IATEFL 2017: JJ Wilson turns Radical Pedagogy into Dross

I was surprised, not to say dismayed, to see that JJ Wilson’s plenary got good reviews, even from those who are critical of current ELT practice in general and of IATEFL in particular. My opinion is that the plenary was slickly packaged, worthless dross. Here’s what he said, and I assure you that I am leaving out no important points, or any significant development of them.

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed gave me the theory I need to talk about my teaching practice. It’s all about emancipating yourself. Freire characterised most education as implementing a “banking” concept of education and really education is about transformation. Freire talks about problem posing, questioning, dialogue. He say the basis of all education is love, and that means justice.

Friere talks about “conscientização”: critical consciousness of your place in society.

He was exiled because he tried to empower people.

“Praxis” is the bringing together of theory and practice, which comes from Marx, who said “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. An example is Julio Camarota’s workshops in prisons. The prisoners decided that education was the Number 1 reason they were in prison. So they petitioned for education in prison and they got it. That’s praxis.

What is social justice? It’s culturally specific and constantly changing. It affects all areas of our lives. Millions of people have no clear air or water.  Social Justice  = A world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society.

What is the relevance of social justice to ELT? It depends on your view of the educator’s role in society. Teachers model social justice, but we don’t teach social justice, we must avoid proselytising, it’s an approach.

What might social justice issues in the classroom look like?

Do any of you make or create things. Do you make art or jewellry? Do you write for pleasure, do any of you make films? Do any of you make music? Put your hands up.

Wow! 62% of you! Fantastic! You are all involved in pushing the frontiers of human imagination You are all involved in seing beauty where other people don’t even look.

6 different ways of bringing social justice into the class

1, Images. Freire used images Take out a pen and paper and illustrate an issue that you’re passionate about. Next, talk to a partner about what you drew and explain how this issue is represented in your work . Now show your pictures to everybody.

Let’s look at photos of Sebastian Forgadu which show war and famine. I asked students to do presentations of one of the photos and talk about it.

Let’s look at photos of classrooms around the world. Everybody: please make sentences about them beginning “I wonder..” I did this exercise with teachers and turned the “I wonders” into questions.

  • What materials do they use?
  • What technology do they have?
  • What kind of school is it?
  • How is children’s education organised?
  • How are the classrooms decorated?

By discussing these questions, you’re bringing social justice into the classroom.

2. Poetry and literature. I’m going to read a poem. Listen and repeat

I remember

(Audience: I remember)

cutting snowdrops

(Audience: cutting snowdrops etc.)

angels kisses

I remember

VW Beetles

With windup windows

I remember


And JR

And who shot who

I remember


And Michael Jackson

When he was black

(…….. and on and on.)

You can use this with students who write their own poem and then you ask “What has changed since you were a kid?” This is a very indirect way of bringing social justice into the classroom.

Here’s a poem my wife wrote. (Reads poem “I am from…” ) You can get students to write poems starting “I am from”.

  1. Theatre. Agusto Boal founded the Theatre of the Oppressed, then he started “Forum” theatre which looks at issues of oppression. It consists of short sketch done twice.; once with a resolution, second time leave it up to the audience to decide what the resolution will be. Boal also invented “spectators” and gamesercises to de-mechanise the self. I recommend his book “Games for actors and non-actors”.
  2. Community Projects use the method of anthropological enquiry. (Gave examples of a few IATEFL projects.)
  3. Teachable moments. (Tells story of a boy who asked his teacher about a landfill site and this led to a recycling project. Tells another story of a teacher who arranged a field trip to a beach to see a stranded whale. )
  4. Stories (Tells story about Nuclear waste. How to warn people about nuclear waste? Lots of bad answers. The best answer is: Start an atomic priesthood of elders who are going to pass on a legend not to go near the mountain and this legend will be passed on from one generation to the next and it might just last 10,000 years.) Stories are very powerful.

The End

To summarise:

  • Freire was a radical educationalist who adopted Marx’s idea of praxis. He was concerned with issues of social justice.
  • Social Justice = A world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society.
  • You can bring social justice issues into your classroom by looking at and discussing photos, reading poetry, doing role plays, starting community projects, creating teachable moments, and telling stories.


What’s the point of telling people who Freire was if you don’t make any attempt to use his ideas to critically examine ELT practice? Where in this incohesive succession of undeveloped catchy, candy floss suggestions was there any attempt to seriously engage with Freire’s ideas? Where is the analysis of “issues of social justice” that JJ Wilson is so “passionate” about? Why do millions of people have no fresh air or water? Why do millions of children have lessons sitting in the sand?

