This blog is dedicated to criticism. It offers

  1. Critical suggestions and resources for those doing post graduate courses in teaching English as a foreign language.
  2. A critical appraisal of what’s happening in the world of English Language Teaching.

The commercialisation of the ELT industry (estimated to be worth more than $20 billion) and the corresponding weakening of genuinely educational concerns, means that today most teachers are forced to teach in a way that shows scant regard for their worth, their training, their opinions, their job satisfaction, or the use of appropriate methods and materials. The biggest single reason for this sorry state of affairs, and the biggest single obstacle to good ELT, is the coursebook.

Using a coursebook entails teachers leading students through successive units of a book. Each unit of the book concentrates on a certain topic where isolated bits of grammar and vocabulary are dealt with, on the assumption that students will learn them in the order that they’re presented. Such an approach to ELT flies in the face of research which suggest that SLA is a process whereby the learner’s interlanguage (a dynamic, idiosyncratic, evolving linguistic system approximating to the target language) develops as a result of communicating in the target language, and is impervious to attempts to impose the sequences found in coursebooks.

The publishing companies that produce coursebooks spend enormous sums of money on marketing, aimed at persuading stakeholders that coursebooks represent the best practical way to manage ELT. As an example, key  players in the British ELT establishment, the British Council, the Cambridge Examination Boards, the Cambridge CELTA and DELTA teacher training bodies among them, accept the coursebook as central to ELT practice. Worse still, TESOL and IATEFL, bodies that are supposed to represent teachers’ interests, have also succumbed to the influence of the big publishers, as their annual conferences make clear. So the coursebook rules, at the expense of teachers, of good educational practice, and of language learners.

By critically assessing the published views of those in the ELT establishment who promote coursebook-driven ELT, this blog hopes to lend support to those who fight for a less commercial, less centralised, more egalitarian, more learner-centred approach to ELT.

Let’s slay the Cousebook


He took his vorpal sword in hand;

      Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

      And stood awhile in thought.

(Lewis Carroll: The Jabberwocky)

There is a maxmome foe stalking the ELT hinterland: an ELT Jabberwock; and it needs a vorpal sword to off its head and leave it dead. It is, of course, the dreaded coursebook.

The Jabberwock of ELT, the cousebook, is a lumbering, huge, oppressive, mind-numbing, life-sucking monster.

The ELT Jabberwock certainly burbles, but it doesn’t have eyes of flame; rather, its eyes are horribly hooded; they’re myopic, void of sparkle, mean, narrow, blighted and unblinking.

The ELT Jaberwock is a huge beast. Its huge hulky bulk strides through the world of ELT carelessly flattening dissent as it plods its steady, purposeful way on towards its food supply – the bank.

The ELT Jabberwock’s brain is the size of a pea. It lacks any trace of critical acumen, it stomps mindlessly on, through the ELT hinterland, carelessly ignoring reasoned criticism.

The ELT Jabberwock’s habitat is big cities. London, Oxford, Cambridge, New York, Boston, Chicago, Amsterdam, Sydney, Hong Kong, Bejing. Here are the centres where decisions about the different facets of the multi billion enterprise of ELT (publishing, testing, acrediting, ELT training, even representation of teachers’ interests) are made.

The ELT Jabberwock sits slimy and slothful at a table meant to be shared by all, slobbering over duck’s livers, lark’s tongues and other people’s dreams. It sleeps under duvets stuffed with the duck’s feathers, serenaded by the lark’s song, oblivious to the dreams it daily destroys. It lives in luxury. It luxuriates in an atmosphere of smug self satisfaction. It wallows, stuffed to bursting, smothered in excess, in its protected lairs.

The ELT Jabberwock stinks. It gives off an offensive smell of decay, complacency and corruption. It does dirty deals in China, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, Hungary,South Korea, Mexico, Canada, and Kazakstan, for example, ensuring the use of a particular coursebook through wining and dining, favours and bribes.

The ELT Jabberwock takes possession of its owner’s home, like some huge, now unmoveable, untrained, out of control domestic pet, naively brought in by a gullible, well-intentioned family, to brighten things up.

The ELT Jabberwock is reluctant to move, It sits there, defiant, unlistening, too big to be challenged, suffocating development towards a more liberal, a more humanistic, a more shared way of doing things.

The ELT Jabberwock snarls at any attempt to challenge it. It insists, through silence and bad tempered grunts, that things be done its way.

The ELT Jabberwock  insists that each unit of its cousebooks should daftly test what’s been learned. The content of each dead, pre-dissected corpse of language contained in each awful unit should be tested, as if its rarified content could be learned without respect for the learners’ non-linear development of their interlanguage. And each external test of proficiency, run by the Cambridge Examination Board, or by the truly awful Pearson wing, or by anybody else, should fall in with the fatally flawed Jabberwocky agenda.

The ELT Jabberwock presides, like a flatulent, overweight, dying old beast, over teacher education. It breathes its noxious fumes into CELTA and DELTA courses, encouraging students to use couesebooks and to believe the crap peddled by coursebook writers. It bankrolls the IATEFL and TESOL conventions; it promotes the superstar agenda that typifies these conventions, and it does everything it can to stifle objections to its rotten view of ELT.

I’m tempted to re-name this blog “The Tumtum tree”, a place to rest by, there to indulge in uffish thought, but it’s a tad too contemplative. We need to slay the Jabberwock.

And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

Why PPP makes no sense at all. A reply to Anderson




I made a comment on Jason Anderson’s Blog in reply to his post The PPP Saga Ends  It hasn’t appeared, so here’s an amended version.

Hi Jason,

An interesting journey, and it makes good reading. You make an impressive attempt to defend the indefensible, and there are lots of good references, even if you play fast and loose with what your sources actually say.

To the issues, then.

First, let’s establish what we know about the SLA process after 50 years of SLA research. Students do not learn target forms and structures when and how a teacher decrees that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Studies in interlanguage development have shown conclusively that L2 learners exhibit common patterns and features across differences in learners’ age and L1, acquisition context, and instructional approach. Independent of those and other factors, learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to mastery of target-language structures, or, as is often the case, to an end-state short of mastery.

Acquisition of grammatical structures (and also of pronunciation features and some lexical features such as collocation), is typically gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, the product broadly conforming to developmental sequences observed in naturalistic settings. They master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both.

That’s what we know. As a result this statement is plain wrong:

while research studies conducted between the 1970s and the 1990s cast significant doubt on the validity of more explicit, Focus on Forms-type instruction such as PPP, more recent evidence paints a significantly different picture.

It does not. No study conducted in the last 20 years has come up with evidence to challenge the established claim that explicit focus on forms such as PPP can do nothing to alter the route of interlanguage development. As Ortega (2009), in her summary of SLA findings states

Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.

Teaching is constrained by the learners’ own powerful cognitive contribution, and to assume that learners will learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it using a PPP paradigm is false.

These statements are also false:

  • we have no evidence that PPP is less effective than other approaches
  • writers in academia have neither evidence nor theoretical justification for criticising coursebook writers 
  • The research on which writers such as Michael Long have based their promotion of focus on form is scant

But let’s get to the heart of the matter, which is really quite simple. You base your arguments on a non-sequitur  that appears throughout your paper. It’s this:

There is evidence to support explicit (grammar) instruction, therefore there is evidence to support the “PPP paradigm”.

It’s generally accepted, a non-controversial opinion, that explicit instruction has an important role to play in classroom-based SLA, but it doesn’t follow that PPP is a good approach to classroom based ELT.  PPP runs counter to a mass of SLA research findings, and that’s that. There is nothing, I repeat nothing, in “recent evidence from research studies” that supports PPP as an approach to classroom teaching.  You appeal to evidence for the effectiveness of explicit grammar teaching to support the argument that students will learn what they’re taught in class by a teacher implementing a synthetic syllabus, based on the presentation, practice and production of a sequence of chopped up bits of the language, thus making a schoolboy error in logic.

The rest of your paper says absolutely nothing to rescue a PPP approach from the fundamental criticism that students don’t learn an L2 in the way it assumes they do. The paper consists of a series of non-sequiturs and unsupported assertions which attempt to argue that the way the majority of institutions go about ELT is necessarily the best way.

To say that the PPP approach is popular with students and that coursebooks are consumer-driven, and that PPP is attractive to low income countries, and that this is evidence to support a “PPP paradigm” is patently ridiculous. The remarks about low income countries are also patronising and arrogant. You make a naive appeal to an “apples and pears” group of factors that need to be carefully examined and distinguished. I won’t go into any proper analysis now, but, just for example, the multi billion dollar ELT coursebook industry is not so much driven by the opinions of the end users, as by the language teaching institutions, both public and private, that deliver foreign language courses to them. For these institutions, the coursebook is convenient – it packages the otherwise “messy” thing that is language learning.  Which is not to say that it wouldn’t be cheaper, better, more efficient, and more rewarding for everybody if the coursebook were abandoned in favour of locally-produced materials used in a more learner centred approach.

Likewise, to say in reply to Neill that

the notion of ‘linear progress’ is a reflection of a much wider tendency in curricula and syllabi design. Given that the vast majority of English language teaching in the world today is happening in state-sponsored primary and secondary education, where national curricula perform precisely this role, we can predict to a large extent that top down approaches to language instruction are going to dominate for the foreseeable future

is to give absolutely no justification for such top down approaches to language instruction. Yes, as a matter of fact, they dominate ELT today, but that’s no argument in their favour, now is it?

You fail to address the arguments for a learner-centred approach, or any version of the process syllabus suggested by Breen. Those of us who oppose PPP do so not only because it contradicts what we know about SLA, but also because it adopts a pedagogy where students are given no say in the decisions that affect their learning, where the commodification of education goes unchallenged, and where Friere’s “banking” view of education rules. To oppose the way ELT is currently organised is not unrealistic, any more than opposing the privatisation of education in the UK is; but it is difficult. Whatever ones’ views, the kind of faux academic baloney present in your paper really doesn’t help.

Finally, your long quote from Ur in reply to Neill is just one more example of argument by assertion. She’s good at this kind of stuff, and I’m not surprised that you like it, but it’s pure rhetoric. She says “such features as students’ socio-cultural background, relationships, personalities; motivation;” etc., etc,  “often actually have more influence on how grammar is taught, and whether it is successfully learnt, than any of those dealt with in research”. This ignores all the research that has been done into those features, and provides no evidence or arguments to challenge SLA research findings with regard to the development of interlanguages.


Ortega (2009) “Sequences and processes in language learning”. In Long and Doughty (2009) Handbook of Language Teaching. Wiley

MA students question Coursebooks


September is “marking month” for those of us involved in MAs in TEFL and Applied Linguistics courses, and this batch of marking has been interesting because, for the first time, I’ve been asked to mark papers that address the subject of coursebooks. I’d love to think that I had something to do with this welcome new development, but, alas, I can’t take any credit for it. No, the credit has to go mostly to Scott Thornbury, who alone in his own steady stream of well-argued publications, and together with Luke Meddings in their joint works on Dogme, has managed to publicise this “elephant in the room”, this supremely important matter in the ELT world – the domination of the coursebook, to such an extent that it’s now being widely discussed not just in teachers’s rooms and at conferences, but also in academic departments such as the one I work in at Leicester University. Thornbury is the most cited name in the references of the papers I’ve read, even ahead of Tomlinson.


The Tide Turns

I think we may actually be witnessing a change of the tide here. Scott has often said that he’s pessimistic about the chances of throwing off the shackles of the coursebook (my words, of course, not his), but I reckon that the widespread revolt against the hegemony of the coursebook is gathering splendid momentum. It might be fanciful to link this growing disenchantment with the coursebook to what we’re seeing in the political sphere, but I’d like to think that the way citizens in so many so-called democracies are currently revolting against the choices they’re offered shares something in common with the revolt among teachers against the choices they’re offered.  It’s a revolt against the ELT establishment, and its symbolic figurehead, the coursebook.



When I read the papers on coursebooks submitted by our MA students, what was so invigorating was that, in place of the hopeless homilies of Harmer, the plodding platitudes of Prodromou, the superior sneerings of Scrivener, the dour drudgery of Dellar, the bilious boredom of Billocks (Is this right? Ed.), the papers argued their case coherently. They cited sources for their opinions, they debated the issues carefully, and they unanimously concluded, as Scott does, that coursebooks are a stifling influence on teaching.

The MA papers I’ve read recently have reminded me of how far back the challenge to coursebooks goes – back further than when, in the late 1980s, modern coursebooks took over as the core syllabus for most ELT around the world.

  • Breen and Candlin (1980), were earlier protesters;
  • Breen (1987) gave his criticism of product syllabuses;
  • Allwright (1981) claimed that the course of second language learning is too complex to be packaged neatly into the pages of a coursebook.
  • Littlejohn (1992) argued that language learning through coursebooks is achieved mainly through “reproductive’ tasks which require learners to reproduce, often identically, the content they are presented with”.  He suggested that this degree of scripting in the materials places teacher and learner in a subordinate position to the materials writer.
  • Fox (1998) made similar objections. (Just BTW, his study found that children in South Korea were taught “like/don’t like” using food, and that the “extension”, where they were asked if they liked their classmates left them horrified. Not a good argument against modern coursebooks, you might rightly say.)
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More Recent Stuff

On to the 21st century, then.

  • Thornbury and Meddings (2001) argue that so-called communicative tasks in coursebooks merely simulate genuine communication rather than stimulating conversation and enabling learners to communicate their own meanings and intentions.
  • Crawford’s (2002 ) anti-coursebook view describe them as a ‘debilitating crutch’, that de-skills teachers and stifles their ability to be creative and innovative, which in turn reduces their capacity to respond to learner needs effectively.
  • McGrath (2002) highlights the ideological bias of coursebooks, noting that “ideology, like culture, can be built into materials by design”.

And on and on it goes, through the excellent criticisms found in Tomlinson (1998; 2001; 2003; 2010; 2013); Gray  (2002; 2010; 2013); Thornbury (too many to mention, but see 2013 in Gray); till we reach Long’s (2015) careful dissection of the cousebook, which I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog.



We might take a moment to look at McGrath (2013) who looks at how coursebooks can be adapted. He states that adaptation is a ‘necessary and natural’ part of using a coursebook and is achieved through “evaluative-creative decisions that lead to three processes: omission, addition, and change”. This is surely the crux of the argument used by those who defend the coursebook: “It’s not the coursebook, it’s how you use it!” is the mantra. But what does this actually mean? It means, in my opinion, and pace McGrath, that teachers actually teach despite the coursebook, not with it.  One study that I read last week in an MA dissertation showed that the participants used less than 30% of the coursebook’s contents (omission); spent most of their time finding or creating other material (addition); and changed the order of the units of the book (change).  Isn’t this patently absurd?  Isn’t it obviously better to throw the damn coursebook out the window and devote your energy elsewhere?



My arguments against the coursebook chime with Scott’s and many others. We in the anti coursebook camp are against the use of coursebooks because we have a radically different view of what ELT should be. We see coursebooks as an obstacle to be overcome. They represent the commodification of education, they suffocate good teaching practice, and they stand in the way of progress towards a more local, a more humanistic, a more efficient way of helping our students towards their goals.



Breen, M., & Candlin, C. N. (1980). The essentials of a communicative curriculum in language teaching. Applied Linguistics, 1(2), 89-112.

Crawford, J. (2002) ‘The role of materials in the language classroom: finding the balance’, in Richards, J.C. and Renandya, W.A. (eds.) Methodology in language teaching. Cambridge: CUP, pp. 80-91.

Fox, G. (1998) ‘Using corpus data in the classroom’, in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 25-43.

Gray, J. (2002) ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’, in Block, D. and Cameron, D. (eds.) Globalization and language teaching. London: Routledge, pp. 151-167.

Gray, J. (ed.) (2013) Critical perspectives on language teaching materials. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gray, J. (2010) The Construction of English: Culture, Consumerism and Promotion in the ELT Global Coursebook. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Littlejohn, A. (1992) Why are ELT materials the way they are? Phd. Lancaster University.

McGrath, I. (2002) Materials evaluation and design for language teaching. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

McGrath, I. (2013) Teaching Materials and the Roles of EFL/ESL Teachers. Bloomsbury Academic.

Rixon, S. (1999) ‘Where do the words in EYL textbooks come from?’, in Rixon, S. (ed.) Young learners of English : some research perspectives. Harlow: Longman, pp. 55-71.

Thornbury, S. (2013) ‘Resisting coursebooks’, in Gray, J. (ed.) Critical perspectives on language teaching materials. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 204-223.

Thornbury, S. and Meddings, L.(2001) ‘The roaring in the chimney (Or: what coursebooks are good for)’, Humanising Language Teaching, 3(5), pp. 22/08/2016.

Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (2013) Applied linguistics and materials development. New York; London: Bloomsbury.

Tomlinson, B. (2010) ‘What do teachers think about EFL coursebooks?’, Modern English teacher., 19(4), pp. 5-9.

Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (2003) Developing Materials for Language Teaching. New York; London: Bloomsbury.

Tomlinson, B. (2001) ‘Materials development’, in Carter, R. and Nunan, D. (eds.) The Cambridge guide to teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 66-71.

Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (1998) Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tomlinson, B. and Masuhara, H. (eds.) (2010) Research for materials development in language learning: evidence for best practice. New York; London: Continuum.

Tomlinson, B. (2012) ‘Materials development for language learning and teaching’, Language Teaching; Lang.Teach., 45(2), pp. 143-179.

Bendy Bedrock, Part 2


The post on Scientific American’s article on Chomsky has prompted some suggestions for further reading. Here’s a summary.


Kevin Gregg recommends Evans, N. & Levinson, S.C. (2009) The myth of language universals: language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral & Brain Sciences 32:429-492.

