I see no ships: Scrivener’s blind eye

In the Battle of Copenhagen (1801), British hero Vice Admiral Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and announced that he couldn’t see the signal calling on him to retreat. He’d been ordered by his boss, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, to turn back, but he ignored the order, carried on with his action, and won the day. He didn’t actually say “I see no ships”,  but it’s not a bad way to paraphrase his attitude.

“I see no ships” characterises the attitude of Jim Scrivener. Like Nelson, he’s well up in the ranks of the establishment, and, like Nelson, he can’t be accused, as so many others of his rank can, of slavishly obeying orders, or of incompetence. Scrivener has often been described as “the thinking teacher’s Jeremy Harmer”, and one can see why. In stark contrast to Harmer, Scrivener deserves a certain amount of respect for his scholarship, his writing, and his ethics. On the other hand, he seems to be as blind and as arrogant as Nelson when it comes to any critical appraisal of current ELT practice. A flotilla of small ships has already set sail in defence of an ELT world gravely threatened by profit-hungry publishers and related exam boards,  training  providers and teachers organisations, but Scrivener will have none of it: he sees nothing that he doesn’t want to see.

In Scrivener’s opinion, coursebooks have never been better: they continue to improve, they’re wonderful and they deserve their prominent place in ELT. Furthermore, Scrivener makes no public criticisms of the Cambridge Board of Examiners in general or the CELTA certificate in particular; or of the Pearson Global Scale of English; or of the British Council’s activities; or of the work done by any other pillar of the ELT establishment. He makes no effort whatsoever in his public pronouncements to critically evaluate any of this, preferring to focus on the failings of teachers.

Lulled by the false dictates of a badly defined CLT model in ELT, teachers have, says Scrivener, grown complacent. Teachers now prefer to entertain their students rather than teach them; they engage their students in careless conversation; they go through the motions of tired “communicative” routines to the extent that they’ve almost fallen asleep on the job. What we need, says Scrivener is for teachers to make more effort, to demand high.

So round the planet Scrivener goes, blinkers firmly fixed, trying to put things right. “Up your game!”, he tells teachers. “Do this” and “Don’t do that”. Upgrade the planning; tighten the control; tweak the feedback; don’t let mistakes go unnoticed, and on and on. As if the devil were in the detail; as if motivation sprang from technical prowess; as if a better, more demanding attitude and technique could fix it all. As if nothing were rotten in the state of ELT.

I don’t doubt Scrivener’s sincerity for a moment, but I question his judgement and I deplore his lack of critical acumen. To go back to the original analogy with Nelson, why is he so blind? How can he ignore the bigger picture? What makes him think that if teachers use a coursebook but demand high, everything will be well? What makes him think that the best way to solve the problems facing classroom ELT is to suppose that a coursebook-driven syllabus is ideal and that all we need to do is work on its implementation?

Scrivener suggests that teachers should polish and extend their box of tricks as they go through the sequence of PPP set out in the coursebook. Each unit of the coursebook should be treated in some kind of heightened way. Teachers should pay more attention to the concept questions that follow the presentation of some grammar point; they should pick up faster on this or that response of students to an artificial prompt; they should check students’ comprehension of some awful, messed-up, culturally bound written or oral text more carefully; they should organise their whiteboard display of The Three Conditionals, or Mr. Jones’ Garage, or Who Get’s the Job?. more attractively, etc., etc.,.

Scrivener’s brief is to train teachers to do the wrong thing better. He roams the world telling teachers that the skilful use of the coursebook is the key to good ELT practice. That’s his message. It’s hopelessly myopic and disgraceful in its refusal to face well-founded criticism of coursebook-driven teaching. There’s no room in Scrivener’s Teacher Education scheme for teachers to be presented with the research findings of SLA research which reveal the false assumptions that underpin the coursebook-driven syllabus, and there’s no room for the view that teachers should have the chance to engage in a well-informed critical evaluation of their classroom practice. Scrivener knows what’s best for ELT, and blow me down, as Nelson might have said, before Trafalgar at least, if it doesn’t exactly fit what’s best for the publishers.

Take a look at The Demand High website. The latest post is Where are we now?

“Now” is actually more than 2 years ago, and where they are now is this: they’re lost in their own perpetual attempts to reinvent themselves. They have nothing forceful to offer. Their latest invention is Learning-Centred Teaching. Geddit?  “Learning” not “Learner”. In other words, rather than invite the learner to participate in decisions about the what and how of their course, the teacher’s job is to impose learning, even though using a coursebook and its PPP methodology precludes the possibility of students learning what they’re taught.       

How can’t Scrivener see that the world of ELT is now dominated by commercial interests that pay scant respect for the educational values he claims to hold? How can’t he see that most ELT teachers are exploited? How can’t he see that the coursebook stifles the work of teachers and inhibits the progress of learners? How can he urge teachers to demand high, while at the same time stubbornly refusing to comment on the fact that coursebook-driven ELT makes such demands unrealistic and unfair?

You might say that encouraging teachers to demand high is a good thing to do whatever the circumstances, but that’s nonsense. The circumstances under which teachers do their job are far more important than any general exhortation to do your best, and Scrivener surely knows that. When will Scrivener stop pretending that everything’s OK?

By the way, Nelson’s flagship was HMS Elephant.

Update on Long’s TBLT

Long’s comment on my original post deserves a supplementary post.

First, for help with identifying target tasks in the occupational sector, he points us to the revised, free, on-line version of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.  It’s tremendous! More than 1,000 jobs described in detail. Here’s what I got when I put in

Human Resources Manager:


  • Serve as a link between management and employees by handling questions, interpreting and administering contracts and helping resolve work-related problems.
  • Analyze and modify compensation and benefits policies to establish competitive programs and ensure compliance with legal requirements.
  • Advise managers on organizational policy matters such as equal employment opportunity and sexual harassment, and recommend needed changes.
  • Perform difficult staffing duties, including dealing with understaffing, refereeing disputes, firing employees, and administering disciplinary procedures.
  • Plan and conduct new employee orientation to foster positive attitude toward organizational objectives.
  • Identify staff vacancies and recruit, interview and select applicants.
  • Plan, direct, supervise, and coordinate work activities of subordinates and staff relating to employment, compensation, labor relations, and employee relations.
  • Plan, organize, direct, control or coordinate the personnel, training, or labor relations activities of an organization.
  • Represent organization at personnel-related hearings and investigations.
  • Administer compensation, benefits and performance management systems, and safety and recreation programs.
  • Provide current and prospective employees with information about policies, job duties, working conditions, wages, opportunities for promotion and employee benefits.
  • Analyze statistical data and reports to identify and determine causes of personnel problems and develop recommendations for improvement of organization’s personnel policies and practices.
  • Prepare and follow budgets for personnel operations.
  • Maintain records and compile statistical reports concerning personnel-related data such as hires, transfers, performance appraisals, and absenteeism rates.
  • Analyze training needs to design employee development, language training and health and safety programs.
  • Conduct exit interviews to identify reasons for employee termination.
  • Oversee the evaluation, classification and rating of occupations and job positions.
  • Prepare personnel forecast to project employment needs.
  • Study legislation, arbitration decisions, and collective bargaining contracts to assess industry trends.
  • Allocate human resources, ensuring appropriate matches between personnel.
  • Develop or administer special projects in areas such as pay equity, savings bond programs, day-care, and employee awards.
  • Negotiate bargaining agreements and help interpret labor contracts.
  • Investigate and report on industrial accidents for insurance carriers.

