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.

The Second Coming


We’re living in very troubled times. Nobody wants to give serious consideration to the suggestion that human beings’ relatively short time on this planet is coming to an end, but there is at least a growing feeling of unease about how we’re managing an increasingly global economy, more and more conflictive political and social relationships, and the accelerating depletion of the world’s resources. It sometimes feels like we’re on the edge of something truly calamitous, or at least that we’re coming to the end of a particular epoch in human history. What more can governmental control of capitalism do to stop it getting out of control? How much longer can the rich keep the poor from their gates? What will we do when Nature strikes back in earnest? The new search for “strong leaders” reflects near panic. Thomas Pynchon has one of his characters ask “What is the tag end of an age, if not that tilt towards the more devious, the less forceful?”

My favourite poem, The Second Coming, seem to talk to all this. It’s so beautifully written, so powerful, violent, frightening, mesmerising. It’s a very famous poem, loved by millions, and yet it’s terribly obscure, almost impossible to understand. Someone said of it “It is safe to say that very few people who love this poem could paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction”. I choose not to give much importance to a Christian interpretation, but I’m not among those able to “paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction”. So here it is, and I hope you enjoy it, however many times you’ve read it before.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats, 1919. Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

Up The Summit


Lesson Plan

Aim: To Deconstruct the TESOL Summit Conference

Type: General English

Level: B


  1. Video of  Futurology: Guiding Principles Session at TESOL Summit Conference, February 2017.
  2. TESOL Summit website
  3. Play Doh


A. Warm Up:  Show this photo  


Ask students these questions:

1. How would you describe the scene?

2. What do you think is happening?

3. How long do you think you could stare at that carpet before you passed out?

Get Feedback. Then explain that it’s Session One of the TESOL Summit conference.

B. Watch The Video Explain that they’re going to watch parts of the Opening session on Futurology.

According to the Conference Programme, Futurology offers “a broad, holistic perspective that is essential for understanding the English language profession both today and in the future”. The presenters are asked to address the question:

What are the mega-trends (political, economic, social, intercultural, legal, and digital) and how do they impact English and English language education?

You might like to explore what “Futurology” is; what “a broad holistic perspective” might entail; or what the question means. Point out that this is a good example of “Summit Talk”, and that a more honest, clearer question is “What’s your guess about what lies ahead?” You can then ask students what they would expect to hear in talks about the future of TESOL.


Sue Garton’s presentation on The Future of Inquiry in TESOL

Play Minute 2 to Minute 15 of the Guiding Principles Session.

Comprehension Questions:

1. Ms. Garton talked about the mega-trends for 7 seconds. What did she say?

2. In Minute 9 Ms Garton says

In the UK now all research projects have to show that they have impact. And by impact that means they will reach the people who will benefit from them. So that’s quite a good sign.  

How do you think all research projects in the UK comply with this new requirement? What government department do you think checks compliance? Is this an example of the further dilution of the impact and vibrancy of the word “impact”?


3. In Ms. Garton’s slide we can see (clockwise from top left): A researcher; Policy Makers; Students; A teacher. In the middle is a Head Teacher.  These are the main stakeholders in English language education. Well, actually they aren’t because, as Ms. Garton explained, she didn’t have room in the slide to include them all. Which stakeholders did she leave out?  What do you think all the arrows mean?  What does this have to do with how mega-trends will impact English language education?

4. How does Ms. Garton suggest that TESOL should “broaden the notion of inquiry”? (Answer: To involve everybody.)

5. What should “Inquiry” mean? (Answer:  The act of asking questions in order to gather or collect information.)

6 What should TESOL concentrate on? (Answer: gathering and disseminating practical professional knowledge.)

7.  Ms. Garton asks: “How do we spread these inquiries across the profession?” How does she answer the question? (Answer: Ms. Garton didn’t answer it. The question was her final contribution to the session.


Asmaa Abu Mezied’s presentation on The Future of Equity in TESOL 

Before asking students to watch this clip, give them a bit of light relief.  Tell students that Ms. Abu Mezied presents herself as “a global shaper”. Give out the play doh and ask them “How would you shape the globe if you had the chance?”

Play Minute 34 to Minute 46 of the Guiding Principles Session.

Comprehension Questions

1. How does conflict affect children?  (Answer: 124 million can’t attend school regularly.)

2. Are there a lot of people in the world who don’t get the chance to go to university? (Answer: Yes)

3. How can we solve these problems? How can we bring English to those who live in areas of conflict? How can we provide greater access to higher education?  (Answer: improve digital identity for displaced persons and follow the example of the Jesuit Worldwide Learning partnership which organises university courses in refugee camps.)

D. The TESOL Summit Website

Go to the website and then ask students to search it for any (further) information that addresses the question:

What are the mega-trends (political, economic, social, intercultural, legal, and digital) and how do they impact English and English language education?

Don’t take too long on this, because there isn’t any. Extraordinary, but true: there is absolutely nothing of substance there. Point out to the students that the website doesn’t give a full summary, and that if they can sustain their interest until March 2018, they can read the summary and commentary of conference proceedings which the organisers have promised to publish.

E. Footnote For Teachers: The Other Issues Covered at the Summit Conference


Reimaging English Competence

A rare moment of clarity came when David Nunan made a short contribution at the end of the Summary Session. The rest is just a confused re-hash of stuff much better expressed elsewhere.

 The Profession as a Change Agent

The conference set out to find ways “to empower each member of the TESOL profession to foster positive change within a risk-tolerant culture”. The presentations provide a rich source of material for teachers interested in exploring pseudo-academic baloney, business jargon and generally empty posturing.

English in Multiculturalism

How can the multilingualism of students of English and TESOL professionals (particularly nonnative-English-speaking teachers) be recognized as an asset in advocacy, innovation, policy, and practice?  How can linguistic diversity be leveraged while teaching English, and what best practices allow teachers to incorporate the languages of their students into their daily professional practices? Pretentious questions, to which answers came there none. Teach the modern idiomatic injunction “Don’t go there!” and don’t go there.

Scott Thornbury and CELTA


The CELTA Trainee Book by Scott Thornbury and Peter Watkins is the first book to appear if you search for books on CELTA at Amazon.

Scott Thornbury is also the co-author of Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching.

The obvious question arises: How does Scott Thornbury reconcile the views expressed in these two books?

Let’s look at CELTA.

Young students working on an assignment

CELTA = Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults

It’s a product of Cambridge English and, according to them. “The essential TEFL qualification that’s trusted by employers, language schools and governments around the world”.

More than 100,000 people did the CELTA course in 2016. There are more than 800 Approved Centres in more than 60 countries.

International House offers CELTA preparation Courses. Cost: 1,450 pounds sterling. Duration: 4 weeks. One of the recommended book for the course is The CELTA Trainee Book by Scott Thornbury and Peter Watkins.

The CELTA Syllabus is as follows:

Topic 1 – Learners and teachers, and the teaching and learning context

  • 1.1 Cultural, linguistic and education backgrounds
  • 1.2 Motivations for learning English as an adult
  • 1.3 Learning and teaching styles
  • 1.4 Contexts for learning and teaching English
  • 1.5 Varieties of English
  • 1.6 Multilingualism and the role of first languages.

Topic 2 – Language analysis and awareness

  • 2.1 Basic concepts and terminology used in English language teaching to discuss language form and use
  • 2.2 Grammar – grammatical frameworks: rules and conventions relating to words, sentences paragraphs and texts
  • 2.3 Lexis – word formation, meaning and use in context;
  • 2.4 Phonology – the formation and description of English phonemes and the feature of connected speech
  • 2.5 The practical significance of similarities and differences between languages
  • 2.6 Reference materials for language awareness
  • 2.7 Key strategies and approaches for developing learners’ language knowledge.

Topic 3 – Language skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing

  • 3.1 Reading (basic concepts and terminology, purposes, decoding meaning and potential barriers);
  • 3.2 Listening (basic concepts and terminology, purposes, features, potential barriers)
  • 3.3 Speaking(basic concepts and terminology, features, language functions, paralinguistic features, phonemic systems)
  • 3.4 Writing (basic concepts and terminology, sub-skills and features, stages of teaching writing, beginner literacy, English spelling and punctuation)
  • 3.5 Teaching (key strategies and approaches for developing learners’ receptive and productive skills).

Topic 4 – Planning and resources for different teaching contexts

  • 4.1 Principles of planning for effective teaching of adult learners of English
  • 4.2 Lesson planning for effective teaching of adult learners of English
  • 4.3 Evaluation and lesson planning
  • 4.4 The selection, adaption and evaluation of materials and resources in planning (including computer and other technology based resources)
  • 4.5 Knowledge of commercially produced resources and non-published materials and classroom resources for teaching English to adults.

Topic 5 – Developing teaching skills and professionalism

  • 5.1 The effective organisation of the classroom
  • 5.2 Classroom presence and control
  • 5.3 Teacher and learner language
  • 5.4 The use of teaching materials and resources
  • 5.5 practical skills for teaching at a range of levels
  • 5.6 The monitoring and evaluation of adult learners
  • 5.7 Evaluation of the teaching/learning process
  • 5.8 Professional development responsibilities
  • 5.9 Professional development support systems

There are two components of assessment:

Teaching Practice

You will teach for a total of six hours, working with classes at two levels of ability. Assessment is based on your overall performance at the end of the six hours.

Written Assignments

You will complete four written assignments: one focusing on adult learning; one on the language system of English; one on language skills; and one on classroom teaching.


Some questions about this syllabus:

  • Why is the question of “How do adults learn an L2?” not more prominent?
  • Why is PPP the dominant teaching method?
  • Why is it assumed that using a coursebook is an acceptable way to teach?
  • Why is it assumed than learning an L2 is a matter of mastering “The 4 skills”?
  • Why is it assumed that presenting grammar points in a pre-determined order will lead to their being learned in that order?
  • Why is teaching vocabulary treated as distinct from teaching grammar?
  • Why isn’t more time devoted to criticising a PPP methodology?
  • Why are the criteria for assessment of teaching practice based on a PPP methodology?
  • Why is only one of the written assignments on teaching?
  • How much can be covered in a 4 week course?


In my opinion, as I hope the questions above indicate, the CELTA course is based on a false view of how adults learn an L2 and on a teaching methodology which flies in the face of SLA research. The structure of the syllabus is unbalanced and gives no overt declaration of the principles of ELT on which it’s based. The course attempts to cover far too much and fails to give any serious consideration to how adults learn an L2. The instruction on the language itself, and the teaching practice, encourage an out of date approach to both. It is, in short, a crap course, a piece of commercial, well-marketed dross. Education relies heavily on teachers, and the CELTA course is an affront to teacher education. For all the high fallutin baloney of the syllabus, the course is an ill-considered, backward-looking, inadequate, badly-administered disgrace.


So what about Scott Thornbury’s book?

If I were doing the CELTA course I’d find the book infuriating.  It’s main part consists of 40 Units where every bit of the CELTA syllabus is examined in a “Think For Yourself” format . Warm-up activities are followed by the Main Question (How would you classify Learner Styles?), and then more questions meant to make you think. Instead of just telling you what you need to know, the book leads you up a series of garden paths. If I were a newcomer, I’d throw it out of the window very quickly and read anything, anything else, like Parrott on grammar, for example, or Scrivener’s Learning Teaching, which, for all the matters that I disagree with him about, is well-considered, well-organised, and, as always, very well-written. The 40 Units of Thornbury’s book faithfully mimic the CELTA syllabus without the slightest hint of critical evaluation or any appreciation of the newcomer’s ignorance of ELT. The whole book is appalling, right up there with Natural Grammar, and evidence that Thornbury , rather like another hero of mine, Ridley Scott, has at least as many badly-conceived duds to his name as he does good works. He’s erratic; you can’t trust either his style or his judgment.

And What About Dogme?

Quite apart from its failings as a book, the most obvious question to ask Thornbury about his CELTA guide is “Why did you write it?” Why did he decide to help novice teachers through a course which so evidently contradicts his published views on ELT?  Thornbury is, after all, the inventor of Dogme, the man who so famously talks about McNuggets; the man who adopts the view that learning languages is best explained by emergentism; the man who so passionately argues the case against the current domination of coursebook-driven ELT; the man who, in short, stands out among the leading lights in current ELT as “The Voice Of Progress”. Why did this man write a book, albeit a really bad book, aimed at helping people through one ot the most inadequate training courses ever devised?

Getting Feedback on Your Teaching


Here’s a question for those of you whose professional life is mostly devoted to classroom ELT:

In the past 12 months, how much time have you spent getting feedback about your teaching?

My guess is that it’s less than three hours. And I further guess that any feedback you got came from a trainer or a superior. If I’m right, then you have almost no recent experience of examining data about what you and your students actually do in class.

Leaving aside the evaluative, judgemental kinds of feedback you’ve had during training courses, or when a superior observes your class with the aim of assuring that you’re doing what they consider to be a good job, you’ve probably spent little or no time whatsoever on looking at real data about what’s going on in your classes. And yet, examining recordings of your classes with colleagues or with your students can do wonders.

In this first post, I’ll look at feedback sessions with colleagues.


Getting Feedback From Colleagues On Recordings of Classes  

In a review article in 2014, “El Maestro” John Fanselow says:

Not once during fifty years of interviewing teachers for jobs have I had a positive response to this question:“Have you recorded any of your classes?” A few said they had done so for an assignment for a course, but none kept it up once they started to teach.

And yet,

the easiest and most powerful way to understand what we are really doing in our classrooms … is to record, transcribe and analyze what we and our students say and do.

The best ELT course I’ve ever attended was a two-week workshop with John Fanselow in Barcelona in 1994. It consisted entirely of transcribing, analysing and discussing recordings of four different teachers (three of whom participated in the workshop) who had previously agreed to video their classes in the month before the workshop took place. In preparation for the workshop, I liaised with John, who stressed the importance of videoing the whole class and not training the camera on the teacher. I sent him (by post!) sample video recordings of the classes, and he phoned me a few times, asking me to record specific activities and sometimes to focus on specific things – “point the camera at the students’ legs” he requested on one occasion. By the time the workshop started, we had about 10 hours of recordings to work with.


The Fanselow Workshop

The two golden rules during the workshop were:

  1. Leave your pre-conceived notions about good or bad teaching at the door.
  2. Observe, don’t judge.

We were all encouraged to “look at the data as children might look at something for the first time.” As Fanselow says in his 2014 article,

Analyzing video clips and transcripts of classroom interactions are the “ABC’s” of learning to observe yourself and your students in the classroom. Attaining this skill, which will help you to understand what you and your students are really doing, can profoundly affect your teaching.

Fanselow urged us to learn a descriptive system he invented called FOCUS ((Foci for Observing Communication Used in Settings), which is “a kind of shorthand to describe what everybody’s doing”, but we all found it too complicated to use without his help. For a full treatment of FOCUS, see Fanselow (1984) Breaking Rules, but for now, enough to say that, in essence, Fanselow’s framework makes no distinction between teacher and learners, (there are, that is, no separate categories for teachers and learners); instead, it uses general categories to define five characteristic of communication in settings:

  • Who communicates?
  • What is the pedagogical purpose of the communication?
  • What mediums are used to communicate?
  • How are the mediums used to communicate areas of content?
  • What areas of content are communicated?

The most important thing, though, is to watch the recordings with an open mind, to forget about what you yourself might or might not have done if you’d been the teacher, and to try to understand what kinds of communication were gong on.

During the 2-week workshop we watched a succession of usually short (2 to 5 minute) recordings; we transcribed them (helped by John), then we watched them again, sometimes 3 or 4 times, focusing on different questions, gaining more and more insights into what was going on, and then we discussed everything we’d seen and heard – not that things happened in such a linear way, of course. We looked at teachers’ body language, tics, gestures, affirmations, recognitions, challenges, clichés, blind spots, quips, empathic moves, asides, use of time, use of materials, timing, crisis management, coherence and cohesion, and on and on. And we looked in John’s way; he helped us see the value of this deliberately non-judgemental way of examining our work. Look, listen, observe, and then reflect generously, openly, inquisitively. Don’t judge: learn.


But we spent most of the time looking not at the teacher but at the learners – at how they themselves communicated with each other and with the teacher.

“Look at that. See the way she looks away? We’ve lost her.”

“He’s on a roll. He’s got it. He needed longer, didn’t he.”

“What are they doing with that hand-out? Why do they keep quoting that bit?”

“ She helped Jose there. That’s a first”

Who was doing what with whom? Where were the high energy points? What new language was being used? Who picked up on error correction, and when? And so much more besides.

I was particularly taken by what I saw (how people moved, eye contact, patterns in groups,  fidgeting,  day dreaming, students always returning to “their” seats, a teacher who spent 85% of the time in the top left part of the room, ..) because I’m not usually very aware of visual stuff, but John was particularly keen to have us transcribe and analyse who said what to whom in what ways, to what communicative ends.

I can’t tell you how much we all enjoyed it: it wasn’t a blast, it was a hurricane of fresh air, a cyclonic invigoration, a huge affirmation of the fun and satisfaction that teachers can get from their jobs once they connect.


An aside.

Section 8 of the Fanselow 2014 article quotes three teachers who reflect on what Fanselow helped them to observe, and it makes very interesting reading. In the same section, one of the teachers comments about other training courses he’d attended:

I was shown some video clips of teachers that were produced alongside methods books for the course. The teachers and the authors sounded like cosmetics salespeople. They were absolutely certain of their claims, but there was no evidence in the videos. The camera focused primarily on the teachers and just occasionally panned the students. I could not hear what they were saying or see what they were writing. This prevented me from evaluating the outcome. Without seeing results, how could I accept or verify or believe the author’s assertions?

Fanselow cites another of the 3 teachers who says that she now uses the transcriptions she makes of recordings of her classroom teaching to help plan her lessons, and that planning based on what she had actually asked her students to do and on the results was less time-consuming than her former lesson planning. Fanselow suggests that teachers make a regular feature of transcribing, sometimes alone and sometimes with their students, one to three minutes of a class, or enough interaction to fill one sheet of A4 paper. He stresses

you cannot just do this only once a term. You have to do it regularly and often in order for you and your students to learn anything from it – a couple of times per week, as a minimum.


