My Time at the LSE: Part 2

This is the continuation of My Time at LSE Part 1, which I wrote three months ago.

Note that I paid not a penny for my five years at the LSE; like everybody else in the UK at that time, if you got a place at university, your fees were paid by the government and you got a means tested grant to cover basic living expenses too. My parents were deemed rich, so I didn’t get the grant, and my dad refused to give me any money because I’d turned down the chance to go to Oxford. Anyway, I got a scholarship which matched it.

We should also note that in 1965, less than 5% of the UK population were enrolled in a university degree course. Today, those finishing a degree course in the UK find themselves in debt to the tune of around 30,000 pounds sterling, and over 35% of the population are doing a university degree course.

In 1965 I was half way through a B.Sc (Econ) degree at the London School of Economics, having made the philosophy of science my special subject. I talked a bit about the philosophy department of LSE in Part 1, and alluded to the famous confrontation between Kuhn and Popper which took place at Bedford College in July 1965. I was there, and I remember the electric, testerone-charged (no women were among the main protagonists) atmosphere which lasted from start to finish. In what follows, I rely on Steffano Gettei’s (2008) account. Quotes are from his account, but the colloquial was later reported in a 4 volume work (edited by Lakatos, I think) which he cites, which I’ve actually got somewhere in this damn room, but which for the life of me I can’t find right now.

The Debate

It was billed as The International Colloquial in the Philosophy of Science, and the provisional programme had Popper as chairman, and 2 main papers: Kuhn on Dogma versus Criticism, followed by Feyerabend (defending Popper) on Criticism versus Dogma. At the last minute Feyerabend said he couldn’t come (genuine ill health), and Watkins took his place.  The final programme was Popper as chairman and Kuhn and Watkins giving a joint paper on Criticism and the growth of Knowledge.  Lakatos had been very busy organising all this and handled the correspondence with Kuhn (furious at all the changes) with his usual cunning.

So we all trooped in and took our places in the audience. Everybody was there as they say, including Quine, who, as far as I remember, never said a word. We put up with all sorts of blather from all sorts of university big wigs and then here comes Kuhn. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of my favorite websites) says “His 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most cited academic books of all time”.  He  looked jaunty compared to Popper, but he read every word from his notes, hardly looking up.

Kuhn on Science

Kuhn starts by challenging Popper’s claim that scientists start with theories and then test them. Kuhn says scientists first assume a “constellation” of theories shared by the scientific community, and premise current theory as “the rules of the game”. Scientists try to solve puzzles, and current theory is required to define that puzzle and “to guarantee that, given sufficient brilliance, it can be solved”. Very occasionally, repeated failures to solve puzzles within the context of the paradigmatic theory leads to a revolution in science. So Popper, Kuhn says, “characterized the entire scientific enterprise in terms that apply only to its occasional revolutionary parts”; he overlooks the function of normal science, and

neither science nor the development of knowledge is likely to be understood if research is viewed exclusively through the revolutions it occasionally produces. …. A careful look at the scientific enterprise suggests that it is normal science, in which [Popper]’s sort of testing does not occur, rather than extraordinary science which most nearly distinguishes science from other enterprises”.

Next, Kuhn attacks Popper’s view that science consists of learning from our errors. Well, learning from errors can only happen in periods of normal science and Popper’s use of the term “error” to refer to theoretical systems of the past, like Newton’s mechanics, is thus wrong.


Kuhn then gets to the nitty gritty: Popper’s main idea of falsification. While Popper grants that conclusive falsification can never happen, he assumes that it can. “Having barred conclusive disproof”, says Kuhn, “he has provided no substitute for it, and the relation he does employ remains that of logical falsification”.  Logic, says Kuhn, doesn’t decide what scientists do when faced with falsifications here and there (anomalies); rather they are moved by values, and so we have to understand the history of science in terms of the sociology of the scientific community. Scientists don’t behave as Popper claims they do: they’re not influenced by individual refutations, but rather by a mass of anomalies which makes them doubt the ability of the current paradigm and switch allegiance to another paradigm that deals better with the anomalies.

The criteria with which scientists determine the validity of an articulation or an application of existing theory are not by themselves sufficient to determine the choice between competing theories.

So Popper’s mistake is to ignore the characteristics of normal research.

In particular, he has sought to solve the problem of theory choice during revolutions by logical criteria that are applicable in full only when a theory can already be presupposed,

that is, during periods of normal science when research is guided by a paradigm.

Finally, Kuhn reiterates his main thesis: explanation in science is sociological.

It must, that is, be a description of a value system, an ideology, together with an analysis of the institutions through which that system is transmitted and enforced.

While Popper rejects a sociological approach to science, his own approach has obvious signs of ideology and a system of values for science.

Counter Attack

Then came Watkins. A decent man, a decent academic, but out of his league when compared to the big guns. He later pointed me out in an identity parade which led to my arrest on criminal charges, but that’s another story. Here’s a version of his defence of Popper, which doesn’t give an indication of Popper’s typical interruptions of what he was trying to say.

Popper’s Reply

For Popper, science is always revolutionary because science involves the evolution of critical thought. Discovery of something is always a discovery against something else, because, as in the case of Christopher Columbus, it collides with a constellation of established prejudices. Copernicus overturned Ptolemy, Newton went beyond Galileo and Kepler, and Einstein beyond Newton. Such changes are not rare events but rather the usual condition of scientific activity: science grows as “a revolution in permanence”.

While there’s a need for some dogmatism (“if we give in to criticism too easily, we shall never find out where the real power of our theories lies”), this doesn’t justify Kuhn’s belief that a ruling dogma dominates over considerable periods. Right through history, we can judge theories by their openness to criticism, and if we say that any particular hypothesis in our theoretical system clashes with reality, well that is itself a conjecture, a new hypothesis that needs testing. And,of course, always the whole constellation of theories is put in question.

Now here comes the kicker, and the root of what is still the argument between rationalists and relativists.

Kuhn suggests that the rationality of science presupposes the acceptance of a common framework. He suggests that rationality depends upon something like a common language and a common set of assumptions. He suggests that rational discussion, and rational criticism, is only possible when we have agreed on fundamentals

Popper replies

“the myth of the framework” is a logical and philosophical mistake.

It is, says Popper, the argument of the relativist. While we are, necessarily in every moment prisoners caught in the framework of our language, theories, past experiences and expectations,

we are only prisoners in a Pickwickian sense: if we try, we can break out of our framework at any time. Admittedly, we shall find ourselves again in a framework, but it will be a better and roomier one; and we can at any moment break out of it again.

(Sorry, but I can’t help intervening here to say how splendid I find this.)

We can always be critical, and Kuhn’s contrary thesis (i.e. the incommensurability thesis, the idea that different frameworks are like mutually untranslatable languages) is a dangerous dogma – “the central bulwark of irrationalism”.

The “myth of the framework” exaggerates a difficulty into an impossibility; in fact these clashes are fruitful and not a dead end; they lead to progress.

Kuhn sees incommensurability as an insurmountable problem, but we only need to confront problems, not deem them insurmountable, label them incommensurable and set them aside.

Well that was it, more or less. The consensus was that Popper had won the day. I remember feeling jubilant, and leaving the hall with LSE supporters feeling similarly buoyed up. Lakatos promised to meet us in the nearest pub and didn’t show up. I don’t know what happened to Popper or Kuhn that evening, but they certainly didn’t have supper together.

I’ve given a sketch of the most important event in academic history that I ever witnessed. It was thrilling to be in the same room as such brilliant people; thrilling to feel the charged atmosphere, thrilling to follow the arguments, thrilling to feel that my side had won. But I was also very aware of all the nasty bits: the huge egos, the bitchiness, the trickery, the lack of humour. Thinking about it now, the sexism of the all male star cast is what hits me most. In the LSE philosophy department, the big shots were all men, and they relied on the work done by their research assistants who were mostly women. Shame on me, I can only remember their first names: Helen, Rosy, Ruth, Jill, Ann, Julie. None of them is mentioned in the 4 volume report.

What to make of it all? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: an evaluation of scientific theories doesn’t depend on psychological or social factors related to their authors. That this scientist was a drunk, that one paranoid, and the other believed in fairies, or that they were all locked in a laboratory and told not to come out till they’d solved the puzzle, has nothing to do with an evaluation of the theory in question.

Khun’s nightmare must be to see how his suggestion that science is governed by “paradigms” has been adopted by relativists to support some of the worst academic work to be published in the last 50 years. The sociology of science is a subject taught all over the planet, often by charlatans, and it’s led to a proliferation of obscurantist nonsense being hoisted on gullible students everywhere. As I only recently discovered, the term “paradigm” is now used extensively in MA TESL programmes to “explain” where various views of learning come from. I discuss this in my post on paradigms, and elsewhere I’ve pointed out that, unless you adopt a relativist epistemology, the sociology of science has nothing to say about how to judge the merits of competing scientific theories which try to explain the phenomena we examine. Nothing!

In the end, it’s the epistemological question that really divides Popper and Kuhn. Kuhn argues for incommensurability: it’s impossible to switch from one theory to another without a different theory of rationality. Popper believes (as do I, and as do all rationalists), in objective truth, best formulated in Tarski’s correspondence theory of truth. Scientific knowledge is seen as knowledge without a knowing subject and scientific progress is progress towards truth, that is, the growth of knowledge.

In the world of ELT, there’s a growing tendency among those of a postmodernist persuasion to abuse poor old Thomas Kuhn and to use his texts in support of their daft views. They adopt their own silly version of Kuhn’s ideas and their tilt towards relativism because they suggest “exciting” new ways of looking at language learning and teaching. But they show no signs of understanding what they’re talking about. The issue is incommensurability. It all hinges on that, it really does.

Next time: Feyerabend comes to the LSE and talks of incommensurability and cabbages and kings.


Gattei, S. (2008) Thomas Kuhn’s Linguistic Turn and the Legacy of Logical Empiricism. London, Routledge.


ELT Writers’ Manifesto

Scott Thornbury’s post this Sunday is M is for Manifesto .  At the end of the post, he gives the original 10 Commandments of Dogme, which prompts me to offer something similar for those like him who profess to tell teachers how to better do their jobs. There is a band of ELT  writers who write  books on how to teach, or how to pass exams, or coursebooks, or  books on grammar, pronunciation, how to use your mobile phone, etc., etc.. When they’re not writing, they’re touring the world doing conference appearances and giving teacher training workshops, or they’re doing much the same thing on blogs and other social media. This band includes Harmer, Thornbury, Underhill, Scrivener, Maley, Graddol, Ward, Dellar, McLoughlin, Wogan, Ur, Larsen-Freeman, Soars, Johnson, Hadfield, Mercer, Richardson, Clare, Mercer, to name but a few.


Manifesto for ELT Writers

  1. Advice on teaching should be given using only the resources that the writers bring to the task – i.e. themselves – and whatever they actually know about. If a particular piece of advice contains material that is not part of their own rescources, it may only be included by taking the intended audience to the location where that material can be found (e.g. library, resource centre, bar, students’ club). This is perhaps the most important item of all, intended to drastically reduce the amount of hot air and general baloney currently on offer.
  2. No recordings of conference talks, workshops or training sessions should be made public unless 12 just men and women drawn from the ranks of independent teachers (i.e. not employees of the British Council, IH, Bell Schools, etc.) have certified that the recording contains at least the germ of one, half-way interesting, original idea.
  3. When addressing an audience, the writers must sit down at all times that their audiences are seated, refrain from prancing around the stage, and above all, refrain from toe-curling attempts to mingle with the audience.
  4. All the writers questions must be “real” questions (such as “Do you like grammar presentations as much as I do?” Or “How much do you think I’m getting paid for doing this talk?”), not “display” questions (such as “Is the Pearson PTE test crap?” or “Are we overpaid?”)
  5. Slavish adherence to a method (such as Dogme, the Lexical Approach, and all those recommended in Thornbury’s The CELTA Course) is unacceptable.
  6. A pre-planned book or conference talk where the content is made up of pre-selected items taken from a bank of stuff written 20 years ago is forbidden. The Larsen-Freeman Limitor restricts the use the first person singular to 10; and The Harmer Humbug Restrictor bans the use of ill-formed sentences.
  7. Topics that are of genuine interest and use to the audience must be given priority over the usual dross that writers are publishers “value” (i.e. think will make the biggest profit).
  8. Charging readers and audiences different prices for the same product is disallowed. Furthermore, punters should be given maximum access to library copies of books and recordings of sessions. As in other forms of human social interaction, the capitalist way of doing things should open to criticism, better still, proscribed.
  9. No writer will even mention testing procedures until they’ve risen above their current state of abysmal ignorance on the subject. The same goes for SLA research.
  10. Writers will be evaluated according to only one criterion: that they are not hypocritical bores.

A little knowledge ……..