Technology Skills (5 of 23)

  • Accounting software — AccountantsWorld Payroll Relief; Intuit QuickBooks Hot technology ; New World Systems Logos.NET; Sage 50 Accounting Hot technology
  • Document management software — Atlas Business Solutions Staff Files; Microsoft Office SharePoint Server MOSS; PDF readers; WinOcular
  • Enterprise resource planning ERP software Hot technology — Deltek Vision; Oracle PeopleSoft Hot technology ; SAP Hot technology ; Tyler Technologies MUNIS
  • Human resources software — ADP Workforce Now Hot technology ; Human resource management software HRMS Hot technology ; UniFocus Watson Human Resources Manager; WhizLabs
  • Time accounting software — ADP Pay eXpert; Kronos Workforce Timekeeper; Soft Trac Microix Timesheet; Stromberg Enterprise


  • Personnel and Human Resources — Knowledge of principles and procedures for personnel recruitment, selection, training, compensation and benefits, labor relations and negotiation, and personnel information systems.
  • Administration and Management — Knowledge of business and management principles involved in strategic planning, resource allocation, human resources modeling, leadership technique, production methods, and coordination of people and resources.
  • English Language — Knowledge of the structure and content of the English language including the meaning and spelling of words, rules of composition, and grammar.
  • Customer and Personal Service — Knowledge of principles and processes for providing customer and personal services. This includes customer needs assessment, meeting quality standards for services, and evaluation of customer satisfaction.
  • Law and Government — Knowledge of laws, legal codes, court procedures, precedents, government regulations, executive orders, agency rules, and the democratic political process.

Skills (5 of 20 displayed)

  • Active Listening — Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
  • Management of Personnel Resources — Motivating, developing, and directing people as they work, identifying the best people for the job.
  • Social Perceptiveness — Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.
  • Speaking — Talking to others to convey information effectively.
  • Coordination — Adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions.


  • Active Listening — Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
  • Management of Personnel Resources — Motivating, developing, and directing people as they work, identifying the best people for the job.
  • Social Perceptiveness — Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.
  • Speaking — Talking to others to convey information effectively.
  • Coordination — Adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions.
  • Critical Thinking — Using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems.
  • Reading Comprehension — Understanding written sentences and paragraphs in work related documents.
  • Judgment and Decision Making — Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one.
  • Negotiation — Bringing others together and trying to reconcile differences.
  • Complex Problem Solving — Identifying complex problems and reviewing related information to develop and evaluate options and implement solutions.
  • Monitoring — Monitoring/Assessing performance of yourself, other individuals, or organizations to make improvements or take corrective action.
  • Persuasion — Persuading others to change their minds or behavior.
  • Systems Analysis — Determining how a system should work and how changes in conditions, operations, and the environment will affect outcomes.
  • Systems Evaluation — Identifying measures or indicators of system performance and the actions needed to improve or correct performance, relative to the goals of the system.
  • Time Management — Managing one’s own time and the time of others.
  • Active Learning — Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Writing — Communicating effectively in writing as appropriate for the needs of the audience.
  • Instructing — Teaching others how to do something.
  • Service Orientation — Actively looking for ways to help people.
  • Learning Strategies — Selecting and using training/instructional methods and procedures appropriate for the situation when learning or teaching new things.

Work Activities (5 of 31 displayed)

  • Communicating with Supervisors, Peers, or Subordinates — Providing information to supervisors, co-workers, and subordinates by telephone, in written form, e-mail, or in person.
  • Resolving Conflicts and Negotiating with Others — Handling complaints, settling disputes, and resolving grievances and conflicts, or otherwise negotiating with others.
  • Establishing and Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships — Developing constructive and cooperative working relationships with others, and maintaining them over time.
  • Making Decisions and Solving Problems — Analyzing information and evaluating results to choose the best solution and solve problems.
  • Evaluating Information to Determine Compliance with Standards — Using relevant information and individual judgment to determine whether events or processes comply with laws, regulations, or standards.
  • Detailed Work Activities (5 of 25 displayed)
  • Negotiate labor disputes.
  • Liaise between departments or other groups to improve function or communication.
  • Administer compensation or benefits programs.
  • Analyze data to inform operational decisions or activities.
  • Advise others on legal or regulatory compliance matters.

Work Context (5 of 22 displayed)

  • Electronic Mail — 100% responded “Every day.”
  • Telephone — 95% responded “Every day.”
  • Face-to-Face Discussions — 86% responded “Every day.”
  • Duration of Typical Work Week — 82% responded “More than 40 hours.”
  • Freedom to Make Decisions — 64% responded “A lot of freedom.”

That’s just a sample for one search item! As Long says, it “provides a handy preliminary source for understanding what an occupation involves — the target tasks”.

Long continues:

“Having identified the target tasks for a group of learners using O*NET and other sources and methods, the second step in a needs analysis (NA) is the collection and analysis of genuine samples of target discourse, i.e., the language used by native speakers to accomplish those tasks successfully. This is not as onerous as is sometimes assumed, but in any case, is necessary if LT is to become a serious undertaking.

We presumably want to make sure we are exposing learners to realistic samples of the tasks and language they will have to deal with — something English for Nebulous Purposes (ENP) commercial textbooks are spectacularly bad at, whatever the publishers claim. Doing so has always seemed to me to be no more or less than matching the expectations we have that purveyors of other services (physicians, lawyers, nurses, architects, engineers, etc.) will provide what we need, and not simply dish out the same product to everyone. Physicians, for example, decide on a course of treatment only after identifying what ails us. That typically involves running tests and arriving at a medical diagnosis — roughly, the medical equivalent of a needs analysis. It is encouraging to see that the field as a whole has increasingly been taking responsibility for the quality of its work. For example, an increasing use of NA, and steady improvements in NA methodology, over the past 30 years is documented in Serafini, Lake and Long (2015)”.

(Note: I hadn’t read the Serafini, Lake and Long (2015) article; highly recommended.)