And here’s another aside. I know that Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill feel the same way about ELT and believe in the same approach as Fanselow. I know that “Demand High”, for all the criticisms I’ve made of it, wants exactly the same things as Fanselow wants. It’s no coincidence that Fanselow’s 2014 paper can be freely downloaded from the Demand High website. Whatever my criticisms of their marketing and their support for coursebook-driven ELT, I salute the way Scrivener and Underhill encourage teachers to look at what they do through the Fanselow lense.



At the end of the workshop, we had a party. Everybody agreed: that was some session! Last thing I remember is drunkenly hugging John and his saying “You’re standing on my foot again Geoff: bad habit.”

Each of us learned different things about ourselves and about our learners, but all of us went away determined to make observing and analysing classroom recordings a regular, on-going feature of our work. For myself, I found a friend at work who was even more of a Fanselow fan that I was. We recorded ourselves doing classes right the way through the term, and we spent a couple of hours a week watching the recordings together and analysing them. In our viewing sessions, a habitual refrain was “Stop judging!” We were lucky to be in a school that encouraged such stuff, and we lucky to have each other, but anyway, it’s difficult to overestimate the positive effect those sessions had on our motivation and, I dare to say, our teaching.

If you want to do your own recording feedback sessions, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Involve the students. Tell them what you want to do and why. Never record anything without their permission.
  2. Try out different places for the recorder in the classroom when nobody’s there. You know better than I do about the techy stuff, but I understand that modern video recorders can be placed just about anywhere. Make sure you record the students, not just you.
  3. Play down the fact that you’re recording.
  4. Choose somebody you like and trust to watch the recording with you. Of course, it could be a group.
  5. Limit the clip to 10 mins. max.
  6. Watch the video recording a few times without comment.
  7. Talk about things in general and then decide what you’re going to focus on. Vary the focus in different sessions. I know it’s not really in line with John’s approach, but I recommend you look at Jack Richards Chapter 7 Classroom Observation in Teaching Practice (just Google it to find a free download), which gives a very good summary of areas to focus on.
  8. Don’t just do it once! 
  9. Emphasise John’s golden rules.



I had lots of disagreements with John about how people learn languages. I was more of a scholar (I don’t say a better scholar) than he was, more influenced by SLA findings about the limitations of explicit instruction than he was, more sceptical about his didactic imperatives. In particular, I didn’t agree (and still don’t) with most of the items on his famous “Ten Things you Should Never Do” list. I still think that we should teach the language, not about it, and that we should engage learners more in decisions about the “what” and “how” of classroom practice.

Regarding looking at recordings, I never used his FOCUS framework properly; I never got the hang of transcribing bits of recording as he would have it; I was sometimes judgemental and often used the data to spin hypotheses about classroom learning in ways that I know he would not have approved of. But never mind. John Fanselow has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the art of ELT and I’m enormously grateful, as are thousands of teachers, for his help. We really should listen more carefully to what John Fanselow has to say about ELT.

See this link for info. on John Fanselow: http://ltprofessionals.com/johnfanselow

Slouching Towards Seattle


















OPENING KEYNOTE Fony Glare: “Private Education in a Post-Truth Era: Profiting From Pragmatism”

Yes! He’s Here! We couldn’t be more excited to have Time Magazine’s “Fifty Third Most Important Man in the World” give the opening address. As he so famously says: “The single most important two things we can do are education, education, education”! Power without principle is barren, but principle without power is futile. ELT is at a crossroads, which is why we need a third way, a pragmatic way. The advantages of creative accounting, score adjustment in high stake tests, pyramid selling, zero hour contracts, smarmy sales pitches, telling lies, and crossing your fingers behind your back when making promises will all be examined.


LE DEERS SPONSORED PLENARY : Prof. Ravin Loonan: Taking Coursebooks to The Next Level

Widely-respected Professor Loonan, who has done so much to line his own pockets, will explain how new independent studies sponsored by a consortium of leading ELT publishers demonstrates how tethered sheep, fed only on carefully selected and sequenced lexical chunks from leading ELT coursebooks, achieved “well above average”, “statistically significant” scores on specially-adapted versions of the Pearson GSE bank of tests, thus providing convincing evidence for the utility of coursebooks. He will then discuss his own daring new coursebook series “Business English For Millionaires” printed in gold leaf on Giza 45 Egyptian sheets, each copy signed by the Top Ten Billionaires in the Forbes List.  A $4,000 white tie buffet supper in the Seattle Space Needle will follow.


MORNING PLENARY Prof. Farcen-Parodi: Patterns in the toast; Shadows on the wall: Where am I?  

Professor Farcen-Parodi has been changing her mind about how people learn languages for the past 50 years. Occasionally unaided by real scholars, she has declared: It’s the input! It’s the output! It’s input and ouput! There’s no such thing as input!

Here she brings her exciting voyage of discovery full circle by returning to Heraclitus: It’s flux!

Prof. Farcen-Parodi will disorganise (sic) her plenary by tearing up her notes, throwing them into a bin, and then picking out random samples to act as cues. In this way, the different components of one complex system (the prepared talk) will interact and give rise to another pattern (the talk itself) at another level of complexity.

Prof. Farcen-Parodi has asked that, to help disengagement from the positivist paradigm that so perniciously pervades current thinking, members of the audience wear blindfolds and fit ear plugs (only $10 when pre-ordered from our helpful Convention staff).


CLOSING KEYNOTE Larry Farmer: The ELT is Full of Truly Wonderful People And I Honestly Really Mean That

Larry Farmer, one of the most widely-respected TINSEL ambassadors in the world today gives his own passionate defence of the ELT profession and explains just why he loves everything (really, absolutely everything) so very, very much.

The talk will be content-free, and Farmer’s renowned practice of leaving the stage so as to walk among his fans will be enhanced by attaching him to a special harness, designed by his colleague Spat Raspberry, an expert in dodging flack while appearing radical and in the related skill of bungee jumping in New Zealand. Thanks to the harness, Farmer will spend equal amounts of time on each of the three floors of the auditorium.

The session will end with Farmer, accompanied by the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra, performing his recent masterpiece: Brexit: Enlightenment is Dead,  which includes the immortal line I Phoned My Brother on the Telephone, Just to See What He Would Say, and the rousing chorus We Will Sell Porky Pies Again!     


As you wait for one of three buses lurching through the torrential rain, soak up the truly unique atmosphere of Seattle! It never rains but it pours here – specially in March!  That’s why you’ll need

  • Our special price TINSEL 2017 CONVENTION UMBELLA 
  • Our fantastic cut price ANTARTIC SLEEPING BAG if you’re one of the happy throng of convention goers sleeping out.


  • Updated Guide to The Celebrities; Includes 3 new rising stars, all under 80 years old   
  • Can you Teach Without Morpeme? (Is this right? Ed.)
  • Members Support Groups: Includes Women Teachers who have to drive to work in Saudi Arabia


JOBS FAIR: No, not fair jobs, silly, but the chance to search our extensive data base of appalling jobs with absolutely no guarantee that they exist for the special Convention fee of $59.

BAD TRIPS TENT: Feeling queasy? Can’t take any more?  Last year, this tent was a huge success – in fact, the biggest venue of the convention! Seek help here. For just $34 an unqualified nurse will pretend to listen.


The British Council: An Exemplary Charity?


The British Council (BC) is seen as a government office, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) agency, and a charity. This provides useful branding and cover for its lucrative commercial operations that generate £1 billion every year, tax-free, from IELTS testing, English teaching, education marketing and education related contracts.

If you want to know more about how the BC’s increasingly aggressive commercial strategy clashes with its role as promoter of UK educational services overseas, I suggest you visit these 2 blogs: Patrick Watson’s Montrose42  and The Language Business by David Blackie.


Here’s a quote from a post on the Montrose42 blog, Nov.17th 2015.

The British Council had adamantly refused, for many years, and despite regular complaints from other education providers, to accept that its operations in commercial areas represented a conflict of interests, and that it lacked transparency in the  way it ran its commercial operations .  Essentially the BC was competing against other UK providers, while nominally, at least,  it was supposed to be promoting them abroad, aided by taxpayers money and the good offices of our diplomats.  Instead the BC cherry picked the best contracts and competed directly with other UK providers for many others. 

The Triennial Review …stated that the Trustees have not this far been sufficiently active in listening and responding to external stakeholder concerns or understanding and managing conflicts of interest. … We recommend that the British Council operating model be amended in order to increase transparency relating to income generating activity, reducing the potential for conflicts of interest’.

And here’s a quote from a post on Sept. 5th 2102:

There is a broad consensus among UK based education… about the inability of the BC to represent their interests.  The BC behaves like the worst kind of monopoly, and  in consequence  damages UK education interests abroad in a sector where we should have some competitive advantage. It really is that simple. The real shame is that our politicians and civil servants allow  the BC to get away with it. But for how much longer?

Alas, the optimism of that final question has turned out to be unwarranted. Despite the appointment in 2015 of Verita to adjudicate in the complaints process, the BC continues to pursue the same policies.


This is what David Blackie had to say about the decision to appoint an independent complaints body:

About six years ago I signed up to an “independent” complaints process when the chair of the British Council, Lord Kinnock, contracted a “thorough and independent investigation” from a consultant. The outcome, which took almost a year, was a charade, a disgrace; in all that time the consultant actually spoke to nobody but myself, failed to make contact with the parties about whom I was complaining, did not even mention the specific complaints made or address the pile of evidence in his report, produced no evidence of any kind from the British Council, and without credible basis offered me £10,000 in “expenses”. (Mr. Blackie refused the money.)

…. I’m not saying that Verita can’t do a better job, but a) when a judge is paid by one side and not the other it’s difficult to have much confidence in the process and b) the British Council has not only for years denied acting against the interests of British organisations active in international education, but also has an appalling record of denial, obfuscation and misrepresentation when attempts have been made to make matters better.

The British Council’s use of the word “independent” is, put kindly, idiosyncratic and the reality of fair competition with the British Council is the same: in the purely hypothetical case that the organisation did compete fairly, it would – being fundamentally amateurish and rather better at BS than work – cease to exist. So it can’t compete fairly, and any so called “independent” process that they have contracted will be bound to play along with the British Council’s own “faux-monnayeur” interpretation of that word.



Levant Education

Another insight into how the BC pursues its commercial interests can be got from its treatment of Levant Education.  I recommend a visit to their website where the whole story is recounted, but here’s a taste.  On November 2nd 2016, under the headline

British Council apologises for commercial abuse of Foreign and Commonwealth Office position

we read:

What happens when a UK private enterprise seeks (and pays for) support from the British government in new markets? If that company is in the business of international education, it is likely to find that it has flashed up on the radar of an aggressive, state-funded competitor.

The story starts in 2012 when Levant Education set up UK Education Exhibitions. They paid UKTI for support to enter new markets (Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iraq) and UKTI brought in the British Council to help. Levant Education was charged thousands of pounds for UKTI/FCO facilities (the event reception was hosted at the UK Embassy, where the Ambassador spoke to a specially invited audience) and would go on to pay a lot more. Levant Education explain on their website:

At the reception, and at the exhibition the next day, British Council staff quietly approached the university representatives who had joined the ground-breaking event. As British Council’s ‘Head of Higher Education and Education Services’ Gordon Slaven’s apology admits, they “used the opportunity to enquire into participants interest in a possible British Council exhibition.”

Far from helping, and despite reassurances to several members of Levant Education, including the owner, David Mitchell, that they wouldn’t dream of abusing their position and the trust placed in them, the BC wasted little time in setting up carbon-copy exhibitions the following year, in Turkey and Azerbaijan. In the words of Levant Education’s blog post:

The British Council used its ‘gatekeeper’ and Foreign and Commonwealth Office personnel & offices to exploit our business and ultimately compete with massive government-brand advantages the private sector could never match.

Levant Education took their concerns to members of the UK parliament, and, giving in to mounting pressure, the British Council asked Verita to investigate. To quote the blog page again:

British Council staff admitted that they had been under pressure to identify ways to increase revenue and make more money in 2012, as the government grant was being cut. That drive to be more commercially aggressive is what undoubtedly pushed BC staff to abuse its FCO status in Azerbaijan to gain unfair competitive advantage, going into direct competition with a private enterprise that had both paid the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its assistance, and secured a promise of non-competition from the British Council Regional Director, Helen Silvestre.

The Verita investigation uncovered incredible duplicity from British Council staff in Baku and Istanbul. While working with Levant Education on its new project, in apparent harmony and good humour, they were simultaneously working to duplicate the event and sell the idea to UK universities and education providers.

The blog post ends with a statement from Levant Education Managing Director and owner David Mitchell, who says:

The Council has half-heartedly apologised for its blatant hijacking of our business in Azerbaijan. However the Verita investigation report was carried out as a paid-for service for the British Council, covering up more than it revealed. The final report skates over unfair competition issues, provides for no accountability for Management decisions taken in Istanbul and Baku, and goes to great lengths to ‘blame the victim’ – bizarrely finding that Levant Education was in some way to blame because it later dared to publicly complain about the BC’s dishonest behaviour.

The report also fails to address the financial impact on Levant Education: between money invested in the project, fees to UKTI/the FCO, and lost earnings due the unfair state competition, Levant has lost a six figure sum after making the mistake of trusting the FCO, UKTI and British Council.

Levant Education will be seeking a review from the parliamentary ombudsman, and seeking legal advice also. A genuine investigation needs to be conducted by an independent body, rather than a paid-for public relations service on behalf of the government agency. The British Council should not be allowed to compete for competitive commercial services while disguised as a government agency/FCO department/charitable concern. The BC’s actions in Azerbaijan, and in Turkey (where it also ignored promises made in regards to fair competition) were dishonest, anti-competitive and devious. The apology is a start, but once again the British Council has been shown to be more concerned about commercial gain and face-saving PR than about accountability, transparency or fair competition.

The three sources I’ve used here – Patrick Watson, David Blackie, and Levant Education – have on-going concerns about how the British Council  conducts itself as a charity, and they all express the opinion that it will only change its conduct if forced to. By  questioning their representatives wherever and whenever you come across them, including at the IATEFL conference, you can do your bit.

Questions to ask at the IATEFL 2017 Conference


Here are a few questions which those going to Glasgow might like to ask IATEFL bosses and a few sponsors.


To the Coordinators of existing SIGs and the other Trustees:

  1. Why did you turn down the application by Nicola Prentis and Paul Walsh to set up a Teachers As Workers SIG?
  2. How do you reconcile supporting NNESTs in their fight for equality with your refusal to allow members to form the Teachers As Workers SIG?
  3. Under what circumstances will you reconsider their request?


To those at the New Oriental (Platinum Sponsor) stand:

  1.  Is it true that the biggest single income stream for your company is from exam cramming courses?
  2. Did employees of your company steal SAT exams and help students to cheat in exams, as Reuters reported?
  3. Did employees of your company help to write fraudulent college application essays and teacher recommendations, and falsify a high school transcript, as Reuters reported?
  4. What comments do you have on criticisms made about the Beijing New Oriental Foreign Language School on the TEFL Blacklist website?


To those at the telc – language tests (Platinum Sponsor) stand

  1. Can you define reification?
  2. What is the relationship between the can do statements in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and communicative competence?
  3. At what level can a learner “follow complex lines of argument on a topic which is reasonably familiar”? What counts as (a) following; (b) a complex line of argument; (c) a topic which is reasonably familiar?


To those at the British Council (Gold Sponsor) stand:

  1. The British Council is a charity tasked with representing UK education services, and yet it also competes with them by offering English language teaching, exam provision and teacher training itself. It has often been accused of keeping valuable commercial information to itself; its staff are exhorted to act ever more commercially; it holds a one-third share in the International English Language Testing System; it competes with an unfair advantage to train teachers for overseas governments. Don’t such activities conflict with the council’s role in supporting other providers?
  2. Are you aware of how much other language schools abroad resent the priveledged position that British Council centres enjoy? For example, is it fair that the British Council’s not-for-profit status means it is exempt from corporation tax in many countries, unlike its competitors?
  3. Your Education UK website offers advice to international students looking to study in the UK. While your own services are paraded all over the web site, other schools and colleges have to pay to be on the lists you provide, the ones with the biggest marketing budget getting the best positioning. Is this fair?
  4. Why is there no pension plan for ordinary teachers, only for the upper echelons of British Council staff?


To those at the Pearson (Silver Sponsor) stand

  1.  What theory or explanation of language learning informs the Global Scale of English (GSE)?
  2. The nearly 2,000 can do statements that form the backbone of the GSE are based entirely on the intuitions of teachers: no empirical data have been gathered from learners’ experiences. How do you justify this?
  3. How do you respond to the criticism that the GSE is an example of what Glenn Fulcher calls “Frankenstein scales”, which don’t relate to any specific communicative context, or give a good description of any particular communicative language ability?

IATEFL and Teachers as Workers


There are more than 2 billion English learners worldwide. The turnover of the ELT industry for 2017 is predicted to be close to $2,000 billion. There are some 100 spectacular multi millionaires in the ELT industry, David Nunan, Jack Richards, and Raymond Murphy among them. The number of people involved in the ELT industry who earn more than $100,000 a year is difficult to count, but however many thousands of them there are, they’re mostly senior managers of ELT organisations , teaching institutions, and publishers; coursebook writers, and top teacher trainers. A sprinkling of these seriously rich people attend the IATEFL international conference every year and give it its glamour.

An estimated 250,000 native English speakers work as English teachers abroad, and it’s also estimated that 80% of English teachers in non-native English speaking countries are not native English speakers. So a very conservative estimate is that there are more than 2 million people teaching EFL/ESL courses today. Here’s the current situation for most of them:

  • they earn less money than most teachers in their country,
  • they have no permanent contract,
  • they have no holiday pay,
  • they don’t get paid when they’re ill,
  • they have no pension rights,
  • they have little say in what or how they teach,
  • they are offered few teacher training opportunities.