Recently I got involved in a discussion with Marek Kiczkowiak, who runs the TEFL Equity blog, about the distinction made in academic literature between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs).  Marek replied to my comments with a post on his blog, titled “Of native speakers and other fantastic beasts”, where he argued that if any such differences existed between NSs and NNSs, they were fuzzy, ill-defined, subjective, imagined, abstract, theoretical, ideological, and refuted by as many studies as supported them. I wrote a second post replying to Marek, and in subsequent comments, I think we managed to resolve most of our differences.

A few days later, Scott Thornbury posted a late comment on Marek’s blog. This is what he said:

Hi Marek. A bit late in the day but… I suspect that Geoff insists on the NS-NNS distinction because it is absolutely central to the Chomskyan project (to which he is fervently – dare I say uncritically – committed) which presupposes an innately determined (hence genetic) language learning device which, like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period, whereafter general (i.e. non-language specific) learning abilities kick-in, accounting for the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters. If, on the other hand, you take the perfectly plausible view (e.g. argued by Michael Tomasello, Nick Ellis, and many others) that general (i.e. non-language specific) learning capacities are implicated in language acquisition from the get-go, and hence that there is no need to hypothesise either a genetically-programmed language acquisition device nor a qualitative difference between native and non-native speakers, then the whole Chomskyan enterprise collapses, taking with it the distinction between man and beasts, and leading to the end of civilization as we know it.

Thornbury’s suspicions are groundless. If “the Chomskyan project” refers to Chomsky’s theory of first language acquisition and of UG, then

  1. I’m not fervently committed to it, and
  2. the NS-NNS distinction is not absolutely central to it.

As to the first matter, you can find ample evidence to refute Thornbury’s accusation of my “fervent and uncritical commitment” to Chomsky in Jordan, 2004, and in this blog. In both places you’ll find criticism of Chomsky’s theory, of its reformulations, and of various attempts to protect it. Furthermore, I’ve consistently argued (always unsuccessfully against Kevin Gregg) that theories of SLA need pay scant regard to Chomsky’s theory of L1 acquisition. Thornbury concludes that, since I comment on his and other people’s misrepresentations of Chomsky’s work, I must be a brainwashed UG devotee; he’s wrong.

As to the second matter, pace Thornbury, Chomsky’s theory of L1 acquisition does not presuppose that the LAD, “like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period”, and furthermore, any such putative restriction has absolutely nothing to do with his main concern – the description of UG.

Hence, Thornbury is wrong about the motivation for my insistence on the NS-NNS distinction and wrong about its having an “absolutely central” place in “the Chomskyan project”. Thornbury’s mistakes stem from confusion about what Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition actually says, and confusion about what the so-called “critical period” in language acquisition refers to; his comments suggest that the enormous body of research on sensitive periods in SLA is the work of followers of the Chomskyan project, all bent on proving that the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters is a result of their being deprived access to the LAD.  This is obvious nonsense.

In studies of first language acquisition, the issue of a critical period was introduced by Lenneberg in 1967. The issue of sensitive periods in SLA also became a major issue, and remains so today. In order to get the background to the issue of sensitive periods in SLA, we need to return for a moment to Chomsky. How does UG relate to SLA?  There are four main hypotheses:

  1. There is no such thing as UG.
  2. UG exists, but second language learners only have indirect access to it via the L1.
  3. UG exists, but L2 learners only have partial access to it.
  4. Second language learners have full access to UG.

Hypothesis 1 Those who deny the existence of UG see no need to postulate a LAD, and no need to look for linguistic universals either. Thornbury is a fellow-traveller in the emergentist camp which rejects UG and we’ll look at his views in a moment. We might put the important work of O’Grady (see, for example, O’Grady, 2011) in a slightly different camp, since, while he rejects UG, he argues for the need to recognise the existence of innately guided learning of some sort.

Hypothesis 2  The best-known hypothesis regarding the second position is Bley-Vroman’s Fundamental Difference Hypothesis (Bley-Vroman, 1989a, 1989b). Brey-Vronan argues that the mind is modular, and that there exists a language faculty (UG) which is essential for the development of L1, but that UG is not directly at work in SLA.  According to Bley-Vroman, adult second language learners do not have direct access to UG; what they know of universals is constructed through their L1, and they then have to use general problem-solving abilities, such as those that operate in non-modular learning tasks: hypothesis testing, inductive and deductive reasoning, analogy, etc. The Bley-Vroman approach provides an explanation for the “poverty of the stimulus” problem of SLA – the complex L2 knowledge or interlanguage grammar which second language learners develop is (partly) a result of UG’s influence on L1.

Hypothesis 3  The partial access view claims that L2 learners have access to principles but not to the full range of parameters. Schacter (1988) and Clahsen (1987, 1988) have argued this case.  It differs from the “indirect access” position in that it predicts that no evidence of “wild grammars” will be found, and that L2 learners will not reset the values of parameters of the L2 when these differ from the L1 settings.

Hypothesis 4  The full access hypothesis claims that UG is an important causal factor in SLA, although not, of course, the only one. Those adopting the full access view (e.g., Flynn, 1987) claim more than that the L1 UG affects the second language learning process.  They claim that principles not applicable to the second language learner’s L1, but needed for the L2, will constrain the L2 learner’s interlanguage.

The work of the SLA scholars mentioned above indicates the diversity of their views regarding the importance of Chomsky’s work, but we may note that none of them gives any credence to the “milk teeth” view proffered by Thornbury.

When it comes to the issue of the so-called “critical period” in SLA, Long concludes that there are maturational constraints on 1) phonology, 2) lexis and collocation, and 3) morphology and syntax, in that order.

“Research findings suggest closure of sensitive periods for the acquisition of native-like phonology as early as age 4-6 for most people, of the lexicon, somewhere between 6 and 10, and of morphology and syntax by the mid-teens” (Long, 2015, p.39).

Whether or not they’re helped by any special genetic endowment, most children successfully learn their L1 from birth to age 6 incidentally and implicitly, without attention or awareness, suggesting that humans are biologically disposed to learning languages efficiently early in life.  After age 16, let’s say, learning a second language is more difficult; most people don’t reach an advanced level of proficiency, and very few cases (if any) have been found of across-the-board native-like attainment by a late starter. As Long (2015) points out, if there were no maturational constraints, then you’d expect to find very large numbers of adult learners who achieve native-like ability and pass all the tests to which researchers subject them; but you don’t actually find any such thing.

Thornbury misrepresents me, misrepresents Chomsky’s theory, misunderstands work on sensitive periods in SLA, and even misrepresents the views of emergentists.  Taking the view that “general learning capacities” explain language acquisition doesn’t imply, as he claims, that there’s no difference between native and non-native speakers (there manifestly is a difference as I’ve already argued in my 2 posts replying to Marek), or that there are no such thing as sensitive periods in SLA.

To summarise:

  • A body of research over 50 years confirms the view that nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is rarely, if ever, attained by adult learners. The research doesn’t rely on a commitment to “the Chomskyan project”.
  • There is wide acceptance among SLA scholars that there are maturational constraints on SLA. Again, this doesn’t stem from a commitment to “the Chomskyan project”.

PART 2  

Marek replied to Thornbury’s comment with this:

That would definitely clarify a lot about his insistence that there is a clear, objective and fixed division between the two groups. I have a feeling that this is crucial to the whole SLA enterprise, really, since a lot of it is based on comparing learners’ interlanguage and progress to the ‘native speaker’. Unless you assume that all ‘native speakers’ have one unique proficiency that students’ language should be compared to (and unless you assume that we know exactly who a ‘native speaker’ is), you can’t really do much SLA research. I do find it a bit strange, though, that in SLA the ‘native speaker’ is treated as the ultimate language learning goal (even though that ‘native speaker’ never learned their L1), but at the same time you fiercely defend the proposition that this goal can never be achieved. And as you point out, the ‘native speaker’ as used by many SLA researchers, is really the Chomskean NS, the idealised speaker-hearer. Have you read Evans’ “The language myth. Why language is not an instinct”? Very good book. Quite an eye-opener. Chomsky’s ideas have dominated linguistics for such a long time that it’s quite difficult to hear any voices of dissent, even though there are many. So a very refreshing take. Thanks for commenting!

I was sorry to see how enthusiastically Marek welcomed Thornbury’s “clarification”. There are several points to be made here.

  1. I didn’t insist that there is a fixed division between NSs and NNSs.
  2. SLA researchers measure learners’ progress in various ways – as do teachers. I don’t think this is “clarified” by Thornbury’s comments.
  3. You don’t have to assume that “all native speakers have one unique proficiency that students’ language should be compared to” to do SLA research. If Thornbury’s comments led Marek to think so, then here they’ve done less than nothing to clarify the matter.
  4. The ‘native speaker’ as used by many SLA researchers is not the Chomskean NS. Chomsky studies linguistic competence independently of language use by asking native speakers to engage in introspection and make grammaticality judgments.
  5. Evan’s “The Language Myth” has been heavily criticised for its misinterpretation of Chomsky’s work, and not just by “Chomskyans”.

Here’s Scotts reply:

Thanks, Marek. Yes, I have read Evans. I’d also recommend Christiansen & Chater (2016) ‘Creating Language: Integrating Acquisition, evolution and processing’, which offers a coherent and research-informed riposte to what they call ‘Chomsky’s hidden legacy. ’…. Also worth looking at is Diane Larsen-Freeman’s chapter in Han & Tarone (2014) ‘Interlanguage: 40 years later’, in which she quotes Heidi Byrnes (2014) to the effect:  ‘In what has been called the “bilingual turn” in language studies, authors find fault with (1) the undue weight being given to an accident of birth and a concomitant denial of the effects of history, culture and societal use; (2) the undisputed authority and legitimacy in representing and arbitrating standards of form and use enjoyed by native speakers; and (3) the troubling disregard of current social, political and cultural realities of multilingualism and ever-changing forms of hybridity between multiple languages as learners adopt and adapt various identities in diverse circumstances of life’.

‘The undue weight being given to an accident of birth’ would seem to be part and parcel of ‘Chomsky’s hidden legacy’.

And that’s that: Chomsky done and dusted!

Thornbury’s remarks lead me to suspect that he is a fervent – and dare I say uncritical – Chomsky basher, who dismisses Chomsky’s work without having made enough effort to seriously and honestly appraise it. And he’s not alone: there’s a growing band of such Chomsky bashers who reject UG and portray Chomsky as a right-wing establishment figure blocking progress. Comments by Russ Mayne come to mind, as does Silvana Richardson’s suggestion in her much applauded 2016 IATEFL plenary that UG theory is ideologically biased in such a way that it has contributed to discrimination against NNESTs. I should add that Thornbury’s last remark, his sage endorsement of the preposterous assertion about “an accident of birth”, strikes me as particularly shoddy, even if it is second hand.

What has Thornbury actually said about Chomsky and about theories of SLA which reject the poverty of the stimulus argument? In his A to Z of ELT we find P is for Poverty of the Stimulus. Here’s a summary of the main arguments:

  1. The quantity and quality of language input that children get is so great as to question Chomsky’s poverty of the stimulus argument.
  2. An alternative to Chomsky’s view of language and language learning, is that “language is acquired, stored and used as meaningful constructions (or ‘syntax-semantics mappings’).”
  3. Everett is right to point out that since no one has proved that the poverty of the stimulus argument is correct, “talk of a universal grammar or language instinct is no more than speculation”.

Regarding the third point, I pointed out that Everett (in one of the most roundly criticised books on Chomsky published in the last 10 years) demands the impossible: one cannot prove that the poverty of the stimulus argument is correct, so his argument has no force. But Thornbury still didn’t get it.

Anyone who claims that children’s knowledge about an aspect of syntax could not have been acquired from language input has to prove that it couldn’t. Otherwise it remains another empirically-empty assertion, he insisted.

Such ignorance of basic logic and research methods is surely worthy of note.  Another sign of the limitations of Thornbury’s knowledge came when he reacted with total disbelief to my suggestion that Chomsky’s theory of UG had a long and thorough history of empirical research.

What!!? Where? When? Who?, he demanded to know.

Rejecting the poverty of the stimulus argument, Thornbury wrote:

Actually, the stimulus is quite enough to explain everything children know about language. Corpus studies suggest that everything a child needs is in place.

Asked how these corpus studies explain what children know about language, Thornbury replied:

the child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input…… a little stimulus goes a long way, especially when the child is so feverishly in need of both communicating and becoming socialized.

Pressed to say a bit more about this process, Thornbury said:

If we generalize the findings (of corpus studies) beyond the single word level to constructions….. and then..… generalize from constructions to grammar…, hey presto, the grammar emerges on the back of the frequent constructions.

He didn’t explain what grammar he was referring to; or what findings beyond the single word level he was talking about; or how you generalise these findings to “constructions”; or how you generalise from constructions to grammar.

Thornbury’s view of language learning leans on various emergentist sources, including Larsen-Freeman, whose work I’ve discussed elsewhere. While he now refers to the more respectable works of Tomasello and Nick Ellis, Thornbury’s attempts to explain his own view remain vague and unconvincing, never rising much above the level of the claim that “general learning processes” going on inside “feverish young brains” that are “mightily disposed to mine the input” are enough to provide a theory of language acquisition.