You do not have to be an advocate of TBLT to believe relevance to students’ needs is important. Writing in TESOL Quarterly over 30 years ago, Auerbach and Burgess (1985) pointed out how damaging it can be for learners to be fobbed off with unrealistic dialogues typical of most commercial textbooks — even textbooks marketed as being designed for the very group of learners in question. All the studies I am aware of since then that have compared genuine language samples with LT materials supposedly designed to prepare learners for the same tasks, but on the basis of the author’s intuitions, have found the textbook models to be highly misleading, sometimes risibly so, even when the target discourse pertains to everyday “public” tasks with which most of us are familiar (or think we are). See, e.g., work on restaurant reservations (Granena, 2008), doctor-patient communication (Cathcart, 1989), and service encounters in coffee shops (Bartlett, 2005). Studies have been published on the language of business meetings, sales transactions in duty-free shops, and on other kinds of service encounters, as well as a vast amount of work on English for academic purposes. Bartlett (2005), incidentally, is another case, like the work of Stephen O’Connell on police traffic stops that you summarized, where the researcher (an MA student at the time) demonstrates how to move from the analysis of genuine samples of target discourse to prototypical models usable in task-based materials.

A legitimate concern often raised about NA in general, and analysis of target discourse in particular, is the workload involved. The answer is that NAs certainly involve some front-end heavy lifting, but are not rocket science, pay huge dividends, and do not need to be re-done every time a course is offered! They are best conducted at the program level, by specialist needs analysts and/or trained teachers given release time for the purpose, and well in advance of a course’s opening day — by which time it is far too late to find out what students need and select and/or write the required materials.

NAs are always desirable, but are especially valuable in large, tertiary programs with stable student throughput, e.g., University EFL programs. The work done this year will be usable next because we already know the students will be much the same. They are best carried out by a cadre of trained, experienced teachers, used to working cooperatively and, preferably, in control of their own workplace, whereupon pride in one’s work comes naturally.

In my experience, NAs are usually interesting and fun, and provide the crucial input to designing the pedagogic materials teachers and students need, but which commercial textbook writers and publishers are loathe to provide. They tend to prefer one-size-fits-all textbooks that can be sold to unsuspecting masses via their “international” lists”.

Let me emphasise what Long says about the dividends you get from undertaking his kind of NA. Yes, it involves “some front-end heavy lifting”, but it’s worth it: it pays big dividends, and it doesn’t need to be re-done every time a course is offered. The more you look at it, the more feasible Long’s approach is. There’s a great deal of work done already, and the “front end” bit is such a worthwhile investment in quality ELT that it seems to me to be an irresistible argument. I reckon that you could produce a TBLT syllabus of the kind Long proposes for local use in less than 200 hours.

I think I should say now that my Process TBLT model is a distraction: we should concentrate on Long’s proposal.

Imagine what would happen if the resources currently dedicated to producing and promoting coursebooks were devoted to producing and promoting Long’s TBLT.  Millions of dollars are currently spent on producing and promoting a single series of coursebooks of the sort Pearson manufactures, and that series is then used by teachers all over the world in a one-size-fits-all, grammar-based, PPP approach that we know is hopelessly inefficient. Not just inefficient, but an insult to our teaching profession. Coursebook-driven ELT robs us of our trade; it shackles us, it restricts us, it suffocates us. We can’t do our job properly and our students suffer the consequences. It’s as if our training does no more than help us to use a crutch, the effing cousebook, that we never throw away and so we never get truly healthy and free. We work like cripples, hobbling around in a confined space, using all our ingenuity to circumvent as best we can the oppressive rules we’re forced to teach by, and we never actually do the job as well as we’re capable of.

Harmer’s defence of the coursebook is incoherent, and so is Dellar’s. Scrivener doesn’t even try, so convinced is he that all the teacher has to do is demand higher. Nobody, but nobody from the ELT establishment has offered a good defence of coursebook-driven ELT; they all fall back on limp arguments of “convenience” that do absolutely nothing to respond to the rational, evidence-based  arguments put forward by Long and others against coursebooks.  In the end, I think it’s safe, not cynical, to say that they have too much invested in keeping things the way they are to critically evaluate the alternatives. The argument in favour of coursebooks is the same argument that Ragnar Redbeard (a wonderfully invented pseudonym) suggested in Might is Right: power wins over moral right. To put it another way, it’s a fait accompli, a done deal, the way things are. Which, by the way, is Scott Thornbury’s disappointing stance: he says coursebooks are terrible, but they’re here to stay. Where would any movement that fought for progress have got with an attitude like that?

How much better would it be if the resources currently spent on making and promoting coursebooks were spent on designing the type of course that Long so persuasively and meticulously describes? What if the hundreds of millions of dollars currently spent on coursebook-driven ELT were spent differently? What if Pearson invested in helping local ELT schools all over the world to offer locally produced courses that met local needs? What if they made their business helping to identify target tasks, collecting and analysing genuine samples of target discourse, and producing materials to support the pedagogical tasks that flow from them? What if they supported locally trained teachers with local, national and international events that helped them to better take charge of their own courses?  Imagine Joe, a bright-eyed, young go-getter executive in Pearson suggesting this business plan to the board. How much would profits suffer, Joe?


  • The British Council is stripped of its privileges and told to get the hell out of ELT.
  • The Cambridge Examiners bosses are all sacked and replaced by people who, having read and grasped the works of Fulcher and others who understand testing, turn testing over to teachers.
  • Teachers are not bamboozled by the drivel that Harmer and other ELT gurus spout.
  • Everybody cancels their subscriptions to IATEFL and TESOL (organisations far more interested in sucking up to publishers and preserving the status quo than looking after the interests of their members).
  • CELTA certification is scrapped.
  • ELT publishers stop producing coursebooks.

The whole edifice of the ELT industry, including its coursebooks, its conferences, its training programmes and its exams would go, and leave the way free for something better. Something local, vibrant, relevant, learner-centred, and EFFICIENT. For this to happen we need a groundswell of local action, and it would also help if people like Scott Thornbury got off the fence.

I should hastily say that Long has nothing to do with these remarks. I feel almost unhinged when I talk about all this stuff; Mike always keeps his cool, even though he’s committed to radical change.

We really must take Long’s principled, practical, proven approach more seriously. It’s by far the best way I’ve seen to rescue ELT from the hopeless state it’s in. As Long says, the kind of NA he advocates, and the follow through to a well-designed course is “no more or less than matching the expectations we have that purveyors of other services (physicians, lawyers, nurses, architects, engineers, etc.) will provide what we need, and not simply dish out the same product to everyone”.

We hide behind so many well-rehearsed excuses: It’s too complicated; I’m too busy; We’re too busy; The boss won’t let me and her boss won’t let him; The students won’t like it; Things aren’t so bad, we have wriggle room; I like order, you like order, we all like order; etc., etc., and we take what we mistakenly see as the easy way out.

So on it goes. The establishment figures of ELT, that awful crew of aging, unscholarly, elitist men and women who block up the hall and just won’t get out of the damn way are soon to parade their jaded wares at the upcoming big conferences. There, they probably won’t even try to spin their familiar message, the one they’ve been trotting out for 30 years now, that coursebook-driven ELT is just fine and dandy. Well, it isn’t. And there is now, thanks to Long’s evolving work, a splendid alternative. Once again, the times they are a changing.