The list of pleasantries that made up JJ Wilson’s entertainment was about as challenging as a quick visit to Disneyland, and it did about as much to help teachers address issues of social justice.

Freire would have explained his view that teachers need a better understanding of the political and economic context they work in; that is, they should read enough of Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, and others to appreciate that capitalism benefits a small minority which doesn’t include them. He would have explained that to fight this oppression the first thing we need to do is to think critically and to question the ideology which supports the status quo. He would have then encouraged them to critically examine the ideological assumptions underpinning the activities of Peasons, Cambridge Examiners, the British Council, and the IATEFL organisation itself. Isn’t it the case that “the bottom line”, i.e., profit, is their overriding concern? To take just one example, what view of education leads Pearson to promote its “Global Scale Of English”? Is it not the most audacious example yet of the commodification of education, of what Scott Thornbury so memorably refers to as the McNuggets view of ELT?

And Freire would have encouraged teachers to think about practical ways of grappling with the consequences of global capitalism and the commodification of education. He would have told them that they must be critical, that they must simply stop believing what they’re told, and that they must change their practice.

He might even have suggested that they critically appraise the widening gap between their own deterorating social position and the position of those like JJ Wilson who sell coursebooks and training courses and receive awards from Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and who talk to them at plenary sessions before flying off to their next well-paid appearance in the world ELT circus.

The Society of the Spectacle

The Situationists, particularly Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, argued that workers in the capitalist production process have their powers ‘snatched’ from them; they create an abundance of products which come back to dominate them in an alien form—that is, as commodities. Spectacular society, in fact socially split between the small minority who benefit and the vast majority who suffer, achieves an illusory unity: everybody is part of the same community, consuming commodified goods and playing reified roles. It seems to me that the IATEFL conference is a good example of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle: passive consumers applaud JJ Wilson as he sells alienation back to them in the name of liberation: a perfect, awful example of reification.

The only way out of this mess is for us to think more critically, and then to organise and act locally. That’s not “praxis”, but it’s better than JJ Wison’s cosy little version of it.


Debord, G. (1967) The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith: New York: Zone Books, 1995. Also transl. Ken Knabb, London: Rebel Press, 2004.

Vaneigem, R. (1967) The Revolution of Everyday Life. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith: London: Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, 1994.

Hold The Front Page: Harmer Rejects “Grammar Syllabus”

In an interview at the IATEFL 2017 Conference in Glasgow today, Harmer struck the unlikely pose of innovator. Having spent the last 40 years defending ELT orthodoxy, it seems that Harmer has suddenly realised that change is inevitable. Here he is, “frightened but excited”, warning any complacent conference goers that these are turbulent times. He stumbles along with the usual stuff about the implications of technology, but then comes this bombshell, and I quote:

 The grammar syllabus has been there all my professional life, but there’s no evidence as far as I can see that that’s how people learn.

And there’s more! Harmer refers repeatedly to the threat of disruption. “We’re vulnerable to disruption”, he warms, and by “we” I suppose he refers to the ELT establishment. “We have to be match fit, ready to meet this disruption, not let it hit us on the nose” he says. The General English grammar based course is vunerable to disruption. Classroom teaching is vulnerable too.

In these times of change, Harmer says, what’s important is a willingness to challenge our assumptions. He went on:

And I don’t think we’re doing enough of that. If this disruption is coming towards us, we need to be ready for it. Now more than ever we need to challenge every assumption we hold. We really need to challenge more.

“And”, asks the interviewer, “have you put this into practice …. Have you been challenging yourself in your writing?

“Little bits and pieces”, replied Harmer. “I’m about to embark on a project where I hope there’ll really be some innovations.”

What? More than one???  OMG!!! What further surprises does IATEFL 2017 have in store? Remember – you read it first here! 



My time at LSE, Part 1

How many of we ELT old timers started our working lives thinking we’d end up teaching English? None of us, right? We were a motley crew to be sure, and we mostly fell into L2 teaching as an almost romantic option, a defiant “Up yours!”  gesture towards the beckoning careers offered by the professions.

But what might have been? We might have been contenders! In my case, I might have been an academic in the philosophy department of LSE. Here’s the story.

I started my B.Sc.(Econ) degree at LSE in 1963. I lived with 4 other freshers in a flat in Hampstead that Mick Jagger, LSE student, had just vacated. (Just BTW, Jagger later gave lots of money to pay for lawyers to defend those wrongly accused, including me, of the Angry Brigade’s daft doings.)