In a 2009 article called “Slow Release Grammar”, Thornbury argues that emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development, that it explains language, language learning, the failure of classroom-based adult ELT, and the deficiencies of current syllabus design. In relation to language learning, he adopts Stuart Kauffman’s claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level which is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”. This highly-controversial view is then used to support the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”. But, hold on; Thornbury had previously told  us that many formulaic chunks

yield little or no generalisable grammar.

This must surely impede their wonderous ability to

slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin.

Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess? The article goes on to misrepresent emergentism by using Michael Hoey as its spokesman and making unwarranted claims about how lexical chunks explain English grammar.

Thornbury often says that emergentism gets crucial support from the study of corpora, but he fails to explain how we can infer from patterns found in corpora to how people think and learn. The assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of “frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to” must be supported by arguments about the learning process and by empirical evidence of such learning. There’s lots of work in progress (although Thornbury has never given a clear account of any of it), but to date it seems that the assertion is probably wrong and certainly not the whole story. At the very least, Thornbury should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that emergentism faces severe challenges as a theory. Among them are these:

  • General conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment don’t explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate.
  • Emergentists can’t explain cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure, including knowledge of what is not possible.
  • As Gregg points out, the claim that language is a complex dynamical system makes no sense.

Simply put, there is no such entity as language such that it could be a system, dynamical or otherwise……. Terms like ‘language’ and ‘English’ are abstractions; abstract terms, like metaphors, are essential for normal communication and expression of ideas, but that does not mean they refer to actual entities. English speakers exist, and (I think) English grammars come to exist in the minds/brains of those speakers, so it remains within the realm of possibility that a set of speakers is a dynamical system, or that the acquisition process is; but not language, and not a language (Gregg, 2010).


Thornbury teaches an SLA course in an MA programme at a New York university. One can only hope that during the course his pronouncements on Chomsky and on emergentism  are better-informed and more critically acute than those found in his conference talks, contributions to blogs, and published work. Thousands of fervent followers, committed to his view of ELT, deserve better.


For more discussion of Thornbury’s view of language learning, see

Bley-Vroman, R. (1989a) What is the logical problem of foreign language learning?  In  Gass, S. and Schachter, J. (eds.), Linguistic perspectives on second language acquisition, 41-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bley-Vroman, R. (1989b) The logical problem of foreign language learning. Linguistic Analysis  20:1-2; 3-49.

Clahsen, H. (1987) Connecting theories of language processing and (second) language acquisition. In Pfaff, C. (ed.) First and second language acquisition processes. 103-116. Newbury House, Cambridge, Mass.

Clahsen, H. (1988) Critical phases of grammar development: a study of the acquisition of negation in children and adults.  In Jordens, P and Lalleman, J. (eds.) Language development. 123-48. Foris, Dordrecht.

Evans, V. (2014) The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flynn, S. (1987) A parameter-setting model of L2 acquisition. Dordecht: Reidel.

Gregg, K.R. (2010) Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26(4), 549 – 560.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Lenneberg, E.H. (1967) Biological Foundations of Language. Wiley.

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley.

O’Grady, W. (2011) How Children Learn Language. CUP.

Pope, A.  (17o9) An Essay on Criticism. 

Thornbury, S. (2009) Slow Release Grammar. English Teaching Professional.


Of native speaker denial

In reply to Marek Kiczkowiak’s tweets, where he questioned the distinction made in academic literature between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs), I asserted that there is a clear, measurable difference between them. Kiczkowiak has just replied, insisting that no such difference exists. Let me state my case a bit more fully.

Native speakers of language X are those for whom language X is the language they learnt through primary socialization in early childhood, as a first language. There is no fixed set of liguistic features or abilities that define all NSs or NNSs because people vary, but there are clear, easily recognized, departures from the norms that speakers of any particular repertoire adhere to. For the last 60 years, the term “native speaker” has been used in the literature concerning studies of language learning, and one of the most studied phenomenon of all is the failure of the vast majority of postadolescent L2 learners to achieve what Birdsong (2009) refers to as “nativelike attainment”.

On the prevailing view of ultimate attainment in second language acquisition, native competence cannot be achieved by postpubertal learners. There are few exceptions to this generalization (Birdsong 1992).

Note that claims concerning the relative abilities of these two groups are of general patterns, thus not disconfirmed by individual cases. The claims, nevertheless, all accept the distinction between NSs and NNSs, and the psychological reality of native speakerness. The specific claim that very few postadolescent L2 learners attain nativelike proficiency is supported by a great deal of empirical evidence (see, e.g., reviews by Long 2007, Harley and Wang 1995; Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson 2003; Patkowski 1994).

As I said in my last post, the psychological reality of native speakerness is easily demonstrated by the fact that we know one, and who isn’t one, when we meet them, often on the basis of just a few utterances. When monolingual speakers are presented with recorded stretches of speech by a large pool of NSs and NNs and asked to say which are which, the judges are always very good at distinguishing them, with inter-rater reliability typically above .9. How do they do this, and why is there so much agreement if there is no such thing as a NS?

When trying to explain why most L2 learners don’t attain native competence, scholars have investigated various “sensitive periods”. It’s widely accepted that there is a period of peak sensitivity which lasts from from birth until approx. age six (see, e.g., Hyltenstam,  1992;  Meisel,  2009;  Morford  and  Mayberry, 2000).

There follows an offset, perhaps lasting five or six more years where the acquisition of native-like phonology, lexis and collocations is concerned, and until the mid-teens for grammar, during which progressively fewer learners will achieve native-like abilities. After closure of the Sensitive Periods, a small minority of learners may achieve near-native abilities, and a tiny group may be able to pass for native on a few areas and/or tightly constrained tasks (e.g. Donaldson, 2011; Marinova-Todd, 2003; van Boxtel, 2005), but no-one will be able to achieve native-like abilities across the board. …….

Native-like pronunciation of an L2 or dialect is most likely (not guaranteed) for those with an age of onset (AO) between 0 and 6 years; still possible, but decreasingly likely, with an AO occurring during the offset period from 6 to 12; and impossible for anyone with an AO later than 12. ….

 Native-like morphology and syntax are most likely (not guaranteed) for those with an AO between 0 and 6 years; still possible, but decreasingly likely, with an AO during the slightly longer offset period from 6 to the mid-teens (15, plus or minus two); and impossible for anyone with an AO later than that. Beyond age 16 or 17, the degree of grammatical accentedness will, again, depend on such factors as L1 and L2 exposure and use, language aptitude, motivation, and metalinguistic knowledge, and so will only be indirectly and weakly related to AO.

The position for lexis and collocational abilities is less clear, chiefly due to the scarcity of studies to date. However, such research findings as there are suggest that acquisition in this domain, too, is subject to maturational constraints. (Granena & Long, 2013).

When I refer to the difference between NSs and NNSs, I refer to it in the context of this area of research, where the difference is clear, operational, and the focus of an enormous amount of empirical research. Attempts to explain the phenomenon of non-nativelike attainment by most L2 learners are ongoing and there are still lively debates about putative sensitive periods, but the phenomenon itself is, pace Kiczkowiak, surely worthy of more research.

Which brings me to Kiczkowiak’ criticisms.

Argument 1

Kiczkowiak refers to “studies which shed serious doubts on Sorace’s findings” (about grammaticality judgements ).

For example, Birdsong (1992, 2004), Bialystok (1997) and Davies (2001) also studied judgments of grammaticality and all concluded that statistically there was no significant difference in the judgments made by ‘native’ and proficient ‘non-native speakers’. In other words, both groups have very similar intuitions about the language. And it is important to add that they all focused on adult learners who were well past the critical or sensitive period.

Three points:

  1. The three sources Kiczkowiak cites all accept the distinction between NSs and NNSs.
  2. As noted above, Birdsong states that, with few exceptions, native competence cannot be achieved by postpubertal learners, an assertion that Bialystock agrees with.
  3. The different findings on grammaticality judgements say nothing about findings regarding pronunciation, morphology or lexis and collocation. They don’t, that is, seriously challenge the claim that few, if any NNSs achieve native-like abilities across the board. Nor does it argue against the distinction between the two groups.

Argument 2

Next, Kiczkowiak tackles the question of critical/sensitive period. He refers again to the studies on grammaticality  and says

they show that ultimate attainment is possible even for adult learners.

What they actually show is that a few NNSs perform as well as NSs on such tests. This doesn’t refute the claims I refer to above, nor, again, is it an argument against the distinction between the two groups.

Argument 3

Kiczkowiak says

there all those ‘non-native speakers’ out there who are virtually indistinguishable from a ‘native speaker’.

True, there are some NNSs who are “virtually indistinguishable” from NSs, but, once again, it doesn’t support the argument that the distinction between the two groups is “imaginary”.

And just by the way, Kiczkowiak’s example of the wonderful writer Conrad ignores the fact that Conrad had a noteable NNS accent when speaking English.

Argument 4

Kiczkowiak then quotes Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2003, p.580)

the highly successful L2 speakers that we have characterised as having reached ‘only’ near-native proficiency are, in fact, native-like in all contexts except perhaps in the laboratory of the linguist with specific interest in second language learning mechanisms.

That some L2 speakers achieve such high levels of proficiency is a caveat which doesn’t alter the conclusion that

nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is, in principle, never attained by adult learners

and, anyway, yet again, it’s not an argument that the distinction between NSs and NNSs doesn’t exist.

Kiczkowiak concludes:

So linguistically speaking, is there a difference between the two groups? There might well be. And the word MIGHT is important here.

He’s quite simply wrong: there IS a well-established difference; no “might” about it.

Still, Kiczkowiak’s main argument is this:

…we need to look beyond language proficiency as the defining characteristic of a ‘native speaker’. In fact, it is quite ironic that in the opening sentence of his blog post Geoff calls Russ Mayne (Evidence-based EFL) a “cheery cherry-picker of evidence”, when he himself has cheerfully cherry-picked the evidence limiting the discussion to SLA research, completely ignoring wider sociocultural issues that are also at play…. So I’m not saying the evidence Geoff presented is wrong. However, it is very limited. And thus questionable.

I didn’t cherry pick evidence. I limited the discussion to SLA research, and in particular, to psycholinguistic research that adopts a rationalist methodology based on the twin principles of logical argument and empirical evidence, because that’s where, in my opinion, the best work is being done to understand second language learning. In this necessarily limited domain, the distinction between NSs and NNSs is a real one, which is all I’ve ever claimed in this debate.

But Kiczkowiak wants to question this limited approach. He says:

As Block (2003, p.4) says, SLA has for a long time dealt with “essentialized interlocutors, with essentialized identities, who speak essentialized language”. Who the ‘native’ or the ‘non-native speaker’ under study really is has very rarely been problematised in SLA. However, Block’s (and others’) calls for a more socioculturally oriented SLA have largely fallen on deaf ears.

The possible reason for this is exemplified really well by one of Geoff’s Tweets where he referred to what I’m planning to engage in the rest of the post as “sociolinguistic twaddle that obfuscates a simple psychological reality”. But wouldn’t the reverse hold true as well? Namely, that the psycholinguistic twaddle obfuscates a rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality?

Well, no, it wouldn’t. While psycholinguistic research has led to a better understanding of the well-defined phenomena investigated, sociolinguistic research has had less success. What is this “rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality” that Kiczkowiak refers to? The only source he cites is Block. What “reality” does Block describe? How does it help us to understand language learning? What does Block’s description of SLA research mean? What are “essentialized interlocutors, with essentialized identities, who speak essentialized language”? I suggest that Block’s description of SLA research, and indeed the whole of his published work on second language learning, does little to persuade anybody that a more socioculturally oriented SLA is needed. There are, of course, better advocates for a sociolinguistic approach to language learning than Block, but even if Kiczkowiak had given a better account of such an approach, it would do nothing to rescue his denial of a clear difference between NSs and NNSs.

The clearly-defined difference between NSs and NNSs is useful when studying SLA. This has absolutely no implications for the fitness of NNSs as teachers, and I support those who argue reasonably for an end to the absurd demand that teachers in ELT be native speakers. The fight against discrimination against NNSs isn’t helped by Kiczkowiak’s unnecessary denial of a difference between NSs and NNSs.


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There is a difference between Native Speakers and Non Native Speakers

A few days ago, that cheery cherry-picker of evidence, Russ Mayne, retwittered this gem from Adrian Holliday:

I no longer review research that compares ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers as though the groups are real and not imagined.

I replied

I think Dr. Johnson’s reply to Berkley will do here: Kick Holliday in the shin and say “I refute you thus”.

As usual, nobody took any notice of my smart alec reply, and Holliday’s tweet has so far got 44 “Likes” and has been re-tweeted 26 times. It provoked Marek Kiczkowiak, he of TEFL Equity Advocates, to say:

I’d also question whether we know what a NS is and what essentially makes them different from a NNS. Clear cut definition difficult I think.