And here’s what Sebastian Cresswell-Turner said in The Daily Telegraph last week about UK EFL teachers :


Headline: The slavery of teaching English

Sub-head: The job is tedious, the salary appalling and the prospects nil. No one with a scrap of ambition would choose to teach English as a foreign language.

Excerpts: In Rome, typically, an English teacher working flat-out for a variety of employers and private pupils might earn €1,500 (£1,000) a month pre-tax for 10 months a year: £10,000 annually, therefore.

Permanent positions are scarce, and there is no work in the summer.

10-month contracts from September to June leave you washed up and penniless at the start of the holidays, with little option other than to sign up as a teacher at some miserable summer-school in Kent, where once again you will be ruthlessly exploited.

All over Europe – in Paris, Madrid, Prague and Athens – it is the same. In London the constant flow of foreign students provides work throughout the year – but who can survive on the £12,000-odd a year that TEFL teachers earn there?

The most objectionable aspect of this industry is not, however, the misery of those who work in it, but the posturing endemic to it. Typical of this is the pretence of professional credibility that surrounds the Mickey Mouse teaching certificate most teachers possess.

Every year, about 14,000 innocents pay £1,000-odd to spend four or five weeks acquiring a TEFL certificate from the two main examining boards that peddle them. I won’t deny that I picked up the odd trick, but I wish I’d spared myself the hassle and sent off to Thailand for a fake certificate, as a friend of mine in Paris sensibly did.

In my experience most language schools are miserable places, bucket shops whose owners shamelessly claim that the flotsam and jetsam they employ are highly-qualified, hand-picked professionals.

Indeed, many are not really schools at all, but employment agencies that send the workers on their books (freelance teachers) out to the premises of their clients (companies who have bought English courses) and take a whacking great commission (typically, about two-thirds of what the teacher is charged out at). As the “director of studies” of one such outfit once said to me: “If only you knew how much money we are making.”

So the clients get fleeced and the teachers, cowed into submission, toe the line and nod eager assent when the boss talks of “standards” and “performance”. Of course it’s rubbish; but the charade keeps the proles in their place.

Contrast this bleak picture with the one you get when you look at the IATEFL 2017 Glasgow Conference programme, where the impression is given that ELT is riding the crest of a wave and that in general things have never been better. IATEFL, with about 4,000 members, aims “to link, develop and support English Language Teaching professionals worldwide”. Despite that “support” bit, the pay and conditions of members is outside their remit, and they have an appalling record on speaking out against poor training and certification and the widespread exploitation of teachers.

Remember what happened when Nicola Prentis and Paul Walsh tried to set up a Teachers as Workers SIG in IATEFL? Those who run IATEFL refused to allow it.


The issues that the Teachers as Workers SIG highlight are

  • the establishment of a living wage and decent working conditions for all English language teachers
  • the end to discrimination in ELT on the basis of gender, race, disability, native language, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, religion, age or political orientation.

The ruling body of IATEFL, registered as a charitable organisation, says that IATEFL can’t get involved in politics, and so they had no choice but to reject attempts to make Teachers as Workers a SIG. Sorry, they said, but despite our mission statement which says we will “support English Language Teaching professionals worldwide”, we are bound by our charter not to get involved in politics.

And yet a high point in the 2016 IATEFL conference was the plenary given by Silvana Richardson which made the case for NNESTs.  How much more political can you get? It seems that it’s OK to speak out against discrimination against NNESTs, but not OK to even publicly discuss at an organised plenary or forum the lack of a living wage and decent working conditions which affect so many English language teachers. This amounts to a political decision by the IATEFL bosses, one that I suggest reflects the fact that while supporting NNESTs is progressive (likely to consolidate rather than threaten the status quo), asking for a living wage and decent working conditions for teachers is opening up a can of worms. It sounds reasonable, but  Oh the problems it would cause! “No, No, No!”, as Thatcher said whenever she got a whiff of real change.

So let’s be clear before the 2017 IATEFL international conference gets underway: those running IATEFL choose to ignore the pay and conditions of  most of our teacher colleagues around the world. They carry on as if we all worked in an ELT environment which was generally OK, as if none of the issues raised by teachers about their pay and conditions existed. That a journalist should write about ELT in the way that Sebastian Cresswell-Turner did in the Telegraph last week is an indication of just how bad things have become: for most teachers who work in ELT industry today, ELT is a nasty business where most people get a very bad deal. Surely it’s about time IATEFL shone a light on  the pressing problems facing us, rather than turning a blind eye to them.

Interlanguage Development: Some Evidence


As a follow-up to my two previous posts, here’s some information about interlanguage development.

Doughty and Long (2003) say

There is strong evidence for various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development, such as the well known four-stage sequence for ESL negation (Pica, 1983; Schumann, 1979), the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses (Doughty, 1991; Eckman, Bell, & Nelson, 1988; Gass, 1982), and sequences in many other grammatical domains in a variety of L2s (Johnston, 1985, 1997). The sequences are impervious to instruction, in the sense that it is impossible to alter stage order or to make learners skip stages altogether (e.g., R. Ellis, 1989; Lightbown, 1983). Acquisition sequences do not reflect instructional sequences, and teachability is constrained by learnability (Pienemann, 1984).

Let’s take a look at the “strong evidence” referred to, beginning with Pit Corder and error analysis.


Pit Corder: Error Analysis

Corder (1967) argued that errors were neither random nor systematic results of L1 transfer; rather, they were indications of learners’ attempts to figure out an underlying rule-governed system. Corder distinguished between errors and mistakes: mistakes are slips of the tongue, whereas errors are indications of an as yet non-native-like, but nevertheless, systematic, rule-based grammar. Interesting and provocative as this was, error analysis failed to capture the full picture of a learner’s linguistic behaviour. Schachter (1974) compared the compositions of Persian, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese learners of English, focusing on their use of relative clauses. She found that the Persian and Arabic speakers had a far greater number of errors, but she went on to look at the total production of relative clauses and found that the Chinese and Japanese students produced only half as many relative clauses as did the Persian and Arabic students. Schachter then looked at the students’ L1 and found that Persian and Arabic relative clauses are similar to English in that the relative clause is placed after the noun it modifies, whereas in Chinese and Japanese the relative clause comes before the noun. She concluded that Chinese and Japanese speakers of English use relative clauses cautiously but accurately because of the distance between the way their L1 and the L2 (English) form relative clauses. So, it seems, things are not so straightforward: one needs to look at what learners get right as well as what they get wrong.


The Morpheme Studies

Next came the morpheme order studies. Dulay and Burt (1974a, 1974b) claimed that fewer than 5% of errors were due to native language interference, and that errors were, as Corder suggested, in some sense systematic, that there was something akin to a Language Acquisition Device at work not just in first language acquisition, but also in SLA.

The morpheme studies of Brown in 1973 resulted in his claim that the morphemes below were acquired by L1 learners in the following order:

1 Present progressive (-ing)

2/3 in, on

4 Plural (-s)

5 Past irregular

6 Possessive (-’s)

7 Uncontractible copula (is, am, are)

8 Articles (a, the)

9 Past regular (-ed)

10 Third person singular (-s)

11 Third person irregular

12 Uncontractible auxiliary (is, am, are)

13 Contractible copula

14 Contractible auxiliary

This led to studies in L2 by Dulay & Burt (1973, 1974a, 1974b, 1975), and Bailey, Madden & Krashen (1974), all of which suggested that there was a natural order in the acquisition of English morphemes, regardless of L1. This became known as the L1 = L2 Hypothesis, and further studies (by Ravem (1974), Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky & Schumann (1975), Hakuta (1976), and Wode (1978) all pointed to systematic staged development in SLA.

Some of these studies, particularly those of Dulay and Burt, and of Bailey, Madden and Krashen, were soon challenged, but over fifty L2 morpheme studies have since been carried out using more sophisticated data collection and analysis procedures, and the results of these studies have gone some way to restoring confidence in the earlier findings.


Selinker’s Interlanguage.

The third big step was Selinker’s (1972) paper, which argues that the L2 learners have their own autonomous mental grammar (which came to be known as interlanguage grammar), a grammatical system with its own internal organising principles. One of the first stages of this interlanguage to be identified was that for ESL questions. In a study of six Spanish students over a 10-month period, Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky and Schumann (1975) found that the subjects produced interrogative forms in a predictable sequence:

  1. Rising intonation (e.g., He works today?),
  2. Uninverted WH (e.g., What he (is) saying?),
  3. “Overinversion” (e.g., “Do you know where is it?),
  4. Differentiation (e.g., “Does she like where she lives?).

Then there was Pica’s study of 1983 which suggested that learners from a variety of different L1 backgrounds go through the same four stages in acquiring English negation:

  1. External (e.g., No this one./No you playing here),
  2. Internal, pre-verbal (e.g., Juana no/don’t have job),
  3. Auxiliary + negative (e.g., I can’t play the guitar),
  4. Analysed don’t (e.g., She doesn’t drink alcohol.)

Apart from these two examples, we may cite the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses (see Doughty, 1991 for a summary) and sequences in many other grammatical domains in a variety of L2s (see Johnston, 1997).


 Pienemann’s 5-stage Sequence.

Perhaps the most extensive and best-known work in this area has been done by Pienemann whose work on a Processability Theory started out as the Multidimensional Model, formulated by the ZISA group mainly at the University of Hamburg in the late seventies. One of the first findings of the group was that all the children and adult learners of German as a second language in the study adhered to the five-stage developmental sequence shown below:

Stage X – Canonical order (SVO)

die kinder spielen mim bait //// the children play with the ball

(Romance learners’ initial SVO hypothesis for GSL WO is correct in most German sentences with simple verbs.)

Stage X + I – Adverb preposing (ADV)

da kinder spielen //// there children play

(Since German has a verb-second rule, requiring subject—verb inversion following a preposed adverb {there play children), all sentences of this form are deviant. The verb-second (or ‘inversion’) rule is only acquired at stage X + 3, however. The adverb-preposing rule itself is optional.)

Stage X + 2 – Verb separation (SEP)

alle kinder muss die pause machen //// all children must the break have

(Verb separation is obligatory in standard German.)

Stage X+3 – Inversion (INV)

dam hat sie wieder die knock gebringt //// then has she again the bone brought

(Subject and inflected verb forms must be inverted after preposing of elements.)

Stage X+4 – Verb-end (V-END)

er sagte, dass er nach house kommt //// he said that he home comes

(In subordinate clauses, the finite verb moves to final position.)

Learners did not abandon one interlanguage rule for the next as they progressed; they added new ones while retaining the old, and thus the presence of one rule implies the presence of earlier rules.

A few words about the evidence. There is the issue of what it means to say that a structure has been acquired, and I’ll just mention three objections that have been raised. In the L1 acquisition of morphemes, a structure was assumed to be acquired when it occurred three times in a row in an obligatory context at a rate of 90%. The problem with such a measurement is, first, how one defines an “obligatory” context, and second, that by only dealing with obligatory contexts, it fails to look at how the morphemes might occur in incorrect contexts. The second example is that Pienemann takes acquisition of a structure as the point at which it emerges in the interlanguage, its first “non-imitative use”, which many say is hard to operationalise. A third example is this: in work reported by Johnson, statistical measures using an experimental group of L2 learners and a control group of native speakers have been used where the performance of both groups are measured, and if the L2 group performance is not significantly different from the control group, then the L2 group can be said to have acquired the structure under examination. Again, one might well question this measure.

To return to developmental sequences, by the end of the 1990s, there was evidence of stages of development of an interlanguage system from studies in the following areas:

  • morphemes,
  • negation,
  • questions,
  • word order,
  • embedded clauses
  • pronouns
  • references to the past



Together these studies lend very persuasive support to the view that L2 learners follow a fairly rigid developmental route. Moreover, it was seen that this developmental route sometimes bore little resemblance to either the L1 of the learner, or the L2 being learnt. For example, Hernández-Chávez (1972) showed that although the plural is realised in almost exactly the same way in Spanish and in English, Spanish children learning English still went through a phase of omitting plural marking. It had been assumed prior to this that second language learners’ productions were a mixture of both L1 and L2, with the L1 either helping or hindering the process depending on whether structures are similar or different in the two languages. This was clearly shown not to be the case. All of which was taken to suggest that SLA involves the development of interlanguages in learners, and that these interlanguages are linguistic systems in their own right, with their own sets of rules.

There are lots of interesting questions and issues that I haven’t even mentioned here about interlanguage development in general and about orders of acquisition in SLA in particular. It’s worth pointing out that Corder’s and Selinker’s initial proposal of interlanguage as a construct was an attempt to explain the phenomenon of fossilisation. As Tarone (2006) says:

Second language learners who begin their study of the second language after puberty do not succeed in developing a linguistic system that approaches that developed by children acquiring that language natively. This observation led Selinker to hypothesize that adults use a latent psychological structure (instead of a LAD) to acquire second languages.  

The five psycholinguistic processes of this latent psychological structure that shape interlanguage  were hypothesized (Selinker, 1972) to be (a) native language transfer, (b) overgeneralization of target language rules, (c) transfer of training, (d) strategies  of communication, and (e) strategies of learning.

It wasn’t long before Krashen’s Monitor Model claimed that there was no evidence of L1 transfer in the morpheme studies, denied the central role of L1 transfer which the original Interlanguage Hypothesis gave it, and also denied that there were sensitive (critical) periods in SLA. Generativist studies of SLA also minimised the role of L1 transfer. And there have been some important updates on the interlanguage hypothesis since the 1980s, too (see Tarone (2006) and Hong and Tarone (2016) for example).

My main concern in discussing interlanguage development, as you must be all too well aware by now, is to draw attention to the false assumptions on which coursebook-based ELT are based. Coursebooks assume that structures can be learned on demand. If this were the case, then acquisition sequences would reflect the sequences in which coursebooks present them, but they do not. On the contrary, the acquisition order is remarkably resilient to coursebook presentation sequences. Long (2015, p. 21) gives some examples to demonstrate this:

…. Pica (1983) for English morphology by Spanish-speaking adults, by Lightbown (1983) for the present continuous -ing form by French-speaking children in Quebec being taught English as a second language (ESL) using the Lado English series, by Pavesi (1986) for relative clauses by children learning English as a foreign language (EFL) in Italy and Italian adults learning English naturalistically in Scotland, and by R. Ellis (1989) for English college students learning word order in German as a foreign language.

Long goes on to point out that accuracy orders and developmental sequences found in instructed settings match those obtained for the same features in studies of naturalistic acquisition, and that the striking commonalities observed suggest powerful universal learning processes are at work. He concludes (Long, 2015, p.23):

… instruction cannot make learners skip a stage or stages and move straight to the full native version of a construction, even if it is exclusively the full native version that is modelled and practiced. Yet that is what should happen all the time if adult SLA were a process of explicit learning of declarative knowledge of full native models, their comprehension and production first proceduralized and then made fluent, i.e., automatized, through intensive practice. One might predict utterances with occasional missing grammatical features during such a process, but not the same sequences of what are often completely new, never-modelled interlingual constructions, and from all learners.

While practice has a role in automatizing what has been learned, i.e., in improving control of an acquired form or structure, the data show that L2 acquisition is not simply a process of forming new habits to override the effects of L1 transfer; powerful creative processes are at work. In fact, despite the presentation and practice of full native norms in focus-on-forms instruction, interlanguages often stabilize far short of the target variety, with learners persistently communicating with non-target-like forms and structures they were never taught, and target-like forms and structures with non-target-like functions (Sato 1990).



That’s a taste of the evidence. We can’t conclude from it, as a few insist, that there’s no point in any kind of explicit teaching, but it does mean that, in Doughty and Long’s words (2003):

The idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, but wrong.

The dynamic nature of SLA means that differentiating between different stages of interlanguage development is difficult – the stages overlap, and there are variations within stages – and so the simplistic view of a “Natural Order”, where a learner starts from Structure 1 and reaches, let’s say, Structure 549, is absurd. Imagine trying to organise stages such as those identified by Pienemann into ordered sets! As Gregg (1984) points out:

If the structures of English are divided into varying numbers of ordered sets, the number of sets varying according to the individual, then it makes little sense to talk about a ‘natural order’. If the number of sets varies from individual to individual; then the membership of any given set will also vary, which makes it very difficult to compare individuals, especially since the content of these sets is virtually completely unknown.

So the evidence of interlanguage development doesn’t mean that we can design a syllabus which coincides with any “natural order”, but it does suggest that we should respect the learners’ internal syllabuses and their developmental sequences, which most coursebooks fail to do. Doughty and Long (2003) argue that the only way to respect the learner’s internal syllabus is

by employing an analytic, not synthetic, syllabus, thereby avoiding futile attempts to impose an external linguistic syllabus on learners (e.g., the third conditional because it is the third Wednesday in November), and instead, providing input that is at least roughly tuned to learners’ current processing capacity by virtue of having been negotiated by them during collaborative work on pedagogic tasks.

Long has since (Long, 2015) given a full account of his own version of task-based language teaching, and whether or not we are in a position to implement a similar methodology in our own teaching situations, at least we can agree that we’d be well-advised to concentrate more on facilitating implicit learning than on explicit teaching, to give more carefully-tuned input, and to abandon the type of synthetic syllabus used in coursebooks in favour of an analytic one.



Sorry, can’t give all references. Here are a few of “key” texts. Tarone (2006) free to download (see below) is a good place to start.

Adjemian , C. (1976) On the nature of interlanguage systems. Language Learning 26, 297–320.

Bailey,N., Madden, C., Krashen, S. (1974) Is there a “natural sequence” in adult second language learning? Language Learning 24, 235-243.

Corder, S. P.  (1967) The  significance  of  learners’ errors. International Review of

Applied Linguistics (IRAL) 5, 161-9.

Corder, S. P. (1981) Error analysis and interlanguage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dulay, H. and Burt, M. (1974a) Errors and strategies in child second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly 8, 12-36.