I  got through the first year exams, chose to specialise in International History, and quickly realised that I’d made a bad choice: too much emphasis on too many facts. So I asked if I could transfer to the philosophy department, even though they only took post grads. After some fairly difficult negotiations, I was  accepted. I was the first undergraduate ever to be admitted to the philosophy department of LSE.

Early on in my second year, I was busy doing non-academic stuff. I was President of Debates, President of the Jazz Society, and President of the Anarchists Club. Being President of Debates was great: I met lots of very famous people who came to speak, and I took them all to dinner afterwards at the Waldorf. I remember dining with Anthony Burgess (that’s him, above), Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster. after a debate on “God is dead”. The dinner was awkward, to say the least. Once we’d shoved the archbishops into taxis outside the Waldorf, Ingrams, Burgess and I went drinking in the pubs in nearby Fleet Street. Ingrams was delightful company and so was Burgess, bless him. But Burgess was, I must say, just a bit too far gone too quickly. Burgess, dear messed up, brilliant Burgess,spent his whole life drunk: he  woke up drunk and reached for a drink. Just by the way, Hemmingway was nothing like the mad drinker he’s portrayed – I drink more than he did, and I’m nowhere even close to Burgess. Anyway, in my opinion, Burgess’ later stuff was terrible; he should be remembered not for the awful Earthly Powers, but for the much lighter, less pretentious, more enjoyable Enderby novels, and, above all, for Nothing Like The Son.  

The jazz duties were harder. Getting jazz musicians to turn up at mid-day events is notoriously difficult, and getting them to behave once there is even more demanding. We held sessions in the Shaw Library, a really lovely room on the top floor, and they were always packed out. The best session I remember was a very young Gary Burton on vibes, who played with 3 session guys and blew us all away.

As for the anarchist club, I invented it, appointed myself president, got a notice board put up alongside all the other society notice boards (more than 30 of them) and pinned on it the only 2 notices it ever had.

Notice 1: Comrades! The inaugural meeting of the Anarchist Club will be held on Friday 12th November, 1pm, Room E413.

Notice 2: Comrades! The first meeting of our club was a total success: nobody turned up.

LSE Philosophy Department 1964

The teaching staff of the philosophy department of LSE in 1964 comprised John Watkins, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Joseph Agassi, Alan Musgrave, and a few others. Popper was a living legend and even though Watkins was nominally in charge, Popper ruled the roost like a sick old cockrel. He was old, ill, bad-tempered, rude, and paranoid. The only time I got on with him was when I presented a paper to him, Lakatos, Musgrave, Feyerabend, Bartley and a few others, where I criticised Khun (the paradigm man), stressing the difference between the sociology of science and scientific method. I made some cheap shots, and Popper loved them. In general, he made it clear that he didn’t like me, and deliberately ignored me.

Everywhere Popper went he was escorted by his secretary and a succession of people running behind him trying to record everything he said. The first time I went to a lecture of his, after about 5 minutes he shouted “Somebody’s trying to kill me!” This was in response to a student who had lit up a cigarette right at the back of the very big room he was lecturing in. The offender was pounced on, hustled out of the room, and Popper, once reassured, droned on. “No Smoking” notices and vetting of those who went to his lectures quickly followed.

I never heard Popper say anything remotely interesting – not once. He was a boring tyrant, the very last person you’d want to be around, unless you were trying to get ahead in the department. Even then university life was very political – it made working in industry look innocent. As a work place, there is nowhere more fiercely competitive, more ruthlessly self-seeking  than a university. I worked with some truly exceptional people, it was exhilarating  trying to keep up with them, but that doesn’t make me forget the back-biting crap, the culture of lies and deceit that permeated university life. I might add that, from what I see, things have only got worse.

Despite the fact that Popper himself had long since run out of interesting ways to spin his one contribution to the philosophy of science (there is an asymmetry between proof and falsification), and despite the numbing effect that his hopelessly ill-informed, ill-considred book The Open Society and it’s Enemies was having on Sociology departments worldwide, the philosophy department at LSE in 1964 was buzzing. And that was thanks to Imre Lakatos.

Lakatos was crazy, wonderful, brilliant. He was a powerhouse, a great antidote to Prof. Watkins, and it was Lakatos who gave the department its energy.  He was tall, thin, angular, always in a hurry: a nerrvous dynamo. It was great fun to walk with him as he moved like a nervous fox through the corridors of LSE, giving quick nods to those who said hello to him, talking incessantly. He was absurdly intense: everything was important.  Copernicus, well he got a lot more right than people realise..; Did you see her, my God what a bust, I mean really; Who the hell do these students think they are anyway?; How I hate sociology students, you notice how they’re all girls?, Because I mean how can Kuhn say that about Copernicus?  I loved him, and so did most of those who worked with him, even though he was prickly and often very rude .

