The CriticElt 2016 Awards

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Only 5 awards this year.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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14 thoughts on “The CriticElt 2016 Awards

  1. Enjoyable reading as ever, thank you. As a close follower of your blog I could have predicted a few. Harmer? Shocking!? Still, I think TEFL equity advocates are fighting a good fight, and mostly doing well at it. With all identity politics the genuine detractors can easily get caught up in the groundswell of the privileged and prejudiced. We can criticise Obama’s legacy after promising to close Guantanamo bay, but doing so swells the ranks of those who don’t think “negro’s” should hold power. I share the concerns about the commercial route Marek is going down, but personally I’d pick a different battle. Merry Christmas you lovable old rogue 😉

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    • I giggled when I saw ‘Australian’ – and wondered if it was a cheeky dig. But I do think, respectfully, that if you are aiming to discredit the post you should discredit the content, not the odd mistake.

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  2. I might have missed something on that “Don’t Trust Natives” post, but the argument seems to begin something like this:

    Bad things happened and people let it happen because people speaking Native English convinced them to let it happen

    Therefore, we shouldn’t trust Native English Speakers as much as we used to
    (Alternatively, most people aren’t going to trust them so much)

    Therefore, people wanting to learn English as a foreign/additional language are less likely to go to (or shouldn’t go to) a native speaker.

    Is this in the ball park (read “hitting the wicket” for British Native Speakers)? Is the post insinuating either that

    i.) Native Speaker English can be used for bad?

    or

    ii.) Native Speaker English can cause people to do bad things?

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    • Dear Robert,

      Some native English speakers caused bad things to happen, and other native English speakers let them happen, therefore Native English speaking teachers are now to be trusted less? Really?

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      • Not my argument, I’m just trying to report what I inferred Wiktor’s argument to be.

        I might be more eloquent and phrase my report thusly,

        People used native British English to bring about Brexit, so native British English, and by extension the people who spread it, are no longer to be trusted.

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  3. 1. Is it reasonable to argue that the Brexit vote shows that the British are now to be trusted less?

    2. Is it reasonable to argue that because the British used British English to argue the case for Brexit, English teachers who speak British English are now to be trusted less?

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  4. 1.) No, unless it’s reasonable to argue that the Brexit vote had a causal impact on the trustworthiness of the British people (i.e, it brought about some change to make them less trustworthy). But this makes as much sense as saying alcohol causes alcoholism, rather than alcoholism causes people to drink alcohol.

    2.) No.

    Again, the idea of Brexit informing the trustworthiness of British English speakers (and NESTs) is not my position.

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