Dulay, H. and Burt, M. (1974b) Maturational sequences in child second language acquisition. Language Learning 24, 37-53.

Doughty, C. and Long, M.H. (2003) Optimal Psycholinguistic Environments for Distance Foreign Language Learning. Downloadable here: http://llt.msu.edu/vol7num3/doughty/default.html

Gregg, K. R. (1984) Krashen’s monitor and Occam’s razor. Applied Linguistics 5, 79-100.

Hong, Z. and Tarone, E. (Eds.) (2016) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Krashen S (1981) Second language acquisition and second language learning.  Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Long, M. H. (2015) SLA and TBLT. Oxford, Wiley Blackwell.

Nemser W (1971) Approximative systems of foreign language learners.’ IRAL 9, 115–23.

Selinker L (1972). ‘Interlanguage.’ IRAL 10, 209–231.

Selinker L  (1992).  Rediscovering interlanguage.   London: Longman.

Schachter, J. (1974) An error in error analysis. Language Learning 24, 3-17.

Tarone E (1988) Variation in interlanguage. London: Edward Arnold.

Tarone, E. (2006) Interlanguage. Downloadable here: http://socling.genlingnw.ru/files/ya/interlanguage%20Tarone.PDF


English Language Teaching: Art and Rationality


Alan Maley’s argument for distancing the activity of doing SLA research from the activity of English Language Teaching (ELT) is based on the very reasonable premise that while the former attempts to adopt a scientific method, the latter adopts a more imaginative, humanistic, creative, “arts” approach, as articulated by the likes of Earl Stevick, Mario Rinvolucri, John Faneslow, Adrian Underhill, Jim Scrivener, and indeed, Alan Maley himself. The suggestion is that teaching English as an L2, even more than teaching geography or history, for example, is a creative, imaginative endeavour, where a teacher’s ability to bring language to life; to contextualise it; to create situations where students engage with it; to get students to learn some key parts of it by rote or at least through frequent re-cycling; to create group dynamics and nurture group cohesion; to empathise with the doubts and fears of students, to manage conflicting needs, and also to design, organise and carry out a coherent plan of learning, are all as important (more so, indeed) than a critical appreciation of theories of SLA and the research they’re based on.


I’ve been lucky enough to attend workshops run by all the educators listed above except Scrivener, who I’m sure does a great job of helping teachers to hone their skills. I found all of these workshops useful, enjoyable and motivating, and I learned a great deal. The several courses I did with John Faneslow were the most memorable; John has a special ability to help teachers to see what they’re doing more clearly, and to reflect on their practice more openly. He’s primarily concerned with the effect of teaching on the learner, and with helping teachers meet learners needs. His other great concern is encouraging teachers to deliberately break the rules. Stevick’s courses are legendary, and rightly so because he was hugely inspirational and influential, like Faneslow, in encouraging a more learner-centred approach to ELT, but Underhill’s courses, especially perhaps those that help teachers with the tricky questions involved in teaching pronunciation, are just as inspiring and valuable.  No doubt others have their own favourite teacher trainers, those who influenced them most, those who brought their teaching to life and pushed them to expect more of themselves and their students. Such training has little to do with SLA research, but it’s unquestionably at the heart of ELT practice.


I did these training courses when I started teaching, which was before the coursebook took hold. At the school where I taught, ESADE Idiomas, Barcelona, there were 35 to 40 teachers, using an extraordinarily diverse range of methods, including grammar translation, audio-visual, direct method, community language learning (nothing like CLT, by the way, but very interesting), Silent Way, Suggestopedia, Natural Approach, Total Physical Response, and many others. A few teachers were fairly strict adherers to one method, but most of us dabbled in all of them, although there was quite an obvious division between those who emphasised grammar and those who didn’t. We did 100 hour courses at 7 different levels. There was a syllabus for each course with lists of grammar points for low levels and rather vague descriptions of levels of proficiency for higher levels. Providing that both the teachers and their students thought that good progress was being made, teachers could do what they liked. There were proficiency tests at the end of each course, but nobody took that much notice of them.

And that’s how things were in those days. In such an environment I would have gone along with just about everything Scrivener said in his response to Maley’s recent article, which I discussed in my last post.  Scrivener argues that teaching is about “tuning in to people and attempting, moment by moment, to help create a space where learning can happen”; and it’s “more a live, personal, creative, intuitive, human art than a measurable science”. Surely that’s as true now as it was in 1990; the trouble is that the rest of what he said is not. Things have changed: the practice of ELT has got worse and our understanding of SLA has got better. I might have agreed with Scrivener in 1990 that teachers use every kind of methodology and that “It all works. It all fails”, and I might have agreed with him that when ELT experts took contradictory positions on every topic “They are all right. They are all wrong”.  I know just what he means, it made sense to me back then, but I don’t think it’s a good way of viewing ELT practice today, when the coursebook exerts such a dominating  (and I’d say suffocating) hold on ELT, and when we know that the syllabus which coursebooks exemplify does more to constrain and hinder learning than to encourage and facilitate it.


By 1995, the spark, the energy, the creativity, the enthusiasm, that had characterised ESADE Idiomas had largely disappeared, and every teacher in ESADE Idiomas was using a coursebook. Correlation is not causation, of course; the coursebook was simply the outward manifestation of an underlying transformation of the institution from a school dedicated to teaching, to a business dedicated to profit. In the new environment, with its new vocabulary of placement incentives, follow-on schemes, drop-out avoidance measures, time management, customer satisfaction feedback loops, on-going teacher evaluation, can-do short-term objectives, etc., etc., there was no place for the unruly, anarchistic, hit and miss, give it a go approach to teaching which had flourished in the 1980s. The commercialisation of ELT required discipline and order; but most of all, it required the manufacture, packaging and marketing of easily recognised products. And what better way to package ELT than by offering a series of language courses where coursebooks provided both the form and content!


Despite the fundamental design faults of coursebooks, teacher training courses were increasingly adapted to incorporate their use, and by the end of the 20th century, coursebooks dominated every aspect of the rapidly expanding ELT business, now worth $2,000 billion a year.  At the same time, research findings in SLA were uncovering more and more about the development of interlanguages which can be said to characterise the process of SLA. These findings revealed that teaching does not affect the route of interlanguage development, and from this it followed that most coursebooks were asking teachers to do the impossible. Coursebooks were based on false assumptions about L2 learning; so when teachers led their students through a coursebook like Headway Intermediate, or English File Elementary, most of their students didn’t learn what they were taught most of the time. And when they finished a course, most students hadn’t made as much progress as they’d been promised when they signed up for it. But very few teachers were aware of the weaknesses of a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus;  very few of those running the ELT industry were interested in SLA research, especially if it posed a challenge to the neat and tidy way they had teaching organised; very few academics made the effort to tell ELT practitioners about their work, so the march of the coursebook continued.


I’ve stated my views on coursebook-based ELT  quite enough already, and I’ve explained how research findings from SLA research have influenced those views. The aim of this post is to recognise, and agree with, many of the points made by Maley and the fifteen respondents to his article, but to plead with them not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Teaching is, as Scrivener says, “a live, personal, creative, intuitive, human art”; and the academic community has as Thornbury says “disenfranchises teachers by (a) adopting an impenetrable and exclusionary discourse style; (b) equivocating on the relevance or practical application of their findings; and (c) rarely…” (not never, Scott) “engaging with the issues that most concern practising teachers in their classrooms”.  But, as a result of increasing commercial pressure in a neoliberal global economy, ELT practice today is too constrained, too regimented, too defined by coursebooks, and it would, in my opinion, be better if Maley and the others who run the ELT business recognised how far the commercialisation of ELT has gone, and accept that not all SLA research is tarred by the same brush. We need to change, and a good way to start is to give more serious consideration to the research* which suggests that using coursebooks based on a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus constrains and hinders L2 learning more than it encourages and facilitates it.

*A good summary of this research can be found in Long, M. H. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley BlackwellSee Chapters 2 and 10, particularly. Below are a few of the works frequently referred to:

Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part I. Language Teaching, 20, pp 81-92.

Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part II. Language Teaching, 20, 20, Issue 03.

Ellis, R. (1989) Are classroom and naturalistic acquisition the same? Studies in SLA, 11,3, 303-328.

Hong, Z. and Tarone, E. (Eds.) (2016) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

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

Long, M.H. (2015) SLA and Task Based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley Blackwell.

Meisel, J.M., Clahsen, H., and Pienemann, M. (1981) On determining developmental stages in natural second language acquisition. Studies in SLA, 3,1, 109-135.

Myles, F. (2013): Theoretical approaches to second language acquisition research. In Herschensohn, J. & Young-Scholten, M. (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. CUP

Ortega, L. (2009) Sequences and Processes in Language Learning. In Long and Doughty Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.

Pica, T. (1983) Adult acquisition of English as a second language under different conditions of exposure. Language Learning, 33,4,465-497.

Pienemann, M. (1984) Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. In C. Pfaff (Ed.) First and Second Language Acquisition Processes. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. 143-168.

Pienemann, M. (1989) Is language teachable? Applied Linguistics, 10,1,52-79.

Pienemann, M. (2011) Developmental Schedules, and Explaining Developmental Schedules, in Pienemann and Kessler, J. (Eds.) (2011) Studying Processability theory: An introductory textbook. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 209-231.


Maley, SLA Research and ELT – The Elephant in the Room


In June 2016, Alan Maley published an article called ‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far?”, arguing that, with regard to second language teaching,

research and the practice of teaching are quite different forms of activity, with no necessary connection between them.

Having pointed out that research and teaching are different and that they have divergent priorities, that research findings are routinely ignored, and that few new ideas in TESOL have come from research, Maley concludes:

we recognise the value and legitimacy of research and theory-building within its own domain.  But we should not expect it to have any necessary or close link with the activity of teaching.  

Maley uses Lightbown’s (2000) survey to summarise the contribution of SLA research to developments in TESOL over the past 50 years.

  1. “Adults and adolescents can ‘acquire a second language’
  2. The learner creates a systematic interlanguage….
  3. There are predictable sequences in L2 acquisition
  4. Practice does not make perfect
  5. Knowing a language rule does not mean one will be able to use it in communicative interaction
  6. Isolated error correction is usually ineffective in changing language behaviour
  7. For most adult Ls, acquisition stops before the L has attained native-like mastery of the target language
  8. . One cannot achieve native-like…command of a second language in one hour a day.
  9. The learner’s task is enormous because language is enormously complex.
  10. . A learner’s ability to understand language in a meaningful context exceeds their ability to comprehend de-contextualised language and to produce language of comparable complexity and accuracy.”

Maley comments:

While it is useful to have common-sense intuitions verified by research, the above list does not appear to make a radical contribution to our understanding of how we learn languages.


I hope you noticed points 2 to 6 on the list, because it seems that Maley missed them. They’re all to do with research findings about interlanguage development, and the question is: how could Maley have read these points and failed to appreciate that they make an extremely radical contribution to our understanding of how we learn languages? How can Maley so confidently assert that research is of no relevance to the practice of teaching, when he acknowledges the findings of interlanguage development research which clearly indicate that most ELT today is carried out in a way that contradicts them?

Points 2 to 6 indicate that SLA is a process whereby “the learner creates a systematic interlanguage”, which is made up of “predictable sequences in L2 acquisition”. One implication of the nature of this interlanguage development is that “knowing a language rule does not mean one will be able to use it in communicative interaction.” More generally, robust research findings have shown that teaching can affect the rate but not the route of interlanguage development, and that, therefore, the most widely-used method of teaching English in the world today, namely by presenting and practicing a pre-determined series of linguistic forms (pronunciation contrasts, grammatical structures, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc., etc.) is bound to fail: learners will simply not learn what they’re taught.  (See my post on the folly of coursebooks for a fuller discussion of the implications of interlanguage research findings on teaching practice.)

How can Maley so easily and breezily ignore such a huge “elephant in the room”? Not that he’s the only one who pretends the elephant isn’t there: none of the 15 who respond to Maley’s article draws attention to the implications of research into interlanguage development for teaching practice. Why is no attempt made by Maley or any of the 15 respondents to thoroughly examine SLA research findings and to then impartially evaluate their implications for teaching practice? Could it be that they’re just so stuck in their own grooves, so comfortably ensconced in the upper echelons of the ELT establishment that they’d rather not face research findings which so seriously challenge the principles on which current ELT practice rests? For all their nods in the direction of progress, Maley, Scrivener, Medgyes, Thornbury and the rest of them show an understandable reluctance to bite the hand that feeds them.

Just one example. Thornbury, the enfant terrible of the establishment, knows perfectly well that most current ELT practice flies in the face of robust SLA research findings. Thornbury propounds the Dogme approach, he speaks out against coursebooks, he gives courses in SLA to post graduate students in New York. And yet, in his response to Maley, he congratulates Maley, he agrees with him on so much, he burbles on about this and that, and only in the last paragraph does he say that we shouldn’t dismiss research completely because “without a knowledge base anything goes”. And that’s as far as Thornbury goes: he fails to flag up the elephant in the room, which is very disappointing.

Maley trots out the usual litany of complaints about the research community, many of them perfectly reasonable, justified, and in need of attention. He also makes some good points about what teachers can reasonably be expected to do in terms of on-going training and development. But none of this has the slightest relevance to the central erroneous argument that “we should not expect research to have any necessary or close link with the activity of teaching”. A lot of research is now specifically targeted at understanding instructed SLA, and the findings of this research should surely be of interest to teachers. Few teachers will have the time or inclination to regularly read articles that appear in scholarly journals reporting on the latest studies, but that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in on-going research and its implications for teaching practice.

Krashen’s theory of SLA had a profound effect on ELT, and for all its failings as a theory, it remains the starting point for the most important question that affects ELT: to what extent is instructed SLA a matter of unconscious “acquisition”, and to what extent is it “conscious learning”? Associated with this question are questions about putative sensitive periods, syllabus design; focus on formS versus focus on form;  noticing, priming, pronunciation teaching; vocabulary teaching, extensive reading, error correction and much more besides. All these questions have a direct effect on teaching practice. How are we to evaluate conflicting claims made about teaching practice by the advocates of the Lexical Approach, Dogme, CLT, and so on, if not by an appeal to the evidence about how people learn and about how they respond to various types of instruction? This evidence needs to be critically evaluated in order for us to propose tentative principles that guide our work. Until we articulate such principles, until we take a position on the fundamental issue of how implicit learning is best supplemented by explicit instruction, we remain in the world of the blind, at the mercy of one-eyed quacks who tell us to shun research findings and trust in their folksy wisdom which has nothing more to recommend it than the stamp of authority.


It would be too much to hope for Maley not to include some version of the hackneyed old saw that language teaching is not a science. He ends with a quote from Stevick that does the job nicely: “So we flee back to the temples of science, to its priesthood that can feed us on reliability and validity..”, etc., etc.. Scrivener sings from the same hymn sheet:

I remain convinced that teaching is more a live, personal, creative, intuitive, human art than a measurable science. I cannot determine the quality of a Toulouse Lautrec picture by counting the number of colours he used, or measuring the length of his brush strokes, though both these things may give insights about his techniques and style. I can learn to appreciate his work by observing and thinking. I feel that much the same can be said of teaching.

This is, of course, a ridiculous straw man argument: nobody is suggesting that teaching is a science, or that it should be; and nobody is threatening the creative, human, craft of teaching when they suggest that teachers should be rational. If we want to understand how people learn languages, and if we want to find out the best ways to help them do so, then we need to go beyond anecdotes and feelings and folk lore, and to base ourselves on an appeal to a rational interrogation of the evidence, which is what good SLA research does.

How are we to make decisions about contradictory claims about the principles and practice of ELT? Do we go along with Scrivener’s view that

It all works. It all fails. I have listened to many ELT experts taking up similar or contrary positions on every topic. They are all right. They are all wrong.

or do we include a critical evaluation of what research has to say in our deliberations? Surely most teachers would agree that we should have a working knowledge of what those researching instructed SLA have to say, and surely teachers are nowhere near as anti-research as Maley and Scrivener suggest. I believe that teachers would welcome the chance to hear reports of the research done on instructed SLA and to discuss its implications.


Imagine that as part of their 2017 teacher development programme, teachers belonging to the SLB Teachers Cooperative in Barcelona are given the chance to attend these two workshops:

  1. A workshop run by any one of the 15 respondents to Maley’s article on “How to grade your Concept Questions when presenting grammar points.”
  2. A workshop run by Carmen Muñoz from Barcelona University on Godroid’s (2016) study of the effects of implicit instruction on implicit and explicit knowledge development.

As one of the SLB group, I personally would be interested in attending both, and I dare to say that all the other teachers would feel the same. To suggest that the second workshop (a) has “no close link with the activity of teaching”, and (b) that teachers aren’t interested in such matters, is (a) absurd, and (b) insulting.


Godroid, A. (2016). The effects of implicit instruction on implicit and explicit knowledge development. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 38, 2, 177-215.

The journal “Humanising Language Teaching “ published Maley’s ‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far? . Responses were written by Jim Scrivener, Willy Cardoso, Peter Medgyes, Mario Saraceni, Dat Bao, Tom Farrell, Tamas Kiss, Richard Watson-Todd, Scott Thornbury, David A. Hill, Brian Tomlinson, Rod Ellis, Rod Bolitho, Penny Ur and Adrian Underhill. You can download both articles free here: http://www.hltmag.co.uk/jun16/index.htm

Good and Bad Writing


Here are a few examples of good writing.

We were taken to a fast-food café where our order was fed into a computer. Our hamburger, made from the flesh of chemically impregnated cattle, had been broiled over counterfeit charcoal, placed between slices of artificially flavored cardboard and served to us by recycled juvenile delinquents.  Jean Michel Chapereau


The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars. Gustave Flaubert.