The main article makes an argument that I don’t think stacks up (more importantly, neither does Gregg) but it’s well presented and it’s followed by “Open Peer Commentary”, where a very wide selection of scholars , including Baker, Bevett, Christiansen and Chater, Croft, Adele Golberg, Habour, Nevins, and Pinker & Jakendoff respond.  Very highly recommended.


Scott Thornbury confesses that his enthusiasm for Everett’s awful book has dwindled. (See here for the post on his A to Z blog where he cites Everett. A lively discussion followed.)   He now recommends Christiansen and Chater (2016) Creating Language: Integrating Evolution, Acquisition and Processing. MIT. A review on the Phys.org  website   says:

Because children learn language quickly and easily, many theorists have believed this means there are specialized brain mechanisms specific to language acquisition. This has led them to ask how the brain has changed to accommodate language. Christiansen and Chater flip the question around, asking, “Why is language so well suited to being learned by the brain?” Taking a cultural evolution approach, they conclude language is easy for us to learn and use because language, like a living organism, has evolved in a symbiotic relationship with humans. Language has adapted to what our brains can do, rather than the other way around.

“We view language as piggy-backing on older pre-linguistic abilities,” Christiansen says. “Results from my lab indicate that there’s likely to be some biological differences in how people are able to process sequences of information and ‘chunk’ that information together into larger units. These differences interact with variation in linguistic experience and give rise to individual differences in language processing. The importance of experience is further underscored by the many studies showing that there’s a strong correlation between the number and variety of words that children hear and their language abilities. It can make a huge difference.”


Phil Chappel points us to a web site called The Conversation where a mum with a Ph.D. begs to differ with Chomsky’s UG theory, based partly on her experiences with her baby. She cites Vivian Evan’s book The Lnguage Myth (which is almost as bad as Everett’s), goes on to cite  “the growing body of research on infant and mother communication” and then claims that “babies need joyful, responsive human company”.  The article illustrates the danger of not appreciating  the strictly-defined domain of Chomsky’s theory, namely language competence. That babies need human company is a fine example of a motherhood statement, but it has nothing to do with the POS argument or UG theory.

More seriousy, Phil Chappell recommends Lee, N., Mikesell, L., Joaquin, A. D. L., Mates, A. W., & Schumann, J. H. (2009). The interactional instinct: The evolution and acquisition of language. Oxford University Press.  You can download a pdf file of Lee & Schmann’s presentation of the book at this web site. They say:

In this presentation, we outline a perspective on language acquisition based on evolutionary biology and neurobiology. We argue that language is a cultural artifact that emerges as a complex adaptive system from the verbal interaction among humans. We see the ubiquity of language acquisition among children generation after generation as the product of an interactional instinct that, as Tomasello indicates, is based on an innate drive communicate with and become like conspecifics.

The “cultural artifact” line is common to thise working on emergentist models. Note the reference to Tomasello who figures in so much of the lit. these days, including the book Scott mentions.


Ms. Westerlund invites “those with an open mind and more importantly, critical mind” (sic) to read an article by Tom Wolfe about Darwin and Chomsky (which is partly aimed at promoting his new book on Chomsky) in Harper’s magazine.

I don’t know whether Ms. Westerlund is implying that only those who possess an open critical mind will apreciate Wolfe’s argument, or that only they will recognise it for the blustering tosh that it is. I personallly think that just about anybody will quickly conclude that Wolfe has no idea what he’s talking about. What’s intersting is that Wolfe relies on the aforementioned Daniel Everett, he of the Pirahã study, to argue the case against Chomsky for him. Wolfe likes Everett becuase he’s a real macho man, a man who poses for the front jacket of his book up to his neck in water in a dangerous river while a Pirahã fisherman sits safely in his boat. Unlike the nasty, arrogant, desk-bound cissy Noam Chomsky, Daniel is a proper linguist who thinks fieldwork is essential, and “winds up in primitive places, emerging from the tall grass zipping his pants up”.


But, according to Wolfe, Everett is not just a proper macho man, he’s a brilliant academic. Everett’s fieldwork, Wolfe assures us, revealed that the Pirahã language lacked recursion, thus refuting Chomsky’s claims for the universality of his UG. Of course, Everett’s work did no such thing. Lots of linguists have since replied to Everett’s claim, pointing out that the Pirahã language indeed had recursion (e.g., “I want the same hammock you just showed me”) and that “recursion” is not that central to Chomsky’s theory anyway.


Robert Taylor offers “some interesting research about sounds for common ideas being the same across languages (roughly 2/3rds)” The link takes you to an article about the study, not the study itself, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and is written by Morten H. Christiansen – Scott’s man turns up yet again!  Christiansen and colleagues argue that basic concepts, like body parts and familial relationships, and the sounds that people around the world turn to in describing them have a robust statistical relationship.


Finally, let me recommend an article from one of favorite web sites, the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy. The article, Innateness and Language gives an interesting discussion of some of the arguments for and against Chomsky’s theory,

Two Plenaries at the Chile IATEFL Conference, July 2016


I’ve just been watching YouTube videos of the IATEFL Chile Conference that took place in July. I recommend that you watch them, because they demonstrate just how much we need new organisations to represent  teachers. The conference plenaries show the same old faces trotting out the same old stuff, and there’s absolutely nothing here to make your heart sing, or, more mundanely, to make you think that the raft of real teachers’ concerns are being addressed . Did anybody mention the miserable pay that millions of teachers get, or zero hour contracts without pension rights, or appalling conditions of work? Did anybody question how teacher qualifications are decided on, or how professional development is organised? Was there any mention of teachers’ feeling of worth?  Did anybody question the IATEFL statutes? Well of course not, because that’s not what the carefully chosen plenary speakers are here to do.

What we see in these videos is a show, a promotion of the stars of ELT who are supposed to enrich the lives of teachers in much the same way as going to see any other celebrity “live” is supposed to do. It’s a travesty of what a conference of working teachers should be. It’s proof, as if proof were needed, of the commercialisation of ELT.


Scott Thornbury gave two talks that he’d done before.  His review of the history of ELT was a repeat of the plenary he gave just a few months previously at the IATEFL international conference, and his talk on his attempts to improve his Spanish was a version of what he’d already said years before. Like so many of the army of professional speakers who tour the world, Scott is almost expected to trot out the same old stuff time and time again. Like Elton John singing Candle in the wind, or Tony Blair chanting I’d do it all again, the audience doesn’t even expect to hear anything new; they just want to be in the audience where the celebrity entertains them. How long before Scott has to autograph the IATEFL programme pushed towards him by admiring fans as he leaves the stage?


Now guess who else gave a plenary in Chile. Guess who the organisers thought was worth flying 9,000 kilometres to address their teachers. Why, who else than that rightly revered, roundly respected, super scholar Jeremy Harmer! And once again Harmer demonstrated his uncanny ability to insult his audience’s intelligence without being booed off the stage. This time, Harmer chose to defend the coursebook, in a plenary titled Back between the covers: should coursebooks exist in a modern age.  Please, before you do anything else, watch it by clicking on this link.

What did you make of that hour long talk? Maybe you can use it in some teacher training programme. Get everybody comfortably seated, play the video, and use this worksheet.


  • How many times does he lose the thread?
  • As a sub-set, how many times does he confess that he can’t remember what he’s talking about?
  • How many times does he contradict himself?
  • How many times (to the nearest 100) does he not bother (sic) to finish a sentence?
  •  How many times does he not answer his own questions?
  • Is he bothered?


  • Give 5 examples of where he resorts to what he really, really sincerely believes rather than to what might pass for a reasoned argument.
  • Give 5 examples of how he misreprent the arguments he doesn’t like.
  • Give 5 examples of where he shows an ignorance of emergentism and interlanguage research.


  • How does Harmer come accross?
  • How does he treat his audience?


  • Give 1 example of something he said that you didn’t aleady know.
  • Summarise his argument for why coursebooks are useful.
  • Suggest what a plenary talk about the place of ELT coursebooks should discuss.

Now let me give my own view of the plenary. Harmer doesn’t inform or debate about the important issues involved, he blusters. From a discourse point of view, he looks to me like a confused, ill-prepared clown hired to appear at a 2 year old kid’s birthday party. Talk about impoverished input!  Nevertheless, observe his general stage manner.  It’s a display of authority: he knows he’s a powerful figure in ELT and he acts like it.

As to content, what did he say? Take away the endless pile of platitudes, ignore the sporadic Oh and by the way remarks, leave out the cascade of careless clichés and the endless homilies; in short, do away with the “noise” that always surrounds Harmer’s discourse as he stumbles around the stage like someone who can’t quite remember what he’s so urgently looking for, and what have you got? What do we get from all this pumped up but ultimately lifeless torrent of confident, disorganised clatter and chatter? What does it all mean? What does Harmer’s defence of coursebooks amount to?  Predictably, it amounts to almost nothing. He gave an absurd summary of the arguments against them and then took the audience through some exercises to show that talking about music can be fun. From this he concluded with a trite re-hash of the old chestnut that it’s not the coursebook, it’s what you do with it.

“Two plenaries do not a conference make”, you may say. Quite right, and for all I know, great things might have gone on at the conference. But the plenaries do, I suggest, say a lot about IATEFL conferences.

As an alternative to the way IATEFL organises its conferences, I recommend that you look at the way ELTjam and Oxford TEFL organised their two Innovate ELT annual conferences in Barcelona. No plenaries; no good rooms, bad rooms; no grace and favour crap; nobody get’s paid for presenting. There’s a focus on issues that affect teachers’ lives; a genuine attempt to involve every single person who attends the conference, with no special attention to well-known names; an innovative mix of presentation formats; a marvellous range of social activities. I can honestly say that I’ve never attended any conferences with better content, and nothing, but nothing, compares to the wonderful cooperative, friendly, uplifting atmosphere that they managed to create. Of course there are ways that this great initiative can be improved, but the Innovate ELT conference shows the way forward, and it shows that there’s hope for those of us who want change.

Shifting sands and bendy bedrock


Chomsky offers a theory of language and of language learning. The theory claims that all human languages share an underlying grammar and that human beings are born with a knowledge of this grammar, which partly explains how they learn their first language(s) as young children. Criticism of Chomsky’s theory is mounting, as evidenced by a recent article in Scientific American which claims that “evidence rebuts Chomsky’s theory of language learning”. Here, I question that claim.

First, the Scientific American article doesn’t give any evidence to “rebut” Chomsky’s theory. The article talks about counter evidence, but it doesn’t actually give any. The real thrust of the current popular arguments against Chomsky’s theory have nothing to do with its ability to stand up to empirical challenges. Arguments against Chomsky’s theory are based on

  1. the weaknesses in Chomsky’s theory in terms of its reasoning and its falsifiability,
  2. the claim that no recourse to innate knowledge, specifically to a Language Acquisition Device, is necessary, because language learning can be explained by a general learning theory.

As to the first point, I refer you to Sampson   and Bates, the latter particularly eloquently voicing a strong case. You might also look at my discussion of Chomsky’s theory itself. There are, I think, serious weaknesses in Chomsky’s theory. To summarise: it moves the goal posts and it uses ad hoc hypotheses to deflect criticism.

As to the second point, no theory to date has provided an answer to the poverty of the stimulus argument which informs Chomsky’s theory. No attempt to show that usage can explain what children know about language has so far succeeded – none. Theories range from what I personally see as the daft (e.g. Larson Freeman and Cameron ) through the unlikely (e.g. Bates and MacWhinney )  to the attractive (e.g. O’Grady and Rastelli).

As Gregg (1993) makes clear, a theory of language learning has to give a description of what is learned and an explanation of how it’s learned. UG theory acts in a deliberately limited domain. It’s a “property theory” about a set of constraints on possible grammars, which has a causal relation to L1 acquisition through a “transition theory”, which connects UG with an acquisition mechanism that acts on the input in such a way as to lead to the formation of a grammar. Describing that grammar is the real goal of Chomsky’s work. In successive attempts at such a description, those working within a Chomskian framework have made enormous progress in understanding language and in helping those in various fields, IT, for example. Chomsky roots his work in a realist, rational epistemology and in a scientific method which relies on logic and on empirical research.

Any rival theory of language learning must state its domain, give its own property theory (its own account of what language is), and its own transition theory to explain how the language described is learned. You can take Halliday’s or Hoey’s description of language, or anybody’s you choose, and you can then look at the transition theories that go with them. When you do so, you should not, I suggest, be persuaded by silly appeals to chaos theory, or by appeals to the sort of emergentism peddled by Larsen-Freeman, or by circular appeals to “priming”. And you should look closely at the claim that children detect absolute frequencies, probabilistic patterns, and co-occurrences of items in the linguistic environment, and use the resulting information to bootstrap their way into their L1. It’s a strong claim, and there’s interesting work going on around it, but to date, there’s very little reason to think that it explains what children know about language or how they got that knowledge.

To say that Chomsky’s theory is dead and that a new “paradigm” has emerged is what one might expect from a journalist. To accept it as fact is to believe what you read in the press.

Gregg, K. R. (1993) Taking explanation seriously; or, let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied Linguistics 14, 3, 276-294.

Teaching Lexically by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley: A Review


Teaching Lexically is divided into three sections.

Part A begins with “Principles of how people learn”. The authors suggest that the “many thousands of pages written about how people learn languages” can all be “neatly summarised” in 6 principles:

The 6 principles of how people learn languages

I quote:

Essentially, to learn any given item of language, people need to carry out the following stages:

  • Understand the meaning of the item.
  • Hear/see an example of the item in context.
  • Approximate the sounds of the item.
  • Pay attention to the item and notice its features.
  • Do something with the item – use it in some way.
  • Repeat these steps over time, when encountering the item again in other contexts.

These “principles” are repeated in slightly amplified form at the end of Part A, and they inform the “sets of principles” for each of the chapters in Part B.

Principles of why people learn languages

The “Principles of why people learn” are taken en bloc from the Common European Framework of Reference for languages.  The authors argue that teachers should recognise that

for what is probably the majority of learners, class time is basically all they may have spare for language study. [This] … “emphasises how vital it is that what happens in class meets the main linguistic wants and needs of learners, chiefly:

  • To be able to do things with their language.
  • To be able to chat to others.
  • To learn to understand others cultures better.


Two Views of Language

The first view is

Grammar + words + skills

This is the authors’ way of characterising what they see as the predominant view of language in  ELT, a view they disagree with. According to Dellar ans Walkley, most people in ELT hold the view that

language can be reduced to a list of grammar structures that you can drop single words into.

The implications of this view are:

  1. Grammar is the most important area of language. …The examples used to illustrate grammar are relatively unimportant. …It doesn’t matter if an example used to illustrate a rule could not easily (or ever) be used in daily life.
  2. If words are to fit in the slots provided by grammar, it follows that learning lists of single words is all that is required, and that any word can effectively be used if it fits a particular slot.
  3. Naturalness, or the probable usage of vocabulary, is regarded as an irrelevance; students just need to grasp core meanings.
  4. Synonyms are seen as being more or less interchangeable, with only subtle shades of meaning distinguishing them.
  5. Grammar is acquired in a particular order – the so-called “buildings blocks” approach where students are introduced to “basic structures”, before moving to “more advanced ones”.
  6. Where there is a deficit in fluency or writing or reading, this may be connected to a lack of appropriate skills. These skills are seen as existing independently of language .

The second view of language is the one Dellar and Walkley agree with, and they call it “from words with words to grammar”.


From words with words to grammar

This view is based on the principle that “communication almost always depends more on vocabulary than on grammar”. The authors illustrate this view by taking the sentence

I’ve been wanting to see that film for ages.

They argue that “Saying want see film is more  likely to achieve the intended communicative message than only using what can be regarded as the grammar and function words I’ve been –ing to that for. “

The authors go on to say that in daily life the language we use is far more restricted than the infinite variety of word combinations allowed by rules of grammar. In fact, we habitually use the same chunks of language, rather than constructing novel phrases from an underlying knowledge of “grammar + single words”.  This leads the authors to argue the case for a lexical approach to teaching  and to state their agreement with Lewis’ (1993) view that

 teaching should be centred around collocation and chunks, alongside large amount of input from texts.  

They go on:

From this input a grasp of grammar ‘rules’ and correct usage would emerge. 

Hoey’s Lexical Priming (2005) is said to give theoretical support for this view of language. Hoey shows how words that are apparently synonymous – such as result and consequence – typically function in quite different ways. The differences in the usage of these two synonyms is easily seen in statistics from corpora which show when and how they are used.  Dellar and Walkley continue:

Hoey argues that these statistical differences must come about because, when we first encounter these words (he calls such encounters ‘primings’) our brains somehow subconsciously record some or all of this kind of information about the way the words are used. Our next encounter may reaffirm – or possibly contradict – this initial priming, as will the next encounter, and the one after that – and so on. ….

The authors then take Hoey’s citing of “evidence from psycholinguistic studies” as evidence to support the claim that we remember words in pairings and in groups and that doing so allows for quicker and more accurate processing of the language we hear and want to produce. They say that this implies that

 spoken fluency, the speed at which we read and the ease and accuracy with which we listen may all develop as a result of language users being familiar with groupings of words.

Therefore, teach lexical chunks, not the 4 skills as done in most grammar based coursebooks.


A lexical view of teaching

Approaches to ELT that are influenced by research into interlanguages are briefly discussed. We’re told that interlanguage research concerns grammar and that it has nothing to say about the teachability of vocabulary, where other research suggests that vocabulary teaching is effective. Thus, the criticisms made of grammar based coursebooks don’t apply to coursebooks like theirs, which concentrate on vocabulary teaching. Teachers are urged to

think of whole phrases, sentences or even ‘texts’ that students might want to say when attempting a particular task or conversation because

at least some of those lexical items are learnable, and some of that learning could be done with the assistance of materials before students try to have particular kinds of communication.