Here’s Long’s References list.

Auerbach, E. R., & Burgess, D. (1985). The hidden curriculum of survival ESL. TESOL Quarterly 19, 3, 475-495.

Bartlett, N. D. (2005). A double shot 2% mocha latte, please, with whip: Service encounters in two coffee shops and at a coffee cart. In Long, M. H. (ed.), Second language needs analysis (pp. 305-343). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cathcart, R. L. (1989). Authentic English and the survival English curriculum. TESOL Quarterly 23, 1, 105-126.

Granena, G. (2008). Elaboration and simplification in scripted and genuine telephone service encounters. International Review of Applied Linguistics 46, 2, 137-166.

Serafini, E. J., Lake, J. B., & Long, M. H. (2015). Methodological improvements in identifying specialized learner needs. English for Specific Purposes 40, 11-26.

Two Versions of Task-Based Language Teaching

This is a written report of a talk I gave to members of the SLB last month. There’s quite a lot here; it’s a bit “staccato” because it’s based on the slides I used in the talk; and it doesn’t do justice to Mike Long’s version of TBLT. Good, positive start, eh!

Both the syllabuses presented here are alternatives to a coursebook-driven syllabus, so let’s begin with a quick reminder of why alternatives are so sorely needed.

All over the world, coursebooks are the most widely-used tool for organising classroom-based ELT today; indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the global ELT industry today is coursebook-driven. The question of syllabus design is resolved at a stroke by the decision to use Headway or English File, or something similar. Teachers use the coursebook to lead students through a sequence of lessons which are based on the presentation and practice of discrete items of English grammar and lexis. The approach consists of first presenting and explaining bits of the language, thus instilling declarative knowledge (i.e., conscious knowledge about English), and then moving on to practice those bits of language, on the assumption that, through such practice, declarative knowledge  is converted into procedural knowledge (i.e., conscious knowledge that , becomes unconscious knowledge of how to use English in real communication). But the assumption is false; actually, it involves three false assumptions.

False Assumption 1: Declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge through classroom practice. It does not. Knowing that the past tense of has is had doesn’t mean that with a bit of classroom practice you can use had fluently and correctly in real-time communication. L2 learning isn’t like studying geography or biology, where declarative knowledge is primary, it’s more like learning to swim. .  .

False Assumption 2: SLA is a process of mastering, one by one, accumulating structural items. It is not. All the items are inextricably inter-related, and there’s no evidence of items being learned one at a time, or of any item being learned linearly. As Long (2015) 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”.

False Assumption 3: Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it. They don’t.  L2 learners follow their own developmental route, a series of interlocking linguistic systems called “interlanguages”. The route is not affected by L1, learning context, or teaching method. Teaching affects the rate but not the route of SLA.

I’ve already expounded on all this, (see here for a summary of the arguments) so let’s move to Long’s TBLT.

Mike Long’s Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT) is very different from other forms of TBLT, because it’s based on identifying Target Tasks from which Pedagogical Tasks are derived. All that follows is taken from Long’s (2015) excellent, highly recommended book, SLA and TBLT. 

Unlike other ELT scholars, Long defines a task using the ordinary meaning of the word to refer to “the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play, and in between”.

A task is a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward.

Examples of tasks are:

filling out a form, buying a pair of shoes, making an airline reservation, borrowing a library book, taking a driving test, typing a letter, weighing a patient, sorting letters, making a hotel reservation, finding a street destination and helping someone cross a road.

Target Tasks

Target Tasks are what students need to be able to do in the L2. Long insists that the best sources of information on target tasks are “Domain Experts”, or “insiders”: professionals (practicing lawyers, accountants, doctors , bankers, academics, …) tradespeople, Human Resource managers, foremen, and so on. Linked to these domain experts are authentic documents that they use in their respective fields. So you have to talk to the experts and ask them for the documents and texts that they use most.

There is also some useful published literature in our own field, and I would particularly recommend Brown’s (2009) book Foreign and second language needs analysis and the Foreign Language  Program Evaluation Project, published by the University  of Hawaii (2011). see here: http://www.nflrc.hawaii.edu/evaluation/ .

A third useful source is government publications. Long points out that the U.S. Dictionary of Occupational Titles gives Task-based descriptions of 12,000 occupations, and his book makes special reference to a Soldiers Manual of Common Tasks.   

Examples of Target Tasks

One example of a target task is provided by Gilabert (2005) English for Catalan journalists. Examining the overall task “Journalist interviews a source”, Gilabert identified these tasks:

  • Deciding on the decision-making process
  • Contacting the source
  • Documenting the interview
    • gathering different information sources (previous interviews, documents, Internet items, etc.)
    • selecting materials for questions
    • producing a set of questions
  • Arranging the interview
  • Dong the interview
  • Translating the transcript or interview for publication

(That’s my brief summary of Long’s more complete discussion. In “Documenting the interview”, I’ve added sub-sections, but in fact Gilabert identifies sub-tasks for most of the main tasks.)

Another example of a target task is Negotiate a Police Traffic Stop as described by Long 2015, (ps. 279-286).  This is an interesting and revealing account of a project carried out by CASA de Maryland’s ESL programme in 2009. Recently arrived Latino and African migrant workers in the USA often got stopped by the police while driving to work. O’Connell (2012) set about gathering genuine sources of target discourse and, through cooperation with four police departments, he was given scripts of police stops, recorded various actual stops himself, and inverviewed police officers who made traffic stops. From his data, O’Conell produced a scematic represenation of a traffic stop

From there, O’Connell devised prototypical dialogues, and, building on this work, Long subsequently suggested a module in the course consisting of six Pedadogical Tasks (PTs).

PT1: Intro (Schema Building)

PT2: The Real Thing. Recording of the stop

PT3: What Happened?

PT4: Reading Along

PT5: Role Play 1

PT6: Role Play 2: The Exit Task.

An important element of Long’s TBLT is the transition from Target Tasks to Pedagogical Tasks. Here are the Steps:

(Long, 2015, p.204: Figure 8.1 Steps & Processes in TBLT syllabus design)

Sequencing Pedagogical Tasks

There is then the question of how to sequence the pedagogical tasks. Long discusses criteria for making decisions about sequencing which include

  • Valency: the communicative value, reach or coverage of the task
  • Frequency
  • Learnability: what students are capable of processing
  • Complexity and Difficulty.

These are interesting matters, and I really can’t do justice to them here; I urge you to read Long ‘s discussion of them.

Analyzing Target Discourse

Long devotes a complete chapter to this key step in his TBLT process. It consists of collecting target discourse samples through recordings and written texts, and involves the kind of work O’Connell did with the target task “Negotiate a Police Traffic Stop”. Once the samples have been collected, they have to be analysed. Long (2015, 187-203) gives 5 cases of target discourse analysis. He concludes:

The primary focus of language analysis in TBLT is the dynamic qualities of target discourse – how language is used to accomplish tasks – not simply the linguistic features of static texts. Once target tasks have been identified, samples of language use surrounding their accomplishment are mined for anything likely to facilitate task performance. However, the focus of an Analysis of Discourse is not on achieving an exhaustive, generative model of the kind sought in a true Discourse Analysis, but, again, on dimensions considered important for successful task completion.