Also questionable why learner’s progress should be compared to or rated by a NS, e.g. raters in pron research mostly NS


By constantly comparing NS and NNS we perpetuate the idea that they’re two different species, each with a set of immutable characteristics

I made a few comments on these tweets and promised to reply on this blog with my reasons for stating that pace Holliday and Kiczkowiak, there’s good reason to distinguish between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NSSs). Here they are. My thanks, once again, to Mike Long.

The psychological reality of native speakerness is easily demonstrated by the fact that we know one, and who isn’t one, when we meet them, often on the basis of just a few utterances. On a more objective level, when monolingual speakers are presented with (even very short) recorded stretches of speech by a large pool of NSs and NNs and asked to say which are which, the judges are always very good at distinguishing them, with inter-rater reliability typically above .9. How do they do this, and why is there so much agreement if there is no such thing as a NS?

What distinguishes them has been well documented in over 100 published empirical studies in the literature on age effects and maturational constraints. There is no fixed set of liguistic features or abilities that define all NSs, or all NNSs, of course – for the simple reason that people vary. However, there are clear, easily recognized, departures from the norms that speakers of any particular repertoire adhere to.

For good examples of the numerous studies comparing NSs and NNSs, we may consider Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2009) and Granena & Long (2013).

If we take Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2009) first, we may note what they say at the start:

… what appears to be more compelling evidence for adult-learner nativelikeness can be found in studies that have focused exclusively on late, high-proficiency L2 speakers who have been preselected, or screened, for potentially nativelike verbal behavior. Characteristic of these studies is that they have employed quite sophisticated techniques for linguistic scrutiny, either through (a) great stringency and detail of the analyses, (b) demanding tests and tasks (e.g., through the choice of unusual target-language structures that are known to be difficult for learners), and/or (c) the use of multiple-task designs covering various linguistic domains rather than one or a few isolated structures, phenomena, or domains. These methodological features will be illustrated next through a review of a sample of studies.

and at the end

Our primary interpretation of the results is that nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is, in principle, never attained by adult learners and, furthermore, is much less common among child learners than has previously been assumed.

Here’s the conclusion from Granena & Long (2013). Note that “SP” refers to “Sensitive Periods” (sometimes referred to as “Critical Periods”) and “AO” refers to “Age of Onset”.

The evidence from this study, plus findings from previous research by others, leads to the conclusion that there is an SP for phonology, its offset beginning at age six, and possibly earlier (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than five, and larger mean differences between the groups), probably closing by age 12. There is an SP for lexis and collocations, its offset beginning around age six (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than age nine, and larger mean differences between groups), probably closing between ages nine and 12, earlier than the SP for morphology and syntax. There is an SP for morphology and syntax (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than 12, and larger mean differences between groups), its off-set beginning at age six, and closing in the mid-teens.

 Unlike phonology and grammar, lexical and collocational knowledge continues to develop throughout the life-span in both NSs and NNSs, but with explicit learning playing an increasingly important role, as the human capacity for implicit learning, especially for implicit item learning, gradually declines with age. It is for that reason that language aptitude can play a mitigating role, modifying the negative effects of increasing AO and age in general, in the lexical and collocational domain.

Just to deal with Kiczkowiak’s assertion

By constantly comparing NS and NNS we perpetuate the idea that they’re two different species,each with a set of immutable characteristics

No-one has ever suggested such a thing. NSs continue to add bibs and bobs to their repertoire throughout their lives (most obviously, but not only, lexis and collocations), and often lose stuff with increasing senility or after a brain injury. NNSs obviously do the same. Not different species, but measurably different.

NSs and NNSs are measurably different. I rest my case.


Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2009). Age of onset and nativelikeness in a second language: Listener perception versus linguistic scrutiny. Language Learning 59, 249-306.

Granena, G., & Long, M. H. (2013). Age of onset, length of residence, language aptitude, and ultimate L2 attainment in three linguistic domains. Second Language Research 29, 3, 311-343.

Treatise on Thornbury’s view of SLA with apologies to Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus used an austere literary style containing no arguments as such, just declarative statements that are meant to be self-evident. I borrow from his style to present this criticism of Thornbury’s views on language learning.

The best way to explain the phenomena we want to understand is to propose an explanatory theory or hypothesis which is open to empirical tests of its veracity.

If tides is the phenomenon, one theory that explains it is gravity (tides are caused mostly by a differential gravitational force). If L1 acquistion is the phenomenon, one theory is UG (humans’ brains are hard wired for language).

We won’t ever prove that any general theory is true, because you can’t go from the particular to the general.

Just because the sun has always been observed to rise in the East and set in the West doesn’t prove that the theory which explains it is true, or assure us that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow.

If the sun doesn’t rise in the East tomorrow, then we’ll have evidence that the theory which predicted it would is false. If it does, we can hold on to the theory: it’s the best explanation so far.

So while we can’t prove theories are true, we can prove that they’re false, by finding data that contradict them.

If we find movements of tides that contradict the theory of gravity (e.g., the moon is furthest away from point X on earth when the tide is highest), or the theory of UG (e.g., language X doesn’t have UG principle Y, or child X has no knowledge of this principle) then the theory is falsified.

Attempts can be made to rescue theories from falsifying data.

In order to test theories, they need to be open to empirical (replicable) tests, and we need to use logic and criteria of rational argument (coherence and cohesion).

This provides a rough guide to how to evaluate conflicting explanations of how people learn languages.

How does Thornbury evaluate conflicting explanations of how people learn languages?

In reply to Chomsky’s Poverty of the Stimulus argument (children know things about language that can’t be inferred from the input they get) Thornbury says

you have to prove that aspects of syntax couldn’t have been acquired from input… otherwise it’s an ’empirically-empty’ assertion.

To support this assertion he cites Daniel Everett (2012) who writes

No one has proven that the poverty of the stimulus argument, or Plato’s Problem, is wrong. But nor has anyone shown that it is correct either. The task is daunting if anyone ever takes it up. One would have to show that language cannot be learned from available data. No one has done this. But until someone does, talk of a universal grammar or language instinct is no more than speculation.

Thornbury demands the impossible and the demand shows an elementary fault in logic.

Rather than demand proof that aspects of syntax couldn’t have been acquired from input (a logically impossible demand), it’s his task to come up with counter evidence.

Needless to say, the daft quote from Everett, whose work is now thoroughly discredited (as even Thornbury has recognised), suffers from the same fatal weakness.

This is not, I insist, a silly semantic quibble: Thornbury’s demand for proof of what can’t be proved here is an indication that his criticism is illogical. I repeat: illogical.

In the same discussion Thornbury says Surely the onus of proof is on the nativists … to show that the stimulus is impoverished?.

Again we have the “proof” thing. That aside, it’s certainly reasonable to ask the nativists to provide evidence to support their theory, and in fact the nativists give a shedload of evidence to support their claim that the stimulus doesn’t explain what children know about language.

Recall Thornbury’s reaction to my reply to Russ Mayne’s ridiculous remark Chomsky spurned empirical research.  I said: Chomsky’s theory of UG has a long and thorough history of empirical research. Thornbury replied: “Chomsky’s theory of UG has a long and thorough history of empirical research”. What!!? Where? When? Who? This suggests that Thornbury has a very poor grasp of Chomsky’s work.

Given that his formal criticisms of UG is illogical, and given that he fails to appreciate how the theory is supported, the remaining question is: Does Thornbury show that the stimulus is, pace Chomsky, enough to explain language learning?

No, he doesn’t.

Thornbury has indicated here and there that he’s drawn to emergentist theories of language learning, but his attempts to make sense of emergentist arguments are hopeless.

Thornbury supports the fanciful, sweeping clap trap proposed by Larsen-Freeman, and shows about as much critical acumen when talking about emergentism as he does when talking about Chomsky.

Various scholars have been working on connectionist views and associative learning for over 30 years now.

Nick Ellis, and MacWhinney, for example, believe that the complexity of language emerges from relatively simple developmental processes being exposed to a massive and complex environment.

MacWhinney’s Competition Model is a good example of an emergentist approach which rejects the nativist UG account of language and puts forward what Gregg (2003) calls an “empiricist emergentist” approach.

Gregg thinks that empiricist emergentism has been most forcefully and accurately advocated in a series of articles by Nick Ellis (e.g., Ellis; 1998; 1999; 2002a; 2002b; 2003) (Gregg, 2003: 43).

William O’Grady and his associates have been working for many years now on an alternative emergentist view that Gregg calls “nativist emergentism”.  O’Grady argues that the case for emergentism, but says that the need for certain types of innate concepts are required as all approaches to cognition recognize the existence of innately guided learning of some sort, and that there is a significant place for frequency in explanatory work on language but that its effects are modulated by an efficiency-driven processor.

Gregg gives this summary of UG versus emergentism:

“So the lines are drawn: On the one hand, we have mad dog nativist theories which posit a rich, innate representational system specific to the language faculty, and non-associative mechanisms, as well as associative ones, for bringing that system to bear on input to create an L2 grammar. On the other hand, we have the emergentist position, which denies both the innateness of linguistic representations (Chomsky modularity) and the domain-specificity of language learning mechanisms (Fodor-modularity (Gregg, 2003: 46).

Gregg says that at the root of the problem of any empiricist account is the poverty of the stimulus argument. Emergentists, by adopting an associative learning model and an empiricist epistemology (where some kind of innate architecture is allowed, but not innate knowledge, and certainly not innate linguistic representations) have a very difficult job explaining how children come to have the linguistic knowledge they do.

  • How can general conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate?
  • How come children know which form-function pairings are possible in human-language grammars and which are not, regardless of exposure?
  • How can emergentists deal with cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure (i.e., a frequency of zero) including knowledge of what is not possible ? (Eubank and Gregg, 2002: 238)

How does Thornbury argue the case for emergentism?

Nowhere does he give any well-argued reply to the problems alluded to above; nowhere does he recognise the huge differences between the works of Nick Ellis and Larsen-Freeman, let alone discuss O’Grady; and nowhere does he give any coherent account of his own emergentist theory.

That’s what he doesn’t do, but what does he say? He says things like this:

The child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input. A little stimulus goes a long way, especially when the child is so feverishly in need of both communicating and becoming socialized. General learning processes explain the rest.

If we generalize the findings beyond the single word level to constructions and then generalize from constructions to grammar, then hey presto, the grammar emerges on the back of the frequent constructions.

(This is a paraphrase of a previous post.)

In an article he wrote in 2009 for English Teaching Professional called Slow Release Grammar Thornbury says:

  • emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development
  • it explains language, language learning, and the failure of classroom-based adult ELT
  • emergence is also the key to successful syllabus design.

This is his argument:

Emergence is everywhere in nature, where a system is said to have emergent properties when it displays complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level. There are millions of such systems; the capacity of an ant colony to react in unison to a threat is an example. Because there is no “central executive” determining the emergent organisation of the system, the patterns and regularities which result have been characterised as “order for free”. Pure Larsen-Freeman.

Language exhibits emergent properties.

There are 2 processes by which language “grows and organises itself”.

The first is our capacity to detect and remember frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to. In language terms, these sequences typically take the form of chunks (AKA formulaic expressions or lexical phrases).

The second is our capacity to unpack the regularities within these chunks, and to use these patterns as templates for the later development of a more systematic grammar.

It is as if the chunks – memorised initially as unanalysed wholes – slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Language emerges as “grammar for free”.

Thirdly, there is emergence in learning. Hoey notes how particular words and chunks re-occur in the same patterns. These can be seen in collocations, such as good morning; good clean fun; on a good day …; fixed phrases, such as one good turn deserves another, the good, the bad and the ugly; and colligations, as in it’s no good + -ing.

Hoey argues that, through repeated use and association, words are ‘primed’ to occur in predictable combinations and contexts. The accumulation of lexical priming creates semantic associations and colligations which, in Hoey’s words, nest and combine and give rise to an incomplete, inconsistent and leaky, but nevertheless workable, grammatical system.

Fourthly, the problems which adults have remembering and unpacking formulaic chunks don’t find their solution in most ELT classrooms where few opportunities for real communication are offered.

Wray says: Classroom learners are rarely aiming to communicate a genuine message…, so there is no drive to use formulaic sequences for manipulative purposes.

Even when adult learners do internalise formulaic chunks, they are often incapable of unpacking the grammar, perhaps because many chunks are not really grammatical (expressions like if I were you; you’d better not; by and large; come what may, etc, yield little or no generalisable grammar) and perhaps because they fail to notice the form.

Finally, we can put emergence into the classroom through the syllabus.

If the productive potential of formulaic language is to be optimised, at least four conditions need to prevail:

  • Exposure – to a rich diet of formulaic language
  • Focus on form – to promote noticing and pattern extraction
  • A positive social dynamic – to encourage pragmatic and interpersonal language use
  • Opportunities for use – to increase automaticity, and to stimulate storage in long-term memory, and recall.