The authors then look at some problems of teaching lexically, which are basically that it’s difficult for teachers to come up, in real time, with the right kind of lexical input and the right kind of questions to help students notice lexical chunks, collocations, etc..

They then discuss the practicalities of teaching lexically, under the heading “Pragmatism in a grammar-dominated world” and suggest that teachers should work with the coursebooks they’ve got and approach coursebook materials in a different way, focusing on the vocabulary and finding better ways of exploiting it.

The rest of Part 1 is devoted to a lexical view of vocabulary (units of meaning, collocation, co-text, genre and register, lexical sets, antonyms, word form pragmatic meanings and synonyms are discussed), a lexical view of grammar (including “words define grammar” and “grammar is all around”), and a lexical view of skills.

Part 1 ends with “A practical pedagogy for teaching and learning”, which stresses the need to consider “Naturalness, priming and non-native speakers”, and ends with “The Process”, which repeats the 6 processes introduced at the start, noting that noticing and repetition are the two stages that the lexical teacher should place the most emphasis on.

Part B offers 100 worksheets for teachers to work through. Each page shares the same format: Principle; Practising the Principle; Applying the principle. In many of the worksheets, it´s hard to find the “principle” and in most worksheets “applying the principle” involves looking for chances to teach vocabulary, particularly lexical chunks.

Here’s an example:

 Worksheet 2: Choosing words to teach.

Principle: prioritise the teaching of more frequent words.

Practicing the principle involves deciding which words in a box (government / apple for example)  are more frequent and looking at the on line Macmillan Dictionary or the British Corpus to check.

Applying the Principle involves choosing 10 words from “a word list of a unit or a vocabulary exercise that you are going to teach”, putting the words in order of frequency, checking your ideas, challenging an interested colleague with queries about frequency and “keeping a record of who wins!”

The worksheets cover teaching vocabulary lexically, teaching grammar lexically, teaching the 4 skills lexically, and recycling and revising. Many of them involve looking at the coursebook which readers are presumed to be using in their teaching, and finding ways to adapt the content to a more lexical approach to teaching. In the words of the authors,

the book is less about recipes and activities for lessons, and more about training for preparing lexical lessons with whatever materials you are using.        

Part C (10 pages long) looks at materials, teaching courses other than general English, and teacher training.


Language Master

Language Learning

Let’s start with Dellar and Walkley’s account of “how people learn”. More than 50 years of research into second language learning is “neatly summarised” by listing the 6 steps putatively involved in learning “any given item of language”.  You (1) understand the meaning, (2) hear/see an example in context, (3) approximate the sound, (4) pay attention to the item and notice its features, (5) do something with it – use it some way, and (6) then repeat these steps over time.  We’re not told what “an item of language” refers to, but whatever the items are, we can safely presume that there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of them, all learned by going through the same process.

Let’s look at an alternative account. Bachman (1990) suggests that rather than learning countless thousands of “Items” of language in a 6-step process, people learn languages by developing a complex set of competencies. His framework includes three components: language competence (“a set of specific knowledge components that are utilised in communication via language.”; strategic competence (the mental capacity for implementing language competence in contextualized communicative language use”); and psychophysiological mechanisms (the neurological and psychological processes involved in the actual execution of language as a physical phenomenon”).  Below are the main parts of language competence:


There remains the question of how these competencies are developed. We can compare Dellar and Walkley’s view with that offered by theories of interlanguage development (see Tarone, 2001, for a review). Language learning is, in this view, gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 involves all sorts of learning going on at the same time as learners use a variety of strategies to confront problems of comprehension, pronunciation, grammar, lexis, idioms, fluency, appropriacy, and so on. The concurrent development of the many competencies Bachman refers to exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours.  This applies not only to learning grammar, but also to lexis, and to that in-between area of malleable lexical chunks as described by Pawley and Syder.

Learners have to master the idiosyncratic nature of words, their collocates etc., not just their canonical meaning. When learners encounter a word in a correct context, the word is not simply added to a static cognitive pile of vocabulary items. Instead, they experiment with the word, sometimes using it incorrectly, thus establishing where it works and where it doesn’t. By passing through a period of incorrectness, in which the lexicon is used in a variety of ways, they climb back up the U-shaped curve.  Take the example of the noun ‘shop.’ Learners may first encounter the word in a sentence such as “I had breakfast  at the coffee shop yesterday.” Then, they experiment with deviant utterances such as “I am going to the supermarket shop,” correctly associating the word ‘shop’ with a place they can purchase goods, but getting it wrong. By making these incorrect utterances, the learner distinguishes between what is appropriate, because “at each stage of the learning process, the learner outputs a corresponding hypothesis based on the evidence available so far” (Carlucci and Case, 2011).

Dellar and Walkley’s account of language learning is surely neither well explained nor anything like complete. These are not, I suggest, very robust principles on which to build. The principles of why people learn are similarly flimsy. To say that people learn languages “to be able to do things with their language; to be able to chat to others; and to learn to understand others cultures better” is to say very little indeed.


Two Views of Language

Next, we read about two views of language. The first is the “grammar + words” view, neatly summarised thus:

language can be reduced to a list of grammar structures that you can drop single words into.

Grammar models of the English language, such as that found in Quirk et.al. (1985), or Swan (2001), and used in coursebooks such as Headway or English File, describe the structure of English in terms of grammar, the lexicon and phonology. These descriptions have almost nothing in common with the description given on page 9 of Teaching Lexically, which is subsequently referred to dozens of times throughout the book as if it were an accurate summary, rather than a biased straw man used to promote their own view of language. The one sentence description, and the 6 simplistic assumptions that are said to flow from it, completely fail to fairly represent grammar models of the English language.

The second view of language: From words + words to grammar

Here, Dellar and Walkley could be expected to take extra care, since this is really the most important, the most distinguishing, feature of their whole approach. But in fact their preferred view of language is poorly articulated and mixed up with arguments for teaching lexically. It attempts to describe Hoey’s (2005) view that the best model of language structure is the word, along with its collocational and colligational properties. Collocation and “nesting” (words join with other primed words to form sequence) are linked to contexts and co-texts, and grammar is replaced by a network of chunks of words. There are no rules of grammar; there’s no English outside a description of the patterns we observe among those who use it. There is no right or wrong in language. It makes little sense to talk of something being ungrammatical.

This is surely a step too far; surely we need to describe language not just in terms of the performed but also in terms of the possible. Hoey argues that we should look only at attested behaviour and abandon descriptions of syntax, but, while nobody these days denies the importance of lexical chunks, very few would want to ignore the rules which guide the construction of novel, well formed sentences. After all, pace Hoey, people speaking English (including learners of English as an L2) invent millions of novel utterances every day.  They do so by making use of, among other things, grammatical knowledge.

The fact that the book devotes some attention to teaching grammar indicates that the authors recognise the existence and importance of grammar, which in turn indicates that there are limits to their adherence to Hoey’s model. But nothing is said in the book to clarify these limits. Given that Dellar and Walkley repeatedly stress that their different view of language is what drives their approach to teaching,  their failure to offer any  coherent account of their own view of language is telling. We´re left with the impression that the authors are enthusiastic purveyors of a view which they don’t fully understand and are unable to adequately describe or explain.


Teaching Lexically

 Teaching Lexically concentrates very largely on what Breen, in his characterisation of the product syllabus, called “doing things to learners”: it’s probably the most teacher-centred, the least learner-centred, book on ELT I’ve ever read. There’s not one mention in the book of including students in decisions affecting what and how things are to be learned. In Teaching Lexically, teachers make all the decisions. They work with a pre-confected product or synthetic syllabus, usually defined by a coursebook, and they plan and execute lessons on the basis of adapting the syllabus or coursebook to a lexical approach. Students are expected to learn what is taught in the order that it’s taught, the teacher deciding the “items”, the sequence of presentation of these “items”, the recycling, the revision, and the assessment.

Secondly, there’s a narrow minded, almost obsessive concentration on teaching as many lexical chunks as possible. The need to teach as much vocabulary as possible pervades the book. The chapters in Part B on teaching speaking, reading, listening and writing are driven by the same over-arching aim: look for new ways to teach more lexis, or to re-introduce lexis that has already been presented.

Thirdly, the book promotes the view that education is primarily concerned with the transmission of information. In doing so, it runs counter to the principles of learner-centred teaching, as argued by educators such as John Dewey, Sebastian Faure, Paul Friere, Ivan Illich, and Paul Goodman, and supported in the ELT field by educators such as Chris Candlin, Catherine Doughty, Caorl Chapelle, Grahame Crookes, Rebecca Brent, Earl Stevick, John Faneslow, Vivian Cook, Sue Sheerin, Alan Maley and Mike Long.  All these educators reject the view of education as the transmission of information, and, instead, see the student as a learner whose needs and opinions have to be continuously taken into account. For just one opinion, see  Weimer (2002) who argues for the need to bring about changes in the balance of power; changes in the function of course content; changes in the role of the teacher: changes in who is responsible for learning; and changes in the purpose and process of evaluation.

Fourthly, the book takes an extreme interventionist position on teaching English as an L2: it’s about as far from Krashen’s Natural Approach as it´s possible to go. Teaching Lexically involves dividing the language into items, presenting them to learners via various types of carefully-selected texts, and practising them intensively, using pattern drills, exercises and all the other means outlined in the book, including comprehension checks, error corrections and so on, before moving on to the next set of items.  As such, it mostly replicates the grammar-based PPP method it so stridently criticises. Furthermore, it sees translation into the L1 as the best  way of dealing with meaning, because it wants to get quickly on to the most important part of the process , namely memorising bits of lexis with their collocates and even co-text.  Compare this to an approach that sees the negotiation of meaning as a key aspect of language teaching, where the lesson is conducted almost entirely in English and the L1 is used  sparingly, where students have chosen for themselves some of the topics that they deal with, where they contribute some of their own texts, and where most of classroom time is given over to activities where the language is used communicatively and spontaneously, and where the teacher reacts to linguistic problems as they arise, thus respecting the learners’ ‘internal syllabus’.

Teaching Lexically sees explicit learning and explicit teaching as paramount, and it assumes that explicit knowledge, otherwise called declarative knowledge, can be converted into implicit (or procedural) knowledge through practice. These assumptions, like the assumptions that students will learn what they’re taught in the order they’re taught it, clash with SLA research findings. As Long says: “implicit and explicit learning, memory and knowledge are separate processes and systems, their end products stored in different areas of the brain” (Long, 2015, p. 44).  To assume, as Dellar and Walkley do, that the best way to teach English as an L2 is to devote the majority of classroom time to the explicit teaching and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is to fly in the face of SLA research.

Children learn languages in an implicit way – they are not consciously aware of most of what they learn about language. As for adults, all the research in SLA indicates that implicit learning is still the default learning mechanism. This suggests that teachers should devote most of the time in class to giving students comprehensible input and opportunities to communicate among themselves and with the teacher.

Nevertheless, adult L2 learners are what Long calls partially “disabled” language learners, for whom some classes of linguistic features are “fragile”. The implication is that, unless helped by some explicit instruction, they are unlikely to notice these fragile (non-salient )features, and thus not progress beyond a certain, limited, stage of proficiency.  The question is: What kind of explicit teaching helps learners progress in their trajectory towards communicative competence?  And here we arrive at lexical chunks.


Teaching Lexical Chunks

One of the most difficult parts of English for non native speakers to learn is collocation. As Long (2015, pages 307 to 316) points out in his section on lexical chunks, while children learn collocations implicitly, “collocation errors persist, even among near-native L2 speakers resident in the target language environment for decades.” Long cites Boers work, which suggests a number of reasons for why L2 collocations constitute such a major learning  problem, including L1 interference, the semantic vagueness of many collocations, the fact that collocates for some words vary , and the fact that some collocations look deceptively similar.

The size and scope of the collocations problem can be appreciated by considering findings on the lesser task of word learning. Long cites work by Nation (2006) and Nation and Chung (2009) who have have calculated that learners require knowledge of between 6000 and 7000 word families for adequate comprehension of speech and 9000 for reading. Intentional vocabulary learning has been shown to be more effective than incidental learning in the short tem, but, the authors conclude, “there is nowhere near enough time to handle so many items in class that way”.  The conclusion is that massive amounts of extensive reading outside class, but scaffolded by teachers, is the best solution.

As for lexical chunks, there are very large numbers of such items, probably hundreds of thousands of them. As Swan (2006) points out, “memorising 10 lexical chunks a day, a learner would take nearly 30 years to achieve a good command of 10,000 of them”. So how does one select which chunks to explicitly teach, and how does one teach them? The most sensible course of action would seem to be to base selection on frequency , but there are problems with such a simple criterion, not the least being the needs of the set of students in the classroom. Although Dellar and Walkley acknowledge the criterion of frequency, Teaching Lexically gives very little discussion of it, and there is very little clear or helpful advice offered about what lexical chunks to select for explicit teaching, – see the worksheet cited at the start of this review. The general line seems to be: work with the material you have, and look for the lexical chunks that occur in the texts, or that are related to the words in the texts. This is clearly not a satisfactory criterion for selection.

The other important question that Teaching Lexically does not give any well considered answer to  is: how best to facilitate the learning of lexical chunks?  Dellar and Walkley could start by addressing the problem of how their endorsement of Hoey’s theory of language learning, and his 100% endorsement of Krashen’s Natural Approach, fits with their own view that explicit instruction in lexical chunks should be the most important part of classroom based instruction. The claim that they are just speeding up the natural, unconscious process doesn’t bear examination because two completely different systems of learning are being conflated. Dellar and Walkley take what’s called a “strong interface” position, whereas Krashen and Hoey take the opposite view. Dellar and Walkley make conscious noticing the main plank in their teaching approach, which contradicts Hoey’s claim that lexical priming is a subconscious process.

Next, Dellar and Walkley make no mention of the fact that learning lexical chunks is one of the most challenging aspects of learning English as an L2 for adult learners.  Neither do they discuss the questions related to the teachability of lexical chunks that have been raised by scholars like Boers (who confesses that he doesn’t know the answer to the problems they have identified about how to teach lexical chunks). The authors of Teaching Lexically blithely assume that drawing attention to features of language (by underlining them, mentioning them and so on), and making students aware of collocations, co-text, colligations, antonyms, etc., (by giving students (repeated) exposure to carefully-chosen written and spoken texts, using drills, concept questions, input flood, bottom-up comprehension questions, and so on) will allow the explicit knowledge taught to become fully proceduralised.  Quite apart from the question of how many chunks a teacher is expected to treat so exhaustively, there are good reasons to question the assumption that such instruction will have the desired result.

In a section of his book on TBLT, Long (2015) discusses his 5th methodological principle: “Encourage inductive ·chunk” learning”.  Note that Long discusses 10 methodological principles, and sees teaching lexical chunks as an important but minor part of the teacher’s job. The most important concluson that Long comes to is that there is, as yet, no satisfactory answer to “the $64,000 dollar question: how best to facilitate chunk learning”.  Long’s discussion of explicit approaches to teaching collocations includes the following points:

  • Trying to teach thousands of chunks is out of the question.
  • Drawing learners attention to formulaic strings does not necessarily lead to memory traces usable in subsequent receptive L2 use, and in any case there are far too many to deal with in that way.
  • Getting learners to look at corpora and identify chunks has failed to produce measurable advantages.
  • Activities to get learners to concentrate on collocations on their own have had poor results.
  • Grouping collocations thematically increases the learning load (decreasing transfer to long term memory) and so does presentation of groups which share synonymous collocates, such as make and do.
  • Exposure to input floods where collocations are frequently repeated has poor results.
  • Commercially published ELT material designed to teach collocations have varying results. For example, when lists of verbs in one column are to be matched with nouns in another, this inevitably produces some erroneous groupings that, even when corrective feedback is available, can be expected to leave unhelpful memory traces.
  • It is clear that encouraging inductive chunk learning is well motivated, but it is equally unclear how best to realise it in practice, i.e., which pedagogical procedures to call upon.


Teaching Lexically is based on a poorly articulated view of the English language and on a flimsy account of second language learning. It claims that language is best seen as lexically driven, that a grasp of grammar ‘rules’ and correct usage will emerge from studying lexical chunks, that spoken fluency, the speed at which we read, and the ease and accuracy with which we listen will all develop as a result of language users being familiar with groupings of words, and that therefore, the teaching of lexical chunks should be the most important part of a classrooms teacher’s job. These claims often rely on mere assertions, and include straw man fallacies, cherry picking the evidence of research findings and ignoring counter evidence. The case made for this view of teaching is in my opinion, entirely unconvincing. The concentration on just one small part of what’s involved in language teaching, and the lack of any well considered discussion of the problems associated with teaching lexical chunks, are seriously flaws in the book’s treatment of an interesting topic.


Bachman, L. (1990). Fundamental considerations in language testingOxford University Press.

Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design, Parts 1 and 2. Language Teaching 20 (02) and 20 (03).

Carlucci, L. and Case, J.  (2013)  On the Necessity of U-Shaped Learning. Topics.

Hoey, M.(2005) Lexical Priming. Routeledge.

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task Based Language Teaching. Wiley.

Swan, M. (2006) Chunks in the classroom: let’s not go overboard. The Teacher Trainer, 20/3.

Tarone, E. (2001), Interlanguage. In R. Mesthrie (Ed.). Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics. (pp. 475–481) Oxford: Elsevier Science.

