I’m in danger of crying wolf here, because the last time I said I’d been censored, it turned out that it was my own clumsy use of the “reply” function that was to blame. But I’ve checked, and I think this time I’m right. In any case, the important thing is to air the matter of an influential ELT author and teacher trainer not being as rigorous as I think she should be in her role as mediator between researchers and teachers.

Penny Ur recently wrote an article for the IATEFL materials writing special interest group called “And what about the research?”  Ur points out that in the last twenty years, research has produced some “convincing evidence” for ideas which challenge popular, widely-held views among teachers. Ur sympathises with the busy teacher, but urges them to read the research and to pay attention to it. In her role as mediator, Ur goes on to give three examples of this kind of research:

  • Use of the L1  Often proscribed by teachers (and/or their bosses), research shows that using the L1 is very helpful in some situations;
  • Lexical sets  Teaching lexical sets is popular, and the basis for a lot of ELT material. But research shows that it’s counter-productive: learners actually learn new items much better if they are disconnected, or connected thematically;
  • Guessing from context  Another popular activity in many classrooms and in workbooks, research shows that it’s “a thoroughly unreliable way of accessing meaning”.

I wrote a comment about the article and Ur replied. Next, I replied to Ur’s reply but Ur didn’t reply. Finally, Catherine Richards commented, I replied to Richards, but my reply wasn’t published.

There are two issues. The first is that Ur claims to act as an honest mediator between those doing research and busy teachers, and yet she ignores important research findings that don’t fit her own view of ELT.

The second is that whoever is responsible for looking after the MaWSIG blog chose to publish a quite personal, ad hominem attack on someone who criticises Ur, and yet refused to publish the reply.

Here is the exchange of comments, beginning with mine:

My first comment 

You have repeatedly given your own views on TBLT (“there’s no evidence that it works”) and the usefulness of teaching grammar proactively through traditional focus on formS (“it’s effective”), without adequately discussing the evidence from research findings that challenge such opinions (see, for example, Long 2015).

In this article, you mention 2 areas where research can inform ELT while ignoring the elephant in the room, i.e., the 60 years of research findings on interlanguage development. This research (see Han and Tarone, 2017 for a review) poses a serious challenge to the use of materials such as coursebooks, which chop the target language into bits, and then present and practice the bits in a pre-determined sequence on the assumption that learners learn what they’re taught it this way.

Pienemann’s ( e.g. 1987) work showed that all the children and adult learners of German as a second language in a very big study adhered to a five-stage developmental sequence. Later work by his group and others in the 1990s established an acquisition order for morphemes, negation, questions, word order, embedded clauses and pronouns (see Han and Tarone, 2017, for a review). The conclusion from the research findings is that there are various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development which are impervious to instruction, in the sense that stage order can’t be altered, or stages skipped: acquisition sequences do not reflect instructional sequences, and thus teachability is constrained by learnability.

The implication is that a lot of the materials you recommend, including coursebooks that implement a grammar-based syllaubus based on a PPP methodology, fly in the face of robust findings in SLA research.


Han, Z and Tarone, E. (eds.) (2017) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Long, M. (2015) SLA and Task-based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.

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

Penny Ur’s reply

Thanks for your challenging response, Geoff! I’ll try to respond!

I don’t think I did, actually, in my piece, advocate coursebooks based on a grammatical syllabus? All I said was that the research on grammar teaching or about TBLT is inconclusive. You produced references against explicit grammar teaching and for TBLT: these could easily be countered with evidence such as that produced by Norris and Ortega (2002) in the first case or arguments put forward by Michael Swan (2006) in the second. And a lot of doubt has been cast on the practical implications for teaching of the Pienemann’s teachability hypothesis: see for example Spada and Lightbown, 1999. But my point in this case was not that materials should or should not be grammar based or that TBLT is or is not a good idea: but simply that we have no conclusive proof either way, and a lot of conflicting evidence. On the other hand where we DO have substantial and reliable evidence to support a conclusion that affects materials writing, and we have access to it, I think we have a moral obligation to take it into account in our own composition.

Norris, J. M. & Ortega, L.. (2001). Does type of instruction make a difference? Substantive findings from a meta-analytic review. Language Learning, 51, Supplement 1, 157-213.
Spada, N. & P. M. Lightbown. (1999). Instruction, first language influence, and developmental readiness in second language acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 83 (1), 1-22.
Swan, M. (2005). Legislation by hypothesis: the case of task-based instruction. Applied Linguistics, 26(3), 376-401.

My second comment

Dear Penny,

Thanks for your reply. I wasn’t referring only to your piece here, but rather to what you’ve said in recent conference talks and in your book “A Course in Language Teaching”. If we take all these into account, I think it’s fair to say that you have criticised, and indeed, dismissed, TBLT without properly discussing different versions of it, and commended courseboooks which implement a grammar-based syllabus through PPP, without properly discussing the evidence from research findings. My general point is that while you accept the role of mediator between academics who carry out empirical research into (instructed) SLA and teachers, you use this role to argue for a very partisan view of ELT, which is often at odds with research findings.

The works I cited were in support of findings in interlanguage development, and all four of the academics you cite – Spada, Lightbown, Norris and Ortega – support the consensus view among scholars of SLA that instruction can’t affect the route of interlanguage development. They also support the commonly held view that basing ELT on the presenting and practice of pre-selected formal elements of the grammar in a pre-determined order, a methodology which you recommend, flies in the face of robust research findings. It’s surely your duty to discuss these matters with the teachers you council and to explain why you disagree with these views.

You cite the work of Norris and Ortega (2002) as evidence of the value of explicit grammar teaching. Nowhere do these scholars recommend the kind of presentation and practice of successive bits of grammar as you do in your book “A Course in Language Teaching”.

You cite the work of Swan against TBLT. Nowhere does Swan deal with Long’s particular form of TBLT as described in his 2015 book.

You say “a lot of doubt has been cast on the practical implications for teaching of the Pienemann’s teachability hypothesis: see for example Spada and Lightbown, 1999”. One practical implication of Pienemann’s teachability hypothesis has already been mentioned: teaching should respect the learners’ own internal syllabus, and this is an implication that Spada and Lightbown accept. Pienemann’s hypothesis doesn’t ihave clear implications for how to teach, but it does have very clear implications for how not to. You choose to ignore these implications when you encourage teachers to carry on using coursebooks.

Of course we don’t have conclusive proof about the efficacy of grammar-based materials or TBLT. But we do have a great deal of evidence to suggest that you misguide teachers when you tell them that using coursebooks and other materials to support a gramar-based PPP methodology is a perfectly fine way to go about ELT. On the one hand you insist on the need for ELT teachers to be more critical and to pay more attention to research findings, while on the other hand, you don’t deal critically with research findings that flag up the false assumptions on which your own approach to ELT are based.

Catherine Richards’ comment 
I am a little bemused by your bad tempered, disrespectful approach to the exchange of ideas, Geoff Jordan. While some of your points may indeed be valid and worthy of debate, I don’t think you’re much interested in commenting on Penny Ur’s piece on the importance of materials writers being research-aware – the topic here.

You seem much more interested in attacking her for her views on Task Based Learning and for her views on the use of coursebooks that appear to follow a grammar-based syllabus. My own experience, Geoff, is that the vast majority of English teachers in the world don’t work in private language schools with small groups of motivated students and enthusiastic colleagues (with CELTAs and DELTA’s.) They are state school teachers, language or philology graduates, speak English as an L2, put up with poor working conditions – big classrooms, full timetables, hours of admin and stress to the eyeballs. For this reason they love coursebooks, love bite-sized grammar chunks – they are under obligation to test 3 times a semester – and they loathe Task Based Learning almost as much as they loathe pompous academics telling them that they should embrace it and that much of what they do is wrong (because it is based on false assumptions?)

We need to understand teachers first, before we beat them around the head with the latest theory, don’t you think?

My unpublished reply to Richards

Hi Catherine,

I don’t tell teachers what to do, and I certainly don’t beat them around the head with the latest – or any – theory. I dedicate just a bit of my time to taking leading members of the ELT establishment to task for writing books on how to teach English and giving PD teacher training courses which ignore research findings and misguide teachers by telling them that using coursebooks and other materials to support a gramar-based PPP methodology is a perfectly fine way to go about ELT.

Your only defence of coursebook-driven ELT is that it’s convenient. It’s based on false assumptions? Pah! It flies in the face of robust research findings? Never mind! The critic is a bad tempered, disrespectful, loathsome, pompous academic, so we can safely ignore his arguments.


The gentrification of inner cities

There’s increasing interest in what’s happening to neighbourhoods in big modern cities which suffered a drastic decline in the 1970s and 1980s and have now been “gentrified”. A 4-stage evolution has been detected: decline -> regeneration -> displacement -> gentrification, and the real problem is how to arrest the last two stages. Bennie Gray has written various investigative journalism bits about this, and I’m working with him now on something related to it all. What follows is based on Bennie’s work so far.

The story of Covent Garden is an example of the decline to gentrification process.

In 1973 the whole of Covent Garden, which, for more than a century had been devoted to selling fruit, vegetables and flowers, moved en masse to a new site in Battersea.  As a result, ten acres of wonderful old buildings fell empty. There were plenty of developers hungry to knock the whole lot down and put up some lucrative new office blocks, but the government decided to intervene, and slapped protective orders on most of the buildings, with the inevitable result that they became neglected and began to deteriorate.

The next stage of the cycle started when various dodgy people (“deviants” they’d probably be called by town planners) began squatting in the buildings, passing virtually unnoticed by those who preferred to look the other way. They included artists and other arty-crafty, alternative life style desperados looking for free space; drug dealers looking for a place to hide; winos looking for somewhere to crash, dossers looking for somewhere to, well, doss; and so on.

Gradually, a kind of demi-monde community grew up, which was perceived as wicked, which is to say, somehow glamorous and authentic. This in turn began to attract small-time hippy entrepreneurs who opened cafes, craft shops, tattoo parlors, art galleries and alternative therapy places. Quite soon, Covent Garden had become very cool indeed, and thus, more respectable activities began to take place. Art galleries equipped with proper lighting appeared and restaurants with proper kitchens and tablecloths soon followed. Even the squatters moved up a notch, taking an interest in plumbing, for example.

By around 1980, Covent Garden had become a popular tourist destination, which was when the big corporations began to move in, taking advantage of all that commercially fertile coolness.  Rents quickly shot through the new atrium-clad roofs; before long the spirit which had characterised the area in the 1970s evaporated; and by the noughties, Covent Garden had become just another cute, crowded, over-priced shopping centre.

So this is the cycle. An original set of buildings with an original purpose loses its purpose and the buildings fall derelict. They get colonised by people who, although generally regarded as disreputable, create a thriving community.  The place gets talked about and becomes a tourist destination. This generates investment, and although the area prospers, it loses its original appeal. Spiralling rents means that the area loses the very people who created that appeal in the first place – they simply can’t afford to stay. In the case of Covent Garden, many emigrated to run down,cheap parts of Shoreditch and Hackney, and the same old cycle started again.

Another example is Trellick Tower in North Kensington, a huge block of council flats which was once the highest residential building in Europe.  Designed by Erno Goldfinger, it’s a fine example of the “new brutalism”.  In its early life, Trellick Tower was a great success – fantastic views, airy and spacious apartments, lots of balconies, etc., – but thanks to appallingly negligent management, it fell into decline to the point that it became a very dangerous place to live, teeming with vandals and drug dealers.

In the 1980s, Trellick Towers started to be re-assessed, as part of the general re-assessment of North Kensington as a place to live. Nearby Notting Hill, which in the early 60s had been the scene of riots associated with the “No Irish, No blacks, No dogs”  policies adopted by slum landlords, had become absurdly expensive, and North Kennsington, despite the crime and the drugs, was dripping with the “authenticity” and “street credibility” that marks the start of stage 2.

As the early 90s went by, more and more Japanese tourists came to photograph this icon of brutalist architecture. The clicking cameras, together with builders’ skips, mineral water bars and artisan bakers, was a reliable marker of incipient gentrification. Conned by Margaret Thatcher’s catastrophic “right to buy” policy, the poor and needy original tenants sold up and moved out, and the hipsters moved in. Trellick Tower became a desirable place to live: the land at the base of the building was turned into a park, the common parts were carefully restored, and the flats themselves were spruced up. Thus, Trellick Tower went from being good social housing, to a near deathtrap, to a spectacular example of gentrification.

That same cycle is happening all over the Europe and, perhaps most spectacularly, in The US. One indication of the extent of  gentrification is the fact that in recent years, American speculators have taken to buying tracts of rundown inner-city property and land, and then paying groups of the aforementioned “artists and other arty-crafty, alternative life style desperados looking for free space” to live and work in the area free, in the sure knowledge that their mere presence will boost the desirability of the land and the property they occupy.

This process was described by Jane Jacobs in her groundbreaking books on 20th-century urban planning, notably “The Death amd Life of American Cities”.   She had no panacea, she simply pointed out that people are as important as property and that people, in the end, determine what happens with property.

As I’ve said, Bennie Gray has written about this cycle and informed what I’ve written here. Bennie masterminded the Custard Factory project in Birmingham, and he actually managed to prolong the second stage of regeneration for more than 20 years, just because he owned it.  In Bennie’s opinion, there are only two ways to blunt the damage caused by gentrification, neither of them, he confesses, being of much use. The first is a form of value taxation, as proposed by Henry George a hundred years ago. Liberals of one stripe or another have been tinkering with this mechanism ever since, and there’s general agreement that it won’t fly. The second way involves either hugely rich benefactors or the State interfering with the so-called free market.  The Duke of Westminister could, if had a change of heart (don’t hold your breath) freeze development in all the parts of London that he owns in their cozy second stage, and Xi Jinping or Raul Castro could do the same (ditto). Bennie’s pessimistic, of course, and he refuses to even consider the third option – see below.

A third possibility is land trusts, described in some detail in Context Institute website. These trusts divide land rights between immediate users and their community, and examples of them are springing up all over the world, including in India, Israel, Tanzania, Canada, and the US.  We may distinguish between conservation trusts, community trusts, and stewardship trusts.

A conservation trust preserves some part of the natural environment either by the full ownership of some piece of land that it then holds as wilderness, or by owning “development rights” to an undeveloped piece of land. Once conceded, these rights allow them to veto any attempts to develop.