Lakatos worked with Popper for years (showing unusual patience, I reckon),trying to rescue Popper’s work from mounting criticism, even before Kuhn showed up. Lakatos accepted that there were problems with Popper’s “Falsifiability Criterion”. Popper said, following Hume, that you can’t prove that a theory is true, but you can prove that it’s false. Critics said that if it’s allowed that a theory is refuted by a single instance of empirical data, then no theory would survive. In the history of science all major theories have been refuted time and time again (in the sense that they have contradicted the evidence of the day), especially in their early stages. The extreme version of the falsifiability criterion, where one instance of negative data is enough to refute a theory, became known as “naive falsifications” and is now generally rejected.

When I was with him, Lakatos was still wrestling with all this, and he was helped by the arrival of Paul Feyerabend, the finest scholar I ever met, and more about that later. In 1964, Lakatos was working on a theory of “research programmes”. His theory, never really complete, was published in various stages in the 1970s. It addressed the problem of theory choice: given two rival theories, is there any rational way of choosing between them?  Lakatos eventually suggested that Popper’s theory should be amended by shifting the problem of appraising theories per se to the problem of appraising a historical series of theories, which he called “research programmes”’, and by changing the falsificationist rules of theory rejection.

Lakatos called the essential theory under investigation in any research programme the “hard core theory”, and he named two different “heuristics” working inside the same research programme: a Negative heuristic, which essentially called on researchers not to attack the hard core theory, and a Positive heuristic which encouraged improvements to be made in the auxiliary hypotheses, which Lakatos referred to as “the refutable protective belt”. The research programme involved working on “the belt”, and leaving the core assumptions alone: you opt out of the programme if you attack the hard core.

When Lakatos published all his stuff about this in the 70s, he claimed that his work solved the problem of identifying the part of the theory that is responsible for the falsification (since it cannot be in the hard core), and at the same time, allowed for choice among rival theories: bold new hypotheses on the belt can be subjected to tests, and the better theories will be those that survive such tests. The essential criterion for assessing rival programmes is progress: the more progressive programme is better. If the modifications to the auxiliary assumptions result in new predictions, and if the predictions of novel facts are corroborated, then the programme is progressive.  On the other hand, a research programme is considered to be degenerating (as opposed to progressing) if those working on it do no more than add untestable ad hoc auxiliary assumptions in order to save its core, and that these merely account for already known facts.  When a stage is reached where one research programme is degenerate, and another is making good progress, then the degenerate programme must be jettisoned.

But it doesn’t work, does it!

Let’s leave a discussion of why it doesn’t  work, and go back to the LSE. We move to 1965 and the Kuhn versus Popper confrontation in London. I was in the second row. The background below is from my book (Jordan, 2004)

Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) argued that most scientific activity takes place under the domination of a theory which define the domain of research in a particular area, the procedures researchers should follow in their experiments, and the criteria by which they test and evaluate the theory. Kuhn labels this dominant theory, and the set of assumptions it generates a “paradigm”, and he refers to those periods of time where a paradigm dominates as “normal science”.

But, Kuhn argues, there are also periods when science enters into a revolutionary period, and there is then a “paradigm shift”.  One clear example in the twentieth century is when relativity theory and quantum mechanics replaced Newtonian physics to become the new paradigm.  In revolutionary moments the research methodology of scientists is very different from that of “normal science”: it is chaotic, contradictory and fragmentary, but on the other hand these are often very exciting times to live in.  Sooner or later however, the new paradigm is established, and scientists go back to their work, which is more mundane perhaps, but usually more productive.

Kuhn mixed a historical analysis with an epistemological one, and, while it is part of Kuhn’s argument that the two are mutually dependent, it is important to be aware of the two strands.  Kuhn argued that Popper was prescribing what scientists should do, and ignoring what in fact they actually did.  While, said Kuhn, Popper was right to criticise the Vienna circle (right, that is, to say that scientists were not in the business of simply observing things), he was wrong to say that they tried to refute theories.  What scientists do, according to Kuhn, depends on the historical moment.  In periods of normal science, they work in a more or less inductive way, using empirically-based studies, experiments and tests, looking for confirmation of the dominant theory, seeking to expand its reach, repairing problems that experiments turn up, etc..  In revolutionary periods scientists work in confusion, often swayed in their choice between those rival theories fighting for paradigm status by totally irrational considerations, and rarely, if ever, following the methodology proposed by Popper.