Weimer, M. (2002) Learner-Centered Teaching. Retrieved from http://academic.pg.cc.md.us/~wpeirce/MCCCTR/weimer.htm  3/09/2016

Materials Evaluation


Here’s a vocabulary exercise I found while browsing through material that Gerry Sweeny, a one time colleague at ESADE Idiomas, gave me.

Vocabulary in Context

The following sentences contain nonsense words. Can you make sense of them?

  1. The sentence was written on a piece of drurb.
  2. Most drurb, like snow, is osgrave.
  3. Cats are domestic ningles.
  4. Polar bears, which are osgrave ningles, live where there is cridlington.
  5. If you set fire to drurb, it firtles.
  6. If you pour narg on firtling drurb, the flames go out.
  7. If you put cridlington into hot narg, it frumes.
  8. Cridlington frumes at a bazoota over 0º C.
  9. Narg boobles at a bazoota of 100º C .
  10. We frize bazootas with a nast.

What do you think the nonsense words mean in the above sentences?

  1. drurb
  2. osgrave
  3. ningles
  4. cridlington
  5. firtles
  6. narg
  7. frumes
  8. bazoota
  9. boobles
  10. frize
  11. nast



I’m currently looking through material available to members of the Cooperativa de Serveis Linguistics de Barcelona, with the idea of getting a materials bank together which would help members to avoid using coursebooks.  While there’s an ambundance of ELT materials available online, it’s difficult to quickly find material that satisfies a few basic criteria, such as relevance, quality, useability and legality. Neill McMillan and I met recently and we reckon that we need to assemble a lot of material which satisfies these criteria, or rather, well-considered criteria that we can all agree on, and then classify them according to fields such as, off the top of my head, level, topic, media, grammar point, and skill. The idea is to give members access to a data base of materials where they can find written and spoken texts, with accompanying worksheets, at a certain level, topic, etc., so that they can easily confect everything from an ESP course with appropriate tasks, to lesson plans, to fillers. Maybe you’re only looking for a text; maybe you’re looking for a text plus worksheet, maybe you’re looking for a fresh aproach to practicing a function; maybe you need a good clear explanation of some grammar point, maybe you’re trying to get together a proposal for a 50 hour course aimed at auditors, and so on.  I should add that I have a particular interest in developing a process syllabus, which I’ve discussed in a previous post and which relies on a materials bank.


So we see the challenges of this project as being to decide on the criteria for any bit of material, to decide on how the collection of the individual bits of material is organised in the data base, and to indicate links among them.

Looking at the worksheet above, what to do? Supposing that it were well presented, and that there were no copyright issues, does it warrant inclusion? Is its openness a good thing (allowing teachers to exploit it in their own way), or does it need some lead in and some further work? Is it useful, anyway?  More generally, how do we judge it’s worth? If you look at most of the literature on materials evaluation, you’ll be hard put to apply the frameworks to this, because most frameworks are, either explicitly or implicitly geared to coursebooks. Rather than indulge in a rant, I invite you to give your opinion. If you were getting a materials bank together, would you include this?

Dumb bells in the Language Gym


The Language Gym follows the classic self-help format: I’ll tell you the answers to all your worries and fears (about language teaching) but you need to park your critical faculties at the front door. The posts are stridently prescriptive, shamelessly self-promotional, and dumbly dogmatic, with titles like these:

  • 10 commonly made mistakes in vocabulary instruction
  • Eight motivational theories and their implications for the classroom
  • 10 commonly made mistakes in vocabulary instruction
  • Six ‘useless’ things foreign language teachers do


The author of this blog is Gianfranco Conti, who never tires of selling himself and his terrible book. A few examples from recent posts:

  • But I do have a teacher-training background, a PhD in Applied Linguistics and an MA in TEFL on top of 25 years language teaching experience.
  • As professor Macaro, former Head of the Oxford University Education Department, wrote in his excellent review of our book ‘The Language Toolkit’ (click here) …
  • I have had to adopt feedback-to-writing strategies that are not aligned with my espoused theory of L2 learning and current research wisdom – despite having a PhD in error correction in second language writing.
  • Since posting my three articles on listening … I have been flooded with e-mail, Twitter and Facebook messages from teachers worldwide
  • My students conjugate verbs every day on the http://www.language-gym conjugator… often scoring 90 -100%

Every post has references to his book, and ends with a plug for it.

Well, “no harm done” you might reasonably say, and maybe none is. Still, in his two most recent posts, Dr. Conti says a few things that I think need commenting on.


1. Principled Teaching

In his latest post Conti argues that ELT must be grounded in a deep understanding (like his) of SLA. He says that teachers need to ask themselves these 3 questions:

  1. How are foreign languages learnt ?
  2. What are the implications of the answer to question (1) for language teaching and learning ?
  3. Is the answer to (2) truly reflected in your own teaching practice?

We’ll skip all the preamble, where Conti explains how his abundant qualifications and experience make him more ready than most teachers to be a “reflective practitioner” and look at his answer to Question 1. He says this:

Cognitive models of language acquisition (especially Skill-based theories and Connectionism) provided the basis for my espoused theory of learning and shaped much of what you read in my blogs and of what I have been doing in the classroom for the last 20 years.

I couldn’t find anything about Connectionism in the gym, but there are certainly quite a few posts where we’re told how learners’ brains work, and how getting things from their working memory into their long term memory is the secret of all teaching and learning. So let’s have a look at the theory which provides the basis for Conti’s principled teaching.


Skill Acquisition Theory

As a general learning theory, skill acquisition theory argues that when you start learning something, you do so through largely explicit processes; then, through subsequent practice and exposure, you move into implicit processes. So you go from declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge and the automatisation this brings. Declarative knowledge involves explicit learning or processes; learners obtain rules explicitly and have some type of conscious awareness of those rules. The automatization of procedural knowledge entails implicit learning or processes; learners proceduralise their explicit knowledge, and through suitable practice and use, the behaviour becomes automatic.

Quite a few objections have been raised to to this theory. First, the lack of an operational definition undermines the various versions of skill acquisition theory that Conti has referred to: there is no agreed operational definition for the constructs “skill”, “practice”, or “automatization”. Partly as a result, but also because of methodological issues (see, for example, Dekeyser, 2007), the theory is under-researched; there is almost no empirical support for it.

Second, skill acquisition theory is in the “strong-interface” camp with regard to the vexed issue of the roles of explicit and implicit learning in SLA. It holds that explicit knowledge is transformed into implicit knowledge through the process of automatization as a result of practice. Many, including perhaps most famously Krashen, dispute this claim, and many more point to the fact that the  theory does not take into account the role played by affective factors in the process of learning.  Practice, after all, does not always make perfect.

Third, the practice emphasized in this theory is effective only for learning similar tasks: it doesn’t transfer to dissimilar tasks. Therefore, many claim that the theory disregards the role that creative thinking and behaviour plays in SLA.

Fourth, to suggest that the acquisition of all L2 features starts with declarative knowledge is to ignore the fact that a great deal of vocabulary and grammar acquisition in an L2 involves incidental learning where no declarative stage is involved.

In my opinion, the most important weakness of skill acquisition theory is that it fails to deal with the sequences of acquisition which have been the subject of hundreds of studies in the last 50 years, all of them supporting the construct of interlanguages.

We may conclude that while there are some interesting aspects of skill acquisition theory, it is both poorly constructed and incomplete. Given the current state of SLA theory, and given the essentially unscientific nature of the craft of language teaching, the strident claims made by Conti are unwarranted. In as far as he gives the impression that he knows how people learn a foreign language, and that he knows how to use this knowledge to build the best methodology for ELT, Conti is as deluded as those who use their web sites to peddle homeopathic pills.


Planting Seeds

The limitations of Conti’s understanding of SLA are evident in his previous post “The seed-planting technique …..”,   where he says:

effective teaching and learning cannot happen without effective curriculum design…… A well-designed language curriculum plans out effectively when, where and how each seed should be sown and the frequency and manner of its recycling with one objective in mind : that by the end of the academic year the course’s core language items are comprehended/produced effectively across all four language skills under real life conditions.

This amounts to what Breen (1987) calls a “Product” syllabus, what White calls a “Type A” syllabus and what Long (2011 and 2015) calls a “Synthetic” syllabus. The key characteristic of Conti’s “effective curriculum” is that it concentrates on WHAT is to be learned. The designer decides on the content, which is divided up into bits of lexis and grammar that are presented and practiced in a pre-determined order (planting “seeds” which precede the scheduled main presentation and subsequent recycling). The syllabus is external to the learner, determined by authority. The teacher is the decision maker, and assessment of success and failure is done in terms of achievement or mastery.

The problem with Conti’s curriculum is that he relies on skill acquisition theory, which makes two false assumptions. First, it assumes that declarative knowledge is a necessary precursor to procedural knowledge, and second, it assumes that learners learn what teachers teach them, an assumption undermined by all the evidence from interlanguage studies. We know that learners, not teachers, have most control over their language development. As Long (2011) says:

Students do not – in fact, cannot – learn (as opposed to learn about) target forms and structures on demand, when and how a teacher or a coursebook decree that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Instruction can facilitate development, but needs to be provided with respect for, and in harmony with, the learner’s powerful cognitive contribution to the acquisition process.

Even when presented with, and drilled in, target-language forms and structures, even when errors are routinely corrected, and even when the bits and pieces are “seeded” and recycled in various ways, learners’ acquisition of newly-presented forms and structures is rarely either categorical or complete, and it is thus futile to plan the curriculum of an academic year on the assumption that the course’s “core language items” will be “comprehended/produced effectively” by the end of the year. Acquisition of grammatical structures and sub-systems like negation or relative clause formation is typically gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and  U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures and vocabulary are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, the product broadly conforming to developmental sequences observed in naturalistic settings. They master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both. This led Pienemann to formulate his learnability hypothesis and teachability hypothesis: what is processable by students at any time determines what is learnable, and, thereby, what is teachable (Pienemann, 1984, 1989).

Once again, the hyped-up sales pitch turns out to be unwarranted. The carefully-planned, “principled” curriculum Conti showcases is nothing more than an old-fashioned product syllabus, with a few bells and whistles, or rather dumbbells and seeds, thrown in.



Breen, M. (1987) Learner contributions to task design. In C. Candlin and D. Murphy (eds.), Language Learning Tasks. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall. 23-46.

Dekeyser, R. (2007) Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten & J. Williams (Eds.), Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction (pp. 97-113). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Long, M. (2011) “Language Teaching”. In Doughty, C. and Long, M. Handbook of Language Teaching. NY Routledge.

Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. N.Y., Routledge.

White, R.V. (1988) The ELT Curriculum, Design, Innovation and Management.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Selivan explains Trump speech similarities. No pigs seen flying


Leo Selivan has a rather off-hand way of treating research findings in corpus linguistics: he often uses undefined terms and blurred summaries to support his own particular view of ELT, which, let’s not forget, includes the breath-taking injunction “Never teach single words”. In his most recent post, Selivan repeatedly uses the term “chunks” without defining it, he misrepresents Pawley and Syder’s 1983 paper, and he then examines an excerpt from Melania Trump’s recent speech to the Republican party in order to demonstrate that “chunks”, not blatant plagiarism, explain the similarities with M. Obama’s 2008 speech.


1.  “Chunks”

Selivan says:

corpus research …. has shown that language is highly formulaic, i.e. consisting of recurring strings of words, otherwise known as “chunks”. What makes them chunks is the fact that they are stored in and retrieved from memory as ‘wholes’ rather than generated on a word-by-word basis at the moment of language production. 

Two comments are in order.

a)  What makes recurring strings of words “chunks” is not how they’re memorised, but rather their form.

b) It is not “a fact” that chunks are stored in and retrieved from memory as ‘wholes’. The hypothesis suggested by Pawley and Syder is that certain  types of strings of words are memorised and recalled in a certain carefully described way. By definition, this hypothesis is not true – it is a tentative theory which attempts to explain a problem.


2. Pauley and Syder

Selivan says:

The formulaic nature of language was first brought to the fore in a seminal paper by Australian linguist Andrew Pawley and and his colleague Frances Syder, who pointed out that competent language users have at their disposal hundreds of thousands of ready-made phrases (Pawley and Syder 1983).

Pawley and Syder’s paper was a lot more nuanced than Selivan suggests. They argued that control of a language entails knowledge of more than just a generative grammar, and that ‘memorized sentences’ and ‘lexicalized sentence stems’ (not “ready-made phrases”) were important additional parts of linguistic competence, useful in explaining the two puzzles of “nativelike selection” and fluency. As they say:

The terms refer to two distinct but interrelated classes of units, and it will be suggested that a store of these two unit types is among the additional ingredients required for native control (Pawley and Syder, 1983, p. 204).

When discussing ‘lexicalized sentence stems’, Pawley and Syder make it clear that these stems often include parts which can be transformed in various ways. They also admit that there are many problems in the treatment of lexicalized sentence stems.

How is a lexicalized sentence stem defined? How do you tell it apart from non-lexicalized sequences? There is no simple operation for doing this. The problem is essentially the same as in distinguishing any morphologically complex lexical item from other sequences; the question is what is ‘lexicalization’? What makes something a lexeme? ….  An expression may be more or less a standard designation for a concept, more or less clearly analysable into morphemes, more or less fixed in form, more or less capable of being transformed without change of meaning or status as a standard usage, and the concept denoted by the expression may be familiar and culturally recognized to varying degrees. Nor is there a sharp boundary between the units termed here ‘sentence stems’ and other phraseological units of a lower order (Pawley and Syder, 1983, p. 207).


3. The Speech

With regard to Melania Trump’s speech, Selivan looks at one of the copied parts and comments on the common uses of “impress upon”, and  the ubiquity of the phrases “work hard” and “keep promise” (sic). As a clincher, Selivan says

Looking at “treat people with respect” which is supposedly copied from Michelle Obama’s “treat people with dignity and respect”, you will see that “dignity” and “respect” are two of the very highly likely collocates here.

From this carefully assembled evidence, Selivan concludes:

If Melania’s faux pas indeed constitutes plagiarism, the text of her speech was no more plagiarized than an academic paper containing “Recent research has shown that” or “The results are consistent with data obtained in…”

Apart from the sentence being very badly constructed, and the claim being a ridiculous non-sequitur, can you imagine anybody seriously saying that the use of  “Recent research has shown that” or “The results are consistent with data obtained in…” by an academic in a published paper constitutes plagiarism? Likewise, who but Selivan and his Humpty-Dumpty use of “chunks” could seriously offer the analogy in order to defend Melanie Trump from the accusation of plagiarism?

Here’s an extract from the recent speech:

M Trump: Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.

And here’s an extract from the 2008 speech:

M. Obama: Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.

To attempt to explain the “similarities” between the two texts by appealing to “recurring sequences” is an indication of how far a little knowledge can lead one astray.


Pawley, A., & Syder, F.H. (1983) Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency in Richards, J.C. & Schmidt, R.W. (eds) Language and Communication, London; New York: Longman, pp 191 – 225. *

*As Selivan usefully points out, this article is available online at



Mura Nava’s “Quick Cups of COCA”


Mura’s blog EFL Notes is an excellent source of up to date, well-considered information on using  corpora in ELT.  Mura uses his elegant blog to talk to teachers about how to use concordancers in their jobs, and he’s recently published “Quick Cups of Coca”, which I thoroughly recommend. You can download this gem from his website, and you should do it today.

Using a concordancer to search corpora for information about the English language is a rewarding activity for anybody  involved in ELT. It’s fascinating, absorbing, revealing, and it helps us to see the limitations of the explanations of grammatical forms, lexis, and lexical chunks that are offered by current coursebook writers, including those who claim to be implementing a lexical approach.

A concordancer helps you to examine these questions:

  • What words occur in the corpus (a body of texts)?
  • How often does each word occur? (Frequency counts)
  • In how many different types of text (different subject areas, different modes, different mediums) does the word appear?
  • Are there any significant subsets? (For example, in English, the 700 most frequent words account for 70% of all text.)
  • What are the collocations of the target item?
  • What are the contexts in which the word appears?

Taking a word as the search item, a concordancer will list all the different occurrences of the word in a text, it will count how often the word occurs, it will indicate what type of text the word appears in, and it will display the instances of the word in its context in a variety of formats, the most usual being the Key Word In Context (KWIC ) format, which lists all occurrences of the word in a 1 line context.


Tim Johns was among the first to suggest that a concordancer could be used in the classroom, either as a “silent resource” (just waiting until somebody asked a question it could help with), or as a means of making materials. Mura continues Tim’s work, and he does it splendidly. He uses one of the very best corpora available for free consultation (which is accompanied by a very user-friendly concordancer), namely COCA,  a corpus containing more than 520 million words of American English text: 20 million words each year 1990-2015, equally divided among spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic texts.

Mura’s Quick Cups of COCA, which you can download from his site, is clear as a bell, uncluttered, interesting and thought-provoking. These are the tasks which he outlines:

  1. Using the wildcard asterisk to explore the difference between unmotivated and demotivated.
  2. How to look for synonyms.
  3. Variations of “bring to the boil”.
  4. Relative clauses.
  5. Lemmas (in this case benefit) and parts of speech.
  6. Compound words.
  7. Comparing words (in this case rotate and revolve).
  8. Clauses (in this case the verb claim: claim to have, claim to be, claim to know, etc.).
  9. Miscellaneous: possessives; past regular & irregular; progressive auxiliaries; passives.

Notice the breadth of the tasks. Mura has, I’m sure deliberately, chosen tasks that illustrate how broad is the sweep of questions that you can ask.