A community land trust (CLT) attempts to remove land from the speculative market and to make it available to those who will use it for the long term benefit of the community. A CLT generally owns full title to its lands and grants long term renewable leases to those who use the land. Appropriate uses for the land are determined by the CLT in a process comparable to public planning or zoning. The lease own the buildings on the land and can take full benefit from improvements they make to the land. They can not, however, sell the land nor can they usually rent or lease it without the consent of the trust. The Institute For Community Economics in the USA is one of the major support groups for the creation of community land trusts in both urban and rural settings.

The stewardship trust combines features of both the conservation trust and the CLT, and is being used now primarily by intentional communities and non-profit groups such as schools. The groups using the land (the stewards) generally pay less than in a normal CLT, but there are more definite expectations about the care and use they give to the land.


In each one of these types, the immediate users have clear rights which satisfy all of their legitimate use needs. The needs of the local community are met through representation on the board of directors of the trust and the larger community has representation on the trust’s board.  Thus by dividing what we normally think of as ownership into “stewardship” (the users) and “trusteeship” (the trust organization), land trusts are pioneering an approach that better meets all the legitimate interests.

The system is, of course, still limited by the integrity and the attitudes of the people involved. Many anarchists will suspect that the idea is manipulative and are right to be sceptical, particularly when considering the possibility of any kind of land trust arrangement in big cities. So what is it then I wonder: nutritious food for thought, or sickly thin soup?

November Calendar

Learning to Teach (Better) with Penny Ur (OBE)

She’s back! This month, four fun-packed, informative webinars from the foremost purveyor of up to date ELT obsolescence. Lots of useful tips on how to carry on teaching in the tried and trusted PPP, grammar-based way that Penny herself remains so fully committed to. You’ll be confidently reassured that all the research is rubbish and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a methodology that demands the impossible of students. Carry on slogging through the coursebook!; keep those Concept Questions coming!; and above all, never forget: the teacher knows best!

Learn how to

  • use the latest, digitalised drill-and-kill exercises
  • create your own baffling phrasal verb tests for no particular reason
  • project pages from Murphy’s Grammar in Use on the night sky
  • time “free conversation practice” for just before the bell goes
  • write challenging dialogues about everyday British life and have them recorded by unemployed actors in regional accents
  • unobtrusively wake up sleeping students

and much, much more.

On completion of the course, for an extra $59 you’ll get a worthless Certificate if you answer 2 easy questions about the present perfect.

Teach abroad as an English language assistant for the British Council  

Applications for the 2018/19 academic year open on 6 November 2017. If you’re one of the lucky successful applicants you’ll pay for your flight, accommodation, travel insurance, visas, and so on and then receive a miserable monthly salary in return for the privilege of being a member of one of the most snobbish, ethically questionable UK organisations of the lot.

You’ll work in one of BC’s lucrative commercial ELT operations which in 2016 earned them a tax-free income of approx. £1 billion. These activities have led to accusations that the BC keeps valuable commercial information to itself; that its one-third share in the IELTS biases its testing and certification policies; that it competes with an unfair advantage to train teachers for overseas governments; and that its not-for-profit status means that the income it gets from English teaching is exempt from corporation tax in many countries, unlike its competitors.

But never mind; it’ll look great on your CV, you’ll get a free British Council RP phonetic wall chart to decorate the hovel where you’ll live, and if posted to Caracas, you’ll have free access to the BC’s Rudyard Kipling Memorial Library, though getting there can be a bit tricky after dark.

TESOL Kuwait  

Another chance to see these twin pillars of the ELT establishment strut their stuff! Just in case you missed their wonderful presentations on Being the Best Teacher You Can Possibly Be in 1977, this is a special “Forty Years On Anniversary Ruby Re-run”, where not a single word has been added or taken away from the original scripts.

And what better venue than Kuwait for two of the richest men in ELT, both multi-millionaires with a string of best-selling coursebooks to their names, to celebrate!  When their session draws to a close, dozens of falcons owned by the country’s leading families will swoop over the auditorium, scattering $1,000 bills over the audience, while keys to the limited edition Bugati Veyron are presented to the speakers.

Meanwhile, outside, life goes on for ordinary teachers, migrant workers who form two-thirds of Kuwait’s population. They work long hours for low salaries, have precarious working conditions, and almost no say in what or how they teach.

On 5th August 2017, a class action civil lawsuit and also criminal investigation against the State of Kuwait were opened in Kuwait for claims of decades of unpaid wages of thousands of foreign teachers, allegedly driven by a policy of discrimination. The Court ruling also issued a protective order against public threats by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Education overtly intimidating workers into not seeking access to Justice with the international Judiciary.

TEFL Equity Advocates: a conflict of interests

Every day on Twitter there are inspirational advertisements for the TEFL Equity Advocates.

They invite everybody to join in the fight against the discimination of NNESTs.

When you go the TEFL Equity Advocates web site, you see promotional stuff about training courses that Kiczkowiak runs or supervises if you click on the WEBINARS and TEFL EQUITY ACADEMY options on the home page.

The just cause to stamp out discrimination against NNESTs should, in my opinion, be rigidly separated from Kiczkowiak’s attempts to sell his own stuff.

A reply to Andrew Walkley’s post on teaching a unit from the “Outcomes” Coursebook

My attempts to comment on Andrew’s post – Complicating the coursebook debate: Part 4 – were unsuccessful, and I wrongly assumed that I’d been the victim of censorship. Andrew has explained (see the Comments section below) that nobody tried to stop my comment being published on the website, and I conclude that I, not he, did something wrong; so I apologise to him for the false accusation. Here’s what I wanted to put as a comment on Andrew’s post.

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for this interesting account of how you’d teach the sample unit from your coursebook. You give every indication of being an experienced, thoughtful teacher and I’m sure your students appreciate you. When we get down to this level of detailed teaching procedures, all the particularities of context play a part in deciding between the options and the learning outcomes, as you repeatedly recognise.

Our disagreement centres on the key issue of synthetic versus analytical syllabuses. You use a synthetic syllabus, where the teacher or coursebook writer decides what bits of language are to be taught, and where most of the time is spent teaching students explicit knowledge about the language: grammar, lexis (lexico-gammar if you like) and pronunciation. I use an analytical syllabus where the learners’ needs determine what is to be taught, and where most of the time is spent on scaffolding students’ engagement in pedagogic tasks designed to help them to develop the implicit knowledge required to carry out real life tasks in the L2.

Your description of how you’d use your coursebook makes it clear how heavily you rely on explicit teaching.  It fits well with what you say in Teaching Lexically about the “6 principles of how people learn languages”.  I quote:

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

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

Leaving aside any inadequacies of this mechanistic “explanation”, what stands out is the scant importance given to stage 1: Understand the meaning of the item. You seem impatient to get on to the next stages ASAP, recommending translation as the easiest, most efficient way of getting “meaning” out of the way, so as to get to the real heart of the matter, namely teaching words.  You’re thus at odds with those who believe that giving students opportunities for implicit learning by concentrating on meaningful communication should be a guiding principle of ELT. Meaningful communication about things students have indicated that they need to talk about, the negotiation of meaning, finding their voice, expressing themselves, working out the illocutionary force of messages, catching nuances, compensating for inadequate resources, and all the sorts of things involved in implicit language learning should, for us, be what goes on most of the time in class, not something that’s allotted a ten minute slot here and there. Your plan for how to work through the sample unit involves spending a great deal of the time talking about English; there seems to me to be far too little time devoted to letting students talk in the language. Right at the end you say: “Finally, there is a conversation practice”. Finally! But even here, you add “This is an opportunity for students to re-use language that has been ‘taught’ over the previous sequence of tasks. In fact, we ask them to write the conversation, which allows them to do this more consciously”.

Language learning is not, I suggest, what you assume it to be, and ELT teaching is not best carried out by trying to teach thousands of “items”, especially when you can’t explain the criteria for their selection, and especially when Dellar insists on also teaching the curious, bottom-up grammar which attaches itself to so many of them.

Grammar and vocabulary teaching: What a difference a brain makes

In my last post, I argued that Hugh Dellar’s negligent misrepresentation of grammar models of the English language, such as Huddleston’s (2009) or Swan’s (2005), and his inability to provide any clear description of an alternative  “bottom-up approach to grammar” combined to make his advice to teachers useless. In this post, I take a quick look at two texts that discuss aspects of grammar and vocabulary teaching, just to give some indication of how useful an articulate, well-informed discussion of such matters can be. The first is an article that appeared in ELTJ and the second a recent book which you can read a bit more about on Mura’s blog, where he interviews the authors.

Spoken Grammar: What is it and how can we teach it?

McCarthy and Carter (1995) argue that learners need to be given exposure to both spoken and written grammars, and that the inter-personal implications of spoken grammars are important. They use a relatively small corpus of spoken English, constructed specially for the study of spoken grammar, where particular genres of talk are collected.  In the article, they use 2 samples of data.

(McCarthy & Carter, 1995, p. 208)

In Sample 1, a couple are making food (a curry) for a party. The authors note that ellipsis is the most salient grammatical feature of the sample.  For example:

  • D: Didn’t know you had to do that.
  • B: Don’t have to…
  • B: Foreign body in there

The authors comment:

(McCarthy & Carter, 1995, p. 209)

The article goes on to summarise the grammar features which stand out from an examination of the data:

1. Tails: slots at the end of clauses for more information.

  • they tend to go cold.., pasta
  • He’s quite a comic, that fellow
  • It’s very nice, that road up to Shipton.

2. Reporting Verbs: Use of past continuous rather than past simple.

  • He was telling me…..
  • They were saying …..

3. Frequent use of tend to

  • I tend to put the salt in last
  • It tends to go cold
  • I tend not to use names

4. Question tags: Used most often when meaning is being negotiated

5. Will / going to   More to do with interactive turn taking than semantics of time.

Finally, McCarthy and Carter propose a “Three Is” methodology in place of the traditional PPP methodology.

(McCarthy & Carter, 1995, p. 216)

I have given the most skeletal outline of this article, which includes a lot more information about the data and a series of classroom activities designed to draw upper intermediate students’ attention to some of the most salient aspects of the spoken grammar.

Successful Spoken English: Findings from Learner Corpora 

The book defines a successful English speaker in terms of his/her communicative competence at the various levels outlined in the CEFR, from B1 to C1. This in itself is an interesting and welcome innovation, which moves us away from both the Native Speaker norm and from the vague and incremental CEFR scales. The authors explain how they measure successful spoken language and then discuss the data which emerge from their searches  of the UCLan Speaking Test Corpus. As the editors explain to Mura

This contained data from only students  from a range of nationalities who had been successful (based on holistic test scoring) at each level, B1-C1. As points of comparison, we also recorded native speakers undertaking each test. We also made some comparisons to the LINDSEI (Louvain International Database of Spoken English Interlanguage) corpus and, to a lesser extent, the spoken section of the BYU-BNC corpus.

They begin with an examination of the data pertinent to linguistic competence, describing frequency profiles, frequency lists, keyword lists and lexical chunks at each level, from B1 to C1. It makes fascinating reading, and particularly interesting (again, I take this from Mura’s interview with them) is the finding that higher levels of linguistic competence are not characterised by the use of a much greater range of vocabulary, but rather by a greater flexibility in the use of the words they knew  – most of which remained in the top 2,000 most frequent words in the corpora. As they made progress, students were able to use words with a wider range of collocates for a wider range of functions.

In the subsequent chapters on strategic, discourse and pragmatic competences, each of which ends with a lively, well-considered “Discussion” section, more fascinating insights are shared, and the teaching implications are discussed. Just for example, in tune with McCarthy and Carter (1995) discussed above, the authors stress the need to distinguish between different spoken genres and to recognise the cooperative nature of much spoken discourse: the ability to co-construct conversations and to develop ideas from and contribute to the turns of others, is one important mark of increasingly successful speakers.

The authors suggest that one practical way for teachers to use the book is by taking advantage of the lists of frequent words, keywords and chunks for each level, and to use, for example, the language of successful B2 level speakers to inform what they teach to B1 level speakers. This is a principled and powerful way of choosing the vocabulary and lexical chunks to concentrate on in any particular course, providing that the lists are taken from relevant corpora (that is, corpora built from learners performing relevant tasks).

Another clear message from the book is that successful speakers need to develop all aspects of communicative competence (linguistic, strategic, discourse and pragmatic competence) and that, therefore, teaching should focus on all of these areas rather than spending too much time on learning an unprincipled list of lexical chunks.


Huddleston, R. (2009)  Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, C. Byrne, S., Halenko, N. (2017) Successful Spoken English: Findings from Learner Corpora. London, Routeledge

McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (1995) Spoken Grammar: What is it and how can we teach it? ELTJ, 49/3, 207-218.

Swan, M. (2005) Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dellar on Grammar Teaching

Over the last few years, Hugh Dellar has given various versions of the same talk on how to teach grammar. The latest version was at the IATEFL Hungary conference last week, called:

Following the patterns: colligation and the necessity of a bottom-up approach to grammar

At the IATEFL conference in Glasgow earlier this year, the title was:

Following the patterns: colligation and the need for a bottom-up approach to grammar.

So he’s gone from seeing “a need”, to seeing “the necessity” of change, a hardening of line perhaps explained by his ever-more detailed analysis of how lexical items “grammar” in their own uniquely primed ways.

The talk starts and finishes in various different ways. One way it starts (e.g. Brno, April 2017) is with Dellar insulting Toby Young (that’s him in the photo above), a British journalist who’s a stickler for grammar. Dellar shows Mr. Young’s photo and asks if anyone in the audience recognises him.  “Well thank your lucky stars if you don’t!” says Dellar, who assures everybody that Mr. Young is a privledged, middle class snob “in possession of a rather punchable face”. Another way it starts  (e.g  “Teaching Grammar Lexically”), is with Dellar talking learnedly about “Chomsky and the whole idea of structuralist grammar” and then going on to explain how ELT suffers from “the tyranny of grammar teaching”.

A popular way Dellar finishes is by reading out his “poem”, a re-working of Larkin’s classic “This be the verse”,  which starts out like this:

They fuck you up your language teachers,

They don’t mean to but they do.

They plague you with their rules of grammar

With extra homework (from Raymond Murphy’s English grammar probably photocopied) just for you.


But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats

 Who half the time had games and fun

 And half Murphied you round the throat.         