If we examine the above, we note that Thornbury starts with Stuart Kauffman’s claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”. This highly-controversial view is then used in an attempt to add credibility to the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”.

Thornbury tells us that many formulaic chunks yield little or no generalisable grammar, which surely must impede their wonderous ability to slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess?

Thornbury gives an inadequate and mangled account of emergentism which, according to him, says that lexical phrases explain English grammar, how children learn English and why adults have difficulties learning English as a foreign language.

Thornbury’s unqualified assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to is probably wrong and certainly not the whole story.

At the very least, Thornbury should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that it faces severe challenges as a theory.

Last, and maybe least, we get Thornbury’s depressing picture of the arid desert which is the standard adult EFL classroom followed by the triumphant portrayal of an emergentist syllabus, where the “productive potential” of formulaic language is unleashed.

The illusive, definitive recipe of language learning has been revealed: lashings of formulaic language, sprinkled with a little focus on form, served on a bed of positive social dynamic, with the chance of asking for more.

In the likely event that the positive social dynamic gets out of hand in these joyous classrooms, and the adult students start running amok, babbling formulaic chunks of colloquial language at each other, I recommend that the teacher gives out copies of that most calming, not to say soporific, textbook Natural Grammar.

Thornbury claims to be a bridge between researchers working on SLA and practicing teachers. The justification for the claim is that yes he is. The question remains: do we need better bridges?


Eubank, L. and Gregg, K. R. (2002) News Flash – Hume Still Dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 2, 237-248.

Gregg, K.R. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 19, 95.

Research Paradigms

I had a rather confused exchange with Steve Brown and Carol Goodey on Twitter on Saturday about paradigms. I thought they were using the term “paradigm” in the way that Kuhn uses it to refer to a dominant theory which defines 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. But they weren’t; they were using it to refer to “a belief system, world view, or framework that guides research and practice in a field”.  A “research paradigm”, it seems, comprises

a view of the nature of reality (i.e., ontology) – whether it is external or internal to the knower; a related view of the type of knowledge that can be generated and standards for justifying it (i.e., epistemology); and a disciplined approach to generating that knowledge (i.e., methodology). 

This quote is from an article that Carol Goodey cited by Taylor and Medina. It uses the same terminology as the article Steve Brown cited by Guba and Lincoln: “Competing Paradigms in Qualitative Research”.

It turns out, then, that while Khun in the late 1950s sparked off a discussion of paradigm theories in science, a discussion that Popper, Lakatos, Fereyabend, Laudan and others joined in, Guba and Lincoln later articulated a discussion of philosophical aspects of “Research Paradigms”  which is now considered by many to be part of a necessary background for any discussion of (educational) research. It’s hardly surprising that Khun, Popper and company don’t discuss “Research Paradigms”, because they all take a realist ontology and epistemology for granted, and they all agree that scientific method requires hypotheses to be tested by means of empirical observation, logic and rational argument.  So what are all these  “Research Paradigms” about? We need to take a closer look.

According to Taylor and Medina, the most “traditional” paradigm is positivism:

Positivism is a research paradigm that is very well known and well established in universities worldwide. This ‘scientific’ research paradigm strives to investigate, confirm and predict law-like patterns of behaviour, and is commonly used in graduate research to test theories or hypotheses.

Well actually, positivism is no such thing, or at least it wasn’t until the relativists made it so. As anyone who has studied philosophy will know, positivism refers to a particular form of empiricism, and is a philosophical view primarily concerned with the issue of reliable knowledge.

Comte invented the term and argued that each branch of knowledge passes through “three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state; the metaphysical or abstract state; and, lastly, the scientific or positive state.” (Comte, 1830, cited in Ryan, 1970:36)  At the theological stage, the will of God explains phenomena, at the metaphysical stage phenomena are explained by appealing to abstract philosophical categories, and at the scientific stage, any attempt at absolute explanations of causes is abandoned.  Science focuses on how observational phenomena are related, and any generalisations are subjected to empirical verification.

Mach, the Austrian philosopher and physicist, headed the second wave of positivism, which rooted out the “contradictory” religious elements in Comte’s work, and took advantage of the further progress made in the hard sciences to insist on purging all metaphysics from the scientific method. Then came the Vienna Circle in the 1920s. There is, interestingly, a fifty-year gap between each of these three phases of positivism: like a bad penny, it kept coming back. Although it was thoroughly discredited in philosophical circles and among those working in the hard sciences by 1940, in the social sciences, biology, psychology and linguistics, it continued to have a powerful influence on research methodology right up until the nineteen fifties. The development of behaviourism was inspired by positivist ideology, by the desire to rid psychology of speculative thought and to put it on a sound “scientific” footing, and the predominant tendency for linguistics at this time to eschew “mentalist” models also has its roots in positivism.

The objective of the members of the Vienna Circle was to continue the work of their predecessors by giving empiricism a more rigorous formulation through the use of recent developments in mathematics and logic. The Vienna circle, which comprised Schlick, Carnap, Godel, and others, and had Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein as interested parties, developed a programme labelled Logical Positivism, which consisted first of cleaning up language so as to get rid of paradoxes , and then limiting science to strictly empirical statements: in the grand tradition of positivism they pledged to get rid of all speculations on “pseudo problems” and concentrate exclusively on empirical data. Ideas were to be seen as “designations”, terms or concepts, that were formulated in words that needed to be carefully defined in order that they be meaningful, rather than meaningless.

Their efforts lasted less than a decade, and by the time the 2nd world war started, the movement had broken up in complete disarray. In my opinion, the logical positivists represent the high point of obscurantism and blinkeredness: never has such a celebrated band of clever academics marched down such an absurd blind alley. In any case, the point is that when Taylor and Medina (like Guba and Lincoln, and Lantolf and so many other relativists) refer to “positivists” , they’re referring to their own invented set of researchers who have no historical reality, and when they refer to the “positivst paradigm” they’re referring to a general set of beliefs, etc., that misrepresents the views of scientists in general. Now let’s look at Taylor and Medina’s account of different research paradigms.

The “Positive Paradigm”

The positive paradigm “strives to investigate, confirm and predict law-like patterns of behaviour”. It is adopted by those working “in natural science, physical science and, to some extent, in the social sciences, especially where very large sample sizes are involved”.  Its focus is “on the objectivity of the research process”. It “mostly involves quantitative methodology, utilizing experimental methods”. The ontology of this research paradigm is realism, the epistemology is objectivism, and a quantitative methodology usually governs the research process.

The “Post-Positivist Paradigm”

Post-positivism is a “milder form of positivism “that follows the same principles but allows more interaction between the researcher and his/her research participants. ….. This paradigm is the modified scientific method for the social sciences. …. It is very similar to the positivist approach of comparing mean scores but depends on non-equivalent groups that differ from each other in many ways”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm, but I assume it’s the same as that of the positivist research paradigm.

The “Interpretive Paradigm”

“The epistemology of this paradigm is inter-subjective knowledge construction. Interpretive knowledge of the other is produced through a prolonged process of interaction undertaken by ethnographers who immerse themselves within the culture they are studying. Using ethnographic methods of informal interviewing, participant observation and establishing ethically sound relationships, interpretive researchers construct trustworthy and authentic accounts of the cultural other”.

“The most coherent quality standards that regulate interpretive knowledge construction are those of Guba and Lincoln (1989) who developed standards of trustworthiness and authenticity that are distinctly different but ‘parallel to’ the validity, reliability and objectivity standards of positivism. ……. Recent developments in the interpretive paradigm have highlighted the importance of the researcher’s own subjectivity in the (hermeneutic) process of interpretation”. Nothing is said about ontology, and the epistemology isn’t clear, but if it comes from Guba and Lincoln then it’s relativist.

The “Critical Paradigm”

The critical research paradigm addresses the question: ‘Whose interests are not being (and should be) served by particular social policies and practices?’ by enabling the researcher “to identify and transform socially unjust social structures, policies, beliefs and practices. Its primary purpose is to identify, contest and help resolve ‘gross power imbalances’ in society which fuel ethically questionable profit-making activities that contribute to systemic inequalities and injustices. ….. Critical inquiry focuses first on raising the conscious awareness of teachers about established values and beliefs that underpin their seemingly natural teacher-centred classroom roles (Taylor, 2008). Once this process is underway, critical theory is introduced (e.g., critical pedagogy, cultural inclusiveness, social justice) that stimulates teachers’ creative thinking about designing curricula and assessment that are more student-centred, inquiry oriented, culturally sensitive, community-oriented, socially responsible, etc.”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm.

The “Postmodern Paradigm”

“This paradigm uses the concept of ‘representation’ (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) which holds that what goes on in our minds and hearts is not directly accessible to the world outside us. There is no window in our heads that allows another person to look directly into our minds and see ‘exactly what we mean’; the best we can do is ‘represent’ our thoughts and feelings through various means of communication (e.g., language, art, dance, gesture)………. All scientific observations are ‘theory laden’ and scientific knowledge remains forever contingent and open to challenge”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm, but I assume that they’re relativist.

Multi-Paradigmatic Research

“Rather than standing alone as individual paradigms for framing the design of a researcher’s inquiry, as does the positivist paradigm, the newer paradigms can serve as ‘referents’. In other words, we can design our research by combining methods and quality standards drawn from two or more of the newer paradigms. It is not uncommon for a research study to combine methods and standards from the interpretive and critical paradigms to create a ‘critical auto/ethnography’. And when new literary genres, modes of thinking and quality standards are added from Arts-based research such multi-paradigmatic studies become very powerful means of transformative professional development (Taylor, Taylor, & Luitel, 2011)”.


I think Taylor and Medina have a clear agenda, and it’s not one I have much time for. But whether or not one agrees with the agenda, as a way of understanding scientific research, their article misrepresents both the philosophy of science and scientific method; and, furthermore, it complicates what is a simple choice between realist and relativist epistemologies.

Postmodernists and constructivists feel that the modern project has failed, and I have some sympathy for that view. There is a great deal of injustice in the world, and there are good grounds for thinking that a ruling minority who benefit from the way economic activity is organised are responsible for manipulating information in general, and research programmes in particular, in extremely sophisticated ways, so as to bolster and increase their power and control. To the extent that postmodernists and constructivists feel that science and its discourse are riddled with a repressive ideology, and to the extent that they feel it necessary to develop their own language and discourse to combat that ideology, they are making a political statement, as they are when they say that “Theory conceals, distorts, and obfuscates, it is alienated, disparated, dissonant, it means to exclude, order, and control rival powers” (Culler, 1982: 67).  They have every right to express such views, and it is surely a good idea to encourage people to scrutinise texts, to try to uncover their “hidden agendas”.  Likewise the constructivist educational programme can be welcomed as an attempt to follow the tradition of humanistic liberal education.

Where the postmodernists are mistaken is in their assumption that their political analysis has necessary implications for the veracity or otherwise of any particular theory.  And where they seem to fail miserably is in the alternative they offer to a rationalist research programme.  When one adopts a “postmodernist research paradigm” what are the results for theory construction?  What are the results of all this analysis?  No causal explanations, or theories, are allowed, it seems.  All attempts to explain, refute, establish, confirm, etc., must be deconstructed and exposed as the logocentric-serving myths that they are; the task is to undermine, and overcome not just science but language and common sense.  To what end?

The constructivists obviously have a point when they say (not that they said it first) that science is a social construct. Science is certainly a social institution, and scientists’ goals, their criteria, their decisions and achievements are historically and socially influenced.  And all the terms that scientists use, like “test”, “hypothesis”, “findings”, etc., are invented and given meaning through social interaction.  Of course.  But, and here is the crux, this does not make the results of social interaction (in this case, a scientific theory) an arbitrary consequence of it.  Popper, in reply to criticisms of his naïve falsification position, defends the idea of objective knowledge by arguing that it is precisely through the process of mutual criticism incorporated into the institution of science that the individual short-comings of its members are largely cancelled out.

As Bunge (1996) points out “The only genuine social constructions are the exceedingly uncommon scientific forgeries committed by a team.” (Bunge, 1996: 104) Bunge gives the example of the Piltdown man that was “discovered” by two pranksters in 1912, authenticated by many experts, and unmasked as a fake in 1950.  “According to the existence criterion of constructivism-relativism we should admit that the Piltdown man did exist – at least between 1912 and 1950 – just because the scientific community believed in it” (Bunge, 1996: 105).

The heart of the confusion for all those who take a radically relativist position, whether they be proponents of the Strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge, social constructivists, or postmodernists, is the deliberate confusion of two separate issues: claims about the existence or non-existence of particular things, facts and events, and claims about how one arrives at beliefs and opinions. Whether or not the Piltdown man is a million years old is a question of fact.  What the scientific community thought about the skull it examined in 1912 is also a question of fact.  When we ask what led that community to believe in the hoax, we are looking for an explanation of a social phenomenon, and that is a separate issue.  Just because for forty years the Piltdown man was supposed to be a million years old does not make him so, however interesting the fact that so many people believed it might be.