Somewhere there was once a Flower, a Stone, a Crystal, a Queen, a King, a Palace, a Lover and his Beloved, and this was long ago, on an Island somewhere in the ocean 5,000 years ago … Such is Love, the Mystic Flower of the Soul. This is the Center, the Self.  Carl Jung


I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than it be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.  Jack London


Has this ever happened to you? Summer vacation has started, you’ve just settled in to your cabin on the lake, when suddenly you remember: You have a contract to write an introduction to SLA, and the manuscript is due next week. What do you do?

Well, if you decide not to go back to the office and actually work, you might try to write down as many of the standard topics as come to mind—learning versus acquisition, performance versus competence, morpheme acquisition, processability, critical period, UG, connectionism, and so forth—and scribble a few anodyne lines about each, without actually providing any details about any. If you did that, you might wind up with something not too different from Saville-Troike’s truly embarrassing new book. Kevin Gregg


I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet,

And the river jumps over the mountain

And the salmon sing in the street.


I’ll love you till the ocean

Is folded and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking

Like geese about the sky.  W. H. Auden


Why are they good? Because they’re rhythmic. They all set up a rhythm, they flow, they lead you on. That’s the first and most important criterion of good writing: it leads you on by getting you in the groove. But it leads you on in different ways, though: rhythm in writing is created by the stress patterns of the words in a sentence, and sentences are hugely variable. It’s almost impossible, in my opinion, to lay out the declarative knowledge required to write rhythmically, and here we are again with the declarative versus procedural knowledge conundrum. Is writing a skill? Yes it is. Is it best taught by explaining the rules? No, it isn’t, at least it isn’t if we want to go beyond the rules of a particular genre like academic writing, where the current conventions of citing sources and not using contractions are easily explained. The trick is to concentrate on actually producing texts. Write a few paragraphs. Read them out loud. How do they sound? Not good? Why not?  Sentence one too hurried? Sentence two too long? You could say, for example, that different rhythms can be got by using long sentences (fluid, easy, smooth) or short sentences (crisp, snappy, up-beat), but it never really gets to the heart of the matter, does it? Because you have to feel it, and, like Auden’s love poem, you know when you’ve got it right. Actually, that’s an interesting example because Auden tried on so many hats you never knew what he “really” felt, least of all if you were unlucky enough to be one of his lovers. I’m losing you – the rhythm’s gone!

There’s this mixture of trusting your instinct and being aware of what you’re doing: you have to trust your feel for the rhythm of what you write,  but you also have to check time and time again that you’ve got the right effect. Bach swings seemingly without effort, but we know he sweated buckets to keep that rhythmic flow and keep it fresh. Charlie Parker was the master: he could keep the rhythm going no matter what. He could let the band go, catch it up and grab the rhythm by the scruff of its neck when you felt it was far too late, and Sinatra could do the same. Both Parker and Sinatra had rhythm in their bones; their genius was the way they bent it. I’ve lost the rhythm again. The point is that they felt and understood rhythm; they knew about it, they used it knowingly.

In writing, Dickens was a master of rhythm (the first page of Bleak House, for example), and so, in my opinion, was Kingsley Amis, who wrote splendid essays about writing, as has his son more recently (see Martin Amis’ The War Against Clichés). In non-fiction, examples of great rhythmic prose are George Orwell’s essays, Alan Bennett ‘s diaries, and the journalistic pieces of Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal and Clive James.  All these great writers had a natural “don” for swing, for rhythm, but they all combined it with enormous amounts of work honing their craft.

Attention to rhythm goes hand in hand with attention to fresh and lively prose. You need to do exactly the opposite of what those who peddle the “Lexical Approach” advise their students to do, namely to step off the well-trodden path and stop using worn out language. Take a look again at the examples above: all of them swing, and all of them sing too – they use inventive, lively language – none of them uses clichés without thinking twice (geddit). The rhythm of good writing swings and its fresh use of words sings. Even when you write a 3,000 word assignment for an MA  module on pronunciation, you can make it swing and sing. You can combine coherence and cohesion with grace and delight, and if you don’t believe me, read any article published by Kevin Gregg (who, just by the way, manages, through unusual scholarship and critical acumen, to do more than most to advance our understanding of SLA) .

As so often in literary appreciation, it’s easier to give a list of “Don’ts” than “Dos”. George Orwell’s great essay “Politics and the English Language” is often cited for its list of “Don’ts”, but the famous six rules strike me as very thin soup. I think Charlie Parker has the best advice:

“When in doubt, leave it out!”

Parker was of course advising against the temptation to gild the lily, but no doubt those who disapprove of my latest post on Harmer wish that I hadn’t bothered to start.

Harmer Sinks to New Low: Truth and Taste Lose Out to Delusion and Bathos


Have you seen Harmer’s post-Brexit Lament “We Will Rise Again” on YouTube? It’s the most absurd bit of posturing you’re ever likely to see, and if post post modernism ever decides it’s gone far enough in its search for puffed-up, meaningless expressions of worthless, empty sentiment, then this song could well be its holy grail, its end point. Connoisseurs of kitsch can rub their hands in glee – a new depth in bad taste has been reached, the sluice gates of true dross have been breached.

The high fidelity sound, good musicianship, and good camera work of the video all go to emphasise the extraordinary pretentiousness and bathos of Harmer’s song.  Here we go again with all the dripping, unconsidered sentiment, the numbing, dulling breath of Cambridge clichés, and most of all the atrocious, truly dire attempts at verse. Who but Harmer could sing this

After the rain came falling and the truth was washed away

I called my brother on the telephone, just to see what he would say.

without gagging on its inane banality? It’s so awful that it’s actually funny. It’s so distasteful, so crass, that the only thing you can do is laugh at it.  How could such badly-written crap be so theatrically presented with such high-minded intent, with not so much as a hint of irony informing it? How could such effort have gone into giving voice to such hopeless drivel? How could the talented cast have voluntarily aided and abetted this drippingly sentimental, gushingly trite, ridiculously overworked message of “hope”?  The only possible response is laughter – otherwise you just might want to cry.

And this, of course, is Harmer’s reaction to Brexit. We might ask who the “we” in “We will rise again” refers to, but really, why bother!

Light Shines Through the Fog of 2016


For anybody hoping for some real change in ELT, 2016 hasn’t been a particularly good year, has it. The continued domination of the coursebook, the worsening conditions of so many language teachers who get paid a pittance and who have so little say in what and how they teach, and the unrelenting, entrenched conservatism of the establishment (witness, for example, the CELTA curriculum, the ELTON Awards, the conference plenaries, and all those ELT blogs proudly displaying their boring blue British Council badges) give little cause for cheer. But it wasn’t all bad; it never is. Here are a few good things which remind us that in the general fog there’s good stuff shining through. Monet’s splendid picture makes a good start.


The winner of the 2016 SAGE/ILTA Book Award was Glen Fulcher’s marvellously invigorating book on testing.


Fulcher, G. (2015) Re-examining Language Testing: A philosophical and social inquiry. London, Routledge.  

The book investigates why societies use tests, and the values that have driven changes in practice over time. Fulcher walks among the Enlightenment philosophers (those marvellous bunch of inspired thinkers who bravely, brilliantly fought for reason), and takes what he calls a “pragmatist’s view” within the Enlightenment tradition. Glenn and I differ a bit about pragmatism, but we’re united in our admiration of the great David Hume, whose dry humour, scepticism and logical rigour find voice in the book, which takes an essentially optimistic approach and leads to a progressive, tolerant, and principled theory of language testing and validation. Fulcher obviously had a good time writing this book, which is provocative, wickedly funny at times, radical, inspiring, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

As if winning the award wasn’t enough, Glenn actually won it jointly with another of his books: Fulcher, G. and Davidson, F. (2012). The Routledge Handbook of Language Testing. London and New York: Routledge.



Just to show how broad-minded I am, I’ll mention the winner of the 2016 AAAL Book Award.

Canagarajah, S. (2013) Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations. New York, Routledge.

The jury commended Canagarajah for providing “a highly original contribution that questions some of the traditional approaches in the study of multilingualism”. He uses the concept of “translingual practice” to show the expressive and creative potential of multilinguals, and he challenges academic gatekeepers “to reconsider linguistic power relations in teaching and in professional service work like peer review and editorial leadership”.

To be honest, I’m unlikely to read the book, which I suspect will be crowded with long, difficult to parse sentences, but whatever floats your boat, right?



The 2016 CriticElt Book Award goes to Mike Long’s superb, scholarly and persuasive major work on task-based teaching.

Long, M.H. (2015) SLA and Task Based Language Teaching.  Oxford, Wiley. 

This is the best book about ELT I’ve read. Long’s comprehensive knowledge of theories and research of SLA, his equally thorough grasp of issues related to instructed SLA and task based teaching, and his commitment to liberal education, social justice and radical teaching practice come together in this truly impressive book. Take a look at the Table of Contents by clicking on the link in the title, and you’ll get an idea of the scope and depth of Long’s treatment of TBLT. As Peter Skehan says: “A major achievement — a research-based pedagogy for task-based instruction”.



Next, a book actually written this year.

Tomlinson, B. (Ed.) (2016) SLA Research and Materials Development for Language Learning.  London, Routledge

The blurb says it’s “the only book available to focus on the interaction between second language acquisition theory and materials development for language learning”. It consists of  “papers by experts in SLA, experts in materials development, researchers who have expertise in both fields, and introductions and conclusions by the editor”. I found a few of the chapters disappointing, but in general, it’s a good source for post-graduate courses, and a good book for anybody involved in materials production. Tomlinson himself, whose influence is noticeable throughout, is keen to point out the weaknesses of the coursebook and encourage writers to look for more principled alternatives.



Here’s another book published in 2016, and this one is a collection of articles arguing for a usage-based view of SLA. I’m a sceptic, but there’s some good stuff here, and the authors certainly makes a lot more sense than Larsen-Freeman does.

Ellis, N., Römer, U., Brook O’Donnell, M. (2016) Usage-Based Approaches to Language Acquisition and Processing: Cognitive and Corpus Investigations of Construction Grammar. London, Wiley-Blackwell.

The authors present the by now familiar view of language as a complex adaptive system that is learned through usage. What’s good about the collection, I think, is that in a series of research studies, they analyze Verb-Argument Constructions (VACs) in different ways – first and second language learning, processing, and use. As the blurb says: “Drawing on diverse epistemological and methodological perspectives, they show how language emerges out of multiple experiences of meaning-making. In the development of both mother tongue and additional languages, each usage experience affects construction knowledge following general principles of learning relating to frequency, contingency, and semantic prototypicality”.



Finally, a book I haven’t read, but one that’s caused a big stir.

Fries, P,H., Strauss, S.L. (2016) Reading- The Grand Illusion: How and Why People Make Sense of Print. London, Routledge.

This is from the publishers:

What is reading? In this groundbreaking book, esteemed researchers Ken Goodman, Peter Fries, and Steven Strauss, explain not only what reading really is but also why common sense makes it seem to be something quite different from that reality. How can this grand illusion be explained? That is the purpose of this book. As the authors show, unraveling the secrets of the grand illusion of reading teaches about far more than reading itself, but also about how remarkable human language is, how the brain uses language to navigate the world, what it means to be human. Each author brings a different perspective, but all share a common view of the reading process. Together they provide a clear and surprising exposition of the reading process, in which they involve readers of this book in exploring the ways they themselves read and make sense of written language while their eyes fixate on fewer than 70 percent of the words in the text.




First up, the 2016 ARAL which is devoted to task based language teaching.

2016 Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 

The issue contains a really good collection of articles which I’m sure will be widely cited in years to come. Among the best are these 3:

  • Peter Skehan: Tasks Versus Conditions: Two Perspectives on Task Research and Their Implications for Pedagogy.
  • Luke Plonsky and You Jin Kim: Task-Based Learner Production: A Substantive and Methodological Review.
  • Michael H. Long: In Defense of Tasks and TBLT: Non issues and Real Issues.



Next, a good article by Florence Myles and co-writer which acts as a kind of antidote to the more rabid claims made about the powers of formulaic language.

Myles, F. And Cordier, C. (2016) Formulaic Sequence Cannot Be an Umbrella Term in SLA: Focusing on Psycholinguistic FSs and Their Identification. Studies in Second Language Acquisition.

From the Abstract: “The first part of the article provides a conceptual framework focusing on the contrast between linguistic or learner-external definitions, that is, what is formulaic in the language the learner is exposed to, such as idiomatic expressions or collocations, and psycholinguistic or learner-internal definitions, that is, what is formulaic within an individual learner because it presents a processing advantage. The second part focuses on the methodological consequences of adopting a learner-internal approach to the investigation of FSs, and examines the challenges presented by the identification of psycholinguistic formulaicity in advanced L2 learners, proposing a tool kit based on a hierarchical identification method.”



Third, Plonsky again, this time with a co-author looking at the CALL-SLA interface through a meta-analysis of a wide range of studies.  I think this is useful for anyone doing a post-graduate paper on CALL, or whatever the new acronym their university uses these days.

Plonsky, L and Ziegler, N. (2016) The CALL–SLA interface: Insights from a second-order synthesis. Language Learning & Technology, 20, 2, 17-37. Click this for Free download of pdf version of the article

The article begins by describing the effects of CALL on L2 learning and examining different types of technology, such as CALL glosses and computer-mediated communication. “Results of the methodological review reveal wide variability overall and in several practices associated with rigor, transparency, and utility of meta-analytic reviews.”



Finally, a well-researched and well-conducted study on written feedback. This is the kind of work that we need to refer to before making silly sweeping generalisations about how research evidence “proves” the value of this or that type of error correction.

Eun Sung Park, Sunhee Song, Yu Kyoung Shin (2016), 20,6, To what extent do learners benefit from indirect written corrective feedback? A study targeting learners of different proficiency and heritage language status. Language Teaching Research, 20, 6. Click this for Free Download




From the man who brought us the Teachers As Workers SIG, we now get a fine new blog; well-presented, well-organised, very well-written, and full of meaty, engaging, interesting posts.

Paul Walsh: Decentralised Teaching and Learning

Here’s a quote:

“You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it” (Maya Angelou in interview with Dave Chappelle).



And a plug for a cause near home and one that I pledge to give more attention to nest year:

La Cooperativa de Serveis Lingüístics de Barcelona

Neil McMillan leads this great team of enthusiastic, innovative language teachers who “get together to lend and share materials, equipment and training in order to better ourselves professionally and economically. We also aim to distribute and market our work collectively. But by distribute we don’t only mean sell, as we are also keen to make our services available to NGOs and similar groups on a solidarity basis. Finally, an integral part of our vision is to advocate for equal opportunities and fair pay and conditions for all language professionals”. I’m now a member and look forward to working with the others in 2017, particularly on a project to build a materials bank.



ELT Research Bites

Anthony Teacher and Mura Nava, who both have their own fine blogs, have recently started this blog which offers “interesting and relevant language and education research in an easily digestible format”. They say

“Academic journal articles and research reports tend to be long, perhaps even long-winded. And rightfully so – there is a lot of theoretical and often statistical work that must be clearly explained and a journal article is the best place for that. We hope, with this new blog, to help all language teachers benefit from the insights gained through academic research, whilst not taking too much of their time away from where it is needed most – the classroom.

ELT Research Bites serves you the substance and context of the full article at the length of an abstract, with a side dish of practical implications! With these bite-size summaries of applied linguistics and pedagogy research, ELT Research Bites aims to offer a bridge to empirical or other published work which contributors feels deserve attention and which you can adapt and apply in your own language teaching0!”

It’s got off to a very good start and should prove to be extremely useful.



Ljiljana Havran’s Blog

Always fresh, always well-judged and well-presented, Ljiljana’s reflections on language teaching are engaging and thought-provoking, while her practical teaching suggestions are a great source of inspiration and help. I confess that I’m drawn, like the moth to the flame, to every new post, partly at least in the hope of reading something new about Belgrade, that wonderful, unforgettable city which I still miss so much. (The photo, taken by Ljiljana, is of Kalemegdan Park and the Statue of Victory in Belgrade.)




Scott Thornbury’s IATEFL Plenary 

Do yourself a favour; take an hour off, click on the link, sit back, relax, and watch Scott doing his inimitable stuff on a very big stage indeed. I reviewed this plenary and made a couple of comments, neither of which detract from the huge enjoyment one gets from being so intelligently and charmingly entertained.



Innovate ELT Conference, Barcelona.

Finally, my congratulations to ELT Jam & Oxford House for organising the second Innovate ELT conference, which, once again, was a tremendous success. It was a friendly, buzzy, animated, good-humoured, well-organised, event; very interesting topics were discussed and a good time was had by all. Well done everybody! If you click the link you’ll get a taste of the atmosphere, which, in my opinion anyway, was the “point” of the whole thing. Surely the main point of going to a conference is not so much to learn as to mingle with those bright sparks who challenge you to question things and to do something new. And to have fun. 🙂


The CriticElt 2016 Awards


Only 5 awards this year.


1. The Can I Get A Pineapple Award for the worst contribution to vocabulary teaching.

Winner: Leo Selivan, for his exhortation to teachers: “Ban Single Words”.

Some excellent work is going on these days to improve the teaching of vocabulary in ELT. It’s now widely recognised that vocabulary teaching needs to take account of collocation, formulaic language and language chunks, thanks to the work of, among others, Pawley and Syder, Nattinger and Carrico, Sinclair, Biber, Nation, Carter, and Schmitt (whose website is an excellent source). Great use is being made of concordance programs and ever more widely available big corpora (see Mura’s fantastic blog EFL Notes for up to date news), and increasing attention is being given to principles of vocabulary teaching (see, for example, Norbett Schmitt’s presentation “Research-based Principles of Vocabulary Teaching” available on his website).

At the same time, there are those who follow in the footsteps of Michael Lewis and try to persuade us to make vocabulary teaching the main pillar of ELT. Lewis’ work leaves a great deal to be desired in terms of scholarship, and, alas, so does the work of most of his followers, who have so far failed to give any credible explanation of the principles that inform their “Lexical Approach” (see my review of Teaching lexically ).

Leo Selivan is one such follower, and it is he who carries off the award for his post Beginners’ Guide To Teaching Lexically where his First Principle of the Lexical Approach is “Ban Single Words”. I commented on this extraordinary injunction in a post in March this year, but I still can’t quite believe he said it.