Only one line in the second stanza has been changed from Larkin’s original; can you guess which one is Delllar’s? The whole thing (I’ve spared you the rest) must be seen as Dellar’s way of expressing his feelings about structuralist grammar, that “outmoded and outdated way of thinking about how language works”. But what exactly is the difference between this outmoded grammar and the sort of grammar that Dellar himself is so keen to promote?  Well that’s the middle bit of the talk, the bit that comes after insulting a middle class journalist and attributing structuralism to Chomsky, and before reading his poem.

Grammar, Dellar tells us, is not one thing but a range of different kinds of things. Having dealt with the kinds of things that “big, top-down grammar” is, Dellar explains the seven kinds of things that characterise his “bottom-up” grammar. Here they are, and you’ll probably spot when I’m using Dellar’s own words.

  1. Grammar as lexis /phrases

You can teach a grammatical structure as a phrase. For example,

  • What’s it like?
  • I’ve never seen it but it’s supposed to be great.
  • I’ll do it later.
  • You should have told me.

You can teach students these kinds of very common examples of how grammar is realised without studying them as grammar.

  1. Phrases providing slots.

There are lots of little patterns that are sort of flexible and sort of malleable that we can use in lots of varying ways, but not an infinite number of varying ways. For example

  • What are you doing…. tonight?
  • What are you doing ……. after this?

is a sort of fixed phrase that can be adapted a bit, but not much – there are only 6 ways of finishing the sentence in fact. And, while some phrases look flexible, in fact they aren’t. For example,

  • There’s no pleasing some people.

Isn’t flexible.  You can’t say

  • There’s no angering some people.

Why? Because nobody says it; its not a probable sentence in English; it’s a fixed expression. So sometimes you can alter the slots and sometimes you can’t.

  1. Collocations

If you think about collocations and then collocatons of collocations you start thinking about grammar. For example, take the word responsible. Used as an adjective, we get

  • I’m responsible for hiring and firing.

But used as a noun, it grammars differently:

  • It’s the responsibility of the boss to make decisions.

And the negative adjective forms different patterns again –  it has its own, different internal grammar:

  • It’s irresponsible of you to leave a gun in the house.   

So the adjective form and the noun form and the negative form grammar, or pattern grammatically, in different ways. Thinking about the grammar of individual words gives you a different way of thinking about what grammar is and how it works . Instead of the big top down grammar, which we just drop words into as Chomsky suggested, it’s thinking about the individual words that drive our communication and the grammatical patterns which often attach themselves to those particular words.

  1. Colligation

Colligation refers to the grammatical patterns which frequently attach themselves to words. For example, the verb to be born only colligates with the past simple passive. Likewise, the most frequent colligation of dub is past simple passive

  • Bandem was once dubbed the Paris of the East.

Phrases colligate in weird ways. You can say

  • I can’t be bothered but not
  • I can be bothered.

You can say

  • It was really surprising  or
  • It wasn’t that surprising.

– both are OK. But

  • It wasn’t that astonishing

sounds weird because ungraded or extreme adjectives don’t usually colligate with not. So again it’s about thinking about the patterns of individual words and making those patterns available to your students.

  1. Patterns

A very flexible pattern is

  • Just because … it doesn’t mean ……

There’s also this idea Nick Ellis has that we can learn the meaning of words because we’ve learned prototypical examples  of patterns that the new word is encapsulated within. For example,

  • verb across a place

Nearly always, the verb that goes into that pattern is go – you go across a place. So every other example you encounter of this pattern across a place will have a variation of  the verb go, like move, or travel, for example. If you then encounter:

  • They man-doubled across the place.

you know that man-doubled is some kind of way of moving.

  1. Discourse Patterns

These are very useful. For example:

  • While some people think …. it nevertheless seems true that …..
  • According to ……, however in reality, …….
  1. Genre Dependencies

All genres have their own grammatical and lexico-grammatical conventions.

Classroom Implications

Students need to see new vocabulary with the grammar that the new vocabulary is often used with, and they need to see grammar with the lexis it’s used with. They need to think “This is a language lesson where we’re learning this grammar in this context, with this vocabulary, and we’re learning this vocabulary in this context with this grammar”.  Apart from bottom-up grammar, teachers  should do some general grammar explanation and use general rules of grammar carefully, avoiding bad rules. They should use PPP, but only with chunks of language and to build conversation; and they should encourage noticing by constantly drawing their students attention to how words grammar. Finally, two-way translation of whole sentences, cloze exercises, gap fill exercises and drills are all good ways to teach students about language patterns.


How persuasive is Dellar’s argument that a bottom-up approach to grammar is “a necessity”? Teachers who use traditional, big, outmoded grammar to explain formal elements of English to their students might wonder just how they’re supposed to follow the patterns that Dellar is so captivated by. What are the patterns? Looking at his repeated presentations of bottom-up grammar, the patterns turn out to be so particular and idiosyncratic as to be of very little help in making any generalisations that serve to generate grammatically correct utterances. It boils down to doing what Dellar does: going through a seemingly endless list of exemplars.

Looking back at the seven kinds of things that characterise “bottom-up” grammar, we see phrases that just have to learned; phrases with slots where there’s no way of knowing when you can alter the slots and when you can’t; collocations where each different form of a word has different grammatical patterns which attach themselves to each different word; colligations where phrases work in weird ways and “so again it’s about thinking about the patterns of individual words and making those patterns available to your students”. Even the patterns themselves that Dellar presents don’t allow for much generalisation.

Surely “the big top down grammar, which we just drop words into”(Dellar would be pleased to know, if only he’d listen, that Chomsky has absolutely nothing to do with this grammar) at least has the value of usefulness: lots of sentences can be generated by knowing, for example, that English syntax is usually of the form subject – verb – object, that you can’t omit the pronouns in verb phrases, and that adjectives with 3 syllables form the comparative and superlative with more and most.

Dellar cites Michael Swan in support of his arguments, but Swan is, of course, a prominent critic of the lexical-chunk approach. While Swan sees a place for teaching ‘high-priority chunks ‘ he has forcefully argued against giving formulaic expressions so much attention that other aspects of language – ordinary vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and skills – get sidelined.

Dellar advises teachers to “follow the patterns” without giving any clear description of what the patterns are or any explanation of how to “follow” them. In fact, as he’s demonstrated so many times in so many different talks, and in his magnum opus Teaching Lexically, Dellar’s methodology has at its heart the task of presenting and practicing lexical chunks, a task which makes the labour of Sisyphus look like a walk in the park. Given the fact that native speakers know tens or hundreds of thousands of such chunks (estimates vary, but 30,000 is conservative), as Swan has pointed out, a student could learn 10 chunks a day, every day, for 7 long years. and still not be a proficient user of English. So, as Dellar himself is fond of saying “Good luck with that”.

Modern ELT is based on the idea that the best way to help students learn an L2 is by involving them in activities where they use the language as a vehicle for genuine communication. Grammar teaching is still regarded as important, and how best to go about it is the subject of on-going debate, but most agree that it should take a back seat, and that teachers should spend most classroom time involving their students in activities where they communicate with each other in the target language, not listen to the teacher talk about it. The sovereign principle of Dellar’s pedagogy is: “Teach Them About Words”; and that involves spending a great deal of the scarce, precious resource that is classroom time on the explicit teaching of words. Apart from not answering critics who doubt the efficacy of spending so much time on explicit teaching, Dellar has never given any satisfactory criteria for choosing which words to teach, or any persuasive arguments for the way he goes about teaching them.

Dellar’s approach to teaching grammar misrepresents the traditional pedagogical grammar of Swan, Parrott and others and poorly represents the work of Pawley and Syder, Nattinger and DeCarrico, Sinclair and others. It’s myopic, obsessive and incredibly boring. In any talk that Dellar gives, he can’t go for five minutes without offering up some of his precious treasure:

It’s the small words that are such fun, yeah? I mean, I think it’s really important that we see that. Like even for example. The only way to explain what even means is through lots of examples.

  • I’ve had a really busy day. I haven’t even had time for a coffee. Yeah?
  • I’ve been on my feet all day I haven’t even had time for a break.
  • She doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t even swear.
  • He’s got a semi-detached house outside London, a new car with four wheels and a steering wheel, he’s even got some dosh in the bank. Yeah?
  • It’s past midnight, they’re all falling asleep, but I haven’t even got to the best bit yet.
  • I don’t know what Chomsky said, I don’t understand Nick Ellis, I can’t even spell my own name.
  • Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
  • Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
  • zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz


Open letter to Anthony Teacher on slaying PPP

Dear Anthony,

First, let me say how much I like your blog and all the work you do on Research Bites

I write in reply to your post Is it time to SLAy PPP? which argues that my criticisms of the PPP approach to ELT methodology can be extended to any kind of explicit instruction. I’d like to argue that you fail to identify the root of the problem, viz.: the synthetic syllabus.

Here’s a brief summary of your argument, which I hope you think is fair:

  1. Learners are constrained in what they learn by the route of interlanguage development.
  2. Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.
  3. If instruction has no role in language learning, then what’s the point of teaching? Instructed SLA seems like an oxymoron and discussions of both PPP and TBLT (Jordan’s preferred methodology) are rendered moot.
  4. Needs analysis can’t take account of learners’ developmentally readiness. Our knowledge about which aspects of language develop in a fixed order and why they do so is still too limited to make reliable pedagogical decisions.
  5. Therefore, the instructed SLA approach seems defeatist.
  6. But the effectiveness of instruction need not be as limited as the claims above suggest. While SLA research shows a firm order of development, we have learned that instruction can certainly impact it. Through understanding students wants and task needs, offering meaningful opportunities for language learning, explicit instruction, corrective feedback, working with cognitive load in mind, providing opportunities for recycling (all evidence-based principles), we can affect the route, speed, and level of language learning. With these principles in mind, both TBLT and PPP have their place.

Points 1 and 2 are fine, but let me include here Mura’s comment to your post. He gives a summary quoting VanPatten from his radio show:

Instruction makes a difference in the short-term (a week, 2 weeks, at most a month) but:

  • tests tend to measure explicit knowledge
  • long term (8-9 months, 1 year) gains disappear
  • sometimes instruction impedes acquisition, slows it down (3 studies only though)

Moving to the rest of the argument, I think it wrongly assumes that “providing the right instruction” depends on “pinpointing learners’ developmental readiness” for it. Interlanguage development moves through various stages, but it isn’t a linear process, and therefore it isn’t best helped by presenting and practicing bits of language IN ANY ORDER. You’re right to say that needs analysis of the usual type (What is the learner’s present level of proficiency as measured by grammar and vocabulary tests, competence in the 4 skills,  “can do” statements, and so on; Where does he/she wants to end up?) can’t pinpoint learners’ developmental readiness for this or that type of instruction, but you’re wrong to suppose that this is the only kind of needs analysis available (tasks as the unit of analysis is the alternative I’ll discuss later), and equally wrong to suppose that we have to identify the point where learners find themselves in their interlanguage development in order to provide efficient teaching.

The faulty argument stems, I suggest, from regarding English as an object of study, and supposing that the only practical way English as an L2 can be taught is by using some kind of synthetic syllabus, where the English language is divided up into hundreds of artificially separated pieces, and then taught through a process of presenting and practising the pieces in a pre-determined order. When their learning is framed by a synthetic syllabus, students are faced with the impossible job of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, without even the benefit of having seen him before he got smashed to bits. The whole project is doomed to failure: regardless of how the language is cut up into bits, how those bits are categorised, organised and sequenced, and how they are presented and practiced, it won’t work, because students will only learn what they’re ready for. And trying to make sense of it by pinpointing each learner’s developmental readiness is a fool’s errand because there is no such point. The view of language learning which underpins any synthetic syllabus is the same as the view adopted by the CEFR and the Pearson’s Global Scale of English: it’s a linear, incremental, bit-by-bit “climbing the ladder” process involving the proceduralisation of declarative knowledge. SLA research tells us that language learning is nothing like this representation of it.

I find Point 6, which attempts to rescue your argument from its depressing conclusion in Point 5, too optimisitc, I’m afraid!  First, we can’t affect the route of language learning, and second, all the other good things you suggest – offering meaningful opportunities for language learning, explicit instruction, corrective feedback, opportunities for recycling, etc., – need a coherent framework which doesn’t clash with research findings. If they happen within the framework of a synthetic syllabus, provided by a General English coursebook for example, then they won’t work. As long as language teachers try to teach students the pre-prepared, pre-packaged stuff they or their bosses think makes up an attractive “course of English”, they’ll be forced to deal, one way or another, with their students’ inability to learn it, and they’ll never teach as well as they could if they took a different approach.  My (unoriginal) argument is that all ELT based on implementing a synthetic syllabus is fundamentally flawed and hugely inefficient.

An alternative to the kind of needs analysis you refer to is the kind Long (2015) refers to, where real-world tasks are used as the unit for needs analysis. The question informing the needs analysis is: What tasks do the students need to perform in the target language?  The tasks need to be clearly described, using either the ready-made job descriptions that exist in many sectors (including education, business, the professions, public administration, the military) or descriptions from what Long calls “linguistically naïve but work experienced informants”. From a task analysis, an analytical syllabus is designed, where target tasks are the source of pedagogic tasks, which themselves are defined as simpler versions of target tasks, not in language learning terms. This allows students’ real world needs, rather than teachers’ or coursebook writers’ ideas about English as an object of study, to guide the course, and it allows teachers to work with students in a way that respects the learners’ interlanguage development, while at the same time offering explicit instruction to help students with formal aspects of the language, vocabulary learning and so on. Note that TBLT as outlined here has nothing in common with the use of tasks in grammatical or functional or lexical syllabuses.

As you probably know, I’ve explained my objections to coursebook-driven ELT elsewhere,  and I’ve tried to answer those who defend it. If we accept SLA research findings, then we should reject the use of synthetic syllabuses as a way of organising ELT and explore alternatives, such as the TBLT outlined here, Dogme, content-based language teaching, and immersion courses, for example.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts; thanks for raising these important issues, Anthony, and keep up the good work.