The postmodernist research paradigm claims that our beliefs are all we have, and that there is nothing “out there” that exists independently of them. Latour and Woolgar’s famous study (1979) is a good example.  While it might very well be the case that we believe that dinosaurs existed, and that DNA exists today, because the scientists tell us so, it remains, for those of us who want to take a realist, rationalist view of the world at least, an independent question of fact as to whether or not such things exist, i.e. whether or not our beliefs are true or false.

When Guba and Lincoln say “There are multiple, often conflicting, constructions and all (at least potentially) are meaningful. The question of which or whether constructions are true is socio-historically relative.”, this is a perfectly acceptable comment, as far as it goes.  If Guba and Lincoln argue that the observer cannot be neatly disentangled from the observed in the activity of inquiry, then again the point can be well taken.  But when they insist that constructions are exclusively in the minds of individuals, that “they do not exist outside of the persons who created and hold them; they are not part of some “objective” world that exists apart from their constructors”, and that “what can be known and the individual who comes to know it are fused into a coherent whole”, then they have disappeared into a Humpty Dumpty world where anything can mean whatever anybody wants it to mean.

A radically relativist epistemology rules out the possibility of data collection, of empirical tests, of any rational criterion for judging between rival explanations and I believe those doing research and building theories should have no truck with them. Solipsism and science, like solipsism and anything else of course, do not go well together. If the postmodernist paradigm  rejects any understanding of time because “the modern understanding of time controls and measures individuals”, if they argue that no theory is more correct than any other, if they believe that “everything has already happened”, that “there is no real world”, that “we can never really know anything”, then I think they should continue their “game”, as they call it, in their own way, and let those of us who prefer to work with more rationalist assumptions get on with scientific research.


I would stress the broadness of the rationalist definition of research and theory construction; the relativists often seem unaware of what science, and rational enquiry in general, involves. It seems necessary to point out to them that science is not the same as positivism, or empiricism and it doesn’t prescribe any fixed methodology. So all the “research paradigms” described by Taylor and Medina are acceptable in my opinion except the postmodernist one. On a cautionary note, I think it’s important to be clear about “where they’re coming from”; I don’t like their language and I suspect there’s a strong bias towards postmodernist approaches in that “school”.

In general, I’m afraid I don’t really see the point of these research paradigms if they’re not a way of arguing for a relativist position, but never mind: at least I know what they’re on about now. Just to make my own position clear, I don’t see myself as having a”Post-Positivist” research paradigm as Steve suggested. The rationalist position I hold is that knowledge of the world is gained in all sorts of ways, but that the most reliable knowledge comes from engaging in research which leads to the development of theories, i.e. attempts to explain phenomena. These theories are developed with various rules of logic and language to guide the process and are scrutinised so as to discover flaws in terminology or reasoning, and to build the clearest, simplest version of the theory.  Such theories should then lay themselves open to empirical tests: there must be the possibility of observing events in the world that contradict them.


(Citations from Taylor & Medina, and Guba & Lincoln can be found in their articles which you can download from the links above.)

Bunge, M. 1996: In Praise of Intolerance to Charlatanism in Academia. In Gross, R, Levitt, N., and Lewis, M. The Flight From Science and Reason. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 777, 96-116.

Culler, J. 1982: On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Latour, B. and Woolgar, S. 1979: Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts.  London: Sage.

More on Mediation

Scott Thornbury’s post M is for Mediation  was his third bite at the same cherry. Yet again he asked: How is information communicated to teachers? , reminding us that

This is a question that I have been grappling with in preparing the new edition of An A-Z of ELT. I raised it again at the ELTRIA Conference in Barcelona this weekend.

Who can blame him for not mentioning that he’d already given the ELTRIA talk at the IATEFL conference in April. So anyway, in the blog post, he went over the by now familiar ground, and finished by asking

Would you consult/recommend/approve of a methodology text that made little or no reference to published research? 

To me, it’s the wrong question (surely we should ask whether it’s consistent with research findings, not whether it makes overt reference to them), and most of those who replied seemed to think so too, choosing to talk about the more general issues raised.

As usual, the discussion was interesting, and, as usual, Thornbury demonstrated extraordinarily nifty footwork, avoiding treading on anybody’s toes and somehow keeping a foot in every camp. He reminded me of those in the jewellery heist films who make their way towards the prize, all the while contorting their bodies in impossible ways so as to avoid the deadly laser beams.

I’d like to pose a slightly different question:

Are there any research findings about language learning and teaching that have important teaching implications, and if so, who should tell teachers about them?”

The argument that I’ve been trying to pursue recently is as follows:

  1. A very small subset of research findings on how people learn and teach languages has important pedagogical implications that teachers should know about.
  2. Mediators are needed to tell teachers about it.
  3. Methodology writers and teacher trainers currently do a bad job as mediators.
  4. ELT practice would improve if writers of methodology texts and teacher trainers encouraged teachers to critically discuss and evaluate the small subset of research referred to above.

1. A small subset of research has important teaching implications that teachers should know about

The example that I bang on about is research in the area of interlanguage development. This research suggests that there are stages all learners go through when learning a second language, and consequently that teachers can influence the rate but not the route of interlanguage development. It follows that basing ELT methodology on the presentation and practice of a sequence of grammatical forms is mistaken. (Note that research (see review by Norris & Ortega, 2000) also indicates that explicit form-focused instruction can be effective in promoting learning.)

A few more examples:

  • There is no evidence to support the view that matching pedagogy to putative “learning styles” has any positive effects.
  • By manipulating certain factors and conditions of oral classroom tasks, teachers can guide students to producing either more fluent or more accurate language.
  • Certain types of L1 use in the classroom help, while others hinder, vocabulary learning.
  • “Focus on form” has a better long term effect on learning than traditional “Focus on Forms”.
  • Non-salient features of the L2 are the most difficult to learn.
  • Extensive reading speeds up learning.
  • A negative attitude towards the L2 culture inhibits learning.

It’s surely a good thing if teachers are aware of research findings which have potentially important implications for what and how they teach. This is not to argue that research findings should in any way determine ELT practice, or even play a major role in it. I agree with Ur that the main way teachers learn and become good at their jobs is through classroom experience, discussion with colleagues, and feedback from students.  I agree with Scrivener that teaching is not a science, it’s an art, a craft. I agree with those who say that lots of / most of / nearly all applied linguistic research is obscure, badly-done, badly-reported, and contradictory. I agree with Thornbury that “research relevant to ELT only very rarely deals with pedagogical issues”.

But good ELT practice needs to be based on a certain understanding of how people learn languages: we can’t just ignore the question of which among the range of competing, contradictory views of language learning is the most reasonable. And isn’t Thornbury’s own outspoken criticism of grammar-based teaching, which he so tellingly caricatures as the presentation and practice of McNuggets, partly based on his view of language learning, which is in turn informed by his reading of published research? Thornbury agrees that “there are robust research findings” and says that he still holds a cognitive view of language learning, although it’s now more influenced by sociolinguistic factors. Isn’t this a recognition of the place that research plays in his understanding of language learning, and doesn’t it indicate that his critical evaluation of different research programmes influences his work as a writer of methodology texts and as a teacher trainer?

2. Mediators are needed to tell teachers about it

In my opinion, it’s unreasonable to expect teachers to keep up with research, and it’s reasonable to expect methodology writers and teacher trainers, who, after all, get paid for giving information and advice to teachers, to do so. Of course, teachers should make an effort to keep informed themselves, but I think it’s reasonable for them to turn to mediators rather than to academic journals, and to expect those who write methodology texts and those who organise and carry out teacher training to give them a well-informed and well-considered view of teaching which takes research findings into account.

How do mediators find the relevant research? Well, that’s their job, and individually they have to decide for themselves what to do. As the four writers who replied to Thornbury’s questionnaire made clear, there are different ways of keeping in touch, which include attending conferences, networking, using social media, taking advantage of meta analyses, reading a few “state of the art” articles, and keeping your ear to the wire, so to speak. The aim is thus to stay in touch with developments, have a general feel for what’s happening, and so be in a good position to dig deeper when necessary.

3. Methodology writers and teacher trainers currently do a bad job as mediators

The problem is that many methodology writers and teacher trainers don’t seem to share this view of their responsibilities. The impression given from Thornbury’s latest data, scant though they are, and from reading the methodology texts of his study’s participants, is that they don’t keep up to date with what research tells us about language learning, or about other areas of ELT. If this impression is an accurate one, then surely it’s regrettable, and what I find odd (though not surprising) is that Thornbury makes no criticism of what comes across as complacency. None of his participants, for example, discusses the research findings of interlanguage development in their methodology texts, or expresses any concern about not doing so. Thornbury, in contrast, has discussed these research findings more than once. If Thornbury thinks it’s important for him to keep in touch with research and to use research findings to inform his views on methodology, why doesn’t he expect the same of others? Furthermore, if Thornbury thinks that research findings call into question the assumptions underlying a grammar-based synthetic syllabus and the PPP methodology which implements it, why doesn’t he mention this when discussing his findings?

We get a hint from this exchange.

Luiz Otávio Barros: … it seems that a lot of what has been researched and discovered in the past 30 years is at odds with what teachers are expected to do in class. So, SLA research can keep telling teachers – till it’s blue in the face – that linear syllabuses, grammar mcnuggests and controlled practice with a view to proceduralization don’t work… The whole educational system is set up in such a way that these claims are hard to embrace.

Thornbury: Thank you Luiz (and lovely to be communicating with you again!) If I may quote Penny Ur here (an excerpt of which I used in my talk), because it seems to chime with your own sentiments, …….

The quote from Ur might have chimed with Barros’ sentiments, but it did almost nothing to address the point he was making. Once again, Thornbury deftly ducks controversy, choosing not to be drawn on the political issue raised by Barros, namely that “the whole educational system” has little appetite for research findings which seriously rock the boat. Moderators work for publishers and for companies. The bosses of these commercial enterprises dissuade employees from making any serious attacks on current ELT practice – witness Thornbury’s publishers making it clear to him that they’re “not interested” in his McNuggets views. Barros, rightly I think, suggests that the ELT educational system is set up in such a way that teachers are unlikely to hear about “inconvenient” research findings. They’re unlikely to hear, for example, about the research findings which indicate that a grammar-based product syllabus delivered with a PPP methodology is inefficient; or that coursebooks have serious failings; or that the Pearson Test of English is bulit on sand; or that the Common European Framework of Reference is, as Fulcher says “a prime example of in the way political and social agendas can impact on language testing, and how language testing can be made to serve those agendas”. And so on and so on. In brief, moderators, no doubt voluntarily and in good faith, tell teachers what the bosses want them to hear.

4. Open Discussion is Needed

We should fight against the way sweeping generalisations about the obscurantism of research and the practical nature of teaching are used to dismiss research findings which challenge established ELT orthodoxy. ELT practice would improve if writers of methodology texts and teacher trainers, plus bloggers and other interested parties, engaged with teachers in open discussion about well-conducted applied linguistics research dealing with, among other things, interlanguage development, task design, error correction, vocabulary learning, extensive reading, pronunciation teaching, and testing & assessment.


Norris, J. & L. Ortega (2000). Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-analysis. Language Learning 50, 417-528.

Two Very Different Plenaries: Norris and Thornbury

The Seventh International Conference on Task-Based Language Teaching, held at the University of Barcelona, kicked off on Wednesday 19th April with a splendid, critically acute plenary by John Norris. Norris examined a number of meta-analyses on TBLT and gave a “synthesis of syntheses” which combined a succinct, well-organised and well-presented summary of research findings with an insightful discussion of their implications for teachers. Very good, nourishing stuff!

(Note: I rely on Twitter feeds and 3 eye witnesses for this account.) The ELT Research In Action conference, also held at the University of Barcelona, spluttered into life on Friday 21st April with a lack-lustre, re-hashed, badly-considered plenary by Scott Thornbury. Thornbury asked how methodology writers mediate between researchers and practicing teachers. To “explore” this question, he asked four writers of teaching methodology texts to complete a short, poorly-designed questionnaire, thus collecting a meagre amount of vague data from which a few unremarkable yet dubious conclusions were drawn. The flimsiest “study” I’ve ever seen presented in a plenary shone the dimmest of lights on an important issue, and through the gloom one could just discern Thornbury giving an unexplained thumbs up to the motley views of his puny collection of participants. Very thin soup!

Norris on TBLT

I’m waiting for the slides of Norris’ plenary to arrive, and so I won’t attempt to give a summary of what he said (but I promise that I will soon). Instead, I’d like to sketch the background to his talk and then comment on how he went about it, because, in stark contrast to Thornbury, Norris gave a demonstration of focus, scholarship, critical acumen, and the ability to present and analyse complex data.  It was well-conceived, well-organised, well-considered, and well-executed.

