BTL: based on Linguistics not Psychology

During the last few months I have been discussing Breakthrough to Learning with Diane Houghton, my good friend and in the eighties my colleague in the Department for English for Overseas Students at the University of Birmingham. I have been struggling to explain to her the academic basis of my work.

Last week I think we made a breakthrough. She had been expecting me to relate my work to cognitive psychology. The text which I commented on in my last blog – on the changes to consciousness made by literacy – are examples of work in this field. This was going on in the eighties at the same time as Breakthrough to Learning was being devised and tested.

The problem with psychology is that it is all theoretical – the testing that is done is all indirect. This situation, according to the many books now explaining neuroscience to the layman, is changing. The new generation of machinery (particularly magnetic resonance scanners) means that the physical basis of psychological processes can be tracked in the brain. This will challenge the very basis of our understanding of the way human beings think and feel.

Breakthrough to Learning was based not on psychology but on Applied Linguistics. Its basis in the physical world is language, in particular the English language, which is well described by modern linguistics. The problem which it tackled was the failure of many secondary school pupils in this country to achieve academic success. Psychologists have made valuable contributions to this problem on an individual basis – in diagnosing and remedying dyslexia, for example. However, traditionally their approach is related to the discredited ideas of innate intelligence.

By treating the problem as a purely linguistic one, the whole matter became very simple: I analysed the academic texts which pupils struggled with on three linguistic levels – word, sentence and discourse structure. Their peculiar features were listed and then taught, using the well-tried metods of Applied Linguistics (TEFL). The result was a doubling of the percentage of pupils gaining five or more good GCSE’s in the comprehensive school where it was tested.

Why it failed to be widely adopted is the subject of my article Mind Your Language in this month’s issue of Creative Teaching and Learning by Imaginative Minds.

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