Appendix 1: Steps in Long’s TBLT Syllabus Design. (Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT p. 224)

Appendix 2: Characteristics of tasks (Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT p. 233)

“Patrick”, the Common European Framework of Reference and Interlanguages

I’m afraid I don’t know who “Patrick” is, because his avatar gives no information about him, but whoever he is, he regularly leaves comments on Scott Thornbury’s blog. Most recently, Patrick has given his opinion on the CEFR and on research into interlanguages. On the former, in comments on P is for Predictions, he says he likes the CEFR and that its growing influence throughout the world is “a good thing”. Dismissing criticism of the CEFR, Patrick says:

Fulcher’s recently cited criticism doesn’t stand up to analysis – it does however demonstrate that either he hasn’t read or understood or used the CEFR, or that he’s more interested in distorting its message in the interests of marketing his new theory: he doesn’t even get the quotations right. Sadly this kind of shoddy scholarship seems to be widespread in TESOL academia.

He adds

Re the way it was devised, yes there have been critics .. , but if the choice is between the judgement of experienced teachers or the pseudo-science of some particular rating method then I’ll go with the former any day (there are so many rating methods to choose from anyway).

The following week, commenting on Scott’s blog I is for Idiolects Patrick says:

The way I see it Scott is that ‘interlanguage’ is one of the uglier of many unnecessary neologisms invented by academics, presumably to give them a sense that they are forging a profession: there are plenty of plain English alternatives.

Yes you can invoke it as a reason for accounting for the mismatch between teaching and learning/acquiring. But there are a thousand and one other potential reasons for the mismatch that have nothing to do with ‘interlanguage’.

But the main reason that I dislike it so much is that it is so tightly bound up with the notion that languages are learnt via mechanistic pre-programmed stages. The much-touted initial research on this was a travesty, both in terms of its design and its interpretation. And although these initial errors were highlighted and debated over an extended period of time, and refuted by subsequent research, the fact that they still persist in some quarters indicates that they are ideologically driven.

From memory, Rod Ellis gives a pretty even-handed account of this fiasco, and probably Norbert Schmitt too, but many of the academics writing in that particular field seem happy just to perpetuate unanalysed myth

Far be it from me to criticise anybody for expressing their views in a forthright way, but I’m afraid Patrick is talking so much baloney that his/her comments need a reply. It wouldn’t be polite for me to put my reply on Scott’s blog, hence this post.

Patrick has managed to get things completely back to front: it’s the CEFR which treats language learning as a mechanistic process where learners move along a series of stages in linear progression, and it’s the various hyptheses concerned with interlanguage development which insist that L2 learning, far from being linear, is, in fact, a process where lots of things are going on at the same time, and which exhibits plateaus, movement away from, not toward, the L2, and all sorts of U-shaped and zigzag trajectories.  Let’s take a look.

The CEFR Framework 

There are six levels in the CEF framework, from B1 to C2,  each associated with a set of descriptors.  At each level, a list of can-do statements describes what the learners can do, one example being what they can do when it comes to transactions to obtain goods and services:

So here we have the progression from ‘can’t-do-much’ to ‘can-do-it- all’ as described by a scale that is statistically determined, hierarchically structured, and linear. The assumed linearity of such scales is contradicted by research findings of SLA, including those on interlanguage development, which show that learners do not actually acquire language in this way. As Fulcher says:

The pedagogic notion of “climbing the CEFR ladder” is therefore naïve in the extreme (Westhoff 2007: 678), and so attempts to produce benchmark samples showing typical performance at different levels inevitably fall prey to the critique that the system merely states analytic truths (Lantolf and Frawley 1985: 339), which are both circular and reductive (Fulcher 2008: 170-171). 

Note here that I’m leaning on the work of Glenn Fulcher, who I’m sure would be upset to learn that he’s been accused of “shoddy scholarship” and of deliberately distorting the CEFR “message” in order to promote his own work.

Fulcher points out that the CEFR scales were made without any principled analysis of language use, and without reference to any explanation of how people learn an L2. The selection of descriptors by North were, as he admits (North, 1995), based soley on a theory of measurement, and it relied entirely on intuitive teacher judgments rather than any samples of learner performance. The CEFR scales are therefore “essentially a-theoretical’ (Fulcher 2003: 112), a critique which North and Schneider (1998: 242-243) accept.

The CEFR scales don’t relate to any specific communicative context, or provide any comprehensive description of communicative language ability. If we return to the description of transactions to obtain goods and services, we note that ‘goods’ and ‘services’ are grouped together, and thus no distinction is drawn between, for example, buying fish and chips and buying a new car, which are, of course, qualitatively different communicative transactions. McCarthy & Carter (1994: 63) demonstrate the problem with these two examples:

Customer: I’m interested in looking at a piece of cod, please.

Server: Yes madam, would you like to come and sit down.

Customer: A Ford Escort 1.6L please, blue.

Server: Right, £10,760, please.

The CEFR can thus be seen as an unstructured, incomprehensive list of things that language users might want to get done in a range of contexts. Any, or none, of these might be relevant to a particular testing situation, and any, or none, of them might be linked to any particular task types.

I’ll touch on one other bit of the framework: “transactions”, where the descriptors that are used at each scale level again rely on ‘can-do’ statements to define the levels. Davidson & Fulcher (2007) discuss a number of problems that arise from trying to use these descriptors, and I’ve chosen just two as illustrations:

  1. The descriptors mix participant roles within a single level. At A2, for example, the leaner can ‘ask for and provide’ goods and services’, implying that they would be able to function as a shopkeeper or travel agent, as well as a procurer of goods and services.
  2. The distinction between levels is not at all clear, often referring to a vague notion of ‘complexity’ of the transaction. For example, at level B1 learners can deal with ‘most situations, as well as ‘less routine’ situations. But there is no indication as to what kinds of ‘less routine’ situations a learner might not be able to deal with, and no definition of ‘less’, ‘more’ and ‘most’. A2 is characterized by ‘common’, ‘everyday’, ‘simple’, and ‘straightforward’ transactions, but the reader is left to infer what these presumably ‘more routine’ transactions might be.

I won’t attempt any proper critique of the CEFR here, but I hope that this evidence at least indicates that its weaknesses can’t be so breezily brushed aside as Patrick suggests. And  we should also note that most leading scholars of language assessment view the reification of the CEFR as both theoretically unjustified and damaging. To quote Fulcher (2008: 170) again:

It is a short step for policy makers, from “the standard required for level X” to “level X is the standard required for…”, a step, which has already been taken by immigration departments in a number of European countries.

Few, except Patrick, perhaps, would argue that the original CEFR framework has undergone an unfortunate process of reification, so that the CEFR scales have now assumed the role of constants which are used in the exercise of power.  Of course, this isn’t what Trim or North wanted, but we can’t, or at least we shouldn’t, deny that it’s happened.

As a final observation on Patrick’s remarks, Fulcher, far from misinterpreting “the CEFR message”, has more than once suggested that when the CEFR is seen as a heuristic model used at the practioner’s discretion (as Trim and North intended), it can become a useful tool in test construction. But the context of language use is critical, since it’s the context that limits the inferences drawn from test scores, and restricts the range of decisions to which the score might be relevant.

Fulcher makes the basic distinction between ‘measurement-driven’ and ‘performance-driven’ approaches to assessment. Measurement-driven approaches, like the CEFR, derive meaning from a scaling methodology which orders descriptors onto a single scale and relies on the opinion of judges as to the place of any descriptor on the scale.  In contrast, performance data-driven approaches are based on observations of language performance, and on generating descriptors that bear a direct relationship with the original observations of language use. Meaning is derived from the link between performance and description. As Fulcher says

“We argue that measurement-driven approaches generate impoverished descriptions of communication, while performance data-driven approaches have the potential to provide richer descriptions that offer sounder inferences from score meaning to performance in specified domains”.


Patrick’s comments on interlanguage research and its relevance to language teaching need less comment.

  1. He’s welcome to his harmless opinion that ‘interlanguage’ is an ugly unnecessary neologism invented by academics to bolster their confidence, although I wonder what “lots of plain English alternatives” he has in mind.
  2. Likewise, to suggest that there are a thousand and one other potential reasons for the mismatch between teaching and learning that have nothing to do with ‘interlanguage’ is to say nothing of interest, since nobody would suggest otherwise.

As to disliking the term so much because it implies that “languages are learnt via mechanistic pre-programmed stages”, the research on interlanguages implies no such thing. In a post on the subject, I quote Doughty and Long (2003)

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

Interlanguage research is on-going and under constant critical review (see Han & Tarone, 2016). As the above quote indicates, it is not accurate to say that Rod Ellis regards all the research as a “fiasco”, and the suggestion that “many of the academics writing in that particular field seem happy just to perpetuate unanalysed myth” is unworthy of any response.


Doughty, C. and Long, M.H. (2003) Optimal Psycholinguistic Environments for Distance Foreign Language Learning. Downloadable here:

Fulcher, G. See here for all the works cited:

Han, Z,H. & Tarone E.(eds) (2016) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amserdam, Benjamins.

Tarone, E. (2006) Interlanguage. Downloadable here:

Cracks in the Wall?

Recent tweets by the usual suspects – coursebook writers, teacher trainers, publishers, examiners and paid conference speakers – suggest that members of the influential UK-based ELT establishment are getting a bit defensive in the face of growing criticism. Publishers and trainers talk more about “flexibility”; examiners insist on the “validity”of their tests; everybody goes on about  “listening to the learner”.  Dellar tweets from IATEFL Peru:

You quickly realise how little the heated debates of the euro-centric #EFL blogosphere have do with most contexts here.

Jim Scrivener adds:

….or in most teaching contexts in most countries around the world.

You don’t have to be an expert in critical discourse analysis to glean that the heated debates of the euro-centric EFL blogosphere are starting to rattle the composure of at least some of the globe-trotting doyens of ELT. Still, these are small cracks in a very thick wall, and we need to widen the debate so that more people become aware of the mess ELT is in. Pace Dellar, the matters we raise are not euro-centric at all: the commodification of ELT affects teachers and learners everywhere, including Peru, of course.

As Kerr and Wickham (citing Robertson, 2006) point out in an essay that deserves careful reading, it was the 1999 General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) that heralded the transformation of education into a commodity which can be traded like any other in the marketplace. Kerr and Wickham also point out that the most visible manifestation of the commodification of ELT is “the current ubiquity of learning outcomes”. These ‘learning outcomes’manifest themselves most clearly in current ELT performance scales, of which the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is the most well-known. It’s been followed by the Cambridge English Scale and, most audaciously of all, the Pearson Global Scale of English, the GSE.

The GSE is “a granular, precise scale of proficiency” consisting of over 1,800 “can-do” statements that provide context for teachers and learners across reading, writing, speaking and listening”. Coursebooks aligned to these granular learning objectives, serving up tasteless, inoffensive (We Serve No PARSNIPS Here!)  warmed-through McNuggets of sanitised language,  plus placement, formative and high stakes tests aligned to the GSE, provide teachers with absolutely everything they need for modern day teaching. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the GSE wrongly assumes that its ‘can-do ‘abilities are

  1.  meaningful (what does “Can describe events, real or imagined” mean?), and
  2. develop in the way implied by the hierarchical structure of the scales.

Statistical and psychological unidimensionality are not equivalent, and the pedagogic notion of learners moving unidimensionally along the line from 10 to 90 is ridiculous. Learning an L2 is gradual, incremental and slow, exhibiting plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours.

Ridiculous as the GSE is, and despite the fact that it has been roundly condemned by experts in SLA, language teaching and language assessment everywhere, the mad Pearson project marches confidently on, buoyed by the knowledge that it has nothing to fear from the UK-based ELT establishment, who gratefully accept Pearson patronage and abstain from criticism.

Actually, it’s not that they abstain from criticism, it’s more that they abstain from reading or taking any notice of criticism. Scott Thornbury ‘s IATEFL talk this year reported on a small study he did of 6 authors of best-selling “How to teach English as a second/foreign language” books. He asked these influential members of the ELT establishment about the role they played as mediators between researchers and practitioners, and all of them, without exception, were happy to admit that they didn’t read or know much about academic, evidence-based research into language learning, teaching, or assessment. Penny Ur (who only last month, with no sense of irony at all, exhorted everybody to engage in more critical thinking) gave the most dismissive answers to Thornbury’s questions, including this gem:

it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.      

She doesn’t sound rattled, now does she!  How much more heated must our debates get, how much louder must we shout, before the wall of smug, anti-academic complacency defending current ELT practice is brought down and members of the UK-based establishment publically recognise that they are serving the interests of big business to the detriment of good teaching?  The evidence is there: teacher training, teaching methodology, teaching materials, and language assessment are all fatally flawed by their subservience to the industrialisation and commodification of education, as exemplified by Pearson’s GSE.

And what about the workers? To return to Kerr and Wicham’s article, they note that “the move towards privatization is accompanied by an overt attack on teachers’ unions, rights, pay and conditions”, and that “the drive to bring down costs has a negative impact on teachers worldwide”.  They cite Gwynt (2015) who catalogues “cuts in funding, large-scale redundancies, a narrowing of the curriculum, intensified workloads (including the need to comply with ‘quality control measures’), the de-skilling of teachers, dilapidated buildings, minimal resources and low morale”.  They also list the conditions of French teachers in the private sector which are shared by tens of thousands of ELT workers worldwide:

  • multiple employers,
  • limited or no job security,
  • limited or no sick pay and holiday pay,
  • little or no on-going training
  • low and deteriorating hourly rates of pay.

Kerr and Wickham conclude:

Given the current climate, teachers will benefit from closer networking with fellow professionals in order, not least, to be aware of the rapidly changing landscape. …. More generally, it is important to recognise that current trends have yet to run their full course. Conditions for teachers are likely to deteriorate further before they improve. More than ever before, teachers who want to have any kind of influence on the way that marketization and industrialization are shaping their working lives will need to do so collectively.


Gwynt, W. (2015) The effects of policy changes on ESOL. Language Issues 26 / 2: 58 – 60.

Kerr, P. and Wickham, A. (2017) ELT as an industry.

Robertson, S. L. (2006) Globalisation, GATS and trading in education services. Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1JA, UK. Available at

Gerontologically speaking, Geragogy’s time has come

What’s the definition of an ‘older person’? Different countries and different contexts afford different answers. According to the Euro-barometer survey (2011), in Slovakia a person is considered ‘old’ at the age of 57, whereas in the Netherlands ‘old’ applies only to people aged 70 and over.  Meanwhile, if you’re trying to get a job, you’ll be considered ‘older’ (i.e. past it) by most employers once you’re 55.  And in research, they’re even more cruel: Withnall (2010) suggests that “50 appears to have become the preferred age for the designation of ‘older adult’”.