The talk reflects an increased interest in meta-analysis, which was very much “flavour of the conference” , with a surprising number of presentations examining different meta analyses of TBLT research. Meta analyses gather together a collection of published papers on a particular area and synthesise the results. Given the growing number of published studies on various aspects of TBLT, it’s not surprising that increased attention is being paid to ways of accurately synthesising results. The Journal Language Learning is good at publishing meta analyses, and Luke Plonsky has a good review of Meta-analysis in Applied Linguistics.

When it comes to studying TBLT, as Skehan (2016) makes clear, you can take an inductive or deductive approach. Regarding the former, task features are identified and then explored in terms of their relationship with performance, which is typically judged by measures of complexity, accuracy, lexis, and fluency (CALF). For example, Foster and Skehan (1996) contrasted the effects of planning with personal, narrative, and decision-making tasks. The study indicated specific connections between personal tasks and both increased accuracy and increased complexity, and between narrative and decision-making tasks and increased structural complexity.

In contrast, Robinson’s (2011) cognition hypothesis is an example of a deductive approach. Robinson (2011) argues for a principled sequencing of tasks in a syllabus, from less to more complex tasks, so as to help L2 development. To that end he uses the construct of “task complexity” and proposes a distinction between resource-directing factors and resource-dispersing factors, with each of these overarching categories then leading to specific performance predictions. Resource-directing variables make cognitive conceptual demands (e.g. + intentional reasoning) which direct learner attention and effort at conceptualization in ways which the linguistic L2 system can help them meet. In contrast, resource-dispersing variables make performative procedural demands which increase task complexity but without directing learner attention and effort at conceptualization to any particular aspects of language code (e.g. – planning time). Just as an example, resource-directing tasks are likely to give more opportunities for focus on form.

Notice how many terms and constructs are in use here. To simplify, we can say that tasks are seen as complex or simple and that performance is judged in terms of CALF measurements. Then, we can distinguish between Robinson’s daring hypotheses (where the distinction between resource-directing factors and resource-dispersing factors is vital) and the more cautious inductive work of Skehan & Foster and others, where, particularly for Skehan, task conditions are key. Skehan claims that the more deductively motivated studies have tended to generate results that focus on task characteristics, but the results are not consistent and don’t give clear support to the hypothesis. In contrast, he says, the more inductively oriented studies, whether of tasks or conditions, have tended to produce more consistent results.

In brief, when we look at TBLT, if we want to assess the efficaciousness of a task or a sequence of tasks, we have to agree on measurements of key factors (CALF); articulate constructs such as task complexity; clarify what we mean by “complex”; and “task difficulty”, for example; pay more attention to task conditions; distinguish between performance and learning (immediate and delayed); agree on the size of Cohen’s d factor required to calibrate results; and other things besides. And then we have to agree on procedures for putting together meta analyses. All of which means that some TBLT studies are better than others, that there are some contradictory results, and that there are disagreements among those working in the field. Nevertheless, precisely thanks to the demands for clarity, common terms, rigour, etc., progress is being made, and, as Norris showed, meta analyses are a good way of highlighting that progress.

Norris was talking to an audience of academics: they all knew about Robinson’s hypothesis, and task complexity, and CALF and Cohen’s d measurement of effect, and all that and all that. But I repeat, it’s the conception, organisation and execution of the plenary that’s worthy of comment. What Norris did in his talk was to take a well-focused question (What does research tell us about the factors that influence the outcomes of different kinds of pedagogic tasks?), and then present the hugely complex and conflicting evidence in an unusually clear, well-organised way, which included his own well-argued analysis.

  • This, he said, is a synthesis of what research is going on in TBLT.
  • These are the measurements and terms and constructs that we use.
  • This is what we’ve found.
  • These are the limitations.
  • This is what we still don’t know.
  • This is what we should pay more attention to.
  • This is the pay off. If we further clarify our terms and methods, we’ll find out more about the effects of different types of task on performance and learning, and that will have important implications for syllabus design and teaching practice. We’ll be better able to provide an evidence-based and well-argued case for what works and what doesn’t in TBLT, and to give better advice to course designers, materials writers and to teachers.

Let’s look now at how Thornbury gave his plenary.

Scott Thornbury’s view from the bridge

Thornbury used the same presentation slides as those we saw at the IATEFL conference (you can get a pdf file of them at this link.). As I’ve already said, I wasn’t there on Friday, but I’m using Jessica Mackay’s report and the notes of 2 members of the audience to help me, and as far as I can judge, nothing much new was said the second time round.

So, having noted that most ELT practitioners don’t read about research in their field, Thornbury wonders whether those who write methodology books about ELT see it as part of their job to take responsibility for bridging the gap between researchers and teachers. This leads to his main research question:

“How do methodology writers mediate … between researchers and practitioners?”

To find out, he sent a questionnaire to 4 authors of books on teaching methodology. Here are the questions:

  1. How did you get into writing methodology texts?
  2. How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?
  3. How have you kept/do you keep abreast of new developments in research, e.g. SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?
  4. Given that most research is somewhat inconclusive, how do you select from – and prioritize – the research findings that inform your texts?
  5. Do you feel you have an ‘agenda’, i.e. a bias towards a particular theoretical (or a-theoretical) position? If so, do you think this matters?
  6. If not (or even if so) do you attempt to be balanced/impartial/non-prescriptive? How do you achieve this?
  7. Does it concern you that you might be ‘dumbing down’ or otherwise misrepresenting research findings? How do you guard against this?
  8. To what do you attribute your success? (Don’t be modest!)

Note that Q.1 and Q.8 are irrelevant to the question, and that Q.5 and Q.6 are poorly articulated, overlap and in fact elicited almost no relevant data (check the pdf, file for yourself). At the IATEFL conference, Q.7 wasn’t even mentioned, but perhaps it was dealt with this time.

So the “findings” of Thornbury’s study consist of 4 people’s short responses  to 3 or 4 questions.

Here are their answers to Q.2:

  1. DH: Imperative! Teachers need to ground their teaching in research-based findings and assumptions. And, more importantly, teachers themselves should not shrink from engaging in their own classroom-based “action research.” It’s an all-important interaction.
  2. JH: I simply fail to understand people who deny the role of research in helping us understand our practice and improve it. Research is, after all, what all good teachers would do if they had the chance.
  3. PU: It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.
  4. JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti-research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching. … I more often look at the literature to see if it can help me understand what I have already noticed myself.

And Q.3

  1. DB I do university courses myself and I read state of the art articles.
  2. PU I’m sure I miss a lot but really important things get cited in stuff that I read, so I get most of the major stuff.
  3. JS Twitter has alerted me to interesting articles and websites.
  4. JH: Teachers journals, published books etc -though I fear that I do not have enough time to do as much of that as I should. […] The large number of teachers’ conferences and seminars that I attend […] News media, magazines and, increasingly, social media where news about new research often breaks.

And Q.4

  1. JS: Mainly, I think I write what I do and what I see other teachers doing. Informed ideas that may or may not work for others. These need to fit in with my own internal schema for how I think people learn, study, behave etc.
  2. JH: I go for what seems plausible to me. But I have to be careful (and suspicious) of my own unreliable instinct … There IS an element of fashion in this too, of course. Readers of a general methodology book need to know what is most ‘current’.
  3. PU: One criterion is, obviously, that I feel the research is reliable –well-designed and carefully executed, with convincing evidence and logical conclusions. Another is that it’s not on a trivial or very limited subject.
  4. DB: The selection of findings to inform my writing is based on degrees of (1) validity through triangulation of findings, (2) relevance of findings to pedagogy, and (3) practicality of those findings for classroom teachers.

From this, Thornbury summarises his findings:

  1. Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.
  2. Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
  3. Methodology writers are sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends, while, at the same time recognizing their inherent weaknesses.
  4. Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’.
  5. Methodology writers present options rather than prescriptions.
  6. Methodology writers adopt a voice that is non- academic and practitioner-oriented.

In his abstract, Thornbury promised “to draw some principles that might guide others – such as teacher educators – who [play a similar bridging function]”.  Unless my informants misled me, the guiding principles were not actually “drawn”, rather, Thornbury simply recommended others to follow the good example set by his participants.

A Few Comments: 

  • On the basis of the data from 4 participants, Thornbury is not entitled to make any generalisations whatsoever about what methodology writers believe or do.
  • Mind you, given the vagueness of the 6 points in Thornbury’s summary, they could easily apply to everybody. It’s hardly surprising that his participants “have an interest” in keeping abreast of developments in research; or that they “try not to be biased”; or that they are “sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends” (though I’m not sure there was much evidence of “recognizing their inherent weaknesses”); or that they use a non-academic style to talk to teachers; or even that they “present options not prescriptions”.
  • Even these blurred generalities come from a fairly liberal interpretation of the data. Thornbury smooths over the important differences among the 4, uses one single sentence in the whole data to support the generalisation that “Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’” (whatever that might mean); and presents the 6 points as if they represented some fine distillation of the common wisdom of his participants.
  • Thornbury’s discussion of the answers given to Questions 2 and 4 is extraordinarily complacent. These are, in fact, the only interesting and significant glimpses we get into his participants’ beliefs and practices, and they suggest that at least two of the four writers care little for research findings, make scant use of them when writing their books, cherry pick the findings, and see nothing wrong with using research findings as a way to support their own hunches, feelings and beliefs about teaching. Thornbury offers no criticism whatsoever.

In brief, on the basis of the most cursory examination of a flimsy collection of data, Thornbury confidently concludes that methodology writers do a good job and that they serve as a model for others.

A Few Questions:

Why didn’t Thornbury ask a few more people to take part in his study?

Why didn’t he ask more focused questions about research? It’s mostly treated as some kind of homogenous lump, the only exception being when he refers to “new developments in SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?” (BTW, “new development in neurobiology” is code for complexity theory; you know, like when a flock of birds part when approached by a predator and then they re-group. A new level of complexity arises, emerges, out of the interaction of the parts and a pattern emerges from the interaction of the parts. That’s just what happens in language learning. Not clear? Well, have you ever noticed how one bit of broccoli looks just like the whole plant? Cont. p.89 )

Why didn’t he ask them what they thought the most important research findings in instructed SLA research were and how teachers should be informed about them?

Why didn’t he check to see if there was any difference between what the participants said in reply to the questions and what they said in their books?

And what about his own case: Why didn’t he tell us about how he himself performs “the bridging function”?

  • How does he link research and classroom practice in his 4 books on how to teach grammar, and in his books on how to teach speaking, how to teach vocabulary, and how to get through the CELTA training course? How important does he think it is to act as a mediator between researchers and practising teachers? How well does he carry out this function?
  • How does he explain the contradictions between what he says in these books and what he says elsewhere about classroom practice based on teaching McNuggets?
  • How do his methodology books chime with what he tells MA students at the New School in New York about the classroom implications of Larsen-Freeman’s version of emergentism (grammar for free through the miracle of “Affordances” and other hogwash)?
  • How does he reconcile the advice he gives in these books with his passionate promotion of Dogme?

And finally, and crucially: Why didn’t he ask his participants if they knew about the robust findings that have emerged from 40 years of research into interlanguage development, which show that teaching can’t influence the route of L2 learning, and which thus challenge any methodology based on the presentation and practice of a succession of bits of grammar and lexis?

Which brings us to the two general questions:

  1. What should teachers know about research findings in applied linguistics?
  2. Who should tell them?

In reply to Q.1, first, they should know about interlanguage development; that’s without doubt the most important issue. All serious scholars of applied linguistics (including Larsen-Freeman last time I heard) agree that “the route of development (the nature of the stages all learners go through when acquiring the second language) remains largely independent of both the learner’s mother tongue (L1) and the context of learning (e.g. whether instructed in a classroom or acquired naturally by exposure)” (Myles,2009). If teachers really appreciated the implications of these findings, it could lead to a profound change in ELT.

Next, the concept of “focus on form” needs to be more generally understood. It’s generally agreed that second language teaching should be meaning-focused, but that it can be improved by some attention to form. This doesn’t mean a return to discrete-point grammar instruction, but that “focus on form…overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication” (Long, 1991, pp. 45-46), and “focus on form often consists of an occasional shift of attention to linguistic code features–by the teacher and/or one or more students – triggered by perceived problems with comprehension or production” (Long & Robinson, 1998, p. 23).

Then there’s the work going on in the area of TBLT. As we’ve seen, it’s complex and complicated and “more research needs to be done” as they always say. But, nevertheless, information about the on going work can be made accessible to teachers and has the potential to greatly improve their practices.

Lots of other important work is also going on that can help pronunciation teaching, vocab. teaching, and teaching of the 4 skills.

Regarding Q.2, given that it’s completely unreasonable to expect most teachers to keep up with developments in the areas of research mentioned above, it’s obvious that methodology writers (among others) should act as mediators. These writers can’t be expected to read more than a fraction of the research, which is why reports of meta analyses are so useful. By keeping an eye on what’s going on in the journals, reading a few “state of the art” articles, and reading a few meta analyses, such writers can at least get a good general feel for what’s happening and then be in a position to dig deeper when necessary.