Samples of genuine language use are thus another key ingredient. Long says that analyses of such samples reveal many common properties that are rarely modeled in commercially produced pedagogic materials. Language use, even in relatively formal situations, is often more colloquial than that found in coursebooks, usually because, unlike coursebook models, it is context-embedded. Conversations are also typically less self-contained and more open-ended than contrived textbook “dialogs.”

Those characteristics, in turn, allow use of other devices rarely found in pedagogic models, notably, extensive ellipsis and intertextuality. Finally, even fairly simple, constrained tasks, such as service encounters, whose focus is usually thought of first and foremost in terms of referential communication, are facilitated by the use of “small talk”.

Materials: Input Simplification and Elaboration

Long next considers task-based materials, and here, his use of “Input simplification and elaboration” is the key. Having pointed out the problems found in the artifical discourse found in textbooks, and the problems surrounding the use of so-called “authentic texts”, Long argues for a special treatment of the texts selected, involving simplification and elaboration. Again, I can’t myself give any satisfactory quick summary of how Long suggests materials are confected in this way (and, again, I refer you to the clear explanation and examples  found in Chapter 9), but  here’s one example of an elaborated text.

Based on the schematic representation of moves in a police traffic stop, stripping away idiosyncratic moves and topics, incorporating language from the genuine originals, and given differences in the two events, O’Connell produced 2 prototypicial dialogues for a traffic stop;  one resulting in issuance of a warning, the other resulting in issuance of a fine. This is the first dialogue.

Elaborated Dialogue 1

The warning officer: Good evening ma’am. I’m Officer Smith with the Pleasantville Police Department. Can I see your license and registration please?

Driver: Sure, here they are. (Gives officer documents)

Officer: Okay. And is this still your current address?

Driver: Yes, it is.

Officer: Okay. Now, I stopped you because one of your brake lights, your rear left brake light, is out. Were you aware of that?

Driver: No, no I wasn’t.

Officer: Okay. Please stay in the car and I’ll be back with you in a minute. (5–10 minutes pass)

Officer: Okay, ma’am. I’m giving you a warning on the brake light. (Gives driver warning) You need to get that fixed, though, as it’s a violation that you could be cited for. Okay?

Driver: Yes, sir, thank you.

Officer: And here’s your license and registration. (Gives driver documents)

Driver: Thank you.

Officer: Have a safe evening, and be careful pulling out here.

The 2 elaborated texts were recorded and the oral and written texts were part of the materials used in the 6 pedagogical tasks that were mentioned above.


Stages in Long’s TBLT

  1. Needs analysis to identify target tasks
  2. Classify into target task types
  3. Derive Pedagogic tasks
  4. Sequence to FonF task-based syllabus
  5. Implement with appropriate methodology & pedagogy
  6. Task-based, criterion-referenced, performance assessment
  7. Evaluate programme

Long’s TBLT is, in my opinion the best described and best justified syllabus currently available in ELT. But it’s very demanding on the course designer and teacher. The design of Target Tasks and Pedagogical tasks, the analysis of target discourse, and the elaboration of materials that use Long’s ideas of input simplification and elaboration, requires a lot of time and expertise. We’ll return to it at the end, but for now, let’s look at a Process TBLT syllabus.

Process Syllabuses

Breen (1987) summarised the differences between what he refers to as Product and Process syllabuses (Long follows Wilkins (1976) and calls them Synthetic and Analytic)

A Process Syllabus is based on this rationale:

  • Authentic communication between learners involves the genuine need to share meaning and to negotiate about things that actually matter and require action on a learner’s part.
  • Meta-communication and shared decision-making are necessary conditions of language learning in any classroom.
  • The Process Syllabus empowers learners and stresses the vital role of the teacher.

A Process TBLT Syllabus

I tentatively propose a Process TBLT syllabus based on this rationale:

  • Problem-solving tasks generate learner interaction, real communication, the negotiation of meaning, rich comprehensible input and output.
  • There is a focus on the processes of learner participation in discourse.
  • Tasks are sequenced on the basis of addressing learner problems as they arise, thereby overcoming sequencing limitations of conventional syllabus design criteria
  • Learners work on all parts of the sylllabus, including input and materials design

Methodological Principles of Process TBLT syllabus

  • Promote “Learning by Doing” (Real-world tasks)
  • Provide rich input (Realistic target language use)
  • Focus on Form (not FoFs)
  • Provide Negative Feedback (Recasts +)
  • Involve learners in decision-making
  • Respect Interlanguage Development.

Needs Analysis and Tasks 

Needs Analysis consists of:

  • Pre-course questionnaires
  • Interviews
  •  Planning sessions during course


  • Meaning is primary
  • Focus on outcomes
  • A real-world relationship

We distinguish between Macro and Micro Tasks

Macro tasks: Solve a well-defined problem. My suggestion is that a macro task, involving 6 to 15 hours class time forms the framework for micro tasks, and that it is framed as a problem. Examples:  

  1. How can we re-organising the banking sector, post 2008, in Country X so as to avoid a repetition of the 2008 collapse, provide individuals with cheap, efficient, reliable services, etc. etc..?
  2. How do new sophisticated statistics software packages affect house / car / life / …. insurance in Country X?
  3. How can parents deal with teenagers’ use of mobile phones?
  4. The Reinvention of Danone: planning for continued growth.
  5. How can we ensure the continuation of Newspaper X in Country X?
  6. What is the best model for primary & secondary education: Finland, Poland, or UK?
  7. How can the problems of water scarcity in Country X be tackled?
  8. How can traffic problems in City X be tackled?
  9. How can discrimination (race, gender, age, ..) in Industry X or Sector X in Country X be tackled?
  10. How can tourism in Location X be promoted?

Micro tasks: Each Macro Task is broken down into a series of Micro Tasks. Here is a suggested sequence, not definitive.

  • Understand the problem
  • Suggest Tentative Solutions
  • Gather information
  • Present information
  • Analyse and Assess information
  • Test Tentative Solutions
  • Propose Solution
  • Discuss Solution
  • Make decision
  • Report


The teacher takes charge of the first section of the course. At the end of Section 1, there is a Feedback / Planning session. Students fill in 2 short questionnaires and then put together a plan for Section 2. They tell the teacher what topic or topics they want to work on, how they feel about help with grammar, vocab., etc., and how they want to work. The teachers uses their feedback and their plan to design Section 2 of the course. The teacher then leads students through Section 2. At the end of the section, there is a new Feedback / Planning session, the students have learned from the first 2 sections a bit more about how to use the planning session to their best advantage, so they do a better job of planning Section 3, the teacher puts the plan together, and on it goes. A 100 hour course will consist of 8 to 10 sections.

