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ESL MiniConference Online!

Achievement Profile: Bill VanPatten
Bridging the Gap Between ESL and Foreign Language Teaching

Bill VanPatten is Director of the Spanish Basic Language Program and Professor of Spanish and Second Language Acquisition at the University of Illinois - Chicago. ESL MiniConference Online is proud to share Dr. VanPatten's comments from a recent interview.

Some Bill VanPatten links:

Bill VanPatten's home page
Assorted Bill VanPatten texts on
From Input to Output: A Teacher's Guide to Second Language Acquisition Theory (2003)
Perceptions of and Perspectives on the Term "Communicative" (1998)
Explanation versus Structured Input in Processing Instruction (1996)
Cognitive Aspects of Input Processing in Second-Language Acquisition - Festschrift in Honor of Tracy D. Terrell (1995)
Grammar Teaching for the Acquisition-Rich Classroom (1993)
Can Learners Attend to Form and Content while Processing Input? (1989)
How Juries Get Hung: Problems with the Evidence for a Focus on Form in Teaching (1988)
On Babies and Bathwater: Input in Foreign Language Learning (1987)
The Acquisition of "ser" and "estar" by Adult Learners of Spanish: A Preliminary Investigation of Transitional Stages of Competence (1985)
Communicative Values and Information Processing in L2 Acquisition (1984)

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Bill VanPatten:

Bill VanPatten

What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

Well, ESL per se I have not been working in for some time. My perspective on language teaching is that we have erected artificial barriers such that ESL teaching and FL teaching in the U.S., for example, are considered to be separate entities. Yet, everything we know about SLA clearly suggests that the two teaching endeavors have much more in common than our professional organizations would have the teachers believe.

As for my current efforts, I moved to Chicago two years ago, having given up the corn-fields of Urbana. I am directing the Spanish language program and working with my great colleagues in ESL and SLA to get some interdisciplinary graduate programs up and running. As many people know, I work in SLA theory and research, especially issues related to focus on form and what is now called "processing instruction." I've also just finished a book that will come out this fall titled From Input to Output: A Teacher's Guide to Second Language Acquisition Theory (McGraw-Hill). I hope to put it in the hands of as many teachers as possible.

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

I got started in ESL and language teaching in general when I was a foreign language teacher of Spanish as a graduate student. One year into my career in the M.A. and Ph.D. programs, I also started teaching ESL. In both areas I thought what I saw were some questionable if not ridiculous practices based on some rather outdated assumptions. And then one day I read an article by S. Pit Corder titled "The Significance of Learners' Errors" (published in 1967, but I was reading it almost ten years later). He made a very persuasive case about the relationship between learning and teaching and concluded with the following statement:

"We may be able to allow the learner's innate strategies to dictate our practice and determine our syllabus; we may learn to adapt ourselves to his needs rather than impose upon him our preconceptions of how he ought to learn, what he ought to learn and when he ought to learn it."

So, I switched my emphasis in graduate studies and began focusing on linguistics, psycholinguistics, and language acquisition to build up a background that would help me research the questions I had in my mind about language teaching. What Corder said has been the focus of my career since.

What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a language learner yourself? What insights have you gained in how to meet the needs of English learners from these cultures and language backgrounds?

I grew up bilingual and bicultural with Spanish and English in California. Most people don't know this but I am one-half Mexican. (My mother's parents fled Mexico in 1912 during the Revolution.) But I lived in Spain for a while, some in France and I taught one summer in Quebec. I have also worked in Argentina, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. My ESL experience as a teacher put me into close contact with Saudis and Moroccans as well as a good deal of Japanese students for whom I was in charge of pronunciation courses. Because of a new film project I am working on, I am researching and learning about the Mapuche Indians of Chile.

I'm probably not the best person to ask about meeting the needs of English learners from other cultures because it has been a while since I have been working ESL itself. There is one maxim that is useful, I think, in most teaching situations: if you're going into unfamiliar territory, do some fact-finding before you jump into anything.

If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be?

Wow, tough question. But I think I would say the following. First, understand SLA as much as you can so that you can understand that classroom language learners are like any other kind of second language learners. It is important for the teacher to understand that which he or she can affect and that which is beyond the control of instructional efforts.

Second, understand the curriculum and the program as much as possible when you teach. Don't act like an independent agent but someone who is part of a bigger picture.

Third, in spite of my second piece of advice, question what the veterans in your program say about learning and teaching. Opinions are a dime a dozen as are personal stories. Read on your own. Reflect on every practice and every pronouncement and make informed teaching decisions.

What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?

Aside from the ever continuing political issues that plague our planet, I think the nature of teacher preparation is an important issue. I think the profession needs to consider its TESL programs and the common unstated assumptions they share. I sometimes wonder if the programs do what they think they are doing and just what teachers actually learn how to do. One concern I have is that teachers just don't understand acquisition processes enough to make informed decisions about materials and instructional efforts. In spite of what some people say, we know a lot more than we did 30 years ago and yet this information has hardly trickled down to instructional efforts. (I recommend the book Beyond Methods: Components of Second Language Teacher Education, edited by Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig and Beverly Hartford. McGraw-Hill)

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

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