During a period of scientific revolution there is typically a conservative group who try to stick to the old paradigm, often because, having used it for a long time, they are comfortable with it, and a rebel group, often much younger, whose thinking has not been moulded by the old paradigm. Again, one is strongly reminded of the current dispute going on in SLA research, and it is hardly surprising that the “rebels” see themselves as progressive, or that they should emphasise the political nature of the conflict.  But the crucial consideration for Kuhn, and the key argument for the relativist camp in SLA and elsewhere, is that this conflict cannot be rationally resolved: the claim is that the old guard will just die out and fail to attract new adherents.  In Kuhn’s opinion, the process by which the new paradigm is established is irrational.

Unlike Popper, who sees a cyclical development in the history of science and is convinced that this ensures progress, Kuhn says that the new paradigm is established in a completely open-ended way that has nothing to do with rational choice or with a respect for, or even awareness of, progress.  There can be, says Kuhn, in the periods of paradigm shifts, no rational reasons for preferring one theory over another.  As Kuhn puts it: “There is no higher standard than the assent of the relevant community.” (Kuhn, 1962: 98)  Hence, Popper notwithstanding, there is no continuity, and no progress in science.

Kuhn’s account of the development of science culminates in his notion of the incommensurability of theories which are formulated under the umbrella of different paradigms. Theories formulated under the new paradigm are so different from the older theories that there is no justification for saying that the new theories follow on from their predecessors.  Different paradigms are not, according to Kuhn, commensurate – Newtonian physics is not commensurate with Einstein’s Relativity theory, for example.  When Newton and Einstein speak of matter, energy, time, etc.,  they are speaking about different things, and thus there is no rational way of choosing between them.  The suggestion is that the researcher’s observations, experiments and tests on so-called empirical data are crucially affected by the theories they believe in, that is, most of the time, by the paradigm theory.  Kuhn gives the example of chemists’ acceptance of Dalton’s atomic theory, which at first was in conflict with some experimental results.   Not only did they ignore the negative evidence, they reported chemical compositions in different ways (as ratios of integers rather than as decimals) and, in Kuhn’s words “beat nature into line. …. The data itself had been changed, and the chemists were now working in a different world” (Kuhn, 1962: 135).

So now here comes the confrontation, in 1965, when Popper gets his stuff together and Kuhn falls apart.

Actually, I think that’s enough for now. To come in Part 2: Who won the Khun versus Popper debate? Lakatos invites Paul Fererabend to give a series of lectures at LSE; Feyerabend struts his stuff and gives the best series of lectures ever witnessed in the Old Theatre of LSE;  we all get drunk;  Feyerabend persuades me to stop revising, go fishing and let Heather take the finals in my name; Lakatos’ programme bites the dust; Laudan thinks he has the answer ; and lots more.

I see no ships: Scrivener’s blind eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update on Long’s TBLT

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

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

Human Resources Manager:


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

Technology Skills (5 of 23)

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


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

Skills (5 of 20 displayed)

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


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

Work Activities (5 of 31 displayed)

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

Work Context (5 of 22 displayed)

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

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

Long continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Long’s References list.

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

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

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

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

Two Versions of Task-Based Language Teaching

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

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

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

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

False Assumption 2: SLA is a process of mastering, one by one, accumulating structural items. It is not. All the items are inextricably inter-related, and there’s no evidence of items being learned one at a time, or of any item being learned linearly. As Long (2015) says: “The assumption that learners can move from zero knowledge to mastery of negation, the present tense, subject- verb agreement, conditionals, relative clauses, or whatever, one at a time, and move on to the next item in the list, is a fantasy”.

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of tasks are:

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

Target Tasks

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

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

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

Examples of Target Tasks

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

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

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

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

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

PT1: Intro (Schema Building)

PT2: The Real Thing. Recording of the stop

PT3: What Happened?

PT4: Reading Along

PT5: Role Play 1

PT6: Role Play 2: The Exit Task.

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

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

Sequencing Pedagogical Tasks

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

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

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

Analyzing Target Discourse

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

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

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

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

Materials: Input Simplification and Elaboration

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

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

Elaborated Dialogue 1

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

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

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

Driver: Yes, it is.

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

Driver: No, no I wasn’t.

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

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

Driver: Yes, sir, thank you.