So many questions come to mind about the use of concordancers in ELT. There’s so much to discuss here, and, somewhat typically, Mura leaves us to muse for ourselves. I did my MA dissertation on concordancers (contact me if you’d like a copy) and I worked with Tim Johns and others to produce Microconcord, a concordancer published by OUP and still available (Google it). Here’s an example of a worksheet that I wrote 20 long years ago to accompany the Microconcord software:


Activity:  Examine the different ways that for and during are used.

Warm Up

How do you think the two words above are used? Here are two examples:

  I haven’t seen Jim for two months.

  I lived in Holland during the war.

A common mistake is:

  x I haven’t seen Jim during two months. x

As a preliminary description, we can say that for is used to say how long something lasts, and during is used to say when something happened, but only in reference to a given stretch of time, like the second world war, or the summer holidays, for example.  For is much more common than during, and it is used in more different ways.

Write down a sentence of your own for each word.

Now we will see what the concordancer can find.


Note: Have the BASIC INSTRUCTIONS sheet with you, so that you can follow the steps.

  1. Load the program.
  2.  Type in: during\for as the search words.
  3. Hit RETURN.
  4. You see the texts that the program is sorting through, and a running total of the number of examples it has found. When the total is 100, hit the Esc key.
  5.  You see at the bottom of the screen a report on how many examples it found, and their frequency. Hit RETURN.
  6.  You see the examples of the 2 words in the middle of lines of text. They are sorted with 1st Right as first priority, and Search Word as second priority.
  7. Use the arrow keys to look through the examples.
  8. Use the arrow keys to go to the examples of during.

QUESTION: What words occur after during? Are there any examples that surprise you?   Write down some examples of words that come after during.

9. Now look at the examples of for. There are a lot, and the word is used in different ways.

QUESTION: How many of the examples refer to how long something lasts? Write down 5 examples.

QUESTION: Can you identify other ways that for is used? Try to find different categories. Write down 5 sentences that interest you.

QUESTION: What would you add to the explanation at the beginning of the exercise?

Well, there it is. I won’t bother to comment on the worksheet, which has many weaknesses, save to note that it attempts to engage learners in an exploration, rather than simply telling them “the answer”.

For the moment I urge you to get a copy of Quick Cups of COCA, after which I hope you’ll talk about Mura’s work here, at his blog, and to all those who care about ELT.

Summer Reading


Dan Brown doesn’t do it for you?  Jeremy Harmer’s greatest hits leave you unquenched? Try these:

Best Fiction of 2016 so far


Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time.

A real tour de force by Barnes who does a fine job of transmitting the true horror of Stalinist Russia’s denial of free expression, the awful results of the absolute and fickle control of philistines over culture, the constant fear under which everybody lived their lives. This is a very powerful book, “a condensed masterpiece that traces the lifelong battle of one man’s conscience, one man’s art, with the insupportable exigencies of totalitarianism” as Guardian critic Alex Preston says in his review.   Not the most relaxing pool side read, not easy, not light, but it’s a compelling story and it left me with a re-kindled fear of totalitarian regimes and a grudging gratitude for living in the West.

Best Fiction I’ve read in 2016 so far


Edward St Aubyn: The Melrose Novels. I don’t know why it took me so long to find these 5 novels, but I’m so glad that I finally had the chance to enjoy them. From the opening lines of the first book – Never Mind – to the last lines of book 5 – At Last – St Aubyn dazzles with his quite extraordinary writing. He tells a harrowing tale, but he tells it with verve, sparkle, wit and honesty; he doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t hold back and there’s not a trace of bathos or self-pity. I don’t think I’ve ever been so initially impressed with a novelist’s style. The 5 books rip along – you can read the lot in a week. The story is awful, starting with how he was consistently raped by his father.  It’s frightening, it’s magnificent, it’s funny, it’s appalling, it’s heroic, it’s witty; it’s tragic, it’s inspring. St. Auybyn says that writing these books saved his life and it’s obvious that they’re cathartic. You have to read them all, but if you only have time for one, then I recommend Mother’s Milk. If you think Silvia Plath was scathing about her dad, read what St Aubyn has to say about his mum – the mum who did nothing to protect him from his dad’s abuse.

Best Non-Fiction books of 2016 so far


Yanis Varoufakis And The Weak Suffer What They Must?

The Greek Finance Minister takes us on a compelling ride through the eurozone from post Second World War attempts at recovery to the inevitable collapse in 2008 and beyond. This is a fresh, persuasive narrative which argues that “the weakest citizens of the weakest nations have paid the price for bankers’ mistakes” and that “the principle of the greatest austerity for those suffering the greatest recessions has led to a resurgence of racist extremism.”  Well-written and well-informed, with perhaps just a tad too much reliance on fiscal and monetary shenanigans to explain the fundamental flaws in the EU, this is a real pool side page turner; no really: it is.


Miichael Greger: How Not To Die.

The best guide to healthy eating ever written. All the top causes of premature death – heart disease, various cancers, diabetes and many more – can be beaten by “nutritional and lifestyle interventions”. Well. I’ll grant you that that isn’t the best phrase ever written, but the book is wonderfully clear and very practical. We really must stop eating red meat and processed food. Unprocessed plant foods – beans, berries, other fruits, cruciferous vegetables, greens, other veg., flaxseeds, nuts, spices, whole grains – plus lots of teas and water, is what you need.  Greger argues his case very forcefully, but he’s not a zealot. Here’s a sample:

Whenever I’m asked whether a certain food is healthy or not, I reply “Compared to what?” For example, are eggs healthy? Compared to oatmeal, definitely not. But compared to the sausage links next to them on the breakfast platter? Yes.  

Best New Book on SLA so far in 2016


Stefano Rastelli Discontinuity in SLA.

I’ve already given Mike Loing’s review of this book, so suffice it to say that it’s a must read. Tired of bullshit from the likes of Larsen Freeman? Read this. Stefano will deliver a paper on Intra language at the upcoming SLRF conference in September- stand by!  If you’re pool side, get in the shade, put down that drink and read Rastelli’s book. It’s invigorating. Mike Long has already questioned bits of it, and I await the verdicts of Kevin Gregg, Nick Ellis, Peter Robinson, William O’Grady and others. I wonder what Scott Thornbury will make of it.

Best Book on SLA I’ve read in 2016 so far


William O’Grady How Children Learn Language. Kevin Gregg chastised me for not having already read this book. It’s superb. The clarity of O’Grady’s writing is supreme, and the force of his argument is daunting. All those who fumble and stumble in their criticisms of Chomsky’s UG should read O’Grady’s splendid work. It’s one of the best books on language learning I’ve ever read. It’s accessable, it’s persuasive, it’s a model of coherence and cohesion.  It should, in my opinion, be required reading on any ELT course.

Best Book on ELT so far in 2016


Brian Tomlinson (ed) SLA Research and Materials Development  For Language Learning. I’m a bit wary about recommending this book because I haven’t finished reading it, but it looks good. It has Tomlinson’s hand all over it, and it’s uneven, but still, it has some some good chapters in it, including some that slam the use of cousebooks and give a much more considered view of how lexical chunks should be dealt with than that provided by the usual suspects, who give so little evidence of scholarship.

And if you don’t like the sound of any of the above books, may I recommend Thomas Pynchon’s V – the best novel I’ve ever read.


Have a great summer.

Rastelli’s Discontinuity Hypothesis: a new challenge for SLA researchers


Mike Long’s review of Stefano Rastelli: Discontinuity in Second Language Acquisition. the Switch between Statistical and Grammatical Learning, Multilingual Matters, 2014, appeared recently in the Applied Linguistics journal’s on line Advance Access. Here’s a brief summary of the review. I’ve taken gross liberties cutting Long’s text, but that’s about all I’ve done: some of it appears below verbatim and the rest is as Long wrote it, but with big bits lopped off. I share Long’s view that this is an important book which deserves our attention, but additionally I personally think that it highlights the weaknesses of attempts made by Larsen-Freeman, Thornbury, Hoey and others to use a garbled version of emergentism to support their views. Rastelli’s hypothesis represents the beginnings of a research programme that could pose a real challenge to Processability Theory, which is the theory most often adopted currently in attempts to explain SLA.

Rastelli’s book is part of the growing research interest in the potential of statistical learning and usage-based accounts of SLA by adults. The general idea is that learners can detect absolute frequencies, probabilistic patterns, and co-occurrences of items in the linguistic environment, and use the resulting information to bootstrap their way into the L2. Statistical learning (SL) is a general learning theory which relies on the construct of a domain-general capacity that operates incidentally, results in implicit knowledge, and functions for all linguistic sub-systems, from phonology, through word learning, morphology and syntax, to pragmatics.

Long says that Stefano Rastelli’s book (henceforth, Discontinuity) is remarkable for 3 things:

  1. its coherence.
  2. The breadth and depth of Rastelli’s knowledge of current theory and research in linguistics, cognitive psychology, neurolinguistics and SLA, and his ability to synthesize and integrate work from all four.
  3. The originality of his perspective.

Rastelli claims that SL is the initial way learners handle combinatorial grammar, i.e., regular co-occurrence relationships between audible or visible forms  that are overt in the input and the meanings and functions of those forms. Because audible or visible and regular, the patterns are frequency driven and countable, which is what SL requires to operate. Combinatorial grammar comprises recurrent combinations of adjacent and non-adjacent whole words and morphemes. The form-function pairs can be stored and retrieved first as wholes, and then broken down into their component parts in order to be computed by abstract rules.

Combinatorial grammar is learned twice, Rastelli claims, first by SL, and then by grammatical learning (GL). This is the meaning of ‘discontinuity’ in his hypothesis. SL prepares the ground for GL: “Statistics provides the L2 grammar the ‘environment’ to grow and develop” (2014: 220). SL involves first a computation over transition probabilities and subsequently bottom-up category formation; GL is achieved through computation over symbolic abstract rules and top-down category formation. GL happens when learners recognize (implicitly) not just regularities in the ways certain words co-occur, but why they co-occur. At that point, they can move beyond statistically based patterns and induce productive combinatorial rules. They can abstract away from particular exemplars that contain regular markings for number, tense, case, etc., now understanding (implicitly, again) that these properties can be applied to new exemplars.

The shift to GL is an abrupt, qualitative change — a rupture, not simply the next stage in a single continuous developmental process.This is one of several places where Rastelli departs from received wisdom in the field. He likens the SLA process to learning to swim, ride a bicycle or ski: progress is initially slow, tentative and uneven, with many failures, not a gradual succession of gradient states, until suddenly, the child (or adult) can swim, ride or ski unaided. This, he claims, is because SLA is quantized. Learners need to encounter a statistically critical number of instances of a form or structure. Once that threshold is crossed, they are able to perceive regularities in the features they share andto conceptualize the motivation behind those regularities, in order to apply a rule over novel instances. The formation of grammatical categories is what triggers discontinuity — sudden quantum leaps from SL to GL.

Crucially, the new grammatical representations do not displace previously acquired statistical rule(s). Rather, the sudden shift to GL is marked by gemination: dual statistical and grammatical representation of an item or structure at two cognitive levels in underlying competence. The two learning processes, SL and GL, and the two mental representations for the same L2 phenomena, statistical rules and grammatical categories, continue to exist side by side.

The continued co-existence of SL and GL has at least two possible neurophysiological explanations. First, implicit and explicit knowledge of the same item coexist, remain independent, and can be accessed independently by speakers (Paradis 2009: 15). Second, although independent, declarative and procedural memory compete and cooperate with one another across a learner’s lifespan. Some parts of the temporal lobe serve as a repository for already proceduralised knowledge, while some areas of the prefrontal cortex are activated when knowledge stored in declarative memory is selected and retrieved. There is also evidence of a direct anatomical connection between the medial temporal lobe and the striatum, that is, the caudate nucleus and putamen in the basal ganglia (Poldrack and Packard 2003: 4), which, says Rastelli, is why Ullman and colleagues believe L2 acquirers can learn the same items by exploiting the resources of both declarative and procedural memory.

The use of ‘quantum’ and ‘quantized’ is deliberate. Rastelli notes that the idea of abrupt discontinuity in SLA parallels the trajectory identified for many phenomena in the natural sciences, and above all in quantum physics and quantum probability theory. A classic example is the finding in quantum physics that electrons do not change their orbit around a nucleus gradually along a continuous gradient-like energy scale with change in proportion to increased energy, but instead ‘jump’ from one energy level to another at the precise moment that the energy supplied is sufficient to reach the threshold required to trigger the change. In just the same way, SLA is quantized; there is no straightforward relationship between increased L2 exposure and L2 development.

So much for combinatorial grammar. Non-combinatorial grammar, in contrast, pertains to invisible features, such as null subjects, filler-gap dependencies, and island constraints on wh- extraction, and phenomena at the discourse-syntax and syntax-semantics interfaces. This means there is nothing overt in the input to combine, and frequency is therefore irrelevant. SL is no use here because learners cannot categorize over absences (empty categories or displaced items). Such items are computed and represented only mentally. Thus, non-combinatorial grammar cannot be acquired via SL. Rastelli predicts, for example, that adult learners of Italian will have more trouble with null subjects than with auxiliaries in compound tenses, not due to differences in their frequency, but because SL can support the procedure for concatenation of co-occurring items (auxiliaries and main verbs), but not for computation of absent items (missing subject pronouns). In the sentence Elena e arrivata (Elena is arrived), e + arrivata is a chunk that may consolidate in a learner’s memory over time and eventually constitute the basis for a productive rule for auxiliary selection. Conversely, the absent pronoun in Elena e arivata ma _ non ha parlato (Elena arrived but [she] did not talk) provides nothing the learner can remember and re-use in similar situations. SL allows the need for some form of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ eventually to become predictable every time ‘arrived’ appears (and later, other verbs of movement), whereas the presence or absence of a subject pronoun cannot be predicted and must be computed each time. Gemination will occur in the former case, but not in the latter, when GL alone will be pressed into service. If the non-/combinatorial distinction turns out to be valid, Rastelli suggests, it is presumably one of the reasons missing features are problematic and often never acquired by some adult L2ers. Instead of SL, non-combinatorial grammar must be handled by GL, and the capacity for GL differs at the individual level and is more subject than SL to age-effects.

After a discussion of Rastelli’s position on age effects, Long moves to the differences between Rastelli’s hypothesis and other theories of SLA. Rastelli notes how ‘discontinuity’ differentiates his position from that of ‘continuity’ theories, such as Processability Theory, the norm in most SLA theorizing. As should be clear by now, he rejects the notion that L2 development is continuous, a series of incremental shifts (developmental stages) as a result of increased exposure to L2 input, without fractures or leaps:

The core idea of discontinuity is that the process of adult acquisition of L2 grammar is not uniform and incremental but differentiated and redundant. To learn a second language, adults apply two different procedures to the same linguistic materials: redundancy means that the same language items may happen to be learned twice.  (2014: 5)

The SL/GL distinction is qualitative (neurophysiological) in nature. It is not a matter of converting explicit to implicit knowledge (for Rastelli, implicit learning takes precedence, after all), so not a question of automatization of what started life as declarative knowledge, as in Skill Acquisition Theory, and not amenable, therefore, to the use of such measures as processing speed or reaction times. Discontinuity differs from restructuring in that the qualitative shift is not from non-productive to productive use of chunks via practice, but between two neurophysiologically distinct ways of learning that target two different parts of grammar. It shares ground with Ullman’s Declarative/Procedural Model (DPM), but as Rastelli shows through a detailed comparison, differs in important ways, with the discontinuity hypothesis, again, focusing on two kinds of learning processes, rather than two kinds of learning products, the lexicon and the grammar (differentiating between which is in any case far from straightforward), with some L2 grammatical items held to be learned statistically before grammatically. Rastelli also discusses the relevance of work in theoretical linguistics by Berwick, Yang, Roeper, O’Grady, Chomsky, Pinker, Grodzinsky, Hawkins, Tsimpli and others, the discontinuity hypothesis being shown to constitute a ‘semi-modular’ position in which categorical grammar relies on innate principles, while probabilistic grammars can be learned from positive evidence alone. Work of SLA scholars considered includes that of Bley-Vroman, N. Ellis, Wray, Sorace, Pienemann, Sharwood-Smith, Paradis, Slabakova, White, Ullman, Montrul, Robinson, Newport, and Williams.

Despite its broad scope and the obvious interest in similarities and differences between his own position and that of other theorists, Rastelli denies that Discontinuity offers a new theory of SLA:

Crucially, the word ‘theory’ is avoided purposely in this book . . . Basically, there cannot be a theory of discontinuity yet because the evidence provided so far can be interpreted in different ways . . . An expression such as ‘discontinuity hypothesis’ better conveys the image of the embryonic stage of a prospective theory of discontinuity. (2014: 6)

Nevertheless, the hypothesis he proposes is unquestionably innovative, and likely to motivate several new lines of empirical work. It will probably be regarded as (healthily) controversial in some quarters, but is without doubt an exceptionally interesting and intellectually refreshing contribution to the current SLA literature.



Abrahamsson, N. and K. Hyltenstam. 2009. ‘Age of onset and nativelikeness in a second language: Listener perception versus linguistic scrutiny,’Language Learning 59: 249-306.

Aslin, R. N. and E. L. Newport. 2012. ‘Statistical learning: From acquiring specific items to forming general rules,’Psychological Science 21/3: 170-76.

Aslin, R.N. and E. L. Newport. 2014. ‘Distributional language learning: Mechanisms and models of category formation,’ Language Learning 64/1: 86-105.

Berwick, R. C. 1997. ‘Syntax facitsaltum: Computation and the genotype and phenotype of language,’ Journal of Neurolinguistics 10/2-3: 231-49.

DeKeyser, R. M. 2000. ‘The robustness of critical period effects in second language acquisition,’ Studies in Second Language Acquisition 22/4: 499-533.