I got this information while reading a dissertation that I marked recently, so I can’t acknowledge the author yet, but I will. The dissertation was about older adult foreign language learners, and in the literature review, the author mentioned that the perceived differences in learning processes between children and adults led in the 19th century to an alternative teaching approach for adults named “andragogy”.  The term was takrn up again by Malcolm Knowles, who described andragogy as “the art and science of helping adults to learn” in contrast to pedagogy which is defined as “the art and science of teaching children” (Knowles, 1980:43). Essentially, andragogy adapts teaching to the considerations that  adults are more goal-oriented, more self-directed, more heterogeneous in their learning aims, and more intrinsically motivated than children. Knowles (1980), and later  Knowles et al (2005), make a number of practical suggestions about precisely how teachers should adapt (assume the role of facilitator more than knower, use problem-solving activities, etc.),  but few teachers seem to have heard the message. 

More interesting is Formosa’s (2002) article on ‘critical educational geragogy’, which develops the principles for critical educational gerontology [CEG] first established by Glendenning and Battersby in the 1980s. Referring to “the gritty realities which embed older persons in structured positions of social inequality”, and to the ageist and patronising attitude towards older learners which pervades education, at least in the West, Formosa insists that his approach is “an actual example of ‘transformative education’ rather than yet another euphemism for glorified occupation therapy”.

Most interesting of all is the work of Ramírez-Gómez (2016a, 2016b), who has proposed the extension of critical geragogy to foreign language learning by formulating ‘critical foreign language geragogy’ (CFLG). Ramírez-Gómez argues that current beliefs and prejudices about older learners must be overturned in order to “redefine expectations and goals and improve proficiency”.  I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy of her book yet, but from what I’ve gathered so far, Ramírez-Gómez (2016b) describes a study on Japanese older learners of Spanish which focuses on the influence of learning experiences on vocabulary learning strategy use, often cited as the biggest problem of L2 learning for older people. She examines the influence of experience on the learning process, and common misconceptions about older learners that are imposed on learners and teachers, and proposes a set of practical recommendations for the development and adjustment of foreign language activities for older learners. CFLG puts special emphasis on drawing on the older learners’ experience, their high intrinsic motivation, and their capacity for autonomous development in L2 learning.

As far as I know, research on older L2 learners is very limited, there has been little discussion of the issues raised by Ramírez-Gómez, and hers is the first and the only evidence-based methodology specifically aimed at this growing age group. Given the demographics of so many parts of the world, particularly in Europe, maybe it’s time we paid attention. Prejudice and misconceptions affecting older learners abound, fueled by a general “loss-deficit” perspective which focuses on cognitive ‘decline’ and on what older people can’t do, rather than looking at the things they can actually do better, and the mechanisms they use to compensate for any deficit. I have a personal stake in all this of course, but well, none of us is getting any younger. Just to show that I’m still learning, I’ll put that cliché into the modern English vernacular: So, none of us are youngering, yeah?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for The Archers.


Formosa, M. (2011) ‘Critical educational gerontology: A third statement of first principles.’ International Journal of Education and Ageing, 2(1), 317–332.

Knowles, M. (1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education. From Pedagogy to Andragogy. New Jersey: Cambridge Adult Education.

Knowles, M., E.F. Holton and R.A. Swanson, (2005) The Adult Learner. 6th Edition. London: Elsevier.

Ramírez Gómez, D. (2014) ‘Older adult FL learning: Instructors’ Beliefs and Some Recommendations. In Sonda, N. and A. Krause (Eds.), JALT2013 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.

Ramírez Gómez, D. (2016a) ‘Critical geragogy and foreign language learning: An exploratory application.’ Educational Gerontology, 42:2, 136-143.

Ramírez Gómez, D. (2016b) Language Teaching and the Older Adult: The Significance of Experience. Clavedon: Multilingual Matters. Kindle Edition

Withnall, A. (2010) Improving Learning in Later Life. London: Routledge.

What’s aptitude got to do with it?

Ljiljana’s and Aleksandra’s recent posts here were responses to my invitation to NNS teachers to tell us how they learnt English. My original question was to do with the relative importance thay gave to implicit and explicit learning, but behind this lies the more fundamental question of why Ljiljana and Aleksandra (like Hana Tichá, Svetlana Kandybovich, Rose Bard, Thom (who often comments here), Marek Kiczkowiak and other bloggers) succeeded in an endeavour where the majority fail.

One of the key phenomena in SLA research is “incompleteness”, which refers to the fact that most learners fail to reach a high level of ultimate attainment. As Sawyer and Ranta said:

the clearest fact about SLA that we currently have is that L2 learners differ dramatically in their rates of acquisition and in their ultimate attainment (Sawyer and Ranta, 2001: 319).

While it might be “the clearest fact” we have, it is not, alas, the area of SLA research that’s made the most progress; rather the opposite is the case. Explaining the role that individual differences make to SLA has proved very difficult, partly because the theoretical constructs involved are so slippery.

Aptitude would seem to be the individual difference most likely to explain the huge differences in results of foreign language learning, wouldn’t it? “I’m no good at languages” we say, by which we mean that we have no aptitude for it, just as we might say we’re no good at maths, or singing, or cooking. But when we try to define aptitude for language learning so as to get a clear idea of what we’re talking about, it turns out to be notoriously hard to pin down.  Until quite recently, the best attempt to define language aptitude was made by Carroll and Sapon (1959), who produced the Modern Languages Aptitude Test (MLAT). This divided language aptitude into four components:

  1. Phonemic Coding Ability
  2. Grammatical Sensitivity
  3. Inductive Language Learning Ability
  4. Rote learning activity for foreign language materials.

Scores on the MLAT subsequently yielded multiple correlations of between 0.40  and 0.60, which is quite impressive. As Sawyer and Ranta commented:

These are considered moderate to strong correlations, and although they imply that considerable learner variation remains to be explained by additional factors, they also demonstrate that language aptitude has consistently been the single best predictor of subsequent language learning achievement (Sawyer and Ranta, 2001: 322).

But there are a number of problems with this view.

  1. The biggest problem is that defining aptitude in terms of a bank of tests falls into the trap of being circular; we say that those who have an aptitude for language learning are those who do well at language aptitude tests. But as with IQ tests, we can turn this round and say that a high score simply shows that you are good at the tests.
  2. Related to this, Oller (1983) argued that the MLAT treats language attitude as simply general intelligence applied to the task of foreign language learning, and there is therefore little point in studying it as a special learner trait.
  3. Then there are unanswered questions. Is aptitude innate, declining with age (linked to the “critical period” argument), or is it a matter of skill development?
  4. Last but not least, the aptitude being defined here seems to relate only to formal instruction, and, what’s more, to a particular type of formal instruction. Cook (1996) argues that the aptitude tests are not relevant to current L2 teaching methodology:
  •  Such tests are not neutral about what happens in the classroom nor about the goals of language teaching.  They assume that learning words by heart is an important part of L2 learning ability, that the spoken language is crucial, and that grammar consists of structural patterns. In short, MLAT mostly predicts how well a student will do in a course that is predominantly audiolingual in methodology rather than in a course taught by other methods.  (Cook, 1996: 101)

Long (2017) seems to agree with Cook when he notes that the MLAT is heavily weighted towards aptitude for analytic, explicit language learning.  He says that it’s not surprising to find moderate to high correlations between scores on such measures and scores on tests of foreign language abilities learned and measured in the same way. Furthermore, although the tests are still good at predicting rate of progress in the early stages of foreign languages taught explicitly, they don’t address questions about success at later stages, or very advanced proficiency, or learners with higher aptitude for implicit language learning, or classroom learners taught by teachers using a communicative methodology.


The Hi-LAB (High-Level Language Aptitude Battery) tests address some of these questions.  Linck et al. (2013) explain:

Hi-LAB was designed to predict the attainment of high-level proficiency—rather than initial rate of learning—with the expectation that high-level acquisition requires going beyond the classroom setting, for instance by participating in an immersion experience. Most of the constructs in Hi-LAB were designed to capture potential for language learning processes that operate in such non-instructional settings, where superior cognitive and perceptual abilities of the learner may enhance the processing of language input and facilitate the mapping in memory of apperceived forms, meaning and function. Hi-LAB does not measure phonetic coding ability (important in learning to read in a foreign language) or grammatical sensitivity (important in explicit language instruction), since those measures already exist and are hypothesized to be more relevant at initial stages. Instead, the focus was on measuring potential for dealing with the remaining language learning problems, such as mastering complex linguistic systems and perceiving non-salient language features. Therefore, we have focused on cognitive and perceptual abilities that are hypothesized to support more advanced aspects of L2 learning that are required to attain high-level proficiency.

The results of the Linck et al. (2013) study are tentative and rather general, but, nevertheless, it’s a promising development. I would love to see how the NNS teachers and bloggers I mentioned at the start of this post would do in Hi-LAB. Both Ljiljana and Aleksandra emphasised the importance of explicit learning, and Aleksandra in particular stressed how much hard work she’d put in to reaching such a high level. Still, I can’t help thinking that there’s more to it than working hard on explicit learning. On top of all their hard work, do they have more than just the ability to get high scores on tests? Do they have exceptional cognitive abilities related to attention and memory that make both explicit and implicit learning easier and faster for them than for most people?

Another thing, of course, is motivation, but we’ll have to leave that for another day.



Carroll J. and Sapon S. (1959). The Modern Languages Aptitude Test. San Antonio, Tx.: The Psychological Corporation.

Linck, J. A., Hughes, M. M., Campbell, S. G., Silbert, N. H., Tare, M., Jackson, S. R., Smith, B. K., Bunting, M. F. and Doughty, C. J. (2013) Hi-LAB: a new measure of aptitude for high-level language proficiency. Language Learning 63(3): 530–66.

Long, M.H. (201) Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1.1, pp.7 to 44.

Guest Post: Aleksandra Grabowska Reflects on Learning English as an L2

Inside Warsaw Wniwersity Library

I’m very pleased to introduce Aleksandra, who accepted my open invitation to NNS teachers to tell us about how they learned English.

Aliksandra lives in the north-east of Poland with her family and their dog. She studied agricultural science at university, but got drawn into the world of ELT through her determination to be a really proficent English speaker. She currently works freelance, teaching English at private language schools and doing on line courses via Skype. Aliksandra is an avid reader with a special penchant for whodunnits, she enjoys spending time in the country with her family, and I get the imnpression that she laughs a lot.

So, here’s Aliksandra’s story and her reflections on language learning; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Actually, you might enjoy it even more, particularly the bits where my favorite hobbyhorses get a gentle roasting.

 Hi Everybody,

I am writing this guest post, encouraged by Geoffrey Jordan, who asked me to describe how I learned English.

I started learning English at school when I was sixteen. I thought my English teacher had a great accent, very British. We used a textbook in every lesson. But what exactly did a lesson look like? So we read a text, translated it, wrote a list of new words and discussed a particular grammar point. Our Latin lessons looked exactly the same! I don’t know if the grammar-translation method is good or bad, but the lack of communicative activities – pair work, group work discussions, etc. – didn’t help me communicate in English when I went to the UK for the first time. Of course, I wasn’t aware of that then. After two years our English teacher emigrated to the US and we didn’t have English agin until our final year of upper secondary school.

When I was twenty-two I went to the UK for the first time during my summer holidays. At that time I was studying agriculture. It was a student exchange program. With a group of Polish, Czech and Slovakian students I worked Monday to Friday on a farm in Ely. At the weekends there was a lot of sightseeing, which I enjoyed a lot: England enchanted me. And what’s more, finally I got a chance to speak English. But at first I didn’t connect very well – it was like getting blood out of stone, and on my side, I struggled to understand simple conversations, and I was often lost for words. However, I wasn’t too hard on myself, I just enjoyed meeting new people and talking to them in English.

A few years later, when I obtained a degree in agriculture, I went to a language school in London to learn English. I was placed in a group at pre-intermediate level (B1) .The lessons were run in a completely different manner. First of all, the teacher was great – open, energetic. She worked the room. I don’t remember if there was a textbook accompanying the course. What I do remember is a lot of speaking tasks, problem solving activities and group discussions. The teacher also used to tell us anecdotes about her teaching experiences and life in Spain.  I still remember some of the stories and even use them in my lessons if they serve the topic.

I stayed in London for two years, but I only went to school for six months. I also worked part-time in a sandwich bar. I made sandwiches, salads, coffee, and served customers. I worked  with a multicultural staff from Spain, Portugal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England.  It was quite an experience, in as much as Polish society is rather homogeneous. Apart from learning names of foods and dishes, I  also learned some useful words and phrases, for example instead of. Customers often asked me for margarine or mayonnaise instead of butter on their sandwich. I remember I learned that while serving customers.  One day I even got lucky and saw John Cleese who popped into our sandwich bar to ask where the Tandoori restaurant was. That job helped me open up and speak English. I immersed myself in English, soaking up English and culture. I started speaking the language fluently, i.e. I didn’t have problems with communication and wasn’t afraid of speaking, but I thought my English still wasn’t good enough and I spoke with a strong Polish accent, which I didn’t like at all. I would describe it as survival English.

After two years I decided to come back to Poland. In Poland I passed the FCE exam, then CAE. For the latter, I prepared on my own – I bought a textbook, teacher’s book and cassettes. At that time I was also looking for a job and there was a local primary school looking for an English teacher. I took the plunge, I applied, and I got accepted for the job. Needless to say, I was unprepared. I remember I went to a kind of facilitator teacher to seek advice. She didn’t help me much. There was nobody to teach me the ropes. I thought I would be doing what my best teachers used to do in their lessons. However, the main thing I had to cope with was discipline. There were a lot of children with behavioral problems, but I was very determined and succeeded somehow.

I know I wasn’t the best teacher. I made a lot of mistakes, I lacked experience and knowledge (poor students!); I was learning on the job. Another thing I had to deal with was to keep students interested, so I tried to vary my lessons, make them lively. For example, I recorded parts of BBC programmes on VHS cassettes and built lessons around them, or did something else to keep them engaged. Then I signed up for a methodology course organised by the British Council. The course  helped me a lot.  Also, it gave me a clear path to continue my education. (By the way, the book required for the course was The Practice of English Language Teaching by Jeremy Harmer!) My next step was to enroll in Teacher Training College. I passed the entrance exams and became a happy student. All the other students were also practising English teachers. During my studies I developed my teaching methodology and improved my pronunciation. I benefited greatly  from the insights of my teachers.