An Example: General Business Course for adults

  • Type of Student: Adult
  • Number of Students: 12
  • Level: Mid-Intermediate (CEFR: B2).
  • Course Duration: 100 hours; 6 hours a week.
  • Main Objectives: Improve English for business purposes. Priority: oral communication.

First 12 hours: Section 1

Before the course starts, students fill in a NA and are interviewed. The teacher designs and leads the first section of the course by leading work on a suitable Macro task, chosen on the basis of data gathered from NA and interviews. To carry out the Micro Tasks, materials from a Materials Bank are used: worksheets, web-based material, videos, oral and written texts, articles, newspaper reports, …

While carrying out the tasks, the teacher attends to grammar through negative feedback and focus on form; attends to vocabulary building and lexical chunks in vocab. sessions, includes some written work in class, sets homework of various types, establishes a website for the class, provides a mixture of group work, pair work, whole class work, and in general gives students a taste of what’s possible.

First Feedback / Planning Session

Tool 1: Feedback Sheet

1= very bad   10 = excellent

General feeling about course so far:                      1 2 3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

My participation:                                                       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

My progress:                                                               1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Teacher:                                                                       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Activities:                                                                     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Use of time:                                                                1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Level of difficulty:                                                      1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10


Best parts of the classes:


Worst parts of the classes:


Too much / too little time was spent on:


General Comments:


Tool 2: Planning Sheet

What should be the Topic/s for the next Section of the course?


Class Work: What proportion of the time should we work

  • individually,
  • in pairs,
  • in small groups,
  • as a whole group?

Activities   Name activities yu want to do. Be as detailed as possible.  

  • Listening (video / audio / etc.)
  • Reading (texts, internet searches, etc.)
  • Writing (e-mails, reports, etc.)
  • Speaking (discussions, meetings, stories, presentations, etc.)
  • Grammar work
  • Vocabulary work
  • Pronunciation work

What other recommendations do you have?

Prepare a report giving your recommendations for Section 2 of the course.


Students are given the 2 questionnaires which they fill in individually.

They then get into groups of 4 to discuss their answers, reach consensus on the plan for Section 2, and prepare a report to give to the whole class. During this first planning session, it’s important for the teacher to encourage everybody to make specific, focused suggestions. My experience using this type of syllabus is that students will tend to say “We liked Section 1 well enough, you carry on, just let’s have a bit more of this and a bit less of that.” You have to insist that they give more input than this.

The whole class meets to hear reports from each group. The teacher records this meeting. The teacher listens to the feedback comments and makes no attempt to defend himself/herself against any criticism. The groups then report on their plans for Section 2, after which the class discusses the reports together and reaches  final decisions. The teacher promises to present the plan for Section 2 in the next class.

At the next class, the teacher presents the plan for Section 2. Exactly how much this reflects the students’ plan will depend on the context, but in any case it’s the teacher’s job to explain the plan, and to make sure it sufficiently reflects the students’ suggestions. Then Section 2 begins.

In Section 2, the teacher leads students through one or more Macro tasks, chosen in line with the students’ decisions on topic. The Micro Tasks involve activities involving the 4 skills, and are again chosen to reflect the students’ comments on where they want to concentrate. The materials for these activities come from a Materials Bank, and it’s obvious that this Materials Bank plays a very important part in the delivery of this type of course. In the SLB cooperative, we’re currently working on materials that are coded according to topic, skill, level, grammar point, vocabulary area, group / pair / whole class work, etc., etc., so that if members want to do a syllabus of this type, they can quickly assemble the needed Micro Tasks which make up the Macro Task.

 At the end of Section 2, the 2nd Feedback/Planning session is held. Students fill in the same questionnaires and go through the same group and whole class discussion phases. They do it better this time; and they’ll do it better the 3rd time.

Variations in Process TBLT

The basic idea is that the syllabus is divided into sections, and each section does macro problem-solving task(s). Each section preceded by a planning session. The variable elements are:

    • Number of Sections
    • Content of Planning Session (how much students decide)
    • Materials: (from Materials Bank to Coursebook)
    • Nature of tasks
    • Nature of vocab. and grammar work


The Process TBLT syllabus is very sketchy and open to lots more criticism. The NA is open to all the criticsms Long makes of it, and so are the tasks themselves; but on the other hand, students engage in messy work of learning and directly affect decisions. It’s also very adaptable.

Both versions avoid the false assumptions made by product syllabuses, both are learner-centred, and both are likely to be more rewarding for all concerned than coursebook-driven ELT.

This skeleton outline indicates 2 Very different views of TBLT. Long’s TBLT is, in my opinion, much better all round. It’s better thought through, more principled, better informed, more thorough, more focused. But is it practical? I fear too many will think that it isn’t, and fail to appreciate that it makes a lot of sense for all those teachers who have to put any kind of ESP course together or who, working as autonomous teachers, can design courses specially for their clients.

Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part I   Language Teaching Volume 20, Issue 2

Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part 2   Language Teaching Volume 20, Issue 3

Breen, M., & Littlejohn, A. (Eds.). (2000). Classroom decision-making negotiation and process syllabus in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, J. (2009) Foreign and second language needs analysis. In Doughty, C. and Long, M.,   Handbook of Language Teaching Wley

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

University of Hawaii (2011) Foreign Language  Program Evaluation Project.). see here: http://www.nflrc.hawaii.edu/evaluation/ .

Wilkins. D. (1976) Notional Syllabuses. OUP.

Willis, D. and Willis, J. (2007) Doing TBLT. Oxford University Press

The EFL Magazine

It calls itself “The magazine for English language teachers”. It publishes articles that consistently ignore findings in the field of SLA and pander to the worst prejudices of current ELT. It disallows comments that it doesn’t like. It’s a rag, it’s the Daily Mail of ELT.

Whatever the EFL Magazine touches turns to dross. Critical acumen is nowhere to be seen, bland baloney is everwhere. Search the back numbers of the EFL Magazine and you won’t find anything that makes your heart sing: nothing, nada, nix.

The EFL Magazine is devoted to middle of the road, badly crafted, mind numbing platitudes. It has nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, to offer anyone who wants to know what’s really going on in ELT. It’s the worst, most boring, most conservative, most profoudly empty magazine ever published. It’s the zenith of dross, the bottom of the pit, a repository of mediocre mumblings lost in their own tedious vacuity.

I challenge anybody to find an article in the EFL Magazine that has made any significant contribution to our understanding of ELT.

You want evidence of just how bad this awful rag is? Read it!

You want to make a comment that the editors don’t like? Try it. I’ve made various comments and they’ve all been censored.


