The word emergent often appears in a number of books, articles, and professional development materials in areas of early childhood development. In this research, the relevance of emergent lessons in English language classrooms is explored as a method of realizing communicative language teaching. Research in language acquisition is documented along with examples of current and historical trends in emergent language classrooms. The findings suggest that when ethical issues in cross-cultural, English language learning environments are coupled with research, the reasoning behind applications of emergent language pedagogy as a method becomes comprehensive and beneficial.
The Emergent Classroom and English Language Development
The emergent curriculum has long been a staple of many trends in early childhood education, but exactly how relevant are its ideas to English language development? In an era of globalization, the effects of language contact are becoming more evident as English itself is used as an additional means of communication. It is stated that current trends in English language teaching reflect a post-method era (Brown, 2002), but is it the case that methods are merely teachers’ own creations that need revision according to local contexts? Intelligibility is a key word in communicative language teaching, so the concept of language learning as constructivist could compliment a respect for culture and identity. For this reason, communicative language lessons might be better facilitated with a focus on constructive uses of language, while a communicative approach to teaching might be better realized through an emergent curriculum.
Key features and techniques in an emergent lesson might include: provocation, ongoing research through anecdotal documentation, reflective teaching, an embrace of serendipity, and a constructivist philosophy. Everyone and everything in a given environment, including children, teachers, and the physical space itself, are all involved in “co-constructing” the curriculum (Jones, 2012). An application of these ideas and concepts may be seen in schools inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. In these schools, young learners may choose a number of tasks that encourage creative thinking and interactions with their peers, such as painting a canvas as an entire class. In an activity such as this, the teacher would not pressure learners to conform to any idea of a specific outcome. Ideas and feelings tend to emerge from students themselves after they are provoked with a variety of models, examples and materials, or when they are simply inspired by their own curiosity at any given moment.
A similar approach to facilitating language learning has been theorized by linguists Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings in their book “Teaching Unplugged” (2009). To elaborate on Thornbury’s “A Dogma for EFL,” ten principles are outlined as a basis for communicative language classrooms (2000). In addition to language emergence, other principles most relevant to this research include: “interactivity, dialogic processes, and relevance” of materials according to local contexts. Thornbury states that his "Dogme of ELT" is a critical pedagogy, and he encourages teachers to be skeptical of materials from outside the local context, including most textbooks. This would follow a tradition handed down from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which posits that learners are already equipped with the knowledge to create, while the teacher avoids the “banking model” of dumping information on students as though they are “receptacles” (1970). In practice, Dogme might be closer to other historical figures’ work such as Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Her methods of teaching Maori children in New Zealand were always reflective, and she considered language and literacy to a much larger extent (as cited in Middleton, 2009).
It is stated that, after language emerges during Dogme style lessons, teachers should engage students with this material to reinforce learning (Sasidharan, 2014). Like Reggio Emilia, Dogme emphasizes documentation of emergent language or ideas in the moment of interaction, after a provocation. These anecdotal accounts provide for an immediate reflection of ongoing research, and the potential for reformulation. In Dogme, reformulation might entail using documented language from class interactions in order to facilitate short consciousness raising activities. Thornbury relates these activities to a term in ecology called “affordances”(2012). Affordance is a complex idea that categorizes relations between the environment and an organism that affords the chance to carry out an action. A teacher could consider affordances by facilitating casual, peer conversations about any reasonable topic. Afterward, the teacher might document or take note of a particular peer’s statement about these interactions. This statement would be reformulated using a mutually intelligible language, potentially involving small grammatical or lexical changes. At this point, the teacher could provoke or elicit creative uses of the language in short segments. The reformulated statement could be written on any locally available resource (be it a computer, whiteboard, chalkboard, brick wall or anything for that matter), making it visible to learners, and inductively highlighting any differences in linguistic features.
It’s important to note that, before any of these activities, the teacher’s role in providing input changes by ignoring typical PPP (presentation, practice, production) structures, and turning the class into one that promotes interaction from the very beginning. In this case, the only teacher input needed from the beginning is a linguistic provocation. Afterward, learners are free to interact about the topic or language in any way that is most comfortable to them in that moment.
Ideas pertaining to emergent (language) learning might be found as far back as Vygotsky’s theories of social constructivism:
For Vygotsky, give-and-take between child language learners and their interlocutors within a specific sociocultural environment forms the basis for the development of cognition, including memory, logic, will and concept formation.
(as cited in Thomas, 2013).