My success in learning English I attribute to self-motivation and self-study. For sure, living in the UK helped me communicate fluently. But, when it comes to vocabulary, correctness and pronunciation, all these are down to self-study. The materials I used were mostly coursebooks. They seemed to be a quite obvious choice for self-study. Thanks to coursebooks I enriched my vocabulary, I also did listening exercises especially when I was preparing myself for exams. To practise grammar I used grammar reference books.

Nowadays, with the internet, easy access to information and resources, learning is easier. I read articles, blogs, the news, etc., and I’m still learning. I write down new phrases which I find interesting or useful. I choose what really interests me. I think that for me learning English has always been a conscious process, and still is. I make lists of new words, index cards, I revise. Sometimes I do exercises to recycle vocabulary or grammar. I don’t talk with native speakers, but I use English to communicate with my students. I often try to use simple language. Although I haven’t been to the UK since 2000,  my English has improved tremendously.  Yes, I have learned a lot from teaching. Probably, if I didn’t teach English, I would forget the language.

In regard to the role of implicit and explicit learning, I think both methodologies are effective if they are used as required. In my case I learned English both explicitly (i.e. studied grammar rules and memorized vocabulary) and implicitly (i.e. I read texts in English for pleasure, watched tv, etc.).

Learning a foreign language is a long and often tedious process. There’s no shortcut or hack. I believe that the sine qua non of successful learning is motivation. As Ushioda (2010) says:

“The analysis of motivation and its role in SLA has largely been at the level of global learning outcomes, and research has had little to say about how motivational factors relate to the interim processes of linguistic development. Thus while motivation is recognized as a prerequisite for successful SLA, the relevance of motivation research to understanding the finer detail of how SLA happens has been unclear.”


Ushioda, M. (2010)  Motivation and SLA: Bridging the gap. EuroSLA Yearbook.

Tom The Teacher Goes To The Doctor

Tom went to see the doctor last week. Nothing special, you understand, nothing life threatening, nothing important. Just that he couldn’t breath, he had these stabbing pains in his chest, he was getting cramp in his left leg, he had a sore throat, his nose was blocked, he couldn’t hear low piano notes or what people behind him on the train were saying, floaters were interfering with vision out of his left eye, his sleeping pills weren’t working and he wanted to commit suicide. You know, the usual sort of stuff that prompts one’s visits to the doc. So there he was, alone in the waiting room, leafing through a magazine, reading all about Princess Alicia’s new plans now her husband’s in prison, and how some Hollywood woman is doing a deep sea diving course in preparation for her latest role as a foetus, when suddenly, in walked  this man who looked for all the world like Jordi Pujol, late president of the Catalan parliament. He looked around, and then plonked himself down on a sofa on the other side of the room.

He was about one metre sixty, almost bald, and he had lots of facial tics. In fact, he had a lot of facial hair too – Tom could see all this vibrant hair springing out of his nose and ears, as if to mock his pink bald pate, and it reminded him of the last time he’d spent some time in New York. After a few weeks getting disapproving looks from strangers (you have to be doing something very wrong to attract any attention at all in New York), Tom’s wife persuaded him to go a barbers and while he was waiting for his turn, sitting among a talkative, friendly bunch of aging American men, he noticed that the barber took more time carefully trimming his clients’ nose and ear hair than he did cutting the hair on the top of their heads. Tom made a mental note to add this custom to his annotated version of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions list, which he used as supplementary material for the cross cultural awareness unit in Headway Intermediate, but he’d since completely forgotten about it, until the day at the doctor’s.

We’re back at the doctor’s. Tom watched the man sitting opposite him through the fish tank, that obligatory bit of furniture in doctors waiting rooms which gives you a good idea how much you’re going to pay for the visit. This one was three metres long, polished steel framework, sparsely sprinkled with unlikely-looking fish swimming around in ice blue water, bubbles of air ascending from the inevitable chest of doubloons next to the sunken galleon. “Good doctoral thesis right there”, thought Tom, “fish tanks as predictors of patient satisfaction”.

Jordi (for Tom was by now convinced that it was he) was looking through the aquarium  in Tom’s direction. Tom, fidgeting awkwardly on his seat, couldn’t avoid Jordi’s gaze.  Every few seconds Jordi’s left eye closed in a protracted, slow-motion wink, like one of those lizardy predators with the long tongues you see David Attenborough stroking on telly. Tom couldn’t help staring back; it was like he was being hypnotised. The eyelid went slowly down, closed, there was an uneasy pause, and suddenly it sprang open again. OMG, Tom thought, any minute now his tongue’s going to whip out and I’ll find myself rolled up in a carpet of goo, flying through the air, horizontal to the ground, spinning towards his open gob.

The tension mounted. Over there was this short little guy still working him with the eye, cheeks blowing in and out, hands nervously twitching up to re-adjust strands of hair; and here was Tom, gasping for breath, leg jigging up and down, the pains in his chest getting worse and worse, waiting for the moment when he’d be eaten alive.

“It’s a beautiful day”, Tom ventured.


Now what?  If he’d been a salesman he could have taken a vacuum cleaner out of his briefcase and shown Jordi how much dirt he could scrape off the sofa onto a clean white demonstration hanky, but there was no such easy way in. How to break the ice, ease the tension, get past the block, open the gate and amble through into the domain of easy daily discourse, relax in mutually-affirming meadows of inconsequential intercourse, settle in to savannas of social chit chat, graze carelessly on gossip of topics of the day?


Unable to think of any better strategy, Tom tried a few doctor doctor jokes on him.

“Have you heard these?”  Tom asked him.

Doctor doctor, I think I’m a pair of curtains.     Pull yourself together! says the doc with a chuckle.

Nobody will talk to me.  Next! cries the doc gleefully.

I think I’m a schizophrenic.   Oh yes, says the doc, and what’s your problem?

Nothing! Jordi showed not a glimmer of interest; the fish glided past, time dragged on.  How long could this awful unease go on? What could he say? Which is when he had his epiphany. To be honest, Tom was quite used to ephinanies, he got them almost as often as he got false heart attacks, and, like the heart attacks, they never actually led to much, but anyway, it seemed like a real flash of revelation at the time.

Tom had been groping towards a more lexical approach to his teaching, but he hadn’t quite got the hang of it, he couldn’t find the glue for all these useful bits and pieces, or to put it another way, he still wasn’t seeing the whole pineapple.  And now the epiphany, the realisation that the glue, the pineapple, was social embarrassment. All over the planet and round the clock countless millions of people suffered moments like the one he was going through right now. Rather than look for valid criteria for selecting lexical chunks based on frequency, saliency, any of that stuff, all you had to do was to concentrate on the chunks most likely to help you overcome social embarrassment. To back up “Could I have a coffee, please?’” you’d have the sequel: “I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter”. Rather than just “Hi there, my name’s Sandy”, you’d teach “Goodness me! Is that the time?”as well. Think of how much could be achieved by banishing social embarrassment! World peace would be assured once Donald and Teresa and Vladimir, and Angela and Xi and the rest had been through the right English training programme, and the same progress could be expected in business, science, education, and, indeed, all aspects of social life too.

“Dig Yourself Out Of A Hole English” (DYOOAH English) he’d call it. It would concentrate on conversational moves, be stuffed full of lexical chunks and prefabricated whatsits, starting, naturally, with conversation starters. Why just the other day he was looking at web sites offering  the very thing. He quickly found the 250 Conversation Starters web site  on his phone and he was off:

Hi, I’m Tom.   What type of phone is that?

Or: Do you sleep with a stuffed animal?

Or: How often do you shower?

Or: What’s your worst nightmare?

Brilliant! You’d have to be careful, of course, For example, questions about pets aren’t  safe when visiting Barcelona, because “pet” in Catalan is “fart”.

Conversation starters didn’t have to be questions, though. You could kick off with a compliment, couldn’t you.

  • Nice minimalist tiara you’re wearing tonight ma’am,
  • I just love your flowery flip flops sweetie,
  • Banging nose tattoo bro,

that sort of thing. Still, even these could go wrong. “Congratulations!” you say, throwing a winning smile at the visiting CEO’s tummy, only for her to tell you “I’m not pregnant”.

It was becoming clearer: all moves could fail, there were always pitfalls, chances to dig yourself further into the mess. So you’d have to do a flow diagram, then work out a simple IFTTT (If This Then That, do keep up) ap. You’re at a wine tasting and you say “I’m getting vanilla”. If the sommelier says “That’s the water – the wine’s in the other glass”, what do you say?  You’re on a tour through a factory and you ask one of the workers what she’s holding. If she says “Cheese and ham sandwich”, what do you say? By now Tom was lost, chasing down one false trail after another.

What was that great rejoinder Winston Churchill made at a dinner party?

Lady Astor: Winston, you’re drunk.

Churchill: And you Madam, are ugly, but I’ll be sober tomorrow!

And what was the famous misleading guide book advice for visitors to London?

Try the famous echo in the British Library Reading Room.

What a shame that they’d moved the library; it had been such a great place to read; he still had his card. Still, the new building was very nice, good cheap restaurant, …. The epiphany had passed and the Dig Yourself Out approach to ELT passed with it. Next thing Tom knew, he was being ushered in to meet the doc and he never got to ask Jordi if he slept with a stuffed animal.

Guest Post: Ljiljana Havran Reflects on Learning English as an L2

A few days ago, in reply to a comment by Aleksandray Grabowska, I invited bloggers for whom English is an L2 to tell us how they learned English. Today, I’m delighted to introduce Ljiljana Havran, the first to respond to the challenge (to be followed soon, I hope, by Aleksandray and others).

Ljiljana has an MA from the University of Belgrade and has been teaching General and Aviation English at the Aviation Academy in Belgrade for the last 18 years. She has a great blog,  Ljiljana Havran’s Blog: My English language teaching & learning adventure, where she combines excellent practical advice and teaching tips with critically acute, progressive views of ELT.  Apart from sharing many views on ELT, Ljiljana and I also like the same poets, jazz bands, parts of the UK and Belgrade pastry shops.

Over to Ljiljana.

It is my great pleasure to write this guest post. The post is inspired by Geoff’s recent posts on explicit and implicit learning and knowledge. My main aim is to reflect on my L2 learning experience, especially in relation to the role of explicit and implicit learning. I want also to support the claim that implicit learning is the default mode in second language acquisition and that therefore the use of a synthetic syllabus and a PPP methodology is very inefficient in instructed SLA.

My L2 Learning Experience

Dorset Jurassic coast @elt_pics used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license 

I started learning English in primary school when I was ten years old. In my primary and secondary school we would often listen to the teacher read a text from the textbook, and then after reading the text we would be called on (one at a time) to read several sentences. After we had finished reading we were asked to translate the text into Serbian. The teacher helped us with new vocabulary items by writing the meaning of the words on the board, in Serbian.  Afterwards, we would do reading comprehension questions in our textbooks: one by one each student would read a question and then give his/her response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would ask another student to provide the correct answer, or the teacher her/himself gave the right answer. There was a lot of “chalk and talk” in classes, and a lot of L1 use, especially while doing grammar exercises and preparing for tests.

My secondary (grammar) school teacher struck me as special because of his teacher personality: he was well educated, more proficient in English and excellent at encouraging a friendly, relaxed learning environment. His grammar explanations were short and to the point, he often used synonyms and explanations in L2 while teaching vocabulary, and his pronunciation was very clear and correct. We revised grammar structures and vocabulary by doing grammar drills, re-telling the paragraphs of the literary excerpts in the textbook, and we practised translating (isolated) sentences from L1 into L2 while preparing for tests.

During my primary and secondary education my English classes were very teacher-centred (grammar-translation method was a common method in our schools). We used textbooks (with literary excerpts and grammar exercises out of context), based on a linear model of language acquisition which operates on the premise that learners acquire one target language item at a time, in a sequential, step-by-step fashion. This implies concentrating on explicit knowledge and spending most of the time treating the L2 as an object of study. Thus after the eight years of learning L2 I was better at doing grammar tests and translating some (abridged) literary excerpts (intermediate level) than using English in everyday situations; I could not understand the TV programmes or the films with standard dialect.

Before enrolling at the Belgrade Faculty of Philology (English and Italian language and literature), I went to Brighton on a summer course for exchange students. I spent a month with a local family, immersed in the English culture and language. I enjoyed listening to beautiful English language (which to my great surprise was a lot different from the English language I had been taught in Serbia). A communicative language teaching approach was used by the teachers during the summer course: a lot of interesting listening and speaking activities, role plays and games, chatting with English teachers and foreign students at school and during our school trips and parties, were really refreshing and an invaluable experience for me. English use in everyday situations rapidly broke down my inhibitions; I became more confident and truly motivated to improve my language skills and be more fluent in English.

Moving from the intermediate to an upper-intermediate and advanced level of language proficiency required years and years of work and effort. After graduating from the University of Belgrade, when I started teaching English to secondary school students, I was much more confident about the language theory (particularly grammar) than my language skills.  I was genuinely interested in going to ELT seminars and conferences to improve my teaching techniques. Very soon I realized that I needed to improve my language proficiency level, too, if I wanted to use the CLT approach that I found more useful for my students. I had a strong desire then to sound more like a native English speaker. I found a very good native English teacher in Belgrade and really enjoyed the one-to-one classes for about a year. We negotiated the topics, I brought to classes some interesting texts/ newspaper articles, we discussed the English books he recommended, and some films I loved, etc. We focused especially on conversation in order to enrich my vocabulary and improve my pronunciation. I was well aware that having a native like competence meant speaking idiomatically and using frequent and familiar collocations and phrases, so my main goal was to learn and use automatically these familiar word sequences.

I succeeded in acquiring an advanced level of proficiency, and practising connected speech and intonation (the most challenging part of learning L2) helped me a lot to improve my listening. However, I got to grips with the fact that native like speech and intonation was an unattainable goal for me and, actually, completely unnecessary for my profession. I have been teaching English and ESP (Aviation English) for more than 20 years (my MA thesis was on ESP: Language-related Miscommunications and Misunderstandings in Pilot/Controller Communications). I created the aviation English syllabus in my school and wrote two Aviation English workbooks for 3rd and 4th year students, with my own materials used in the classroom.