The Work of Jeremy Harmer


In the last 20 years, Jeremy Harmer has been an invited speaker at more than 200 conferences all over the world, and shared “Top Billing” as a plenary speaker at more than 100. According to his blog, he has also published the following books:

  • • Essential Teacher Knowledge. Pearson ELT 2012
    • The Practice of English Language Teaching: 5th edition. 2015
    • How to Teach English: 2nd edition. Pearson ELT. 2007
    • How to Teach Writing. Pearson Education Ltd. 2004
    • Advanced Speaking Skills (with John Arnold).
Pearson Education Ltd 1978
    • Advanced Writing Skills (with John Arnold).
Pearson Education Ltd 1978
    • Teaching and Learning Grammar.
Pearson Education Ltd. 1987
    • 6 different sets of coursebooks, totalling more than 20 books.

In all this time, as far as I know, Harmer’s work has never been subjected to any serious criticism; he has simply come to be accepted as a leading figure in the ever expanding ELT world. I find this absence of criticism surprising, given that, in my opinion, Harmer’s work
1. shows a woeful lack of scholarship and critical acumen;
2. is unoriginal, poorly expressed, and lacking in coherence and cohesion;
3. has made no significant contribution to the huge progress that’s been made in ELT.



I’ve previously made some comments on Harmer’s work, but here, I want to bring things together in a slightly more measured way. We can begin by looking at Harmer’s magnum opus The Practice of English Language Teaching, now in its fifth edition, and start with the question of style. As Griffin says, two key elements are required in any effective writing style. The first is readability: the use of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in such a way that facts and ideas are clearly and concisely communicated. The other is elegance: the use of appropriate and interesting words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs to produce graceful, unobtrusive prose that will keep a reader’s attention and interest. Good style communicates effectively, allowing the reader to move along easily and enjoyably; bad style hinders communication; making reading tedious and often confusing.

In my opinion, Harmer’s writing scores badly on both readability and elegance. Here are a few short extracts from the first 20 pages of Practice of Language Teaching, mixed in with some other bits of “Harmer Speak” from his other books

There are many different ways to teach English and places where it is taught …

Teaching may be a visceral art, but unless it is informed by ideas it is considerably less than it might be.

English migrated to other countries … such as the USA, Canada, New Zealand, … and many other corners of the globe. And it didn’t stop there. It has morphed and spread to other countries too.

There is nothing wrong (and everything right) with discovery-based experiential learning. It just doesn’t work some of the time.

English sometimes seems as if it is everywhere, but in reality, of course, it is not.

Where we can identify what our students really need, ….we will have clearer aims and objectives for our lessons than we sometimes do for more general contexts.

Without beliefs and enthusiasms, teachers become client-satisfiers only — and that is a model which comes out of a different tradition from that of education, and one that we follow at our peril.

The constant interplay of applied linguistic theory and observed classroom practice attempts to draw us ever closer to a real understanding of exactly how languages are learnt and acquired, so that the work of writers such as Ellis (1994) and Thornbury (1999)—to mix levels of theory and practice—are written to influence the methodology we bring to language learning. We ignore their challenges and suggestions at our peril, even if due consideration leads us to reject some of what they tell us.

A problem with the idea that methodology should be put back into second place (at the very most) is that it threatens to damage an essential element of a teacher’s make-up —namely what they believe in, and what they think they are doing as teachers.

If, for example, the students need to say things like “water evaporates”, then we will help them to say this. But this does not mean that we have to spend days teaching the present simple (as we might do in a general English course); instead we may help the students with just enough of the present simple to talk about evaporation, but nothing more.

One school of thought which is widely accepted by many language teachers is that the development of our conceptual understanding and cognitive skills is a main objective of all education. Indeed, this is more important than the acquisition of factual information (Williams and Burden 1997:165).

Yet without our accumulated knowledge and memories what are we? Our knowledge is, on the contrary, the seat of our intuition and our creativity. Furthermore, the gathering of that knowledge from our peers and, crucially, our elders and more experienced mentors is part of the process of socialization. Humanity has thought this to be self-evident for at least 2,000 years.


Whatever words spring to mind to describe this writing, I doubt “elegant” is among them. In my opinion, the writing is vague, clumsy, pretentious, and self-indulgent, continuously spoiled by the literary equivalent of musical tone deafness. Like the famous Florence Foster Jenkins, so brilliantly played by Merly Streep in the recent biopic, Harmer, I suggest, can’t “hear” his own voice, and, since nobody has put him straight, he remains blissfully unaware of just how bad his writing is. So on he goes: his propensity for wandering off track remains unchecked; his proclivity for stating the blindingly obvious is allowed free rein; his unabashed predilection for clichés and sentimentality is boundless. In short, The practice of English Language Teaching is the work of a writer drawn to banality like a moth to the flame.

As to readability, the coherence of Practice … is severely weakened by it’s failure to stick to the point. The over use of brackets, asides, hedges, and unnecessary comments often results in a simple point being dragged out for several pages. Right at the start of the book, it takes Harmer six pages to make the point that English is currently used as a lingua franca by around 2 billion people. Cohesion is even less in evidence. The text is superficially well-organised, but it fails to properly sequence the discussion of the topics it deals with. For example, in the Theories of language section, issues of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are raised, and then they’re raised again in the Teaching language and Teaching skills sections. The problem is that nowhere are the issues of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation properly dealt with in a coherent and cohesive way. On more than 50 pages where these issues are discussed, the reader is referred to other places in the text, where whatever point is currently being made is added to, repeated, modified, or even contradicted. In Chapter 2 we are told about lexis, corpora, collocations and word families, but none of these terms is adequately discussed. We meet them all again, of course, from time to time, here and there, but the book’s account of them is unsatisfactory, partly because it’s incohesive. The cohesion of the text is further let down by the absence of any overarching argument informing it: it’s a motley collection of bits and pieces. All of which makes reading The Practice of Englsh Teaching feel like wading through a tangled bog at midnight in an unmarked wasteland under a black, moonless sky.

And so to content. Magpies skilfully take what they need from other birds’ nests; Harmer is less adept. Witness, for example, how the new edition handles theories of language and language learning. Chapter 2, Describing English, fails to clearly describe any of the main theories of language, fails to explain Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole, or Chomsky’s distiinction between competence and performance, or Halliday’s theory of systemic functional grammar. It similarly fails to give even a minimum overview of recent developments in corpus linguistics, which have had such a big impact on our view of the relationship between grammar and vocabulary, or to explain the main thrust of Jenkins’ arguments about English pronunciation. The discussion of language learning is even worse.

In a book of 500+ pages, 17 pages are devoted to how people learn languages. It’s interesting to note that the chapter on seating arrangements in classrooms has more pages. Among the important issues in language learning currently being discussed, we could perhaps highlight challenges to Chomsky’s UG; new theories based on emergentism, such as those being developed by N. Ellis and Rastelli; continuing developments of a cognitive-interactionist theory of SLA; new studies in interlanguage development; work on Hoey’s priming theory; and Dörnyei’s L2 Motivational Self System. All these developments have important implications for the practice of English language teaching, but none of them is discussed with even the most rudimentary respect for scholarship or even the facts in Chapter 3, Issues in language learning. While ignoring most of the important issues, the chapter manages to seriously misrepresent the work of some of the scholars cited, including, notably, Krashen, Pienemann and Schmidt.