2. The Doublespeak Award is for a public address using language that is “grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered”. It was started by the Canadian National Council of Teachers of English since 1974. Nominees must be American.

Winner: Diane Larsen-Freeman, for saying this in her 2016 IATEFL plenary:

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.

I commented on this plenary in a post soon after the event.

Larsen-Freeman followed this up last month with an equally weird, deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing plenary at the TESOL France 35th Annual Colloquium called “Patterns in Language:  Why are they the way that they are?”, where she revealed how fractals (geometric shapes that are self-similar at different levels of scale, but really, broccoli) are the key to discovering patterns in language. Her inability to say anything remotely coherent about how complexity theory might inform language or second language learning hasn’t impressed many, but Scott Thornbury is an exception. So loyal has Scott remained to Larsen-Freeman’s garbled pronouncements on complexity theory and emergentism that I think he deserves an award of his own: The New Zealand Military Award for Obedience Under Heavy Fire.


3. The Foot in Mouth Award is presented each year by the Plain English Campaign for “a baffling comment by a public figure”. Here it’s for the most ill-informed and illogical comment made on an ELT blog.

Winner: Chris Smith on the Evidence based EFL blog for this comment:

So, when it comes to evidence based EFL, we can conclude that the evidence shows that error correction works. I would also assert that if people want to argue that it does not work, they cannot merely cherry pick one or two articles that did not find a link. They would need to show why all the clear evidence mentioned above (and more) is wrong.

The “clear evidence mentioned” is both cherry-picked and seriously flawed, while the assertion is illogical and shows a basic misunderstanding of the role of evidence in argumentation. For more on this, see my post on Making a mess of evidence.


4. The Empty Vessel Award is presented for the most content-free, loudly voiced, garbled-collection-of-platitudes-confidently-rolled-out-as-if-it–all-meant-something address of 2016.

Winner: Jeremy Harmer for his talk at the TESOL Convention in April 2016. Just 2 examples:

If students are feeling happy and warm and open, open to new words and new language, they will receive it with more enthusiasm than if they’re closed off.

In a lesson, it’s what the students have, bring and do that is the beginning, the middle and the end of everything.

It’s impossible to get any real idea of the total emptiness of his talk without going through the awful effort of actually listening to it, so why don’t you just take my word for it.


5. The Blotted Copybook Award goes to the ELT organisation that this year has done most to damage a good cause.

Winner: TEFL Equity Advocates Blog

What started out as a good blog supporting a good cause has turned into a commercial-looking, badly-edited, conservative-minded, disingenuous mouthpiece for Marek Kiczkowiak. The blog looks like it’s desperately trying to sell stuff; a “Join Now!” pop-up page blocks your view 5 seconds after you arrive at the blog; every page invites donations to the cause, and there are promotional links to all sorts of training courses that Mr. Kiczkowiak runs or supervises. All in all, it seems to have veered a long way away from its original core cause of 2014. But it gets the award for Wiktor Kostrzewski’s post After 2016 trust native speakers less, which includes this gem:

Simply put, no British or American person teaching English after 2016 can claim “native” prerogative to decide which language use is “good” or “bad”. Not a Leaver / Republican, who has yet to see the long-term fall-out from their vote. Not a Remainer / Democrat, whose efforts to stop the destructive propaganda on their doorsteps were just proven inadequate. And definitely not the abstainers.”

Mr. Kostrzewski asserts that Brexit and Trump’s election mean that British and American teachers have “lost the right to claim that their version of English can serve as a reasonable model of English language use”. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a ridiculous post, and the way the author and blog owner handled the flack that inevitably followed was also very inept. I for one intend to steer well clear of the TEFL Equity Advocates blog from now on.

The lose-lose folly of coursebook consumption



One of the main aims of this blog is to draw attention to the detrimental effects that using coursebooks has on both teachers and learners. I’ve already done a few posts challenging coursebooks (see bar Menu on the right), but here I try to draw the strands together. My argument is twofold; first, coursebooks are based on false assumptions about second language acquisition (SLA), and second, coursebooks deprive teachers and learners of ownership of the learning process.


Coursebooks embody a synthetic approach to syllabus design. Wilkins (1976) distinguished between a ‘synthetic’ approach, where items of language are presented one by one in a linear sequence to the learner, whose job is to build up, or ‘synthesizes’, the knowledge incrementally, and an ‘analytic’ approach, where the learner does the ‘analysis’, i.e. ‘works out’ the system, through engagement with natural language data. Coursebook writers take the target language (the L2) as the object of instruction, and they divide the language up into bits of one kind or another – words, collocations, grammar rules, sentence patterns, notions and functions, for example – which are presented and practiced in a sequence. The criteria for sequencing can be things like valency, criticality, frequency, or saliency, but the most common criterion is ‘level of difficulty’, which is intuitively defined by the writers themselves.

Different coursebooks claim to use different types of syllabus, – grammatical, lexical, or notional-functional, for example – but they’re all synthetic syllabuses with the same features described above, and they all give pride of place to explicit teaching and learning. The syllabus is delivered by the teacher, who first presents the bits of the L2 chosen by the coursebook writers (in written and spoken texts, grammar boxes, vocabulary lists, diagrams, pictures, and so on), and leads students through a series of activities aimed at practicing the language, like drills, written exercises, discussions, games, tasks and practice of the four skills.


Among the courseboooks currently on sale from UK and US publishers, and used around the world are the following:

Headway;     English File;      Network;      Cutting Edge;      Language Leader;      English in Common;      Speakout;      Touchstone; Interchange;      Mosaic;      Inside Out;      Outcomes.

Each of these titles consists of a series of five or six books aimed at different levels, from beginner to advanced, and offers a Student’s Book, a Teacher’s Book and a Workbook, plus other materials such as video and on-line resources. Each Student’s Book at each level is divided into a number of units, and each unit consists of a number of activities which teachers lead students through. The Student’s Book is designed to be used systematically from start to finish – not just dipped into wherever the teacher fancies. The different activities are designed to be done one after the other; so that Activity 1 leads into Activity 2, and so on. Two examples follow.


In New Headway, Pre-Intermediate, Unit 3, we see this progression of activities:

  1. Grammar (Past tense) leads into ( ->)
  2. Reading Text (Travel) ->
  3. Listening (based on reading text) ->
  4. Reading (Travel) ->
  5. Grammar – (Past tense) ->
  6. Pronunciation ->
  7. Listening (based on Pron. activity) ->
  8. Discussing Grammar –>
  9. Speaking (A game & News items) ->
  10. Listening & Speaking (News) ->
  11. Dictation (from listening) ->
  12. Project (News story) ->
  13. Reading and Speaking (About the news) ->
  14. Vocabulary (Adverbs) ->
  15. Listening (Adverbs) ->
  16. Grammar (Word order) ->
  17. Everyday English (Time expressions)


And if we look at Outcomes Intermediate, Unit 2, we see this:

  1. Vocab. (feelings) ->
  2. Grammar (be, feel, look, seem, sound + adj.) ->
  3. Listening (How do they feel?) ->
  4. Developing Conversations (Response expressions) ->
  5. Speaking (Talking about problems) ->
  6. Pronunciation (Rising & fallling stress) ->
  7. Conversation Practice (Good / bad news) ->
  8. Speaking (Physical greetings) ->
  9. Reading (The man who hugged) ->
  10. Vocabulary (Adj. Collocations) ->
  11. Grammar (ing and ed adjs.) ->
  12. Speaking (based on reading text) ->
  13. Grammar (Present tenses) ->
  14. Listening (Shopping) ->
  15. Grammar (Present cont.) ->
  16. Developing conversations (Excuses) ->
  17. Speaking (Ideas of heaven and hell).

All the other coursebooks mentioned are similar in that they consist of a number of units, each of them containing activities involving the presentation and practice of target versions of L2 structures, vocabulary, collocations, functions, etc., using the 4 skills. All of them assume that the teacher will lead students through each unit and do the succession of activities in the order that they’re set out. And all of them wrongly assume that if learners are exposed to selected bits of the L2 in this way, one bit at a time in a pre-determined sequence, then, after enough practice, the new bits, one by one, in the same sequence, will become part of the learners’ growing L2 competence. This false assumption flows from a skill-based view of second-language acquisition, which sees language learning as the same as learning any other skill, such as driving a car or playing the piano.


Skills-based theories of SLA

The most well-known of these theories is John Anderson’s (1983) ‘Adaptive Control of Thought’ model, which makes a distinction between declarative knowledge – conscious knowledge of facts; and procedural knowledge – unconscious knowledge of how an activity is done. When applied to second language learning, the model suggests that learners are first presented with information about the L2 (declarative knowledge ) and then, via practice, this is converted into unconscious knowledge of how to use the L2 (procedural knowledge). The learner moves from controlled to automatic processing, and through intensive linguistically focused rehearsal, achieves increasingly faster access to, and more fluent control over the L2 (see DeKeyser, 2007, for example).

The fact that nearly everybody successfully learns at least one language as a child without starting with declarative knowledge, and that millions of people learn additional languages without studying them (migrant workers, for example), might make one doubt that learning a language is the same as learning a skill such as driving a car. Furthermore, the phenomenon of L1 transfer doesn’t fit well with a skills based approach, and neither do putative critical periods for language learning. But the main reason for rejecting such an approach is that it contradicts SLA research findings related to interlanguage development.

Firstly, it doesn’t make sense to present grammatical constructions one by one in isolation because most of them are inextricably inter-related. As Long (2015) says:

Producing English sentences with target-like negation, for example, requires control of word order, tense, and auxiliaries, in addition to knowing where the negator is placed. Learners cannot produce even simple utterances like “John didn’t buy the car” accurately without all of those. It is not surprising, therefore, that Interlanguage development of individual structures has very rarely been found to be sudden, categorical, or linear, with learners achieving native-like ability with structures one at a time, while making no progress with others. Interlanguage development just does not work like that. Accuracy in a given grammatical domain typically progresses in a zigzag fashion, with backsliding, occasional U-shaped behavior, over-suppliance and under-suppliance of target forms, flooding and bleeding of a grammatical domain (Huebner 1983), and considerable synchronic variation, volatility (Long 2003a), and diachronic variation.



Secondly, research has shown that L2 learners follow their own developmental route, a series of interlocking linguistic systems called “interlanguages”.  Myles (2013) states that the findings on the route of interlanguage (IL) development is one of the most well documented findings of SLA research of the past few decades. She asserts that the route is “highly systematic” and that it “remains largely independent of both the learner’s mother tongue and the context of learning (e.g. whether instructed in a classroom or acquired naturally by exposure)”. The claim that instruction can influence the rate but not the route of IL development is probably the most widely-accepted claim among SLA scholars today.

Selinker (1972) introduced the construct of interlanguages to explain learners’ transitional versions of the L2. Studies show that interlanguages exhibit common patterns and features, and that learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to different end-state proficiency levels. Examples of such sequences are found in 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 Hong and Tarone, 2016, for a review).  Regardless of the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented in coursebooks, learners analyse input and create their own interim grammars, slowly mastering the L2 in roughly the same manner and order. The  acquisition sequences displayed in interlanguage development don’t reflect the sequences found in any of the coursebooks mentioned; on the contrary, they prove to be  impervious to coursebooks, as they are to different classroom methodologies, or even whether learners attend classroom-based courses or not.

Note that interlanguage development refers not just to grammar; pronunciation, vocabulary, formulaic chunks, collocations, sentence patterns, are all part of the development process. To take just one example, U-shaped learning curves can be observed in learning the lexicon. 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. 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.

Interlanguage development takes place in line with what Corder (1967) referred to as the internal “learner syllabus”, not the external syllabus embodied in coursebooks. Students don’t learn different bits of the L2 when and how a coursebook says that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. As Pienemann demonstrates (e.g. Pienemann, 1987) learnability (i.e., what learners can process at any one time), determines teachability (i.e., what can be taught at any one time). Coursebooks flout the learnability and teachability conditions; they don’t respect the learner’s internal learner syllabus.


 False Assumptions made by Coursebooks

To summarise the above, we may list the 3 false assumptions made by coursebooks.

Assumption 1: In SLA, declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge. Wrong! No such simple conversion occurs. Knowing that the past tense of has is had and then doing some controlled practice, does not lead to fluent and correct use of had in real-time communication.

Assumption 2: SLA is a process of mastering, one by one, accumulating structural items. Wrong! All the items are inextricably inter-related. As Long (2015, 67) says:

The assumption that learners can move from zero knowledge to mastery of negation, the present tense, subject- verb agreement, conditionals, relative clauses, or whatever, one at a time, and move on to the next item in the list, is a fantasy.

Assumption 3: Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it. Wrong – as every teacher knows! Pienemann (1987) has demonstrated that teachability is constrained by learnability.


Five Objections to Coursebooks

  1. As the section on interlanguage above indicates, presenting and practicing a pre-set series of linguistic forms (pronunciation contrasts, grammatical structures, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc.) simply does not work, unless a form coincidentally happens to be learnable (by some students in a class), and so teachable, at the time it is presented.
  2. The approach is counterproductive: both teachers and students feel frustrated by the constant mismatch between teaching and learning.
  3. The cutting up of language into manageable pieces (or “McNuggets” as Thornbury (2014) calls them) often results in impoverished input and output opportunities.
  4. Both the content and methodology of the course are externally pre-determined and imposed. This point will be developed below.
  5. Coursebooks pervade the ELT industry and stunt the growth of innovation and teacher training. The publishing companies that produce coursebooks also produce exams, teacher training courses and everything else connected to ELT; Pearson’s GSE initiative is a good example. Publishing companies spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing, aimed at persuading stakeholders that coursebooks represent the best practical way to manage ELT. Pearsons is one example, another is the the British ELT establishment, where key players like 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. 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.


An Alternative: The Analytic or Process Syllabus

An analytic syllabus rejects the method of cutting up a language into manageable pieces, and instead organises the syllabus according to the needs of the learners and the kinds of language performance that are necessary to meet those needs. “Analytic” refers not to what the syllabus designer does, but to what learners are invited to do. Grammar isn’t “taught” as such; rather learners are provided with opportunities to engage in meaningful communication on the assumption that they will slowly analyse and induce language rules, by exposure to the language and by the teacher providing scaffolding, feedback, and information about the language.

Breen’s (1987) distinction between product and process syllabuses contrasts the focus on content and the pre-specification of linguistic or skill objectives, with a “natural growth” approach which aims to expose the learners to to real-life communication without any pre-selection or arrangement of items. Figure 1, below, summarises the differences.


A process approach focuses on how the language is to be learned. There is no pre-selection or arrangement of items; the syllabus is negotiated between learners and teacher as joint decision makers, and emphasises the process of learning rather than the subject matter. No coursebook is used. The teacher implements the evolving syllabus in consultation with the students who participate in decision-making about course objectives, content, activities and assessment.



Hugh Dellar has made a number of attempts to defend coursebooks, and here are some examples of what he’s said:

  • “Attempts to talk about coursebook use as one unified thing that we all understand and recognise are incredibly myopic. Coursebooks differ greatly in terms of the way they frame the world and in terms of the questions and positions they expect or allow students to take towards these representations. …. So hopefully it’s clear that far from being one homogenous unified mass of media, coursebooks are wildly heterogeneous in both their world views and their presentations of language.”
  • “Teachers mediate coursebooks”.
  • “The kind of broad brush smearing of coursebooks you’re engaging in does those teachers a profound disservice as it’s essentially denying the possibility of them still being excellent practitioners. I’d also suggest that grammar DOES still seem to be the primary – though not the only – thing that the vast majority of teachers around the world expect and demand from material, whether you like it or not (and I don’t, personally, but there you go. We live in an imperfect world). To pretend this isn’t the case or to denigrate all those who believe this is wipe out a huge swathe of the teaching profession and preach mainly to the converted.”
  • Teachers in very poor parts of the world would just love to have coursebooks.
  • Coursebooks are based on the presentation and practice of discrete bits of grammar because that’s what teachers want.
  • Coursebooks help teachers do their jobs.
  • Coursebooks save time on lesson preparation.
  • Coursebooks meet student and parental expectations.

These remarks are echoed by others (e.g. Harmer, Scrivener, Prodromou, Urr, Lansford, Walter), and can be summed up by the following:

  1. Coursebooks are not all the same.
  2. Teachers adapt, modify and supplement them.
  3. They’re convenient.
  4. They give continuity and direction to a language course.

I accept that some coursebooks don’t follow the synthetic syllabus I describe, and don’t make the 3 assumptions I suggest they make (see Anthony Teacher’s post, for some examples). But these are the exceptions. All the coursebooks I list at the start of this article, and I’d say those that make up 90% of the total sales of coursebooks worldwide, use a synthetic syllabus and make the 3 assumptions I suggest, including Dellar’s. All the stuff about coursebooks differing greatly “in terms of the way they frame the world and in terms of the questions and positions they expect or allow students to take towards these representations” has absolutely no relevance to the arguments made against them.

As for teachers adapting, modifying and supplementing coursebooks, the question is to what extent they do so. If they do so to a great extent,  then the coursebook no longer serves as the syllabus, but they’ve rather contradicted the main point of having a coursebook, and one wonders how they can justify getting their students to buy the book if it’s only used let’s say 30% of the time. If they only modify and supplement to a small extent, then the coursebook drives the course, learners are led through a pre-determined series of steps, and my argument applies. The most important thing to note is that what teachers actually do is ameliorate coursebooks; they make them less terrible, more bearable, in dozens of different clever and inventive ways. But this, of course, is no argument in favour of the coursebook itself; indeed, to the extent that students learn, it will be more despite than because of the damn coursebook.

Which brings us to the claim that the coursebook is convenient, time-saving, etc.. Even if it’s true (which it won’t be if you spend lots of time adapting, modifying and supplementing (i.e. ameliorating) it), the trouble is, it doesn’t work: students don’t learn what they’re taught. And that applies to the other arguments used to defend coursebooks, such as that parents expect their kids to use them, that they give direction to the course, and so on: such arguments simply ignore the evidence that students do not, indeed cannot, learn in the way assumed by a coursebook.