During the last four years I have improved my writing through blogging. Since I don’t have the time to read SLA research I found Geoff Jordan’s blog very useful. I have got a lot of insights on learning L2 also through teaching English to teenagers and talking to them about teaching/ learning.The teenage (intermediate level) students who are fluent in English when asked to explain how they study the language, usually say that they have never studied it. This may sound strange to someone, but it is completely true. They have been immersed in English for years: watching Cartoon network and other popular English/American channels (films are not dubbed into Serbian!), listening to music on the YouTube channel, playing games and chatting with their foreign friends, reading e-books, and news articles. They have acquired fluency by being exposed to many Englishes (varieties/ dialects/accents) on a daily basis since they were very young.

This young generation of EFL learners has learned L2 without learning the grammar rules first (as my generation did). They find learning English from a coursebook boring and outdated because a lot of English is available online and outside the classroom. I strongly believe that EFL classes will be much more interesting and effective if teachers provide opportunities for students to use L2 communicatively and spontaneously. Students will be more motivated if their teachers devote most of the class time to negotiating meaning and meaningful tasks and only a small proportion of time to explicit teaching of grammar or vocabulary, and if they use mostly English in classes and react to linguistic problems as they arise, thus respecting the learners’ ‘internal syllabus’.

Against Walkley and Dellar’s Lexical Approach

Theories of Language 

1. Walkley and Dellar offer no coherent account of language.  They talk about two opposing views. The first view, the “wrong” one, is that “language can be reduced to a list of grammar structures that you can drop single words into.”  This is called the “grammar + words” view; it’s described  on page 9 of Teaching Lexically and subsequently referred to dozens of times throughout the book. The description is a derelict misrepresentation of grammar models of the English language such as those found in Quirk (1985), or Swan (2001), which describe the structure of English in terms of grammar, the lexicon and phonology.

2. The second view , the “right” one, is an attempt to summarise Hoey’s (2005) view that the best model of language structure is the word, along with its collocational and colligational properties. Collocation and “nesting” (words join with other primed words to form a sequence) are linked to contexts and co-texts, and grammar is replaced by a network of chunks of words. There are no rules of grammar; there’s no English outside a description of the patterns we observe among those who use it. As Hoey himself  points out,

If this view of language is correct, if grammar and semantics are post-hoc effects of the way lexical items have been primed, … there is no right or wrong in language. It makes little sense to talk of something being ungrammatical. All one can say is that a lexical item or items are used in a way not predicted by your priming…. everybody’s language is truly unique, in that all our lexical items are primed differently as a result of different encounters.

3. Few linguists or teachers accept such a view. Hoey argues that we should look only at attested behaviour and abandon descriptions of syntax, but, while nobody these days denies the importance of lexical chunks, very few want to ignore the rules which guide the construction of novel, well formed sentences. After all, pace Hoey, people speaking English (including learners of English as an L2) invent millions of novel utterances every day, and they do so by making use of, among other things, grammatical knowledge. Walkley and Dellar acknowledge the importance of grammar, indicating some limits to their adherence to Hoey’s model, but they nowhere clarify these limits.

4. While Walkley and Dellar repeatedly stress that their different view of language is what drives their approach to teaching, they fail to offer any  coherent account of “a lexical view of language”.

Theories of Language Learning 

5. Walkley and Dellar offer no coherent account of how people learn an L2: no examination or evaluation of theories of SLA is attempted.

6. Hoey’s Lexical Priming Theory is adopted without any proper description or evaluation being attempted. The bare claim is made that when we learn a lexical item, it becomes primed for collocation, grammatical category, semantic associations and colligation, and that’s how we learn language.

7. When one looks at serious attempts by Nick Ellis and others to develop a theory of language learning based on usage and statistical learning, where priming  is an integrated component, the inadequacies of Walkley and Dellar’s “explanation” are particularly apparent.

There is need for a detailed theoretical analysis of the processes of explicit and implicit learning. What can be learned implicitly? If implicit learning is simply associationist learning and the induction of statistical regularities, what aspects of language can be so acquired? Just how modular and inaccessible are the implicit learning processes for language acquisition? What are the various mechanisms of explicit learning that are available to the language learner? If the provision of explicit rules facilitates, or if Implicit AND Explicit Learning are necessary for the acquisition of certain forms, what is the nature of these rules? What are the developmental paths of implicit and explicit learning abilities? Are there sensitive periods for implicit language acquisition?  (N. Ellis, 2015, p.2)

8. Instead of stating a coherent view of (second) language learning, Walkley and Dellar offer 6 “principles of learning”, which aren’t principles at all. They say:

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

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

We’re not told what “an item” of language is, though there must be tens or even hundreds of thousands of them, or how they all get learned in this 6-step process.

9. Note that the key Step 4 is bolted on to Hoey’s explanation of language learning. Hoey says Krashen’s distinction between acquisition and learning is correct: explicit learning only functions as a monitor, and priming is the unconscious process through which language acquisition happens. Walkley and Dellar turn to Schmidt for the “paying attention and noticing” bit of priming, but they fail to explain how Schmidt’s hypothesis works inside the framework of Hoey’s theory.

Teaching Lexically  

10. Teaching Lexically involves using a product (Breen, 1987) or synthetic (Long, 2015) syllabus, and  “doing things to learners” (Breen, 1987). In Teaching Lexically, teachers make all the decisions. They work with a pre-confected syllabus and students are expected to learn the “items” that the teacher selects by going through the 6 stages listed above.

11. The goal is to teach lots of lexical chunks. The chapters in Part B of Teaching Lexically on teaching speaking, reading, listening and writing are driven by the same over-arching aim: look for new ways to teach more lexis, or to re-introduce lexis that has already been presented.

12. Walkley and Dellar promote the view that education is primarily concerned with the transmission of information. In doing so, they run counter to the principles of learner-centred teaching where students are seen as learners whose needs and opinions have to be continuously sought out and acted upon.

13. Walkley and Dellar take an extreme interventionist position on teaching. The language is divided into items, small numbers of which are presented to learners via various types of texts, and practised using pattern drills, exercises and all the other means outlined in the book, including comprehension checks, error corrections and so on, before moving on to the next set of items. Most of class time is given over to explicit teaching.

14. Translation into the L1 is regarded as the best way of dealing with meaning. Compare this to an approach that sees the negotiation of meaning as a key aspect of language teaching so the lesson is conducted mainly in the L2. This is only to suggest that while using the L1 can be helpful, it should be done sparingly.

15. Walkley and Dellar see explicit learning and explicit teaching as paramount, and they assume that explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge through practice. These assumptions clash with SLA research findings. As Long says:

“implicit and explicit learning, memory and knowledge are separate processes and systems, their end products stored in different areas of the brain” (Long, 2015, p. 44).

16. To assume, as Dellar and Walkley do, that the best way to teach English as an L2 is to devote the majority of classroom time to the explicit teaching and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is to fly in the face of SLA research.

17. Learners of English as an L2 require knowledge of about 5,000 word families for adequate comprehension of speech and 9,000 for reading. Since there clearly isn’t enough time to handle that many items in class, massive amounts of extensive reading outside class, scaffolded by teachers, should be encouraged.

18. As for lexical chunks, there are hundreds of thousands of them. As Swan (2006) points out, “memorising 10 lexical chunks a day, a learner would take nearly 30 years to achieve a good command of 10,000 of them”. So how does one select which chunks to explicitly teach, and how does one teach them? Walkley and Dellar give no satisfactory answer to the question.   The general line is: work with the material you have, and look for the lexical chunks that occur in the texts, or that are related to the words in the texts. This is clearly not a satisfactory criterion for selection.

19. Walkley and Dellar make no mention of the fact that learning lexical chunks is one of the most challenging aspects of learning English as an L2 for adult learners.  They simply assume that by going through the 6 step process, and devoting a great deal of time to Step 4, the explicit teaching will turn into implicit knowledge and communicative competence. Quite apart from the question of how many chunks a teacher is expected to treat so exhaustively, there are good reasons to question the assumption that such instruction will have the desired result.


20. One of the most important questions confronting those designing English as an L2 courses is this:

What proportion of class time (from 0% to 100%) should be devoted to a focus on the L2 as object and what proportion on the L2 as a medium of communication, given that both are necessary parts of any ELT course?

In my reply to Walkly, I quoted  Wong, Gil and Marsden (2014) who concluded that, despite other differences, most SLA researchers agreed on the relative importance of the roles of implicit and explicit learning.

“Implicit learning is more basic and more important  than explicit learning, and superior.  Access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous  speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content”.

21. While research shows that explicit instruction can have beneficial results, nobody who has studied instructed SLA recommends devoting most of classroom time to it. There are greater gains to be made in interlanguage development by concentrating on activities which help implicit knowledge than by concentrating on the presentation and practice of bits and pieces of language. Activities which develop the learners’ ability to make meaning in the L2, through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback should take up the majority of classroom time.

22. We know that teaching is, as Long (2015) puts it, “subject to the learner’s cognitive ‘veto’” but we can still manipulate the linguistic environment so as to affect whether implicit or explicit learning takes place. We can choose the type of input to which learners are exposed, the relevance of the input to the learner’s needs, the sequence and salience of linguistic features within that input, and the tasks we give learners. Some tasks, like dictation, oral drills, written fill-in-the-blanks exercises,  focus on language as object and encourage intentional and explicit language learning. Others, like “solving a problem through small group discussion, reading an interesting story, or repairing a bicycle while watching a ‘how-to’ video on YouTube”, to give Long’s examples, encourage a focus on meaning and communication, and in the process create opportunities for incidental learning.  Our decisions about how to manipulate the linguistic environment should, I suggest, be made in a principled way that respects what we know about the process of SLA, and reflects our pedagogical principles.

23. For the reasons discussed above, my argument is that Walkley and Dellar’s views are mistaken, misguided, and misleading. They give no adequate account of language or of language learning, and they promote an approach to teaching which is unlikely to be efficient in helping learners develop communicative competence or to achieve a functional command of the L2.


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

Ellis, N. (2015) Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning: Their dynamic interface and complexity
In Rebuschat (Ed.). Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 3-23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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

Swan, M. (12005) Practical English Usage. London, Longmans.

Quirk, Randolph and Greenbaum, Sidney and Leech, Geoffrey and Svartvik, Jan. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

Walkley and Coursebooks: Part 2

In Complicating the coursebook debate, Part 3: Coursebook use  Walkley continues his defence of coursebooks. He starts by quoting this from a post I wrote called “The lose-lose folly of coursebook consumption”:

The coursebooks listed 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.

I’ll now summarise the points he makes and reply to them.

Point 1

Coursebooks vary in many ways, and they’re used in an incredible variety of ways.


To the extent that coursebooks follow the format outlined above, and to the extent that teachers generally follow the coursebook (doing the warm-up before the listening exercise, reading the text before doing the discussion, etc., and doing Unit 1, then Unit 2, then Unit 3, etc.) the variations referred to don’t affect the argument in any serious way. Of course teachers make creative use of coursebooks, but unless they use them only here and there, unless they deliberately subvert them, the coursebook plays a defining role in the organisation and content of the course it’s used in.

Point 2

I don’t believe that everything I present and encourage practice of will be learned, let alone learned in the same pre-determined sequence as its presented in.


Walkley doesn’t expand on this, or explain just what he thinks happens to his students when he presents and practices bits of the L2 that are presented in the coursebook.

Point 3

From the point of view of ‘Natural Approaches’ such as Task-Based Learning or Dogme, in their strongest forms there seems to be a denial that teaching or the study of lanuage has any benefit at all. I would argue that is because these theories were born out of a concern about the development of grammar and grammatical accuracy, with vocabulary only getting a look in at a later stage in these theories’ development.


I’m not sure what “Natural Approaches” Walkley is referring to, but no Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) approach I’ve heard of denies the value of teaching or studying language, and neither do Meddings and Thornbury (Dogme’s founders). The objection is to spending too much time on it.

Note: TBLT and Dogme are not theories.

Point 4

There is, though, a clear benefit to be derived from studying vocabulary. Non-coursebook users also need to consider how many tasks can be covered in one lesson, how quickly the complexity of these tasks can develop and how often similar tasks can be repeated within a lesson and across lessons. For the weaker forms of TBL which may both present models of tasks and use of materials banks to focus on form, we need to ask how those models and materials are different to those that may be found in a coursebook.


The difference between TBLT materials and those found in a coursebook is that in the  case of TBLT,

  1. they’re informed by a needs analysis and other consultations with the students who will do the course at a local level;
  2. most of the materials are used as input which helps in the performance of communicative tasks, where the L2 is used to perform particular functions, not studied as an object.

In the case of Long’s TBLT, his use of “input simplification and elaboration” is the key.  In the case of Dogme, the materials differ in that students themselves are encouraged to contribute a lot of them, and, as with TBLT, they are not used in the service of a synthetic syllabus. (See Meddings and Thornbury (2009) and my post on Two types of TBLT for a fuller discussion.)

Point 5

If you look at the ‘activities’ in Unit 2 of Outcomes Intermediate you’ll see that “the various speaking tasks don’t suggest that new bits will be learned one by one in the same sequence as they are presented in”, and “there is no reason why you couldn’t do the tasks in a completely different order”. Nevertheless,

“the sequence of activities derives from the goal of wanting students to have a realistic conversation about giving good and bad news and to express their own feelings about how others are feeling. So firstly, while we pick out some vocabulary and grammar to focus on in the exercise sequences, we would expect this to be a relatively minor part of the conversation that students practice. A teacher may find numerous opportunities to look at other forms during the lesson – and that’s exactly what I do when I use the material. With many of the tasks that we suggest students do in our books, there is a similar kind of relationship between input and skills. If students and teachers don’t take advantage of these opportunities or take a narrower view of the material, hey, what’cha gonna do?”


First, one might have some questions about the goal of Unit 2 of Outcomes Intermediate (What sense does such an abstract goal have? What’s “realistic”? What feelings? What are the contexts? Etc..).

Second, what criteria inform the “picking” of the bits of vocabulary and grammar which are focused on “in the exercise sequence”? Frequency? Level of difficulty? Appeal to students of “Intermediate General English”??

Third, if you look at Unit 2 of the book, you’ll see that it concentrates on explicit instruction and makes it likely that a majority of total class time will be spent learning about bits of the L2 rather than using the L2 for communicative interaction. Walkley’s comment that “a teacher may find numerous opportunities to look at other forms during the lesson – and that’s exactly what I do when I use the material” is telling: he wants to do even more teaching.