Of course, this pertains to acquisition of first languages, and educational concepts that consider a broader range of influence in human development. These ideas should not be forgotten in second language learning due to the complimentary effects of normal human experiences in meaningful learning environments. Some examples of this dynamic may be found in classrooms using content based approaches, or carried out within immersion programs.
Michael Long’s interaction hypothesis in second language acquisition is very similar to Vygotsky’s social constructivism (1996). In Long’s view, negotiation of meaning and the linguistic environment are important in the process of second language acquisition. It may also be assumed that this type of peer interaction, involving the use of checks such as comprehension and clarification, brings learners closer to a particular intercultural understanding as new ideas emerge alongside the language that may be used to express them. Though, from a language emergence point of view, acquisition is not the primary concern of the teacher, nor is a focus on providing copious amounts of input. The teacher and students learn from one another, as well as the ongoing dynamic. Thus, a continuous engagement with educational stimuli reminds learnersof the uses of language and its complimentary ideas. Cognitive psychologists refer to this sort of mental processing in terms of “working memory,” in which “activation and maintenance” of information is considered (Barrouillet & Camos, 2007). With that in mind, a teacher might assume a method that reflects the reciprocity of learning in that moment and place.
Additionally, there are linguists whose primary theoretical focus is language acquisition with an emergentist bent. Emergentism suggests that language complexity should be seen from the perspective of non-linguistic interactions, while its theories are broken into two camps: one which centers around the implications of language input, and another “processor based approach” that considers the limitations of working memory (O’Grady, William, Lee & Hye-Young, 2009). These theories are compatible with emergent language pedagogy, and they provide solid reasoning for the potential effectiveness of teaching strategies such as those found in Dogme.
Materials Development in Emergent Language Classrooms
Meddling and Thornbury’s Dogme is often criticized for being anti-technology and anti-course book. However, much of the “materials light” suggestions in Dogme come from a socio-political perspective that is described as more “pro-poor” than anti-technology (Ghazal & Singh, 2014). Also, it’s intended to be compatible with classrooms in large sections of the world that lack access to technology and resources, such as course books that are often out of the price range of so many of the most motivated learners.
Even in learning environments where resources and technology are plentiful, it may prove useful in bringing an element of humanity back to the classroom. After all, human interaction is arguably the most important reason for learning English language. Furthermore, many of the same principles may be applied to effectively draw out emerging language while using technology and without being too idealistic about the reasons for doing so. Besides, aversions to course books and technology aren’t prerequisites for realizing one’s own method of language facilitation, nor is every principle of Dogme an essential component in facilitating emergent language.
Methods of emergent language pedagogy problematize conceptualizations of authentic materials by supposing the question: To whom is a material authentic? When an ‘authentic’ material from one culture is used in another, then that material may stand a chance of having a very inauthentic and unfamiliar feel. For example, recordings, newspapers and realia from a teacher’s community could be perceived as so foreign as to be strictly pedagogical in the local context. The language may suppress interaction by forcing learners to commit to phonetic and phonological analyses of received pronunciation. By the same token, pragmatic checks may be limited to analyzing expressions that are based on conventions of native speaking communities. The most authenticity in language comes out of its meaningful and constructive use. So, familiar ideas in local settings that are expressed through emergent language could be seen as the most authentic materials. This isn’t to say that emergent language may not be facilitated with pedagogical materials. Depending on various reasons for learner motivation, pedagogical materials may prove beneficial. For example, an interest in foreign culture, or international business involving intercultural dialogue may demand the use of pedagogical materials in an emergent environment.
The Case for ELD Through Emergent Methodology
A strong case for emergent methodology in language classrooms is made by coupling research in language acquisition with the ethical implications of communicative language teaching. Practical utility of language use, a respect for identity and culture, and a solid pedagogical framework could be found in many emergent language classrooms. English language development, intercultural exchange, and creative expression are only a few benefits that should arise from the affordances in each classroom application. Finally, for emergent methods to set the stage for a model of global communication, English language teachers should be aware of the extent to which trust is the key to facilitation.
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Sasidharan, P. R. (2014). DOGME ELT: A method for enhancing conversational communication among engineering students. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Jerusalem College of Engineering. Chennai, India.
Thomas, M. (2013). History of the study of second language acquisition. The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Herschensohn, J. & Young-Scholten, M. (Ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Thornbury, S. (2012). A is for affordance. An A-Z of ELT: Scott Thornbury’s Blog. Taken from https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/a-is-for-affordance/.
Thornbury, S. (2000). A dogma for EFL: Scott Thornbury takes a vow of chastity. IATEFL. 153. International House. Barcelona, Spain. Taken from http://www.scottthornbury.com/articles.html.