Ellis, N. C. 2002. ‘Frequency effects in language acquisition: A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition,’ Studies in Second Language Acquisition 24/1: 143-88.

Ellis, N. C. 2006. ‘Language acquisition as rational contingency learning,’ Applied Linguistics 27/1: 1-24.

Ellis, N. C. 2009. ‘Optimizing the input: Frequency and sampling in usage-based and form-focused learning’ in M. H. Long, andC. J. Doughty (eds): The Handbook of Language Teaching. Blackwell, pp. 139-58.

Ellis, N. C. and S. Wulff. 2015. ‘Usage-based approaches to SLA’ in B. VanPatten, and J. Williams (eds.):Theories in Second Language Acquisition. An introduction. 2nd edition. Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 75-93.

Hilles, S. 1986. ‘Interlanguage and the pro-drop parameter,’ Second Language Research 2/1: 33-51.

Granena, G. and M. H. Long.2013. ‘Age of onset, length of residence, language aptitude, and ultimate L2 attainment in three linguistic domains,’Second Language Research 29/3: 311-43.

Hamrick, P. 2014. ‘A role for chunk formation in statistical learning of second language syntax,’Language Learning 64/2: 247-78.

Janacsek, K., J. Fiser, and D. Nemeth. 2012. ‘The best time to acquire new skills: age-related differences in implicit sequence learning across the human lifespan,’Developmental Science 15/4: 496-505.

Munnich, E. and B. Landau. 2010. ‘Developmental decline in the acquisition of spatial language,’Language Learning and Development 6/1: 32-59.

Nemeth, D., K. Janacsek, and J. Fiser. 2013. ‘Age-dependent and coordinated shift in performance between implicit and explicit skill learning,’Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience 7/147: 1-13.

Osterhout, L., A. Poliakov, K. Inoue, J. McLaughlin, G. Valentine, L. Pitkanen, C. Frenck-Mestre, and J. Hirschensohn. 2008. ‘Second-language learning and changes in the brain,’ Journal of Neurolinguistics 21: 509-21.

Paradis, M. 2009. Declarative and procedural determinants of second languages. John Benjamins.

Poldrack, R. A. andM. G. Packard. 2003. ‘Conpetition among multipl memory systems: Converging evidence from animal and human brain studies,’ Neuropsychologia1497: 1-7.

Rebuschat, P. (ed). 2015. Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages. John Benjamins.

Rebuschat, P. and J. N. Williams (eds).­ 2012. Statistical Learning and Language Acquisition. Walter de Gruyter.

Robinson, P. andN. C. Ellis (eds). 2008. Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.Routledge.

Saffran, J. R. 2003. ‘Statistical language learning: Mechanisms and constraints,’Current Directions in Psychological Science 12: 110-14.

Saffran, J. R., E. L. Newport, and R. N. Aslin. 1996. ‘Word segmentation: The role of distributional cues,’Journal of Memory and Language 35: 606-21.

Spadaro, K. 2013. ‘Maturational constraints on lexical acquisition in a second language’ in G. Granena, and M. H. Long (eds): Sensitive Periods, Language Aptitudes, and Ultimate L2 Attainment. John Benjamins, pp. 43-68

Tanner, D., K. Inoue, and L. Osterhout. 2014. ‘Brain-based individual differences in on-line L2 grammatical comprehension,’ Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 17: 277-93.

Williams, J. N. 2009. ‘Implicit learning’ inW. C.Ritchie, and T. K. Bhatia (eds):The New Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Emerald Group Publishing, pp. 319-53.


Harmer on Brexit: Version 2


Harmer’s response on Facebook to the UK referendum result blames “the sclerotic elderly” and “an angry working class” for what he considers to be a catastrophic decision. He predicts it will soon result in “prime minister Farage, President Le Pen and a right-wing surge across the continent with a rise in racist violence and the gradual growth of intolerance and misunderstanding.” Harmer expresses “a profound loathing for the people who have led this despicable isolationist and backward-looking movement.” While these loathsome people hail “a new dawn”, Harmer sees “nothing but a great darkness settle over the land.”

Nearly 5,000 people “Liked” Harmer’s text and I think it’s curious that while nobody raises any objection to Harmer’s declaration of “a profound loathing” for the leaders of the “Leave” campaign, many strongly object to my repeated criticisms of the style and content of Harmer’s writing. That aside, I suggest that Harmer’s “Apology to Europe” is over-emotional and badly argued. It’s highly unlikely that Farage will become UK prime minister, or that Le Pen will become President of France. If there is “a right-wing surge across the continent, … “,  etc., etc., it won’t be the fault of those in the UK who voted “Leave”, but rather of the racists themselves and of the economic conditions which provide fertile ground for the spread of such beliefs. There’s been a spike in race-hate complaints since 23rd June, no doubt because racists feel emboldened, and thus there is some justification for fears of the right wing surge, etc. which Harmer predicts. I can understand why so many ordinary people are very upset by the result, and I think there are certainly reasons to be worried about what happens next. But we don’t know what will happen, and in my opinion Harmer’s reaction is simplistic, unreasonable and unhelpful.

It’s also worth pointing out that not everybody who voted “Leave” was a racist, or old, or working class – many wanted to leave the EU because there are a great many things wrong with its institutions and because the policies carried out by the unelected EU Commission and the Council of Ministers, with little control from the European Parliament, have caused a great deal of hardship. The Common Agricultural policy, at one point responsible for 60% of the total EU budget, was for decades a wasteful disaster which did much to damage good farming practices. The budget deficit limits imposed by the 1992 Maastricht treaty, triggered a wave of unemployment and welfare cuts across the continent. After that, the financial sector was increasingly de-regulated, and, with increasing pressure from Germany and France, the euro was introduced as a common currency, making it impossible for weaker members to use their own currency as a tool to manage their economic affairs. During the first decade of monetary union, weaker European economies were subjected to a wave of cheap credit from banks of the most powerful states. When the global crisis erupted, banking bailouts, rising social spending and sharp declines in tax revenue sparked a debt crisis in countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain. The EU Commission responded by imposing severe austerity on Greece and doing everything possible to bring down the Syriza government, a demonstration of the Troika’s determination to maintain a system of austerity across the region. The recently passed European Fiscal Compact further limits state spending across the euro zone.

So the EU is a deeply undemocratic organisation that promotes and protects the interests of its members’ ruling classes. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the UK “Leave” campaign was fuelled by ugly racism and absurd “Little Englander” propaganda, and there’s no obvious reason to think that things will be better in the UK or anywhere else as a result of the decision of the UK to leave.

Rather than react as Harmer has done, we should surely concentrate on promoting grass roots democratic organisations that fight for people’s rights wherever they are. The gap between rich and poor is widening, and there’s little reason to believe that if the UK had remained in the EU things would have improved for most of its inhabitants. In the UK today, 63 per cent of poor children grow up in families where one member is working. More than 600,000 residents of Manchester, are “experiencing the effects of extreme poverty” and 1.6 million are slipping into penury. The situation in other EU countries is even worse and the inability of EU members to use their own separate currencies as a way of dealing with economic problems, coupled with the policy of austerity imposed by the Troika, makes it likely that things will get worse before they get better.  What’s done is done; however regrettable you might think it is, I suggest that it can be seen not just as a worrying  threat, but also as an opportunity.


I apologise to those who wrote the works below for not citing them properly in my text.

Observations on Brexit  http://www.wsm.ie/c/anarchist-observations-brexit-lexit-uk-eu-referendum

The left wing case for quitting  the EU http://londonprogressivejournal.com/article/view/2300

John Pilger: Why the British said no to Europe  http://johnpilger.com/articles/why-the-british-said-no-to-europe

IATEFL 2016 Plenary. Scott Thornbury: The Entertainer


So, without more ado, ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands most forcefully together and give it up for the one, the only, the inimitable, the ever-so wonderful ……………… Scott Thornbury!!

And on he walks.

He looks good; he looks fit, well turned out, up for it. Rather than hide behind the lectern and read from a script, he roams the whole expanse of the colossal stage with practised ease, expertly addressing different sections of the huge auditorium , bringing everybody into the warm glow. He starts brilliantly. He puts the years of important signposts of his life on the screen:

  • 1950
  • 1975
  • 1997
  • 2004

and asks for suggestions as to what happened to him in those years.

“Uh oh! There’s “an element” in here today”, he says in response to a group on the right of the hall that’s having fun calling out the wrong answers to his elicitations.

His voice is warm, fruity, well-modulated, and it comes across perfectly, helped by a good PA system and by the fact that the enormous hall is packed with people. Of the IATEFL conference talks I saw on line, there was something near gender equality as far as quality of presentation is concerned, but nobody else reached Scott’s standard. John Faneslow used to be able to put him in the shade, and Michael Hoey on a good day came close, but these days, Scott’s unrivalled: he’s The Entertainer.

And it’s not just the way he performs of course – the best stand up artist depends on his or her material, right? Scott’s plenary had some very good material, and, what’s more, the content was both coherent and cohesive. Scott led us through 50 years of ELT history pointing out that really there’s nothing new under the sun; that we made lots of mistakes, that some “methods” look really weird today, while others that we think of as new were already there in the 60s, and so on.

Having arrived in his history of ELT at 1975, Scott highlighted the publication of the Strategies series of courseboooks, which he describes as “revolutionary”, since they were the first pedagogical material to be based not on grammatical structures but rather, on functions; and the first to be based not on what the language is, but rather on what you do with it.  At this point in the history, Scott came to the main part of his argument.

Two Kinds of Discourse

He suggests that two “intertwining but not interconnecting” discourses can be detected. On the one hand, there’s the “old view” that informs the various methodologies associated with grammar-based teaching. On the other, there’s the “new discourse”, which comes from a functional approach to language  and a more sociolinguistic view of language learning

In the figure below, the “old” view is on the left, and the “new” view is on right. From the top, the categories are:

  • the nature of language
  • units of language acquisition
  • the nature of learning
  • learning path
  • goals.


Scott suggests that the “Strategies” series of coursebooks resolves the argument between these 2 views in favour of the view on the right. Obviously, Scott likes the “new” view, so he was excited when the Strategies series was published – he felt he was at the dawn of a new age of ELT. But, Scott goes on to say, the matter wasn’t in fact resolved: current ELT practice has reverted to reflect the old view. Today, a grammar-based syllabus is used extensively in the global ELT industry.

So, what happened? Why didn’t things change? Why did the old discourse win out? A particularly important question is: Why does the grammar-based syllabus still reign despite clear findings from SLA research? Scott pointed out that SLA research suggests that teachers can’t affect the route of L2 development in any significant way: the inbuilt syllabus triumphs. Grammatical syllabuses fly in the face of the results of SLA research.

Scott showed results from a survey he did of more than 1,000 teachers, which showed that most teachers say they use a grammar based syllabus because students want it. In a way, they blame the students for an approach they say they’re not entirely happy with.

Despairing of finding a solution inside the ELT world, Scott thought maybe he should look at general education. But, when he took a look, he discovered that things in general education are “terrible”. Everywhere knowledge is being broken down into tiny little bits which can then be tested.  He comments: “There’s something really unhealthy in main stream education and it’s exacerbated by a discourse that’s all about McNuggets again.”

Scott then quoted Lin (2013)

“Language teaching is increasingly prepackaged and delivered as if it were a standardised, marketable product…”

“This commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning has gradually penetrated into school practices, turning teachers into ‘service providers’.”

So what’s the solution, then? Determined not to end on such a pessimistic note, Scott suggested three endings:

  1. The pragmatic route
  2. The dogmatic route
  3. The dialectic route

The Pragmatic Route says: Accept things the way they are and get on with it.

The Dogmatic (or Dogmetic!) Route says: Get rid of the coursebook, use communicative activities, and shape the language which emerges from genuine attempts at communication. Unfortunately, Scott said, this will never be really popular; at most it will be a footnote in Richards and Rogers. A more extreme route says get rid of the teacher. This isn’t an entirely silly suggestion, but again, it’s unlikely to be widely adopted.

The dialectic route tries, as in the Hegelian model, to overcome the limitations of the thesis and its antithesis by meshing the best from both. Here Scott gave two examples:

  • Language in The Wild. Used in Scandinavia. Students do classes but they’re sent out into the real world to do things like shopping.
  • The Hands Up Project.  Children who can’t get out of the classroom, such as children trapped in Gaza, are taught English by using technology to drive a communicative language learning approach.

The video of Nick in the UK interacting with some lovely kids in Gaza made a very uplifting ending to the talk.


I have two criticisms of Scott’s argument, one minor, one more important:

  1. The presentation of the two “intertwining but not interconnecting discourses” doesn’t do a good job of summarising differences between grammar-based ELT and a version of communicative language teaching that emphases interaction, student-centred learning, task-based activities, locally-produced materials, and communication for meaningful purposes.
  2. Scott’s framing of and solution to the problem of the grammar based syllabus is a cop out.

As to the first problem, Scott’s summary of the old and new, intertwined but not interconnected discourses has its limitations. The first three categories are not well-labelled, in my opinion. Language is not cognitive or social: the differences between grammatical and functional descriptions of language, or between cognitive and sociolinguistic approaches to SLA, are hardly well captured in this diagram.

Then, what are “units of acquisition”? How does the contrast between grammar Mcnuggets and communicative routines explain different conceptualisations of these “units”? What does “the nature of learning” refer to? What do “atomistic” and “holistic” mean here?  And while the fourth and fifth labels are clear enough, they’re false dichotomies; grammar-based teaching was and is concerned with promoting fluency, and communicative competence.

I think it would have been better to have used a framework like Breen’s (1984) to compare and contrast the syllabus types under scrutiny, asking of each one

  1. What knowledge does it focus on and prioritise?
  2. What capabilities does it focus on and prioritise?
  3. On what basis does it divide and sub-divide what is to be learned?
  4. How does it sequence what is to be learned?
  5. What is its rationale?

That way Scott could have looked at a grammar-based, or structural syllabus, a functional syllabus, like the one effectuated in Strategies, and a CLT syllabus as enacted in Dogme. That way, he could have dealt with the serious limitations of the Strategies approach and he could have dealt properly with his own approach. Which brings me to the more important criticism.

Face The Problem

The problem ELT faces is not “How do we resolve the tensions between two different discourses?”; rather it’s the problem which Scott clearly stated and then adroitly side-stepped on his way to a typically more anodyne, less controversial, resolution. The real problem is:

How can we combat the commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning which has turned teachers into ‘service providers’ who use coursebooks to deliver language instruction as if it were a standardised, marketable product?  

And the solution, of course, is radical change.

Decentralise. Organise teaching locally. Get rid of the coursebook. Reform the big testing authorities. Reform CELTA. Etc., etc..

Why did Scott side-step all these issues? Why, having clearly endorsed the findings of SLA research which show up the futility of a grammar based syllabus, and having shown how “really unhealthy” current ELT practice is, did Scott not argue the case for Dogme, or for Long’s version of TBLT, or for a learner-centred approach? Why did he not argue for reform of the current tests that dominate ELT, or of CELTA ?  Why did Scott dismiss his own approach, Dogme, as deserving no more than a footnote in Richards and Rogers, instead of promoting it as a viable alternative to the syllabus type that he so roundly, and rightly criticised?

Maybe, as he said, it was the end of the conference and he didn’t want to be gloomy. Or maybe it’s because he’s The Entertainer and that part of him got the better of the critical thinker and the reformer in him. If so, it’s a darn shame, however much fun it was to watch the performance.


Breen, M.P. (1984) Process syllabuses for the language classroom. In C.J.Brumfit (Ed.).  General English Syllabus Design. ELT Documents No. 118. London: Pergamon Press & The British Council. 47-60.

Lin, A. 2013. Toward paradigmatic change in TESOL methodologies: building plurilingual pedagogies from the ground up, TESOL Quarterly, 47/3.

Larsen Freeman’s IATEFL 2016 Plenary: Shifting metaphors from computer input to ecological affordances


In her plenary talk, Larsen Freeman argued that it’s time to replace “input-output metaphors” with “affordances”. The metaphors of input and output belong to a positivist, reductionist  approach to SLA which needs to be replaced by “a new way of understanding” language learning based on Complexity Theory.

Before we look at Larsen Freeman’s new way of understanding, let’s take a quick look at what she objects to by reviewing one current approach to understanding the process of SLA.

Interlanguage and related constructs 

There’s no single, complete and generally agreed-upon theory of SLA, but there’s a widespread view that second language learning is a process whereby learners gradually develop their own autonomous grammatical system with its own internal organising principles. This system is referred to as “interlanguage”.  Note that “interlanguage” is a theoretical construct (not a fact and not a metaphor) which has proved useful in developing a theory of some of the phenomena associated with SLA; the construct itself needs further study and the theory which it’s part of  is incomplete, and possibly false.

Support for the hypothesis of interlanguages comes from observations of U-shaped behaviour in SLA, which indicate that learners’ interlanguage development is not linear. An example of U-shaped behaviour is this:


The example here is from a study in the 70s. Another example comes from morphological development, specifically, the development of English irregular past forms, such as came, went, broke, which are supplanted by rule-governed, but deviant past forms: comed, goed, breaked. In time, these new forms are themselves replaced by the irregular forms that appeared in the initial stage.