To summarise, the 5th edition of The Practice of English Teaching

  1. fails to demonstrate a good command of subject matter
  2. fails to give a well-informed description or competent critical evaluation of current views of the English language, L2 language learning, teaching methodology,or assessment
  3. is entirely derived from the works of others; it develops no original or innovative ideas ot its own
  4. makes tedious and unrewarding reading.


There’s nothing in this book that isn’t more succinctly and more interestingly covered in other books, for example, Scrivener’s Learning Teaching. I disagree with Scrivener’s view of teaching English, but he writes well. Learning Teaching is a pleasure rather than a struggle to read; a model of coherence and cohesion; a disciplined, focused, well-argued treatise; a book that does what it says on the tin as they say nowadays, and one that you can easily dip into to find what you want. Try doing that with Harmer’s book! If you get the two books side by side, and directly compare the way they deal with the same thing, you’ll begin to appreciate just how bad Harmer’s book is.

Now for Harmer’s conference presentations.

IATEFL Chile, 2016

At the 2016 Chile IATEFL conference, Harmer gave a plenary entitled Back between the covers: should coursebooks exist in a modern age? Here’s how he summed up, at the end on an hour long talk:

  1. Everything that happens in the classroom is all about students. I, the teacher, don’t mean a damn.
  2. We know that if students use their brains with volition, if they’re prepared to put some brain work into it, it’s going to be better for them.
  3. We know that when students try to produce language and try to produce language as well as they can it’s really good for them because the thought processes that are going on in their heads is part of what learning a language is all about….. Thinking is really good for you if you’re a language learner. It’s much better for you than not thinking……. Predicting is a really good activity becuase it brings you back to the classroom. It really works. And guessing is really good because it makes you, …guess.
  4. We know that we live in a digital age which is very different to 1980.

Harmer began by pointing out that “in this digital age”, computers can now deliver learning materials made “just for you”, and continued by reminding the audience about what Thornbury had said in his plenary earlier about Dogme. So computer-based materials and Dogme were the challenges that perplexed him when he was considering returning to coursebook writing. How, he asked, might teachers respond to these dilemmas? In answer to the question he said “We’re going to be talking for the rest of this session about music.”

  •  First, talk to the person next to you about how important music is to you in your life.
  • Then, here’s a list of musical instruments. Choose an instrument, but don’t tell anybody else. Now turn to somebody and mime playing the instrument.
  • Next who are these people? (Photos on the screen) They’re musicians. With a partner, guess where they from and what instrument they play
  • Next, choose one of them, find them on your mobiles and listen.
  • Next, watch these videos of a rock band and a pianist.
  • Next, stand up and talk about what musical instrument you’d like to play.

After that, Harmer talked about using Google on mobile phones, and there was a brief mention of coursebooks: “Almost no text in a coursebook is so boring that you can’t do anything at all with it.” Then it was time to wrap it up. Before the summary, he just had time to say:
What we know about language learning, and what we forget at our peril, is that good language learners use their … er memory is an absolutely critical element of language learning and everything we can do to train our students’ memory is a really good thing to do. And not only that but stories really matter, And what do we do with stories? We tell and re-tell them.


IATEFL International, 2015

At the 2015 IATEFL conference, Harmer gave a presentation with the title An uncertain and approximate business? Why teachers should love testing. It was held at prime time in the biggest room in the conference centre, and streamed live on the conference website.

Harmer begins by listing objections to testing:

  • Tests don’t measure creativity
  • Chomsky says “testing is an anathema.”
  • Some people on Facebook don’t like testing
  • Testing 4 year olds is weird
  • Testing is only a snapshot
  • Some people are good at testing, some aren’t.

None of these points was developed and no coherent argument to support them was attempted.  Harmer then gives reasons why teachers should love testing:

  •  He got a Grade 1 in playing the tuba because there was a test, and he performed badly in a concert because there wasn’t a test. Testing is thus a powerful motivator.
  • Neurosurgeons and pilots must be tested. So we need tests.
  • Tests tell us where students are. ”A test if it’s well done will tell you how well your students have done.”
  • Tests are getting better. “The Pearson test of academic English is bloody wonderful. I’m saying that because I believe it, not just because they pay me.” The designers claim that their speech-recognition software evaluates speech “as reliably and accurately as any human being can. And I have no reason to doubt that, because the research behind it is er.., er.., massive.”
  • Lots of tests are bad. If you want to change testing you can moan or do something; so learn about tests and do something. .

That’s it.

TOBELTA 2015 Online Conference

Harmer’s second presentation on testing was a videoconference given as part of the 2015 TOBELTA Online Conference. Harmer asked Should teachers love tests or hate them? and began by confiding that the question is so knotty that it drives him “to schizophrenia”. Harmer said that while he agrees with Luke Meddings that testing is badly-affected by big business, and that the commodification of language is a bad thing, he still thinks that neurosurgeons and pilots should be properly assessed. He also said that in his opinion teachers need to become “test literate” experts; they need to know about concepts of validity, reliability, and test item types because knowledge of the two “profound concepts” of content validity and construct validity is vital if teachers are to “get inside the test.” Finally, he said that students and teachers should “discuss together what it is they need to do and want to do with the full understanding of how a test works.”

Harmer concluded:

How do you stop a huge corporation dominating the testing world? How do you stop tests being designed that are absurd and ridiculous? And, guess what? I have no easy answer to that… but I know perfectly well that there’s no merit in, or virtue in complaining about this in private, and, by the way, I say this absolutely genuinely, the reason why listening to Luke and others is so important is that it was not a private event, it was a public event and the more of us who are public about what we think, the greater the opportunity is that, er, things might change.

When you sit through any Harmer presentation, you suffer. As he lurches around the stage, it quickly becomes clear that he’s got absolutely nothing interesting to say, and you realise that you’re listening to empty noise. You’re about to waste a precious hour of your life, an hour, what’s more, which will seem like an eternity: did ever a clock tick slower than during a Harmer plenary! On and on he goes, never doing more than scratching the surface of his chosen topic, piling one platitude on top of another, tossing in “Oh, and by the way!”s every now and then, declaring all the while how much he really really sincerely believes whatever ill-considered point he’s struggling to make, somehow sustained by the belief that “Being Jeremy Harmer” is enough to see him through.

Brexit: Stop the Press: Enlightenment is dead

What more fitting way to round up this quick review of The Maestro’s work than with his response to Brexit. As one commentator on this blog remarked: “I experienced such vergüenza ajena I curled up in a ball and rolled under my bed”.


Harmer’s published books and presentations have nothing (sic) original to say, and are, in my opinion, an affront to scholarship, to critical thinking, and to our profession. His work is a remarkable phenomenon: a moronic miscellany of prating drivel, the most singular example of sustained, puffed up baloney in the annals of 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.

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.


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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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