Point 6

Walkley ends by saying that when using Outcomes, he has somtetimes started with the conversation practice, taught aspects of language not included in the unit, dropped some tasks, adapted the exercises, and “asked students to look at some vocabulary from the unit before starting”.


See the reply to Point 1 above.

Walkley fails to address the main issue, which is that most coursebooks, including his Outcomes series, embody a synthetic syllabus where the target language is treated as an object of study, and chopped up into bits which the teacher presents to students and then practices. Coursebook-driven ELT flies in the face of what we know about how people learn an L2, and requires all the creativity and ingenuity that teachers possess to rescue it from being both ineffective and tedious.


Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009)Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching, Delta Publishing.

A Reply to Walkley’s Defence of Coursebooks

In a post that I missed a couple of months ago, Andrew Walkley replied to criticisms of coursebooks. 

Before we look at his comments, let’s briefly recall what we know about SLA, drawing in part on the first issue of the Instructed Second Language Acquisition Journal , which has articles by Bill VanPatten and by Mike Long.

One of the most robust constructs in SLA research is “Interlanguage Development”. As Doughty and Long (2003) say

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

See my post on Interlanguage for more on this.

If  SLA involves ordered development and this ordered development is impervious to instruction, what’s going on in learners’ minds?  VanPatten (2017) reviews some of the explanations on offer. Chomsky (1957) suggests that language is special and involves a language-specific module for learning. Krashen (1981) closely follows with his “Natural order” hypothesis and the distinction between acquisition and learning. Other approaches look to the processing aspects of language, including Processability Theory (e.g. Pienemann, 1998); processing constraints more generally (e.g. O’Grady, 2015); and general learning mechanisms that are not related to language. These types of approaches include emergentism and usage-based approaches (e.g. N. Ellis and Wulff, 2015) as well as dynamic systems (e.g. Larsen-Freeman, 2015). (See VanPatten, 2017 for all these references.)

Probably the most important issue in the various accounts of language learning concerns the roles of implicit and explicit learning. With regard to this fundamental question, despite important disagreements among those adopting generativists, processing or usage-based approaches to L2 learning, and despite the related differences in interface (strong/weak/no) positions on explcit and implicit knowledge, there is widespread agreement that, as Long (2017) puts it “the relevant goal for instruction is implicit learning, resulting in implicit L2 knowledge”.  Long continues:

In an article on classroom research, Whong, Gil, and Marsden (2014) noted that while generativists and general cognitivists disagree over the viability of inductive learning as a substitute for innate linguistic knowledge, both camps consider implicit learning more basic and more important than explicit learning, and superior. This is because access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content. ….Whong, Gil, and Marsden (2014) conclude:

“In sum, we argue that the distinction between implicit and explicit knowledge needs to be more robustly recognized in research design, and suggest that implicit knowledge should be the target of research, regardless of theoretical premise” (2014:557).

Long agrees, as do Nick Ellis (2005), Robinson (1996), Williams (2005), Rebuschat (2008), Rastelli (2014), and most of those cited above. All the research indicates that learning an L2 is not best facilitated by presenting and practicing bits and pieces of language according to criteria such as “difficulty” or “frequency of occurrence”, but rather by developing the ability to make meaning in the L2 through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback.  At the same time, we should note that the evidence clearly indicates a role for explicit instruction, even if it’s a much smaller role than implicit instruction. To cite Long (2017) again, he points to the case of Julie (Ioup et al. 1994) whose achievement of near-native L2 through long-term residence without the aid of any instruction at all suggests to him that most of an L2 can be acquired implicitly given sufficient time and high enough aptitude for implicit language learning. But, as he concludes “the problem for instructed Instructed Second Language Acquisition is that vanishingly few L2 learners have both”. Neither expicit nor implicit learning alone can get those who sign up for any kind of L2 learning course to their goals, but if the goal is a functional command of the L2, then implicit learning should be the default and should take up most of the time.

Walkley’s Reply

What, then, of Walkley’s reply to my claim that most coursebooks implement a synthetic syllabus based on 3 false assumptions about SLA? With regard to Assunption 1 (declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge through a process of presentation and practice) he responds by saying that “passing on knowledge is a starting point, not a final destination”. He says:

There is no doubt that 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.  Of course the job is not finished when irregular past tenses are presented and practised in class. But that’s true of all types of classroom teaching. Would the job be finished if the past tense of “had” was required during a task and ‘emerged’ or was ‘noticed’ or ‘recast’ or whatever?  Of course not! Students will continue to make mistakes because whether this information is passed on to students through a task or a ‘bit of classroom practice’, the information still remains essentially declarative at that point.”

What we know about instructed SLA (ISLA) indicates that most of the knowledge “passed on” by explicit language instruction doesn’t become inplicit knowledge and is of little use in achieving a functional use of the L2. If a synthetic syllabus devotes most of the time focusing on the L2 as object, the learners will get too little opportunity to gain implicit knowledge and to drive forward interlanguage development. Walkley assumes that all types of classroom teaching involve passing on explicit knowledge about language as a necessary “first step”, and that spending a lot of time passing on explicit knowledge about language is common to all teaching approaches. He’s wrong on both counts.

Next, Walkley takes my remark that SLA is more like learning to swim than learning geography, and says:

 Jordan’s analogy with swimming is surprisingly helpful here, though perhaps not for reasons he realises. During most swimming lessons above absolute beginner levels, nearly all instructors work outside the water! They are telling students what to do (declarative knowledge) and getting students to proceduralise this – often through rather synthetic (and to my mind rather monotonous) tasks such as ‘practise breathing out underwater’ or ‘swim with your legs only’. ….

The lesson for teachers and learners is that you have to make use of the language you have ‘learned’ – and do so repeatedly over time. Certainly, a coursebook should give opportunities to make use of language and should ensure proper recycling over time, but it may not. A task-based syllabus should certainly provide opportunities to make use of language, but it may not be the same language over time. Although, of course, it might be! It all depends.

Again, Walkley assumes that all ISLA, no matter whether a synthetic or analytic sylabus is being implemented, and no matter what pedagogical principles inform the teacher, consists of teachers explicitly teaching students about the L2  (passing on knowledge) and then helping them practice it. Again, he’s wrong. One thing is using a coursebook to implement a synthetic syllabus. This imples concentrating on explicit knowledge and spending most of the time treating the L2 as an object of study.  Another, different, and I suggest better thing, is using a needs analysis and a means analysis to identify target tasks from which pedagogical tasks are designed, and then making the pedagogical tasks the basis for an analytical syllabus where the time is spent developing the ability to function successfully in the L2 in well-defined areas. This implies concentrating on implicit knowledge, coupled with some explicit feedback.  I should add that the Dogme approach also rejects coursebooks, rejects synthetic syllabuses, and concentrates on developing the ability to make meaning in the L2 through a predominantly implicit learning process.

In a section titled “When do you move on to a new ‘teaching’?”, Walkley addresses the second false assumption made by coursebook writers, namely that SLA is a process of mastering, one by one, accumulating structural items. (The assumption is false because all the items are inextricably inter-related.)  He writes:

…while I basically agree that SLA is not a process of mastering, one by one, accumulated structural items as in some kind of building block process, you could argue that the next point that ‘Teaching affects the rate, but not the route of SLA’ is slightly contradictory. It seems clear that language learners move from more or less ungrammaticalised words to grammaring the words they know in progressively more complex ways: this is the route. So in the case of questions, students at the lowest levels will generally start by just using a word, maybe with intonation or gesture – coffee?; then move to a string of words – you want coffee?; to grammaticalised strings – Do you want a coffee?; to more complex sentences – Are you sure you want a coffee? If you were a mad person and did these as consecutive lessons, your students would not be producing all these different question types.

The route he describes is not the route described by those who have studied the development of interlanguages (see Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky and Schumann (1975) for sequence of interrogative forms), but even if it were, how would this challenge the claim that teaching affects the rate, but not the route of SLA? Walkley is yet again assuming that ISLA is characterised by teachers passing on explicit knowledge and then practicing it. From this “idée fixe”, he argues that it would be mad to “do” the different stages he describes of question formation in consecutive lessons. He’s right, of course, but nobody in the literature suggested such a thing in the first place; that is, nobody suggested speeding up the rate of interlanguage development by “doing” (i.e. explicitly  teaching) bits of the L2 “in the right order”. Note the question at the start: “When do you move on to a new ‘teaching’?” It is, surely, the wrong question, and one that explains Walkley’s misunderstanding about the conclusions drawn from interlanguage research. Pace Walkley, ISLA is not best seen as addressing the question of when to “pass on” which new bit of knowledge.

Nevertheless, that’s the way Walkley sees it, and if we share his (in my opinion, blinkered) view then there really isn’t much difference between using a coursebook and using a TBLT or Dogme approach, because they all involve the same basic thing: the teacher presents and practises bits of the target language. This approach to ELT is perfectly evident in Dellar and Wlakley’s book Teaching Lexically (see here for a full review).

Teaching Lexically is very teacher-centred. There’s no suggestion anywhere of including students in decisions affecting what and how things are to be learned: teachers make all the decisions. The teacher decides the mainly lexical “items” to be taught, the sequence of presentation of these “items”, plus how they are to be recycled and revised.

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

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

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

Teaching Lexically sees explicit learning and explicit teaching as paramount, and it assumes that explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge through practice. These assumptions, like the assumptions that students will learn what they’re taught in the order they’re taught it, clash with SLA research findings. To assume, as Dellar and Walkley do, that the best way to teach English as an L2 is to devote the majority of classroom time to the explicit teaching and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is to fly in the face of SLA research.

As Long (2017) argues

“the direct effects of instruction are limited to manipulations of the linguistic environment, with only indirect effects on learning processes. The learner’s use of this or that cognitive process can be intended by the instructional designer, but cannot be stipulated or guaranteed. For example, explicit instruction is designed to invoke intentional learning – a conscious operation in which the learner attends to aspects of a stimulus array in the search for underlying patterns or structure. Intentional learning usually results in explicit knowledge: people know something, and know they know. But students may learn some things incidentally and implicitly from the input used to deliver the explicit instruction”.

On the other hand,

“instruction can be designed to create optimal conditions for incidental learning, but that does not guarantee that incidental learning will transpire, or that if it does, the result will be implicit learning, or if it is, that implicit knowledge will be the end-product, or if it is, that it will remain implicit only”.

Long concludes that if we take the view that most students want teachers to help them to be able to use the L2 for communication, then the primary goal of teaching must be to develop implicit knowledge. Research findings on interlanguage development undermine the credibility and viability of explicit language teaching, synthetic approaches, and PPP.

Since purely incidental learning is impractical, due to the amount of input required and the length of time needed to deliver it, in  the interest of identifying the least interventionist, but still effective, forms of instruction, it follows that a major focus of ISLA research (not the only focus, but a major one) should now be on even less intrusive enhancements of incidental learning rather than focus on form.


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

Long, M. (2017) Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1,1.

VanPatten, W. (2017) Situating instructed language acquisition: facts about second language acquisition. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1,1.

Where did that idea come from?

In his latest blog post, Where do ideas come from?, Harmer defends himself against an accusation of using somebody else’s work as if it were his own, although he doesn’t tell us whose work he used, or exactly what he did with it.

In a comment, Sue Leather said:

I wonder if there is something about power dynamics and gender here? A well-known male ELT person fails to acknowledge (whether by oversight or whatever) a lesser known female ELT person. If I read this correctly, this seems to be what has happened.

Replying to this, Harmer wrote in his usual clumsy style:

I do not see myself as having any power over anything – nor do any publishers I have ever worked with, for example, or conference organisers!

I believe (well that is my view of myself, but its only, of course, my view) I have been very supportive of others in the world of ELT, older and younger. If I have not, I deserve to be called out on it.

I suggest that all those who have come across Harmer during his long career as a manager, teacher trainer, examiner and conference speaker, and who have personal reasons for thinking that his conduct towards them was not best described as “very supportive” should accept his challenge and call him out on it. Meanwhile, I’d like to raise a more recent matter.

In November 2016, Eric Dostal, the founding director of CA Institute of Languages in Brno, Czech Republic, invited me to do a plenary at the International Language Symposium in Brno 2017.  He described himself as “the head of the committee”, “the person responsible for the show”; he informed me that the other invited plenary speakers were Stephen Krashen, Phillip Kerr, Linda Li, JJ Wilson, Hugh Dellar, Jeremy Harmer “and some secret surprise guests are all lined up and ready to give talks”; and he concluded:

Your name would add the spice that this event needs!

I accepted the invitation and sent Mr. Dostal outlines of possible talks I could give. He replied “It looks great!”, and that he would put my proposal to the rest of the organising committee.  On 23rd November I got an email saying:

You are in! I will keep you posted with developments. I will add you to the website and start marketing it a bit more.

I looked on the website for the conference, and there I was, alongside Krashen, Li, Wilson and others, photo, outline of plenary and all.

Then, on 23rd Jan.2017, I got this email

Dear Geoff,

Due to an over response of speaker acceptances we have had to reorganize our speaker roster for the Symposiums on 2017 and 2019. The committee has decided to shift your name to the second roster for 2019. For us this is a better fit.  I hope this does not cause any inconvenience. These are still early days.

Erik and the committee

I phoned Mr. Dostal and asked him for the truth. I said I didn’t believe that the reason for cancelling my invitation was that there was “an over response of speaker acceptances”, and challenged him to deny that pressure from one of the other speakers was the real reason.

The committee’s been got at, right? They’ve told you to get me off the guest list, haven’t they?

Mr. Dostal sounded very uncomfortable.

You’re upset, I know it’s a disappointment, I’m really sorry, I did everything I could.

So the committee insisted that I be “shifted” did they?

Well, yes.


Geoff, come on, I can’t go into details. I’m sorry.

Who’s behind this?

I can’t go into details.

And that was that. I cancelled the flights and asked him to make good the money that I’d spent on the tickets.

In July, I had a couple of emails from Mr. Dostal, repeating how sorry he was, saying how much he regretted what had happened.

I know of no conference where anything similar has happened, so my question is Where did the idea to “shift” me to the 2019 symposium come from? I’m convinced that it came from committee members who were anxious not to offend one or more of the other invited speakers. They felt pressure from someone powerful, and they put pressure on Mr. Dostal to do something that he himself felt embarrassed about doing. So my question to Harmer is this: Do you think your powerful position in the ELT industry had  anything to do with the decision to remove me from the list of guest speakers who were invited to the 2017 Brno Conference?