This U-shaped learning curve is observed in learning the lexicon, too, as Long (2011) explains. Learners have to master the idiosyncratic nature of words, not just their canonical meaning. While learners encounter a word in a correct context, the word is not simply added to a static cognitive pile of vocabulary items. Instead, they experiment with the word, sometimes using it incorrectly, thus establishing where it works and where it doesn’t. The suggestion is that only by passing through a period of incorrectness, in which the lexicon is used in a variety of ways, can they climb back up the U-shaped curve. To add to the example of feet above, there’s the example of the noun shop. Learners may first encounter the word in a sentence such as “I bought a pastry at the coffee shop yesterday.” Then, they experiment with deviant utterances such as “I am going to the supermarket shop,” correctly associating the word ‘shop’ with a place they can purchase goods, but getting it wrong. By making these incorrect utterances, the learner distinguishes between what is appropriate, because “at each stage of the learning process, the learner outputs a corresponding hypothesis based on the evidence available so far” (Carlucci and Case, 2011).


The re-organisation of new information as learners move along the U-shaped curve is a characteristic of interlanguage development. Associated with this restructuring is the construct of automaticity. Language acquisition can be seen as a complex cognitive skill where, as your skill level in a domain increases, the amount of attention you need to perform generally decreases . The basis of processing approaches to SLA is that we have limited resources when it comes to processing information and so the more we can make the process automatic, the more processing capacity we free up for other work. Active attention requires more mental work, and thus, developing the skill of fluent language use involves making more and more of it automatic, so that no active attention is required. McLaughlin  (1987) compares learning a language to learning to drive a car. Through practice, language skills go  from a ‘controlled process’ in which great attention and conscious effort is needed to an ‘automatic process’.

Automaticity can be said to occur when associative connections between a certain kind of input and output pattern occurs. For instance, in this exchange:

  • Speaker 1: Morning.
  • Speaker 2: Morning. How are you?
  • Speaker 1: Fine, and you?
  • Speaker 2: Fine.

the speakers, in most situations, don’t actively think about what they’re saying. In the same way, second language learners’ learn new language through use of controlled processes, which become automatic, and in turn free up controlled processes which can then be directed to new forms.


There is a further hypothesis that is generally accepted among those working on processing models of SLA, namely that L2 learners pass through developmental sequences on their way to some degree of communicative competence, exhibiting common patterns and features across differences in learners’ age and L1, acquisition context, and instructional approach. Examples of such sequences are found in the well known series of morpheme studies; the four-stage sequence for ESL negation; the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses; and the sequence of question formation in German (see Long, 2015 for a full discussion).

Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the learners’ L1 might be, no matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, and they master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both. This led Pienemann to formulate his learnability hypothesis and teachability hypothesis: what is processable by students at any time determines what is learnable, and, thereby, what is teachable (Pienemann, 1984, 1989).

All these bits and pieces of an incomplete theory of L2 learning suggest that learners themselves, not their teachers, have most control over their language development. As Long (2011) says:

Students do not – in fact, cannot – learn (as opposed to learn about) target forms and structures on demand, when and how a teacher or a coursebook decree that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Instruction can facilitate development, but needs to be provided with respect for, and in harmony with, the learner’s powerful cognitive contribution to the acquisition process.

Let me emphasise that the aim of this psycholinguistic research is to understand how learners deal psychologically with linguistic data from the environment (input) in order to understand and transform the data into competence of the L2. Constructs such as input, intake, noticing, short and long term memory, implicit and explicit learning, interlanguage, output, and so on are used to facilitate the explanation, which takes the form of a number of hypotheses. No “black box” is used as an ad hoc device to rescue the hypotheses. Those who make use of Chomsky’s theoretical construct of an innate Language Acquisition Device in their theories of SLA do so in such a way that their hypotheses can be tested. In any case, it’s how learners interact psychologically with their linguistic environment that interests those involved in interlanguage studies. Other researchers look at how learners interact socially with their linguistic environment, and many theories contain both sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic components.

So there you are. There’s a quick summary of how some scholars try to explain the process of SLA from a psychological perspective. But before we go on, we have to look at the difference between metaphors and theoretical constructs.

Metaphors and Constructs

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them. She’s a tiger. He died in a sea of grief. To say that “input” is a metaphor is to say that it represents something else, and so it does. To say that we should be careful not to mistake “input” for the real thing is well advised. But to say that “input” as used in the way I used it above is a metaphor is quite simply wrong. No scientific theory of anything uses metaphors because, as Gregg (2010) points out

There is no point in conducting the discussion at the level of metaphor; metaphors simply are not the sort of thing one argues over. Indeed, as Fodor and Pylyshyn (1988: 62, footnote 35) say, ‘metaphors … tend to be a license to take one’s claims as something less than serious hypotheses.’ Larsen-Freeman (2006: 590) reflects the same confusion of metaphor and hypothesis: ‘[M]ost researchers in [SLA] have operated with a “developmental ladder” metaphor (Fischer et al., 2003) and under certain assumptions and postulates that follow from it …’ But of course assumptions and postulates do not follow from metaphors; nothing does.

In contrast, theoretical constructs such as input, intake, noticing, automaticity, and so on, define what they stand for, and each of them is used in the service of exploring a hypothesis or a more general theory. All of the theoretical constructs named above, including “input”, are theory-laden: they’re terms used in a special way in the service of the hypothesis or theory they are part of,  and their validity or truth value can be tested by appeals to logic and empirical evidence. Some constructs, for example those used in Krashen’s theory, are found wanting because they’re so poorly-defined as to be circular. Other constructs, for example noticing, are the subject of both logical and empirical scrutiny. None of these constructs is correctly described as a metaphor, and Larsen Freeman’s inability to distinguish between a theoretical construct and a metaphor plagues her incoherent argument.  In short: metaphors are no grounds on which to build any theory, and dealing in metaphors assures that no good theory will result.

Get it? If you do, you’re a step ahead of Larsen Freeman, who seems to have taken several steps backwards since, in 1991, she co-authored, with Mike Long, the splendid An introduction to second language acquisition research.

Let’s now look at what Larsen Freeman said in her plenary address.

The Plenary

Larsen Freeman read this out:


Then, with this slide showing:


she said this:

Do we want to see our students as black boxes, as passive recipients of customised input, where they just sit passively and receive? Is that what we want?

Or is it better to see our learners as actively engaged in their own process of learning and discovering the world finding excitement in learning and working in a collaborative fashion with their classmates and teachers?

It’s time to shift metaphors. Let’s sanitise the language. Join with me; make a pledge never to use “input” and “output”.

You’d be hard put to come up with a more absurd straw man argument; a more trivial treatment of a serious issue. Nevertheless, that’s all Larsen Freeman had to say about it.


With input and output safely consigned to the dustbin of history, Larsen Freeman moved on to her own new way of understanding. She has a “theoretical commitment” to complexity theory, but, she said:

If you don’t want to take my word for it that ecology is a metaphor for now, .. or complexity theory is a theory in keeping with ecology, I refer you to your own Stephen Hawkins, who calls this century “the century of complexity.”

Well, if the great Stephen Hawkins calls this century “the century of complexity”, then  complexity theory must be right, right?

With Hawkins’ impressive endorsement in the bag, and with a video clip of a flock of birds avoiding a predator displayed on her presentation slide, Larsen Freeman began her account of the theory that she’s now so committed to.


She said:

Instead of thinking about reifying and classifying and reducing, let’s turn to the concept of emergence – a central theme in complexity theory. Emergence is the idea that in a complex system different components interact and give rise to another pattern at another level of complexity.

A flock of birds part when approached by a predator and then they re-group. A new level of complexity arises, emerges, out of the interaction of the parts.

All birds take off and land together. They stay together as a kind of superorganism. They take off, they separate, they land, as if one.

You see how that pattern emerges from the interaction of the parts?

Notice there’s no central authority: no bird says “Follow me I’ll lead you to safety”; they self organise into a new level of complexity.

What are the levels of complexity here? What is the new level of complexity that emerges out of the interaction of the parts? Where does the parting and reformation of the flock fit in to these levels of complexity? How is “all birds take off and land together” evidence of a new level of complexity?

What on earth is she talking about? Larsen Freeman constantly gives the impression that she thinks what she’s saying is really, really important, but what is she saying? It’s not that it’s too complicated, or too complex; it’s that it just doesn’t make much sense. “Beyond our ken”, perhaps.


The next bit of Larsen Freeman’s talk that addresses complexity theory was introduced by reading aloud this text:


After which she said:

Natural themes help to ground these concepts. …………….

I invite you to think with me and make some connections. Think about the connection between an open system and language. Language is changing all the time, its flowing but it’s also changing. ………………

Notice in this eddy, in this stream, that pattern exists in the flux, but all the particles that are passing through it are constantly changing.  It’s not the same water, but it’s the same pattern. ………………………..

So this world (the stream in the picture) exists because last winter there was snow in the mountains. And the snow pattern accumulated such that now when the snow melts, the water feeds into many streams, this one being one of them. And unless the stream is dammed, or the water ceases, the source ceases, the snow melts, this world will continue. English goes on, even though it’s not…. the English of Shakespeare and yet it still has the identity we know and call English. So these systems are interconnected both spatially and temporally, in time. 

Again, what is she talking about? What systems is she talking about? What does it all mean? The key seems to be “patterns in the flux”, but then, what’s so new about that?

At some point Larsen Freeman returned to this “patterns in the flux” issue. She showed a graph of the average performance of a group of students which indicated that the group, when seen as a whole, had made progress. Then she showed the graphs of the individuals who made up the group and it became clear that one or two individuals hadn’t made any progress. What do we learn from this? I thought she was going to say something about a reverse level of complexity, or granularity, or patterns disappearing from the flux from a lack of  interaction of the parts, or something.  But no. The point was:

When you look  at group average and individual performance, they’re different.

Just in case that’s too much for you to take in, Larsen Freeman explained:

Variability is ignored by statistical averages. You can make generalisations about the group but don’t assume they apply to individuals. Individual variability is the essence of adaptive behaviour. We have to look at patterns in the flux. That’s what we know from a complexity theory ecological perspective.


Returning to the exposition of complexity theory, there’s one more bit to add: adaptiveness. Larsen Freeman read aloud the text from this slide


The example is the adaptive immune system, not the innate immune system, the adaptive one. Larsen Freeman invited the audience to watch the video and see how the good microbe got the bad one, but I don’t know why. Anyway, the adaptive immune system is an example of a system that is nimble, dynamic, and has no centralised control, which is a key part of complexity theory.

And that’s all folks! That ‘s all Larsen Freeman had to say about complexity theory: it’s complex, open and adaptive. I’ve rarely witnessed such a poor attempt to explain anything.


Then Larsen Freeman talked about affordances. This, just to remind you, is her alternative to input.

There are two types of affordances

  1. Property affordances. These are in the environment. You can design an affordance. New affordances for classroom learning include providing opportunities for engagement; instruction and materials that make sure everybody learns; using technology.
  2. Second Order Affordances. These refer to the learner’s perception of and relation with affordances. Students are not passive receivers of input. Second order affordances Include the agent, the perceiver, in the system. Second order affordances are dynamic and adaptive; they emerge when aspects of the environment are in interaction with the agent. The agent’s relational stance to the property affordances is key. A learner’s perception of and interaction with the environment is what creates a second order affordance.

To help clarify things, Larsen Freeman read this to the audience:


(Note here that their students “operate between languages”, unlike mine and yours (unless you’ve already taken the pledge and signed up) who learn a second or foreign language. Note also that Thoms calls “affordance” a construct.)

If I’ve got it right, “affordances” refer first to anything in the environment that might help learners learn, and second to the learner’s relational stance to them. The important bit of affordances is the relational stance  bit: the learner’s perception of, and interaction with, the environment. Crucially, the learner’s perception of the affordance opportunities, has to be taken into account. “Really?” you might say, “That’s what we do in the old world of input too – we try to take into account the learner’s perception of the input!”

Implications for teaching

Finally Larsen Freeman addresses the implications of her radical new way of understanding for teaching.

Here’s an example. In the old world which Larsen Freeman is so eager to leave behind, where people still understand SLA in terms of input and output, teachers use recasts. In the shiny new world of complexity theory and emergentism, recasts become access-creating affordances.


Larsen Freeman explains that rather than just recast, you can “build on the mistake” and thus “manage the affordance created by it.”

And then there’s adaption.


Larsen Freeman refers to the “Inert Knowledge Problem”: students can’t use knowledge learned in class when they try to operate in the real world. How, Larsen Freeman asks, can they adapt their language resources to this new environment?  Here’s what she says:

So there’s a sense in which a system like that is not externally controlled through inputs and outputs but creates itself. It holds together in a self-organising manner – like the bird flock –  that makes it have its individuality and directiveness in relation to the environment.  Learning is not the taking in of existing forms but a continuing dynamic adaptation to context which is always changing  In order to use language patterns , beyond a given occasion, students need experience in adapting to multiple and variable contexts.

“A system like that”??  What system is she talking about? Well it doesn’t really matter, does it, because the whole thing is, once again, beyond our ken, well beyond mine, anyway.

Larsen Freeman gives a few practical suggestions to enhance our students’ ability to adapt, “to take their present system and mold (sic) it to a new context for a present purpose.”

You can do the same task in less time.

Don’t just repeat it, change the task a little bit.

Or make it easier.

Or give them a text to read.

Or slow down the recording.

Or use a Think Aloud technique in order to freeze the action, “so that you explain the choices that exist”. For example:

If I say “Can I help you?”, the student says:

“I want a book.”

and that might be an opportunity to pause and say:

“You can say that. That’s OK; I understand your meaning.”

But another way to say it is to say

“I would like a book.”

Right? To give information. Importantly, adaptation does not mean sameness, but we are trying to give information so that students can make informed choices about how they wish to be, um,… seemed.

And that was about it. I don’t think I’ve left any major content out.


This is the brave new world that two of the other plenary speakers – Richardson and Thornbury – want to be part of. Both of them join in Larsen Freeman’s rejection of the explanation of the process of SLA that I sketched at the start of this post, and both of them are enthusiastic supporters of Larsen Freeman’s version of complexity theory and emergentism.

Judge for yourself.      



Carlucci, L. and Case, J. (2013) On the Necessity of U-Shaped Learning.  Topics in Cognitive Science, 5. 1,. pp 56-88.

Gregg, K. R. (2010) Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26(4) 549–56.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second Language Learning.  London: Edward Arnold.

Pienemann, M. (1987) Determining the influence of instruction on L2 speech processing. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 83-113.

Pienemann, M. (1989) Is language teachable? Psycholinguistic experiments and hypotheses. Applied Linguistics 10, 52-79.

IATEFL 2016 Plenary by Silvana Richardson: The Case for NNESTs


Richardson’s plenary was a well-prepared, well-delivered, passionate plea for an end to the discrimination against Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs). It was a great talk; it’s received lots of praise from others and doesn’t need more from me. So I just want to indicate a few points where I think Richardson over-egged the pudding. Given that there’s so much compelling evidence to support her case, there’s really no need to spoil it by giving a distorted picture of current SLA research.

Here are the slides I object to:


The Monolingual Bias of SLA

Very few SLA researchers today assume that NS is the “best model”; or that NSA is the best route;  or that a NS is the best teacher. It’s simply not true.

Nor is it true that most SLA researchers view the L1 as “an obstacle”.



Generative Grammar

Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar (UG) gives no support whatsoever to any argument in favour of monolingualism or Native Speakerism. Chomsky’s choice of a limited domain was based on considerations of scientific theory construction; to suggest that UG theory is ideologically biased in such a way that it’s somehow contributed to discrimination against NNESTs is plain silly. 



Cognitivist Theories of SLA

A cognitivist approach to SLA research can’t fairly be used as evidence for the “Supremacy of the ‘mono’”, whatever that means. Richardson suggested that the image of the tunnel in the slide indicates how narrow, dark and confining the “cognitivist theoretical space” is. But “cognitivist” approaches take many forms, and indeed one of those forms is emergentism, which Richardson seems happy to endorse. Unless more information is given about what’s being referred to, the sweeping assertion that a cognitivist approach to research leads to “narrow approaches to teaching learning and teacher education” is unwarranted. It’s equally unwarranted to assert that a cognitivist aproach to SLA leads necessarily to native speakerism, monolingualism or monoculturalism.



Task-Based LT and the Lexical Approach

Neither task-based language teaching (TBLT) nor the lexical approach tries to “thrust a monolingual approach upon the world”. What unites the very different views of proponents of TBLT and Lexical approaches, such as Willis, Long, Nunan, Skehan (TBLT) and Lewis and Dellar (Lexical Approach), is their commitment to the fight for equal rights for NNESTs.    


Paradigm Shifts

Along the course of her talk, Richardson gives recurrent indications that she has a poor view of current SLA research, which might explain why, in her eagerness to promote her cause, she chooses some dubious bedfellows. Richardson suggests that a paradigm shift from “SLA” to “Plurilingual Development” will somehow usher in a new world of ELT practice where NNESTs are no longer discriminated against. This naïve view rests on attributing ideological positions to the two “sides”, such that those involved in current “cognitivist” SLA research are regarded as conservative reactionaries who support the status quo, while those promoting the shift to “Plurilingual Development” are seen as a liberating vanguard. The most cursory examination of the political views of education and social organisation expressed by those in the two camps will quickly show this up for the falsehood that it is. 

And then there’s the small matter of academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge to be considered. I suggest that Richardson watches the video recording of Larsen Freeman’s IATEFL 2016 plenary and then reads Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) Complex systems and applied linguistics. I think she’ll be struck by the woeful lack of clarity and the poor standards of scholarship and argumentation displayed. She might then like to compare these examples of a “Plurilingual Development” paradigm with the work of those working in the current “cognitivist” SLA paradigm; as an almost random example: Cook and Singleton (2014) Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition. 

There are plenty of things to criticise about the state of SLA theory, but they don’t include an insensitivity to the cause of NNESTs, and the wide range of research projects currently being pursued don’t deserve to be lumped together and given the careless treatment they get here.   