Thus, the points above fail to address the main criticisms levelled against coursebooks, which are that they fly in the face of robust research findings and that they deprive teachers and learners of control of the learning process, leading to a lose-lose classroom environment.  In order to reply to these arguments, those wishing to defend coursebooks must first confront the three false assumptions on which coursebook use is based (i.e. they must confront the evidence of how SLA actually happens) and they must then argue the case for dictating what is learned. That coursebooks are the dream of teachers working in Ethiopia; that coursebooks are cherished by millions of teachers who just really love them; that the Headway team have succeeded in keeping their products fresh and lively; that Outcome includes recordings of people who don’t have RP accents; that coursebooks are mediated by teachers; that coursebooks are here to stay, so get real and get used to it; none of these statements does anything to answer the case against them, and none carries any weight for those who wish to base their teaching practice on critical thinking and rational argument. No matter how “different” coursebooks are, or how flexibly they can be used, coursebooks rely on false assumptions about L2 learning, and impose a syllabus on learners who are largely excluded from decisions about what and how they learn.

Managing a process syllabus is no more difficult than mastering the complexities of a modern coursebook. All you need to get started is a materials bank and a crystal-clear explanation of roles and procedures. Part 2 of Breen 1987 provides a framework; the collection of articles edited by Breen (2000) has at least 5 really helpful “road maps”; Meddings and Thornbury (2009) give a detailed account of their approach in this excellent book; and I outline a process syllabus on my blog. As befits an approach based on libertarian, co-operative educational principles, a process syllabus is best seen in local rather than global settings. If the managers of local ELT centres have the will to break the grip of the coursebook, they only have to make a small initial investment in local training and materials, and to then support teachers in their efforts to involve their students in the new venture. I dare to say that such efforts will transform the learning experience of everybody involved.



Coursebooks oblige teachers to work within a framework where students are presented with and then practice dislocated bits of English in a sequence which is pre-determined and externally imposed on them by coursebook writers. Most teachers have little say in the syllabus design which shapes their work, and their students have even less say in what and how they’re taught. Furthermore, results of coursebook-based teaching are bad; most learners don’t reach the level they aim for, and most don’t reach the level of proficiency the coursebook promises (English Proficiency Index, 2015). At the same time, alternatives to coursebook-driven ELT which are much more attuned to what we know about psycholinguistic, cognitive, and socio-educational principles for good language teaching don’t get the exposure or the fair critical evaluation that they deserve.

Despite flying in the face of what we know about L2 learning, despite denying teachers and learners a decision-making voice, and despite poor results, the coursebook dominates current ELT practice to an alarming extent. The main pillars of the ELT establishment, from teacher organisations like TESOL and IATEFL, through bodies like the British Council, examination boards like Cambridge English Language Assessment and TEFL, to the teacher training certification bodies like Cambridge and Trinity, all support the use of coursebooks.

The increasing domination of coursebooks in a global ELT industry worth close to $200 billion (Pearson, 2016) means that they’re not just a symptom but a major cause of the current lose-lose situation we find ourselves in, where both teachers and learners are restrained and restricted by the demonstrably faulty methodological principles which coursebooks embody. I think we have a responsibility to raise awareness of the damage that coursebooks are doing, and to fight against the suffocating effects of continued coursebook consumption.


Anderson, J. R. (1983). The architecture of cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part I. Language Teaching, 20, pp 81-92.

Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part II. Language Teaching, 20, 20, Issue 03.

Breen, M.P. and Littlejohn, A. (2000) Classroom Decision Making: Negotiation and Process Syllabuses in Practice. Cambridge: CUP.

English Proficiency Index (2015) Accessed from http://www.ef.edu/epi/  9th November, 2015

Hong, Z. and Tarone, E. (Eds.) (2016) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

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

Long, M.H. (2015) SLA and Task Based Language Teaching. N.Y., Routledge.

Long, M.H. & Crookes, G. (1993). Units of analysis in syllabus design: the case for the task. In G. Crookes & S.M. Gass (Eds.). Tasks in a Pedagogical Context. Cleveland, UK: Multilingual Matters. 9-44.

Meddings, L. And Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged. Delta.

Mitchell, R. and Myles, F. (2004)  Second Language Learning Theories.  London: Arnold.

Myles, F. (2013): Theoretical approaches to second language acquisition research. In Herschensohn, J. & Young-Scholten, M. (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. CUP

Ortega, L. (2009) Sequences and Processes in Language Learning. In Long and Doughty Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.

Pearson (2016) GSE  Global Report Retrieved from https://www.english.com/blog/global-framework-raising-standards 5/12/2016.

Pienemann, M. (1987) Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. In C. Pfaff (Ed.) First and Second Language Acquisition Processes. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. 143-168.

Rea-Dickins, P. M. (2001) Mirror, mirror on the wall: identifying processes of classroom assessment. Language Testing 18 (4), p. 429 – 462.

Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 209-231.

Statista (2015) Publisher sales of ELT books in the United Kingdom from 2009 to 2013. Accessed from  http://www.statista.com/statistics/306985/total-publisher-sales-of-elt-books-in-the-uk/ 9th November, 2015.

Thornbury, S. (2014) Who ordered the Mcnuggets? Accessed from http://eltjam.com/who-ordered-the-mcnuggets/ 9th November, 2015.

Walkley, A. And Dellar, H. (2015) Outcomes:Intermediate. National Geographics.

Wilkins, D. (1976) Notional Syllabuses: A Taxonomy and its Relevance to Foreign Language Curriculum Development. London: Oxford University Press.

A few grumps about lazy language use


I was quite a precocious grumpy old sod, in fact I think I was grumpy before I could walk, but there’s no doubt about my status now: I’m officially a grumpy old man. Once you get past seventy years old you’re allowed to be as grumpy as you like, which is one of the few good things to be said for it. I’m particularly keen these days to nurture my grumpy hyper-sensitivity to the decline in the use of the English language; every day (or on a daily basis as they say) I see examples of awful English which, if it had more strength, would make my hair stand on end. This morning, after I’d eventually found my glasses (under a pillow), been to the loo a few times, taken my pills, put my slippers on the wrong feet, huffed and puffed my way down the stairs, and finally sat down in the kitchen with the kind of satisfied grunt that old people make when their bums successfully meet the middle of a chair, I listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme “Today”. Here are some of the things I heard people say:


  1. Interviewer: What are the main findings of your report?  Interviewee: So basically we feel that …….
  2. We’re reaching out to all those who have issues with our plans.
  3. I can’t have closure until the guilty men are locked up.
  4. Interviewer: Did you actually see the accident?  Interviewee: So I was standing at the bus stop, and ……
  5. Well, it is what it is.
  6. We’re taking their comments on board.
  7. Interviewer: Good game! How do you feel?  Interviewee: So it was a really hard match and …….
  8. We don’t expect any major changes going forward.
  9. We’re worried about some of Trump’s plans for outreach.
  10. He’s going to hit the ground running .
  11. His performance was what can only be described as flawless.
  12. There was a palpable sense of relief when he resigned.
  13. Since time immemorial we have kept dogs as pets.
  14. The full extent of the damage remains to be seen.
  15. There’s been a paradigm shift in cancer care.
  16. The situation is fluid (code for “I have no idea what is going on”)
  17. At set point he really committed to a hard passing shot.
  18. The attack was a victory for terror.

If I had more time (it’s a myth, by the way, that we oldies have nothing to do; apart from the fact that whatever we do takes so much longer, there are just so many complaints you can make and medical appointments you can keep in a single day) … Where were we? That’s another sign (or “significant trait” as they say) of old age: you forget what you’re doing – which adds to the time it takes to do it, of course.  If I had more time, I’d sort the 18 items above into carefully-considered categories and then spin some well-crafted yarn that would make compelling sense of it all.  As it is, my younger, more sprightly wife is going hang-gliding this afternoon, and I have to help. I say “help”; actually, all I have to do is stand in the field she plans to land in and phone our neighbour, who has a tractor, if she crashes into the woods nearby. Anyway, I only have a couple of hours free, and time (which marches on, waits for no person,  and is certainly not on my side) is a limited rescource going forward.


We can start with that one:  going forward.  In the quote above, “We don’t expect any major changes going forward”, the going forward bit adds nothing, and neither do moving forwards or other variations. Often, the best remedy is to simply leave out the phrase, although it might occasionally mean from now on, when an intended change is involved, or simply in future.  The culprit here, is, of course, management speak, which has been infiltrated into most parts of public language, and which John Humphries (of the “Today” programme) calls “a loathsome serpent crawling into our bed at night and choking the life out of our language”.  Management speak tries to sound important, but actually reduces language to a “debased, depleted sludge” as Don Watson, in his wonderful book Death Sentence calls it.  Sometimes it’s just annoying mumbo-jumbo (actioning deliverables by using blue sky thinking to build on best practice, for example), but sometimes its obscurantism is a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth. In the Mission Statements of so many companies’ Core Beliefs and Values,  “What we Stand For” can often give a good indication of what they do not in fact do.  Then there is the more sinister double speak that both dehumanises and seeks to control. Don Watson gives this example of judging an employee’s performance:

The role of the corporate centre is to worry  about talent and how people do, relative to each other. Workers build a set of intangibles around who they are. If they are not appreciated for their value-added, they will go somewhere else.

As Watson comments: “Ask yourself: would you stay if your value-added was not appreciated?”


In my collection of quotes from the Today programme, Items 2,6,8,9, and 10 are examples of management speak, and one can detect its influence in a few others, too. They’re objectionable to grumpy old me for various reasons, like being pompous or untrutrhful, but basically because they all lack clarity and precision. What does it mean to say that you’ve “taken on board” the criticisms or recommendations of a report? That you’ve understood them? Agreed with them? Heeded them? Accepted them? All that’s clear is that you have avoided any promise to actually do something about them. And what does “reaching out” entail? Making a public appeal to? Contacting by phone? Contacting in person?  Inviting to participate?  Again, one gets the strong impression that those who are being reached out to are unlikely to see much improvement in their situations.

Item 17 “At set point he really committed to a hard passing shot”,  is an example of management speak spilling over to affect other areas, in this case sports commentary. To paraphrase Watson, just as a parrot might screech all day “Where’s my other sock?”, as if socks mattered to a bird, tennis players are now expected to show commitment and to be accountable, as if they were global corporations.

The other item connected to sport, Item 11, uses the journalistic favourite It was what can only be described as…... to avoid the effort of actually describing something; and this in turn is connected to Item 16, where The situation is fluid is code for “I’ve no idea what’s going on”, and to Item 12, where a palpable sense of relief is unlikely to have been palpable.


A lot of the other items are clichés, dead bits of language which have been worn out by too much use. They just don’t convey much any more. I’m particularly sorry that “paradigm” has suffered this fate.

Items 1,4, and 7 are of the now ubiquitous “So”, usually found at the start of the utterance, and used like “Well”, or “Um”. I find it very annoying, but while I’m not prepared to take my wife’s advice to “just get over it”, I recognise that this is no more than me being an old grump.  The same goes for the tendency to use nouns as verbs. “Impact” is now firmly established as a verb; everybody with any business credibility is leveraging and actioning;  in our field, “grammar” has succumbed (Hugh Dellar likes to talk of grammaring); “fast track” was bad enough when it was only used as a noun; and I’m sure you have your own list of peeves. The older you are, the longer it’s likely to be.


Finally, there’s Item 3: “I can’t get closure until the guilty men are locked up”. I wonder if the locked up bit owes anything to the Trump campaign against Hilary Clinton. In any case, what this utterance illustrates is the widespread sense of entitlement observed in our society today. These days, there is a growing belief, as Watson puts it, that no mistake, inadequacy or failure should be accepted as a normal part of life: someone or some human process is to blame, and without blame, there can be no closure. Getting closure is already a cliché; but given the amount of litigation flying around these days, where people try to get compensation from those they blame for what happened to them, it’s fast becoming associated with insincere greed.


OMG, is that the time? Before I go out, I have to find the car keys (putting things in their “usual place” doesn’t seem to work these days); send off this letter to the local town council (complaining about the inappropriate use of the Catalan flag to wrap the baby Jesus in the nativity crib); trim the hair in my ears (sic); make an appointment with an optician (I can’t see the ball in the TV coverage of golf tournaments, even when I sit up close to the 60 inch screen); and fix the plug on my electric blanket (well it’s either that or a hot water bottle). Now, where did I put those scissors?

Making a mess of the evidence on error correction


Earlier this year, Russ Mayne invited Chris Smith to share his thoughts on error correction. On Friday, Russ advised teachers to use this weekend to “do their homework” and read Smith’s post, as if it were an important part of their education. Being a firm believer in taking the weekend off,  my advice is: “Don’t bother!”

Smith reviewed some of the literature on error correction and concluded:

So, when it comes to evidence based EFL, we can conclude that the evidence shows that error correction works. I would also assert that if people want to argue that it does not work, they cannot merely cherry pick one or two articles that did not find a link. They would need to show why all the clear evidence mentioned above (and more) is wrong. So going back to Krashen and Terrell, they asserted that EC is useless, and this idea has been dogmatically perpetuated. However, this is demonstrably wrong. The evidence shows that EC clearly is effective.

I’d like to make three points:

  1. Unless Chris Smith tells us what kind of error correction works with what kind of error, his claim that “error correction works” has little force.
  2. Smith states that anyone who disagrees with his claims for error correction has to show why all the evidence mentioned is wrong. This is based on a misunderstanding of the role of evidence in SLA research.
  3. Smith fails to distinguish between different views on error correction, which stem from different views of second language learning. By presenting the argument as a binary choice (for or against error correction), Jones misrepresents the scholarly discussion of error correction that’s taken place in the last twenty years, and misinterprets the evidence.


As to the first point, in order to investigate the question of whether or not error correction for speaking works, we need to define “error correction” and agree on what counts as evidence that “it works”. Smith claims that evidence from 6 different studies supports his poorly-articulated assertion, but there’s good reason to question this claim.

Study 1

The first study cited by Smith is by Lightbown and Spada (1990). This study gave no indication of what type of error correction leads to what kind of improvement in the participants’ speaking, and furthermore, as Lyster and Ranta (1997) point out, it

examined the effect of a combination of …. both form-focused instructional materials and feedback on error, and thus shed no light on the effectiveness of error correction on its own. (Emphasis added.)

Studies 2 & 3

The second study Smith mentions, by Carroll, Roberge and Swain (1992) and the third, by Carroll and Swain (1993) have methodological problems, as the authors admit, that make generaslisation questionable. In the case of the 1993 study, for example, the time between initial and final testing was 1 week, far too short to know if learning was retained. Apart from these shortcomings, the studies only look at learning a particular kind of grammatical generalisation. Lyster and Ranta (1997) comment:

In Carroll, Roberge, and Swain (1992), adult subjects were trained and given feedback (or not) on two rules of suffixation in French, whereas Carroll and Swain (1993) investigated the effect of different types of feedback on the learning of the dative alternation rule in English, also by adults. It is difficult to know just what relevance the findings of these studies have for the treatment of learner errors during communicative interaction in school settings, particularly with younger learners.

The 1993 article itself ends

Despite these limitations, we tentatively conclude that our study lends support to Schacter’s claim that indirect and direct corrective feedback can help adult second language learners learn abstract linguistic generalisations.

This modest claim for the study falls far short of the claim Smith makes for it.

Study 4

The fourth study by Lyster and Ranta (1997) looks at four different types of error correction and concludes that

 “the feedback-uptake sequence engages students more actively when there is negotiation of form, that is, when the correct form is not provided to the students—as it is in recasts and explicit correction—and when signals are provided to the learner that assist in the reformulation of the erroneous utterance” (emphasis added).

Thus Chris Smith’s summary, which says that the data suggests that “explicit EC was more effective than implicit EC” is inaccurate. Furthermore, the article concludes

Providing feedback as part of a negotiated sequence in this way, however, is of course feasible in L2 classrooms only where learners already possess an adequate level of proficiency. If this condition is met, then the four feedback types that serve to actively engage learners in the negotiation of form remain non-threatening and potentially useful.

Again, the claim that, providing a certain very constraining condition is met, then 4 types of feedback are “potentially useful”, falls far short of the claim Jones makes.

Studies 5 & 6

Loewen’s (2005) analysis of 17 hours of classroom interaction concludes, as Jones says, that “incidental focus on form does have some effect on L2 learning” (p381). Once again, this is a long way from concluding that “error correction clearly works”.

The Ellis, Loewen and Erlam (2006) study did, as Jones says, find that explicit feedback was more effective than implicit feedback and that the benefits became more evident over time. But Jones neglects to mention works which question these findings, including Li’s (2010) meta-analysis of 33 studies, which found that the longer-term effect of recasts was larger and more effective than explicit feedback, and Long’s (2015) summary of recasts, which cites Li (2010) and concludes that recasts are a better form of oral error correction for classroom based SLA than explicit error correction.



The important thing to note here is that there is a major disagreement among scholars of instructed SLA about the relative merits of implicit and explicit oral correction. Smith rightly notes that more studies these days prefer explicit error correction, but he doesn’t acknowledge that these studies represent work done by a group of scholars who all share the same view of instructed SLA; namely that there is a “strong interface” between explicit and implicit knowledge. Likewise, Smith does not acknowledge that studies which give evidence for the superiority of implicit correction are carried out by those taking the “weak interface”, and “no inteface” position. Instead of dealing with the fact that there are important disagreements among scholars about the quality of the evidence regarding error correction and the conclusions we can draw from it, Smith presents the argument as being between those, like Krashen, who argue that error correction “doesn’t work” and those like him, who think it “clearly works”. This allows Smith to lump all the evidence showing some effect for error correction together; which amounts to deliberately misinterpreting the evidence, a far worse academic sin than cherry picking.


