfect sense but that's not the way it happens.

The Problem with Teachers Reading Research

Ross:  Let's talk a bit more about teachers' access in research, then. What do you think stops teachers from reading more about teaching and more about research?

Stephen Krashen:  Everyone complains teachers don't read. This is the general mood in the United States. That teachers are stupid, teachers are responsible for the depression, economic hard times, etc. This is part of the general attack on teachers. We have done studies on this, and teachers read a fair amount, but they don't do a lot of professional reading. My feeling is it's not their fault.

There are three problems, and they're serious. One is, professional literature is extremely expensive, and it's getting more so. If you want to get latest advertisement for professional books, papers by experts, and all that, 150 American dollars. I don't know about you, but nobody can afford this stuff that I know of.

Ross:  Definitely not on a teacher's salary, right?

Stephen Krashen:  Not even on a retired professor's wage. On nobody's wage. I don't know anybody who can afford this, and they're getting more and more expensive. Journals, which used to be reasonable, you could subscribe these things for 15, 20 dollars a year, now it's way up there. Hundreds of dollars.

I keep records on this because I deduct it from my taxes, but I can't afford them anymore, much too expensive, especially, if you're someone like me who tries to work in several different fields at the same time. It's not just one or two journals. I have to keep up with about 30 or 40 journals. Nobody can afford this.

The only people who can are people who are current university professors, who have access to a first‑class library, and that's very few of us. It's too much money.

Number two, the articles are really long, and they've gotten longer. Someone once said, "When you ask someone the time, you don't want a history of the wristwatch." People have long, long introductions. Then, at the end, they want to give everyone advice on what they should do with their research. Ridiculous. Far too long, and far too incomprehensible. Full of jargon.

I wrote several paper on this called, "The Case Against Gibberish," just what goes on in the journals. They are written not to be read and understood. They're written to get published. With junior scholars, very often, it's their PhD dissertation.

Someone wrote me the other day. There's a new article on age differences. That was one of my major research interests, critical period, all that. The person sent me the link to the article. The article's about 40 pages long. For me to get it, I have to pay $40, US dollars. The dollars do not go to the authors, they go to the journal.

For me to read a 40‑page paper is a full day's work, and I must say I'm very good at reading. I have all the background knowledge. I've published lots of papers. I know the research very well. I've usually read already most of the citations. It takes forever to get through these things because they are so dense. They want to put in everything to show off. It's impossible. I've given up.

Ross:  It's long struck me as ironic in a profession that's really all about simplifying our language to the point where it can be understood by language learners, we do such a bad job of presenting useful information to teachers in a format which is easy to read.

Especially, when you consider that most of the teachers out there, English teachers anyway, are non‑native speakers of English. Why do you think that happens? Why is so much TEFL literature so difficult to read?

Stephen Krashen:  A lot of it has to do with impressing your colleagues, basically. Making it sound profound. One of the political writers in the States made a really good argument. He says, "When you take a simple idea, and you make it very complicated, you can hide. You can say the most outrageous things and feel good about yourself. No one's going to understand it, so you're OK."

Ross:  That reminds of Charles Bukowski. He said that, "An artist takes a complicated idea and makes it so simple, and an academic takes a simple idea and makes it complicated."

Stephen Krashen:  Charles Bukowski. What a guy! [laughs] Yes.


The Solution to the Teacher Researach Gap

Ross:  That's the problem with teachers not being able to get their hands on readable and affordable research. Do you want to tell us a bit about the solution?

Stephen Krashen:  I have been inspired by a couple of people. First of all, there's a guy named Tim Gowers. His specialty is algebraic geometry. He announced that he was no longer submitting papers to journals. He was no longer reviewing papers for journals. Just as I said, the journals are too expensive. Nobody can do it, and it's no longer worth it.

He started a petition. 17,000 scholars have signed it. Possibly every major mathematician has signed it, including my son who's a math professor. So proud of my boy. What has happened, because of Tim Gowers, is that libraries started cutting back. The mathematicians were not ordering the journals, didn't matter anymore. Now, Europe has a full‑blown campaign in favor of free, open access research.

The problem with it is that if you're a junior scholar and you want to get a job, or you're an assistant professor, you want to be promoted associate, the review committees typically, except in math, have no respect for open access.

This will only change if people like me, senior scholars who are not going to be reviewed anymore, and other people not worried about review, start doing it. Eventually, it will catch on.

My real inspiration for this, though, was The Grateful Dead rock group. The time The Grateful Dead were touring, there was a lot of concern about piracy, about kids coming out, recording the songs and sharing it with their friends. Resales of recordings started to drop, so they policed the concerts. You may not record this, against the law, blah blah blah...

The Grateful Dead turned it all around. They would start their concerts by saying, "You want to record us? Go ahead." They decided not to make money on recordings, but to make money on touring. It worked.

Of course, I haven't figured out how to make money yet, but at least I'm doing the first step. [laughs] I'm not going to do it through selling books, etc. Nobody can afford them, anyway. This is the revolution. My hope is that it will spread.

Ross:  Fantastic. Putting this on to practice then, where can teachers go to start finding research in literature online with teaching that's easy to read and, hopefully, free?

Stephen Krashen:  Here's what they should do. I'm going to push my stuff, of course, because that's the whole purpose. We're talking about my career. I give stuff away for free. All you have got to do is go to sdkrashen.com. SD Krashen operators are standing by. sdkrashen.com, that's my website. There's like 300 articles posted.

Please consider, ladies and gentlemen, following me on Twitter. My goal is to catch up to Justin Bieber in followers. This is probably going to take four centuries at the rate I'm going.

Twitter's great. What I use Twitter for is for short announcements, my papers, my colleague's papers, and how to link to them. Occasionally, some political comments, or some really good jokes, but please follow me on Twitter. I'm also on Facebook. Just Stephen Krashen on Facebook and several other categories. I used that for, again, bad jokes, but also to tell people what's new.

I think this is the future. Social media's wonderful for disseminating information. If you look at me and my stuff, you're going to find other scholars who publish free things. I have really exceptional colleagues in Korea, Kyung Sook Cho; in Japan, Beniko Mason; Taiwan, Sy‑Ying Lee; Willy Renandya now in Singapore.

All of us do this stuff. We post things, etc., then you find other people. They're short, and we hope they're easy to read. It's simple and it costs nothing.

Ross:  Great. Thank you very much again for coming on.

Stephen Krashen:  OK, Ross. Thanks.

Ross:  We'll see you next time, everyone. Bye‑bye.

Stephen Krashen:  Bye‑bye.