I’ll post a full review of Larsen Freeman’s plenary next week.     

A New Term Starts!


Here we go again – a new term is starting at universities offering Masters in TESOL or AL, so once again I’ve moved this post to the front.

Again, let’s run through the biggest problems students face: too much information; choosing appropriate topics; getting the hang of academic writing.

1. Too much Information.

An MA TESOL curriculum looks daunting, the reading lists look daunting, and the books themselves often look daunting. Many students spend far too long reading and taking notes in a non-focused way: they waste time by not thinking right from the start about the topics that they will eventually choose to base their assignments on.  So, here’s the first tip:

The first thing you should do when you start each module is think about what assignments you’ll do.

Having got a quick overview of the content of the module, make a tentative decision about what parts of it to concentrate on and about your assignment topics. This will help you to choose reading material, and will give focus to studies.

Similarly, you have to learn what to read, and how to read. When you start each module, read the course material and don’t go out and buy a load of books. And here’s the second tip:

Don’t buy any books until you’ve decided on your topic, and don’t read in any depth until then either.

Keep in mind that you can download at least 50% of the material you need from library and other web sites, and that more and more books can now be bought in digital format. To do well in this MA, you have to learn to read selectively. Don’t just read. Read for a purpose: read with a particular topic (better still, with a well-formulated question) in mind. Don’t buy any books before you’re abslutely sure you’ll make good use of them .

2. Choosing an appropriate topic.

The trick here is to narrow down the topic so that it becomes possible to discuss it in detail, while still remaining central to the general area of study. So, for example, if you are asked to do a paper on language learning, “How do people learn a second language?” is not a good topic: it’s far too general. “What role does instrumental motivation play in SLA?” is a much better topic. Which leads me to Tip No. 3:

The best way to find a topic is to frame your topic as a question.

Well-formulated questions are the key to all good research, and they are one of the keys to success in doing an MA. A few examples of well-formulated questions for an MA TESL are these:

• What’s the difference between the present perfect and the simple past tense?

• Why is “stress” so important to English pronunciation?

• How can I motivate my students to do extensive reading?

• When’s the best time to offer correction in class?

• What are the roles of “input” and “output” in SLA?

• How does the feeling of “belonging” influence motivation?

• What are the limitations of a Task-Based Syllabus?

• What is the wash-back effect of the Cambridge FCE exam?

• What is politeness?

• How are blogs being used in EFL teaching?

To sum up: Choose a manageable topic for each written assignment. Narrow down the topic so that it becomes possible to discuss it in detail. Frame your topic as a well-defined question that your paper will address.

3. Academic Writing.

Writing a paper at Masters level demands a good understanding of all the various elements of academic writing. First, there’s the question of genre. In academic writing, you must express yourself as clearly and succinctly as possible, and here comes Tip No. 4:

In academic writing “Less is more”.

Examiners mark down “waffle”, “padding”, and generally loose expression of ideas. I can’t remember who, but somebody famous once said at the end of a letter: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to write a short one”. There is, of course, scope for you to express yourself in your own way (indeed, examiners look for signs of enthusiasm and real engagement with the topic under discussion) and one of the things you have to do, like any writer, is to find your own, distinctive voice. But you have to stay faithful to the academic style.

While the content of your paper is, of course, the most important thing, the way you write, and the way you present the paper have a big impact on your final grade. Just for example, many examiners, when marking an MA paper, go straight to the Reference section and check if it’s properly formatted and contains all and only the references mentioned in the text. The way you present your paper (double-spaced, proper indentations, and all that stuff); the way you write it (so as to make it coherent); the way you organise it (so as to make it cohesive); the way you give in-text citations; the way you give references; the way you organise appendices; are all crucial.

Making the Course Manageable

1. Essential steps in working through a module.

Focus: that’s the key. Here are the key steps:

Step 1: Ask yourself: What is this module about? Just as important: What is it NOT about? The point is to quickly identify the core content of the module. Read the Course Notes and the Course Handbook, and DON’T READ ANYTHING ELSE, YET.

Step 2: Identify the components of the module. If, for example, the module is concerned with grammar, then clearly identify the various parts that you’re expected to study. Again, don’t get lost in detail: you’re still just trying to get the overall picture. See the chapters on each module below for more help with this.

Step 3: Do the small assignments that are required. If these do not count towards your formal assessment , then do them in order to prepare yourself for the assignments that do count, and don’t spend too much time on them. Study the requirements of the MA TESL programme closely to identify which parts of your writing assignments count towards your formal assessment and which do not. • Some small assignments are required (you MUST submit them), but they do not influence your mark or grade. Don’t spend too mch time on these, unless they help you prepare for the main asignments.

Step 4: Identify the topic that you will choose for the written assignment that will determine your grade. THIS IS THE CRUCIAL STEP! Reach this point as fast as you can in each module: the sooner you decide what you’re going to focus on, the better your reading, studying, writing and results will be. Once you have identified your topic, then you can start reading for a purpose, and start marshalling your ideas. Again, we will look at each module below, to help you find good, well-defined, manageable topics for your main written assignments.

Step 5: Write an Outline of your paper. The outline is for your tutor, and should give a brief outline of your paper. You should make sure that your tutor reviews your outline and gives it approval.

Step 6: Write the First Draft of the paper. Write this draft as if it were the final version: don’t say “I’ll deal with the details (references, appendices, formatting) later”. Make it as good as you can.

Step 7: If you are allowed to do so, submit the first draft to your Tutor. Some universities don’t approve of this, so check with your tutor. If your tutor allows such a step, try to get detailed feedback on it. Don’t be content with any general “Well that look’s OK” stuff. Ask “How can I improve it?” and get the fullest feedback possible. Take note of ALL suggestions, and make sure you incorporate ALL of them in the final version.

Step 8: Write the final version of the paper.

Step 9: Carefully proof read the final version. Use a spell-checker. Check all the details of formatting, citations, Reference section, Appendices. Ask a friend or colleage to check it. If allowed, ask your tutor to check it.

Step 10: Submit the paper: you’re done!

3. Using Resources

Your first resource is your tutor. You’ve paid lots of money for this MA, so make sure you get all the support you need from him or her! Most importantly: don’t be afraid to ask help whenever you need it. Ask any question you like (while it’s obviously not quite true that “There’s no such thing as a stupid question”, don’t feel intimidated or afraid to ask very basic questions) , and as many as you like. Ask your tutor for suggstions on reading, on suitable topics for the written assignments, on where to find materials, on anything at all that you have doubts about. Never submit any written work for assessment until your tutor has said it’s the best you can do. If you think your tutor is not doing a good job, say so, and if necessary, ask for a change.

Your second resource is your fellow students. When I did my MA, I learned a lot in the students’ bar! Whatever means you have of talking to your fellow-students, use them to the full. Ask them what they’re reading, what they’re having trouble with, and share not only your thoughts but your feelings about the course with them.

Your third resource is the library. It is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to teach yourself, if you don’t already know, how to use a university library. Again, don’t be afraid to ask for help: most library staff are wonderful: the unsung heroes of the academic world. At Leicester University where I work as an associate tutor on the Distance Learning MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL course, the library staff exemplify good library practice. They can be contacted by phone, and by email, and they have always, without fail, solved the problems I’ve asked them for help with. Whatever university you are studying at, the library staff are probably your most important resource, so be nice to them, and use them to the max. If you’re doing a presential course, the most important thing is to learn how the journals and books that the library holds are organised. Since most of you have aleady studied at university, I suppose you’ve got a good handle on this, but if you haven’t, well do something! Just as important as the physical library at your university are the internet resources offered by it. This is so important that I have dedicated Chapter 10 to it.

Your fourth resource is the internet. Apart from the resources offered by the university library, there is an enormous amount of valuable material available on the internet. See the “Doing an MA” and “Resources” section of this website for more stuff.

I can’t resist mentioning David Crystal’s Encyclopedia of The English Language as a constant resource. A friend of mine claimed that she got through her MA TESL by using this book most of the time, and, while I only bought it recently, I wish I’d had it to refer to when I was doing my MA.

Please use this website to ask questions and to discuss any issues related to your course.

Mike Long on Recasts


To paraphrase Long (2007), some teachers think that almost all overt error correction is beneficial. Some theorists (see, e.g., Carroll, 1997; Truscott, 1996, 1999) claim that negative feedback plays no role at all. The view that a complex array of linguistic and psychological factors affect its utility seems the most reasonable.

In the light of my recent remarks on Conti’s post, and stuff I’ve just seen on Marc’s blog , here’s a quick post based on what Long (2007) says about recasts.

After a review of recent research on L2 recasts, Long concludes that

implicit negative feedback in the form of corrective recasts seems particularly promising.

This contradicts Conti’s claim that

As several studies have clearly shown, recasts do not really ‘work’.

Conti’s argument is based on cherry picking bits of research and on crass claims about how memory works. Long’s argument is based on a rational interrogation of the evidence.


Corrective Recasts

Long (2007) defines a corrective recast as

a reformulation of all or part of a learner’s immediately preceding utterance in which one or more nontarget-like (lexical, grammatical, etc.) items is/are replaced by the corresponding target language form(s), and where, throughout the exchange the focus of the interlocutors is on meaning, not language as object.

The important thing to note is that the “corrections” in recasts are implicit and incidental.

Long says that recasts are useful because

    • They convey needed information about the target language in context where interlocutors share a joint attentional focus and when the learner already has prior comprehension of at least part of the message, thereby facilitating form-function mapping.
    • Learners are vested in the message as it’s their message which is at stake and so will probably be motivated and attending, conditions likely to facilitate noticing of any new linguistic information in the input.
    • Since they already understand part of the recast, they have additional freed-up attentional resources that can be allocated to the form-function mapping. They also have the chance to compare the incorrect and correct utterances.

Long gives a review of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of recasts in SLA and shows that there is clear evidence that the linguistic information recasts contain is both useable and used .

In his Summary (half way through the chapter), Long says that al the studies show that recasts exist in relatively high frequencies in both classroom-based and noninstructional settings observed. He goes on to say that learners notice the negative feedback that corrective recasts contain; that the feedback is useable and used, and that, while not necessary for acquisition, recasts appear to be facilitative, and to work better than most explicit modelling. He concludes that the jury is still out on recasts but that the results of studies to date are encouraging.


Long then moves to “The Sceptics”. He deals at length with 2 main objections by Lyster and Lyster and Ranta (see Long 2007 for the references or email me). They are:

  1. The function of recasts can often be ambiguous.
  2. “Uptake” as a result of recasts is sparse.

As Long says, both ambiguity and uptake are important considerations when evaluating any form of negative feedback and thus worthy of discussion.

Long argues that while the function of some recasts can be ambiguous, that doesn’t negate their usefulness. He notes, interestingly, that the risk of ambiguity seems to be greater in immersion couses and in some task-based and content-based lessons.

The “uptake” sceptism is more harshly dealt with by Long. His arguments are too detailed to be quickly summarised, but they make very interesting reading. Long challenges the way the construct of “uptake” is used by Lyster and others, and highlights weaknesses in both study methods and data interpretation. What’s interesting is how carefully and rationally Long scrutinises the work he discusses, and his discussion highlights just how tricky investigating aspects of SLA is. How can we operationalise the construct “uptake” so that our studies are as rigorous as possible? How can we best articulate the research questions that drive the study? How can we organise a study so that it focuses carefully on it’s well-articulated research questions? How can we use statistical measures to interpret the data? How else can we interpret the data? And so on. It makes instructive reading for all those doing post graduate work in SLA, and I have often pointed my own tutees to Long’s work as a good example of a critical scholar at work. (I also point out that Long is supremely well-informed, which helps!)

With regard to uptake, one point stands out for me in Long’s reply to the sceptics: no form of feedback will always have immediate corrective effects “least of all as measured by spoken production, which is often one of the very last indications of change in an underlying grammar, whether induced by recasts or otherwise” (p. 99). Given that data on the immediate effects by themselves are unreliable, how much weight do we give to different measures of the effectiveness of different kinds of correction? Long discusses these issues, of course, but they indicate just how difficult it is to study things like recasts. But onward thru the fog we must go, armed with rationality and empirical evidence, because otherwise we’ll be ruled by mere prejudice and the assays of bias, anecdotes, folk law, and bullshit, eh what?  Just BTW, Long refers to work done by Oliver (1995; 2000) which is well worth reading.

Long’s chapter continues by looking at recasts and perceptual salience. The relationship between the the saliency of linguistic targets and the relative utility of models, recasts, and production-only opportunities, as studied in Ono and Witzel (2002) is discussed. If there’s any interest in this among readers, I’ll deal with it in a separate post. Perceptual salience is fascinating, don’t you think? No really, it is. What stands out when we’re learning? What happens to the non-salient bits? Does saliency explain putative fossilisation?  Is trying to get advanced learners to memorise thousands of esoteric lexical chunks the answer?

Then Long deals with “Methodologial Issues” of research. Required reading if you’re doing post graduate work.

The final section of Long’s chapter is on Pedagogical Implications. He recommends the use of recasts in such a way that they match a raft of factors, but anyway, he recommends them. Now just imagine you read that in an MA paper! Ughh! My apologies to all; as Scott would say “Come on: it’s only a blog!”



If we want to teach well, we need a good grasp of the most effective way to give feedback to our students when they make mistakes. As always in ELT, there’s no definitive answer to the question “What’s the best way?” It depends, it really does. It depends crucially, as Long is keen to stress, on local factors that only the teacher in that situation can evaluate. Long stresses that precisely how teachers interact with their learners  in their own environment is their decision. He highlights the hopeless inadequacies of current ELT practice, but he never, ever, tells teachers what to do.

Research suggests that coursebook-based teaching is unlikely to be as effective as teaching that pays more attention to learners’ needs. Research suggests that basing teaching on the presentation and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is unlikely to be as effective as basing teaching on real communication. And research suggests (sic) that recasts are an effective way of helping learners notice their mistakes and to make progress.

Against this, we have the unprincipled, over-confident assertions of a motley crew of ELT teacher trainers and gurus, all promoting their own commercial wares, who confidently say, with equal force, that recasts work and that they don’t. Among them there are real charlatans, and a bunch of well-intentioned fools. Too many of them talk ill-informed, populist nonsense on their blogs, publish “How to ..” books by the score, tour the world peddling their snake oil, and prey on teachers who haven’t had the chance to find out for themselves just how bad the advice they’re being sold really is. One way to fight them is through rational criticism.

I hasten to add that this last bit, the inevitable rant, has absolutely no approval from Mike Long, who fights his own battles with far more grace, not to mention knowledge, than I do.

All References can be found in

Long, M.H. (2007) Problems in SLA. Mahwah, Earlbowm.

The Language Gym


Gianfranco Conti’s The Language Gym is a blog, but really it’s a sales pitch for his book The Language Teacher Toolkit. Actually he’s the co-author but it’s hard to find the other bloke’s name.

There’s another web site too, with a front page that reminds me of Orwell’s 1984. Try it. I think it’s horrific, like you’re trapped, like you can’t get out, like you have to do the work out, like come on, sign up, follow.

The book claims that the tools it describes can successfully help teachers to get learners to transfer knowledge held in some version of working memory to some version of long term memory, and then ensure some version of communicative competence. Conti and his co-author use the distinction between working memory and long term memory as if they knew how the two constructs worked in SLA; as if, that is, they were working with some theory of SLA that had some definitive explanation of the putative transition. None exists. What do Conti and his co-author think happens to input?  What do they think the difference between input and intake is? What do they think “noticing” does? Come to that, what do they think “noticing” is?  What theory is it that they think explains how knowledge supposedly held in working memory goes into long term memory? What happens then? The book is stuffed with baloney, but I’ll deal with the book more fully on another day.


Six Useless Things Foreign Teachers Do

It’s the blog that I want to criticise here. Recently, I noticed to my surprise that people whose opinions I respect “liked” the posts on Conti’s blog, and, in particular, they “liked”  the latest post Six Useless Things Foreign Teachers Do. Well I don’t like it. I object to it because

  1. There’s a strident sales pitch.
  2. There’s scant respect for research.

The Sales Pitch

The sales pitch is evident throughout this blog. Each and every post ends with a “Buy This Book” call. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a special page devoted to promoting the book where  “Oxford University ‘legend’, Professor Macaro, reviews The Language Teacher Toolkit”. Macaro is an Oxford University Legend?  Really?

The Respect for Research

As for the scant respect for research, there are claims in Conti’s post which rely on cherry picking academic work and which make little attempt to present the real complexities of the matters discussed. Here are 2 examples

1. As several studies have clearly shown, recasts do not really ‘work’.

This is false. See Long (2007) Problems of SLA, Chapter 4, “Recasts in SLA, the Story so Far”.  The case for recasts should be properly considered, not argued with disregard for a proper weighing of the evidence.

2.  Direct correction, whereby the teacher corrects an erroneous grammatical form and provides the correct version of that structure with an explanation on margin is pretty much a waste of valuable teacher time.

This is also false. See Bitchener and Ferris (2011) Written Corrective Feedback in Second Language Acquisition and Writing for why it’s false.

When he’s not misrepresenting research findings, Conti is just blowing off. For example, he says

Indirect correction, on the other hand, is not likely to contribute much to acquisition as the learner will not be able to correct what s/he does not know (e.g. I cannot self-correct an omission of the subjunctive if I have not learnt it) and if s/he is indeed able to correct, s/he will not really learn much from it.

Note that this blather is followed by this:

To learn more about my views on this issue read my blog “Why asking students to self-correct their errors is a waste of time”.

Go on, have a look, go and see what he says about why asking students to self-correct their errors is a waste of time, and I hope you’ll note that he’s once again over-stepping the mark.