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

Driver: Thank you.

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

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


Stages in Long’s TBLT

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

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

Process Syllabuses

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

A Process Syllabus is based on this rationale:

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

A Process TBLT Syllabus

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

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

Methodological Principles of Process TBLT syllabus

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

Needs Analysis and Tasks 

Needs Analysis consists of:

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


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

We distinguish between Macro and Micro Tasks

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

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

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

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


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

An Example: General Business Course for adults

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

First 12 hours: Section 1

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

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

First Feedback / Planning Session

Tool 1: Feedback Sheet

1= very bad   10 = excellent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Best parts of the classes:


Worst parts of the classes:


Too much / too little time was spent on:


General Comments:


Tool 2: Planning Sheet

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


Class Work: What proportion of the time should we work

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

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

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

What other recommendations do you have?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Variations in Process TBLT

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The EFL Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Work of Jeremy Harmer


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Now for Harmer’s conference presentations.

IATEFL Chile, 2016

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

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

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

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

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


IATEFL International, 2015

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

Harmer begins by listing objections to testing:

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

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

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

That’s it.

TOBELTA 2015 Online Conference

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

Harmer concluded:

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

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

Brexit: Stop the Press: Enlightenment is dead

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


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

The Second Coming


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

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

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

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

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

Up The Summit


Lesson Plan

Aim: To Deconstruct the TESOL Summit Conference

Type: General English

Level: B


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


A. Warm Up:  Show this photo  


Ask students these questions:

1. How would you describe the scene?

2. What do you think is happening?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Comprehension Questions:

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

2. In Minute 9 Ms Garton says

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Comprehension Questions

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

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

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

D. The TESOL Summit Website

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

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

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

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


Reimaging English Competence

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

 The Profession as a Change Agent

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

English in Multiculturalism

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

Scott Thornbury and CELTA


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

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

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

Let’s look at CELTA.

Young students working on an assignment

CELTA = Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults

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

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

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

The CELTA Syllabus is as follows:

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

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

Topic 2 – Language analysis and awareness

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

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

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

Topic 4 – Planning and resources for different teaching contexts

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

Topic 5 – Developing teaching skills and professionalism

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

There are two components of assessment:

Teaching Practice

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

Written Assignments

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


Some questions about this syllabus:

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


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


So what about Scott Thornbury’s book?

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

And What About Dogme?

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

Getting Feedback on Your Teaching


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

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

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

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

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


Getting Feedback From Colleagues On Recordings of Classes  

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

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

And yet,

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

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


The Fanselow Workshop

The two golden rules during the workshop were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An aside.

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Slouching Towards Seattle


















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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


The British Council: An Exemplary Charity?


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



Levant Education

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

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

we read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions to ask at the IATEFL 2017 Conference


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


To the Coordinators of existing SIGs and the other Trustees:

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


To those at the Pearson (Silver Sponsor) stand

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

IATEFL and Teachers as Workers


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

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

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

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


Headline: The slavery of teaching English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The issues that the Teachers as Workers SIG highlight are

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

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

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

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

Interlanguage Development: Some Evidence


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

Doughty and Long (2003) say

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

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


Pit Corder: Error Analysis

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


The Morpheme Studies

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

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

1 Present progressive (-ing)

2/3 in, on

4 Plural (-s)

5 Past irregular

6 Possessive (-’s)

7 Uncontractible copula (is, am, are)

8 Articles (a, the)

9 Past regular (-ed)

10 Third person singular (-s)

11 Third person irregular

12 Uncontractible auxiliary (is, am, are)

13 Contractible copula

14 Contractible auxiliary

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

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


Selinker’s Interlanguage.

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

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

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

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

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


 Pienemann’s 5-stage Sequence.

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

Stage X – Canonical order (SVO)

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

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

Stage X + I – Adverb preposing (ADV)

da kinder spielen //// there children play

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

Stage X + 2 – Verb separation (SEP)

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

(Verb separation is obligatory in standard German.)

Stage X+3 – Inversion (INV)

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

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

Stage X+4 – Verb-end (V-END)

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Applied Linguistics (IRAL) 5, 161-9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


English Language Teaching: Art and Rationality


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Maley comments:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Good and Bad Writing


Here are a few examples of good writing.

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


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


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


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


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

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


I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet,

And the river jumps over the mountain

And the salmon sing in the street.


I’ll love you till the ocean

Is folded and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking

Like geese about the sky.  W. H. Auden


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

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

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

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

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

“When in doubt, leave it out!”

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