The Role of Evidence

Which brings us to Smith’s assertion that if people want to argue that error correction does not work, “they cannot merely cherry pick one or two articles that did not find a link. They would need to show why all the clear evidence mentioned above (and more) is wrong”. Well, no, they wouldn’t, because evidence doesn’t work like that. Empirical evidence is used to support or to challenge a theory or hypothesis, which in turn tries to answer a question or explain a problem that we’ve articulated.

In the case of this issue, the question is “What is the effect of error correction on instructed SLA?” How you answer this question depends on how you see the process of instructed SLA, which in turn involves how you see the interface (the connection or overlap) between explicit and implicit knowledge. As Jones indicates, the non-interface position is the one taken by Krashen (although he has modified this position a bit in the last 20 years), but this leaves importance differences between the weak-interface the strong- interface positions.

Strong Interface

The strong-interface position is the one that Smith seems to take, and is based on skill acquisition theory as applied to SLA. As Han and Finneran (2014, p.317) say:

It suggests that language learning, consists of, and proceeds through, a series of stages: a declarative stage, where learners first accumulate a factual understanding (developing ‘knowledge that’); then, a procedural stage, where learners act on the declarative knowledge (developing ‘knowledge how’); and finally, a stage of automatization, where the procedural knowledge becomes fluent, spontaneous, and effortless.

Han and Finneran (2014) give the example of Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis (Schmidt 1990; 1995; 2001) and the claim that ‘you can’t learn a foreign language (or anything else, for that matter) through subliminal perception,’ implying that conscious attention is the only viable pathway to learning, everything else ensuing as its spinoffs.

Weak Interface

Han and Finneran (2014) describe two variants of the weak-interface position. First, R. Ellis (1994; 2005; 2006) argues that

“explicit knowledge can turn into implicit knowledge, contingent on the nature of grammatical elements – whether they are developmentally constrained or not. Explicit knowledge of developmental elements can become implicit only when learners are developmentally ready, while explicit knowledge of non-developmental or so-called variational elements can turn into implicit knowledge at any time” (Han and Finneran 2014, p. 318).

Nick Ellis (2005; 2006; 2007), on the other hand, holds a much “weaker” position and sees learning as a largely implicit, associative and rational process,

whereby learners intuitively identify and organize constructions or form-function mappings based on their probabilistic encounters with relevant exemplars in the communicative environment.

However, the L1 often interferes with the learner’s processing of L2 input, and explicit instruction can help fix the problems, if the instruction

involves the learner in a conscious tension between the conflicting forces of their current interlanguage (IL) productions and the evidence of feedback, either linguistic, pragmatic, or metalinguistic, that allows socially scaffolded development’ (N. Ellis 2007: 84, cited in Han and Finneran, 2014, p. 321).

Nick Ellis’ view is one attempt to articulate an emegentist, or ‘associative- cognitive’, or ‘connectionist’ theory of SLA, based on a usage-based view of language and language development.

We may easily note that the two weak-interface positions are qualitatively different and rest on opposing theories of SLA. One position considers the learning process largely explicit and the other largely implicit; in one, explicit knowledge is necessary, in the other it is ancillary.


As for the non-interface position, Krashen (1982) differentiates between consciously learned knowledge (explicit knowledge) and subconsciously acquired knowledge (implicit knowledge), and argues learned knowledge and acquired knowledge are dissimilar, separate, and mutually irreplaceable. This view rests on Chomsky’s generative view of language development, where competence is enabled by Universal Grammar interacting with L2 natural input; instruction, by implication, may help performance only under monitored conditions, but it does not help competence or implicit knowledge, which drives spontaneous performance.



I’m not going to argue for any particular view here, suffice it to say that Chris Smith fails to recognise the complexity of the issue of error correction, fails to make his own position clear, and fails to appreciate that arguments about the effectiveness of different kinds of error correction stem from arguments about different theories of SLA. Thus, he is wrong to demand that people who want to argue that error correction does not work need to show “why all the evidence mentioned above (and more) is wrong”.  Unless the evidence is faulty (and not all of it is), we can’t show that it’s wrong, but that doesn’t mean we are bound to accept the claims that Jones makes for it. In general, when we look at evidence, we don’t ask “Is it right or wrong?”, we ask “Does it support or challenge a particular theory or hypothesis?”

All of which suggests that Chris Smith’s claim for error correction is both simplistic and misleading. The evidence does not in fact show that “error correction works”, rather conflicting evidence from different studies gives different amounts of support to different, often contradictory claims, which flow from different, often contradictory hypotheses and theories of SLA. The important question is “What kind and degree of error correction works best with what kinds of errors?”; and there is little likelihood that those who take different positions on the interface between explicit and implicit knowledge will agree, because they are informed by conflicting explanations of SLA.


Carroll, S. and Swain, M. (1993) Explicit and Implicit Negative Feedback: An Empirical Study of the Learning of Linguistic Generalizations. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 15, 357-386.

Carroll, S. and Swain, M., and Roberge, Y. (1992). The role of feedback in adult second language acquisition: Error correction and morphological generalizations. Applied Psycholinguistics 13, no. 2 173-198.

Ellis, R. Loewen, S. and Erlam, R. (2006). Implicit and Explicit Corrective Feedback and the Acquisition of L2 Grammar. Studies in SLA, 28,2.

Han, Z. and Finneran, R. (2014) Re-engaging the interface debate:strong, weak,none, or all?International Journal of Applied Linguistics,24. 3.

Krashen, S. and Terrell, T. (1988) The Natural Approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. Hemel Hempstead, Prentice Hall.

Li, S. (2010) The effectiveness of corrective feedback in SLA: A meta-analysis. Language Learner, 60, 2.

Lightbown P. and Spada, N. (1990) Focus on Form and Corrective Feedback in Communicative Language Teaching. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12, 429-448.

Loewen, S. (2005). Incidental focus on form and second language learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 27(03), 361-386.

Long, M. (2015) TBLT and SLA.  Oxford, Wiley.

Lyster, R. and Ranta. L. (1997). Corrective Feedback and Learner Uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 20, 37-66.



Pearson’s Grand Vision: Standardised Everything!

Pearson PLC is a British multinational publishing and education company headquartered in London. It’s the largest education company and the largest book publisher in the world. It generates total revenues of $10 billion. It’s a key player in the ELT world and in the last couple of months, Pearson has stepped up its promotional campaign for its Global Scale of English (GSE). Here’s what they say in their Single Global Framework report


The GSE comprises four distinct parts to create an overall English learning ecosystem:

  1. The scale itself – a granular, precise scale of proficiency aligned to the Common European Framework of Reference.
  2. GSE Learning Objectives – over 1,800 “can-do” statements that provide context for teachers and learners across reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  3. Course Materials – both digital and printed materials, aligned to the selection of learning objectives relevant for a course/level.
  4. Assessments – Placement, Progress and Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) tests, which are placement, formative/ summative assessments and high stakes tests aligned to the GSE.

The use of the Global Scale of English and GSE Learning Objectives is free along with the full database of GSE Grammar and Vocabulary. A range of Pearson English coursebooks, digital tools and assessments that are mapped to the GSE are available.

Pearson explain that the global ELT industry will be a much better place once everybody in it is using their Global Scale of English ecosystem. The GSE reinforces the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) as a tool for standards-based assessment, and is

 the world’s first truly global English language standard, allowing educators, employers and learners to measure progress accurately, easily, and in context.

The GSE uses “Learning Objectives” to describe

 what a learner should be able to do at every point on the Global Scale of English for reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Pearson proudly claim that

Thousands of teachers from over 50 countries have worked on the project to rate the GSE Learning Objectives – to come to a shared understanding of what it means to be at a level in English across each of the four skills on a scale from 10 to 90. 

Pearson now has every part of the ELT business covered (although maybe it needs to make further incursions into the lucrative teacher training sector, just to really sew things up) and is set to solve all our problems, no matter where we might happen to teach. According to Pearson

The GSE is becoming an indispensable tool for schools and educators as a global framework for auditing, building and modifying curriculums.


The question is whether or not we should welcome this latest attempt by Pearson to neatly package the whole of our teaching lives for us; and the answer is, of course, that we should not. The GSE is the most audacious realisation so far of an on-going attempt to standardise ELT, starting with assessment, as epitomised by the CEFR which it aims to supersede. As Glenn Fulcher has pointed out over a number of years (see for example, Fulcher 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010) we are moving towards “a common educational policy in language learning, teaching and assessment, both at the EU level and beyond” (Bonnet 2007: 672, cited in Fulcher, 2010). Fulcher notes that the CEFR has been indiscriminately exported for use in standards-based education and assessment in non-European contexts, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan; that it is manipulated by  centralizing institutions which use it to define required levels of achievement for school pupils and adult language learners; and that it is likely to lead to “reducing diversity and experimentation” in research and language pedagogy (Davies, 2008).



The basic problem of the GSE, in common with the CEFR, is that it reifies the language learning process, converting the abstract concepts of its granular descriptors into real entities and inviting us to accept the fallacy that those real entities represent language learning and communicative competence. All the difficult to define and difficult to measure processes involved in language learning,  and all the different kinds of knowledge and skills which make up communicative competence, are flattened out, granularised and turned into measurable entities. The learning objectives of the GSE, which describe “what a learner should be able to do at every point on the Global Scale of English”, are mistakenly taken as statements which reflect what is learned and how language acquisition actually happens. What makes this conceit truly preposterous is that the learning objectives of the GSE are not the result of a principled analysis of language use, or of the application of a theory of second language acquisition. Rather, they’re the result of asking teachers to make judgments on sets of descriptors, which they classify according to “levels of difficulty”, “usefulness”, “relevance”, and so on. The data from these teacher judgements are then used to construct scales of unidimensional items using Rasch analysis.

We may summarise the weaknesses of the GSE as follows:

  • The GSE has absolutely no basis in theory or in SLA research.
  • The GSE is an example of what Fulcher calls “Frankenstein scales”, which don’t relate to any specific communicative context, or give a good description of any particular communicative language ability.
  • The GSE assumes that the abilities it describes develop in the way implied by the hierarchical structure of the scales, but we know that learners don’t actually acquire language or communicative abilities in this way. Statistical and psychological unidimensionality are not equivalent, and the pedagogic notion of learners moving unidimensionally along the line from 10 to 90 is ridiculuous. Learning an L2 is gradual, incremental and slow, exhibiting plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours.
  • Post-hoc attempts by Pearson to produce benchmark samples showing typical performance along the GSE do no more than state things that are true by definition only. These definitions are both circular and reductive (Fulcher 2008: 170-171).

epa01350400 Students in Deventer buckle down to their exam, 19 May 2008. More than 200.000 surdents of secondary schools in the Netherlands take their final exams this week. EPA/Vincent Jannink

Pearson’s “overall English learning ecosystem” wants to turn the messy, unruly thing that is communicative competence into thousands of carefully identified, described and graded granules, serve them up in coursebooks which respect the “correct order” described in the GSE, and then assess learners’ ability to regurgitate them to specification. The motivation for this appalling mission is profit, and its rationale is creating order out of chaos. Alas, Pearson’s joyless vision of the future of ELT is a real threat, representing the culmination of a process started in the nineties, when coursebooks first started to snuff out the wonderful profusion of methods which abounded during the previous decade. This standardised, granular  approach to ELT  means that learners don’t learn what is taught and that teachers don’t heed what is known about the language learning process. It also means that most learners fall short of the level of proficiency they aim for, and that most teachers fall short of the level of job satisfaction they expected.


It’s a bit like climate change. There are those who deny that the commercialisation of education as manifested in Pearson’s GSE, and the fall in standards that it represents, is happening at all. There are those who say that it’s not as bad as the doom mongers make out. There are those who grudgingly admit that it’s a problem, but don’t want to give up the comfortable positions they enjoy, and those who just can’t imagine ELT being any other way. But there are also those who speak out, and who organise against the status quo. Join us! Teachers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your coursebook!



Fulcher G. (2004) Deluded by artifices? The Common European Framework and harmonization. Language Assessment Quarterly 1/4: 253-266.

Fulcher G. (2006) Test architecture. Foreign Language Education Research 12: 1-22.

Fulcher G. (2008) Criteria for evaluating language quality. In E. Shohamy (ed.), Language testing and assessment. Encyclopedia of language and education, Vol 7. Amsterdam: Springer, 157-176.

Fulcher, G. (2010) The reification of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and effect-driven testing. In Advances in Research on Language Acquisition and  Teaching. Selected Papers.  



What good is relativism?


Scott Thornbury (2008) asks “What good is SLA Theory?” . This is a question beloved of populists, all of whom agree that it’s of no use to anyone, except the rarefied crackpots who dream it up. Thornbury sets the tone of his own populist piece by saying that most teachers display a general ignorance of, and indifference to, SLA theory, due to “the visceral distrust that most practitioners feel towards ivory-tower theorising”.  If he’d said that most English language teachers have an ingrained distrust of academic research into language learning, we might have asked him for some evidence to support the assertion, but who can question that ivory tower theorists are not to be trusted? Note how Thornbury, who teaches a post-graduate course on theories of SLA at a New York university, and who has published many articles in serious, peer-reviewed journals, smears academics with the “ivory tower” brush, while himself sidling up to the hard-working, down to earth sceptics who read the English Teaching Professional magazine

Thornbury gives a brief sketch of 4 types of SLA theory and then gives 4 reasons why “knowledge of theory” is a good thing for teachers. But you can tell that his heart’s not in it.  He knows perfectly well that “knowledge” of the theories of SLA he mentions is of absolutely no use to anybody unless those theories are properly scrutinised and evaluated, but, rather than attempt any such evaluation, Thornbury prefers to devote the article to reassuring everybody that there’s no need to take SLA theories too seriously.

To help him drive home this anti-intellectual message, Thornbury turns to “SLA heavyweight” John H Schumann. Most SLA scholars regard the extreme relativist position Schumann adopts in his 1983 article as almost comically preposterous, while his acculturation theory is about as “heavyweight” as Dan Brown’s theory of the Holy Grail.  But anyway, judge for yourself.  Schumann (1983) suggests that theory construction in SLA should be regarded not as a scientific task, but as a creative endeavour, like painting. Rather than submitting rival theories of SLA to careful scrutiny, looking for coherence, logical consistency and empirical adequacy, for example, Schumann suggests that competing theories of SLA should be evaluated in the same way that one might evaluate different paintings.

“When SLA is regarded as art not science, Krashen’s and McLaughlin’s views can coexist as two different paintings of the language learning experience… Viewers can choose between the two on an aesthetic basis favouring the painting which they find phenomenologically  true to their experience.”

Thornbury seems to admire this suggestion. He comments:

“This is why metaphors have such power. We tend to be well disposed to a theory if its dominant imagery chimes with our own values and beliefs. If we are inclined to think of learning as the meeting of minds, for example, an image such as the Zone of Proximal Delevopment is more likely to attract us than the image of a black box.”

Schumann’s paper was an early salvo in what, 10 years later, turned into a spirited war between academics who adopted a relativist epistemology; and those who held to a rationalist epistemology. The war is still waging, and, typically enough, Thornbury stays well clear of the front line, while maintaining friendly relations with both camps. But let’s be clear: relativism, even though not often taken to the extreme that Schumann does, is actually taken seriously by many academics, including Larsen-Freeman and sometimes (depending on how the wind’s blowing) by Thornbury himself. Rational criteria for the evaluation of rival theories of SLA, including logical consistency and the weighing of empirical evidence, are abandoned in favour of the “thick description” of different “stories” or “narratives”,  all of them deemed to have as much merit as each other. Relativists suggest that trying to explain SLA in the way that rationalists (or “positivists” as they like to call them) do is no more than “science envy”, and basically a waste of time. Which is actually the gist of Thornbury’s argument in the 2008 article discussed here.

In response to this relativist position, let me quote Larry Laudan, who says

“The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is—second only to American political campaigns—the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.”


Thornbury asks “What good is SLA theory?” without making any attempt to critically evaluate the rival theories he outlines. But then, why should he? After all, if you adopt a relativist stance, then no theory is right, none is of much importance, so why bother to sort them out? Instead of going to all that unnecessary trouble, all you have to do is take a quick look at Thornbury’s little summary in Table 1 and choose the theory that grabs you, or rather, choose the “dominant metaphor” which best chimes with your own values and beliefs. And if you can’t be bothered to check out which theory goes best with your values and beliefs, then why not use some other, equally arbitrary subjective criterion? You could toss a coin, or stare intently at a piece of toast, or ask Jeremy Harmer.

“What good is SLA theory?” is actually a very stupid question. It’s as if “SLA theory” were some sort of uncountable noun, like toothpaste. What good is toothpaste? It doesn’t actually make much difference to brushing your teeth. But “SLA theory” is not uncountable; some SLA theories are very bad, and some are very good, and consequently, we need to agree on criteria for evaluating them so as to concentrate on what we can learn from the best theories. Instead of pandering to the misinformed view that SLA theories are equally unscientific, equally based on metaphors, equally relative in their appeal, Thornbury could have used the space he had in the journal to examine – however “lightly”- the relative merits of the theories he discusses, and the usefulness to teachers of the best theories.  He could have mentioned some of the findings of psycholinguistic research into the influence of the L1; age differences and sensitive periods; error correction; incomplete trajectories; explicit and implicit learning, and much besides. He could have mentioned one or two of the most influential current hypotheses about SLA, for example that instruction can influence the rate but not the route of interlanguage development.

He could have also pointed out that those adopting a relativist epistemology have achieved very little; that Larsen-Freeman’s exploration of complexity theory has achieved precisely nothing; that his own attempts to use emergentism to conjure up “grammar for free” have been equally woeful; and that the relativists he supports are more responsible than anyone else for the popular view that academics sit in an ivory tower writing unintelligible articles packed with obscurantist jargon for publication in journals that only they bother to read.


Laudan, L. (1990) Science and Relativism: Dialogues on the Philosophy of Science. Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Schumann, J. H. (2003) Art and Science in SLA research. Language Learning, 33, 409 – 75.