Pace Thornbury’s comfortable conclusions, it’s obvious that 3 out of 4 of his participants (not to mention him and various others) are not doing a very good job as mediators. If they were, there would be more widespread doubts expressed about the way ELT is currently practiced. Just for example, despite Harmer’s replies to Thornbury’s questions, his 500 page methodology book devotes more time to classroom seating arrangements than it does to discussions of how people learn an L2, and nowhere does it deal with the findings mentioned above. Douglas Brown comes out best, but even he fails to properly discuss the implications of the research findings on interlanguage  development.

As for Thornbury himself, his work continues to be inconsistent both in its quality and in its underlying principles. How can the man who slams “McNugget teaching”, who rails against coursebooks, who supports the mad rantings of Larsen-Freeman, and who proselytises the radical principles of Dogme, deliver this same threadbare talk twice in as many months? How can he claim that the 6 points he cobbled together from the limp replies he got from 4 people to a few poorly-articulated questions are sufficient evidence to persuade us that those “on the bridge” are doing a great job of mediating between researchers and practicing teachers?


Harmer, J. (2015) The Practice of English Language Teaching. London: Pearson. 

Long, M. (1991). Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology. In K. de Bot, R. Ginsberg, & C. Kramsch (Eds.), Foreign language research in cross-cultural perspective (pp. 39-52). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Long, M., & Robinson, P. (1998). Focus on form: Theory, research, and practice. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition (pp. 15-63). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Myles, F. (2009) Second language acquisition (SLA) research: its significance for learning and teaching issues. Downloadable here: Note: Good References and links to some very good resources.

Plonsky, L. (2016) Meta-Analysis in Applied Linguistics. See

Skehan, P. (2016) Tasks Versus Conditions: Two Perspectives on Task Research and Their Implications for Pedagogy. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 36 pp. 34–49.

Skehan, P. & Foster, P. (2008) Complexity, accuracy, fluency and lexis in task-based performance: A meta-analysis of the Ealing research. In Van Daele, S., Housen, A., Kuiken, F., Pierrard, M. & Vedder, I. (Eds.). Complexity, Accuracy, and Fluency in Second Language Use, Learning, & Teaching. pp. 207-226. Brussels: Contact forum.

Thornbury’s books can be viewed here:

Foreign language vocabulary: Effective practices for learning and teaching

(Here’s a PDF file of the Vocab. learning report: CASL Vocabulary learning technical report, 2012)

Below are three quotes from one of many “technical reports” published by CASL, the Center for Advanced Study of Language at Maryland University. My intention here is simply to draw your attention to this report on vocab. learning, and, maybe more importantly, to the website. It’s a great resource (Mike Long just told me about it); there’s a rich variety of all sorts of interesting, well-written, well-supported  stuff there, and, since it’s financed by US tax-payers’ money, it’s all available for free download.

Here are the quotes:

Storage and retrieval of FL words

“Initial encoding of new lexical items and repeated encounters leading to additional learning are not sufficient to support fluent language use. Students must be able to reliably store the new items in long-term memory and successfully and quickly retrieve them when needed. In order to understand the specific challenges encountered by foreign language students, it is useful to briefly discuss several critical issues related to bilingual memory and FL word retrieval. For the purposes of this review, FL students at early and intermediate levels of proficiency may be considered to be bilinguals who are much stronger in one of their two languages.

One of the most influential models of bilingual memory within a FL learning context is the Revised Hierarchical Model proposed by Kroll and colleagues (Kroll & deGroot, 1997; Kroll & Stewart, 1994; Kroll & Sunderman, 2003; Kroll & Van Hell, 2010). This model attempts to capture the findings from many empirical studies to explain how the relationship of the L1 lexicon and FL lexicon change in relation to one another, and to the conceptual system, as FL proficiency develops. As shown in Figure 4.3, this model of the development of the mental lexicon incorporates a level of lexical information that is connected to, but separable from, conceptual knowledge, which is argued to be universal in its basic architecture.

The arrows in Figure 4.3 represent the relative strength of connections among different aspects of a bilingual’s memory system, with thicker arrows (Concepts -> L1 and FL->L1) representing stronger, more established relationships, and thinner arrows (Concepts -> FL and L1->FL) representing weaker, or less well established connections that may be strengthened as learning proceeds. These differing connection strengths are employed in the model to capture specific findings from the research literature, such as: Students find it easier to retrieve the L1 translation equivalent when given a FL word than to retrieve the FL word when starting from an L1 word as a prompt.

Beginning learners may rely on the L1 lexicon as a “stepping stone” in order to access concepts when presented with an FL word. For example, a beginning learner whose target language is Spanish and whose native language is English, when presented with the word “casa,” may first retrieve the equivalent English word “house,” and then use “house” to retrieve all of the underlying meaning and associations present for that English word.

Since the publication of the original Revised Hierarchical model, further research from a number of investigators has provided strong support for parallel activation of both the L1 and FL mental lexicons during both word recognition and word production (Kroll & Van Hell, 2010). Because both languages are active by default in the bilingual, researchers have conducted further investigations of how bilinguals are able to function effectively in either the L1 or the FL without massive interference from the other language. The ability to manage this type of  interference is important as bilinguals reach higher levels of proficiency, to enable fluent comprehension and production. However, it may also be important for less-proficient bilinguals to allow them to function fully in either the L1 or L2 without intrusions from the other language. Evidence suggests that the executive control system is necessary to accomplish this task (e.g., Abutalebi et al., 2008; Hernandez, Martinez, & Kohnert, 2000; Isel, Baumgærtner, Thrän, Meisel, & Büchel, 2010). Executive control is an aspect of cognition that is closely related to the control of attention and to aspects of the working memory system (Wagner, Bunge, & Badre, 2004). While it is currently unclear whether or to what extent executive control may be important for word learning specifically, its importance for later stages of FL use, including switching between languages and managing interference, make it an important aspect of effective and fluent bilingual proficiency and word usage in real-world tasks.”

Five Principles for enhancing vocabulary learning

“Research in cognitive psychology and education has produced a set of general learning principles that may be used to guide instruction and learning strategies. As these principles have been derived from hundreds of studies of learning across many different topics, they should provide a solid foundation for adult learning within a school environment. Additional research may provide guidance in terms of which aspects of word knowledge are most likely to follow these general principles, and which aspects, in contrast, may rely on principles specific to FL vocabulary learning. Based on current knowledge, however, the FL instructor can feel confident that incorporating

  1. Dual Coding,
  2. Spacing,
  3. Testing,
  4. Feedback,
  5. and Desirable Difficulties

will provide students with a higher level of learning success and effective long-term retention.”

These five principles are all succinctly described and the case for why they help so much is clearly argued.

Quantitative Research Summary

“The overall pattern of results in this quantitative research summary provides valuable information for the design of foreign language vocabulary learning programs. First, vocabulary learning may be aided by explicitly drawing learners’ attention to specific vocabulary items. Second, vocabulary learning can benefit substantially from reading, and reading leads to greater gains in vocabulary than does listening (alone) or list study. In addition, reading-based vocabulary learning can be augmented significantly by providing learners with glosses so that definitions and/or translation of unfamiliar words can be readily accessed during reading. The results also suggest that while plain text glosses are beneficial, text glosses with pictures and/or videos may provide a small amount of additional benefit. Of course, the utility of additional visual information in glosses is limited to vocabulary items whose meanings are readily depicted in pictures and videos.

On the other hand, while the keyword method seems to lead to reliable gains in vocabulary acquisition relative to experimental controls, comparison of the keyword method to other methods (e.g., rote memorization, word study based on semantic grouping) suggests that at least  some other methods lead to larger vocabulary gains.

The results reported above also support the idea that providing explicit instruction with respect to learning strategies can be beneficial to anguage learners. However, given the small number of studies of this issue included in this descriptive summary, and the substantial differences between the approaches of these studies, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about which learning strategies should be taught. Finally, increasing the depth of processing of vocabulary items leads to substantial gains in word learning. Completing fill-in-the-blank passages leads to gains above and beyond gains acquired from reading, and writing sentences and/or longer compositions leads to larger gains than does completing fill-in-the-blank passages.

Hence, the results of this descriptive quantitative summary indicate that foreign language vocabulary gains will be maximized by the inclusion of substantial reading augmented by easily accessible definitions and translations for unfamiliar words and, where possible, additional visual ‘glosses’, as well as active processing of vocabulary items via associated writing exercises. Teachers can profitably draw learner attention to unknown or unfamiliar items, and direct teaching of learning strategies may be beneficial as well.”

P.S. If you can only afford one book on this topic, it must surely be Nation’s.

Nation, I. S. P. (2010). Learning vocabulary in another language (12th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Some Advice on Doing an MA Dissertation Part 1


For an MA Applied Linguistics / TESOL you’ll be expected to write a substantial (15 – 20,000 word) piece of academic writing in which you:

  • Identify a clear focus and develop an area of interest in a coherent and rational way. This is a serious bit of academic work: it’s not journalism, or an opportunity to display your own prejudices and preconceptions!
  • Show a deep awareness and appreciation of other (academic) work done in the area, and have a point of view on it.
  • Demonstrate the ability to reflect critically on the area you explore.
  • Show you are able to collect, analyse and interpret empirical data (although a theoretical study is also possible).
  • Show you are aware of the implications of your findings, often, but not necessarily, for professional contexts.
  • Say something new – something that nobody has said before!

It normally involves a small-scale study but it can be literature-based, written predominantly as a result of reading and thinking. Universities prefer dissertations in MA TESOLs to have an applied perspective, wherever possible. By “applied perspective” most universities mean that the study should relate to a particular context and should draw on your professional experience. The application may be to the classroom, but this is not compulsory. For instance, a sociolinguistic investigation may have a wider application for a group of learners in a particular society. An SLA investigation could relate to a naturalistic setting, for example, a study of early child bilingualism. In each case, there may be implications for the TESOL classroom. As you have done with previous modules, you are expected to link theory to practical implications in a manner that is appropriate to your study. Dissertations should show in-depth acquaintance with the literature of the subject area, but should also be a vehicle for the expression of personal views.

I’m going to assume that you’ll do a small-scale study. More than 90% of all MA students do this and I strongly advise you to follow suit. If you want to base your dissertation on a literature review, you can do so, of course, but it’s really quite unusual and markers tend to be a lot more demanding of those dissertations where no study is involved.

 Deciding on the topic and the focus of the study

By the time you come to the dissertation part of the MA, you should already have some idea of what you want to do your research on. Play to your strengths; if you did a particularly good paper on any prior part of the course, then consider expanding on it, as long as you don’t use any parts of the text again. If you like grammar, or IT, or teaching young learners, or designing materials, or sociolinguistics, or whatever it is, then look there, and don’t think that you should do something you know nothing about, just to learn more

Maybe you already have a clear idea of what problem you want to explore, in which case, all you have to do is articulate the question and decide on the research tools. But if you’re still groping for a topic, then start with the “ball park”: what area, out of all those you’ve looked at so far in your studies, do you find most interesting? And inside this area, can you think of a problem, a knotty question, or a divise issue, or a weakness, that needs addressing?

Let’s say that you work in Spain teaching English in a primary school. You’re aware that results are poor: most Spanish children finish primary school with very little ability to communicate in English, as measured by results in the Cambridge PET and CET exams, for example. You believe that a contributing factor in these poor results is that most primary school teachers of English in Spain use a rather old-fashioned “PPP” (Presentation, Practice Production) approach to teach a grammar-based syllabus. A variety of issues present themselves here, but let’s say you focus in on the teachers themselves. Why are the teachers not embracing a more up-to-date, “Communicative Language Teaching” (CLT) approach?

Once you get this far, you need to consider your study.

  • What are your resources?
  • Can you use yourself as a teacher trainer or trainee in the study?
  • Can you ask teacher trainers and teacher trainees to fill in a questionnaire? How many?
  • Can you interview some of them?
  • Can you observe teacher training sessions?
  • Can you record them?
  • Can you get access to other data, like teacher journals?

Before you decide on the final Thesis Question, carefully consider what kind of data you can feasably collect in the time frame, and what your limitations are. Just for example, it’s unlikely that in 6 months you’ll be able to do a study where significant improvement in overall language proficiency is measured.

So, to return to your study, how can you investigate what you suspect is teachers’ resistance to CLT? Well, surely the best thing to do is to ask them. But ask them what, precisely? In order to make a questionnaire, and /or an interview template, you need to articulate an overall Thesis Question and then 2 or 3, more specific, research questions.

You could start with the question “Why don’t primary school English teachers in Spain adopt a CLT approach?”. For your own purposes here (and later because you’ll need to address the question more fully), you should be clear what you mean by “a CLT approach”. After that, you could generate these research questions:

  1. What are the perceptions of primary school English teachers in Spain of the CLT approach?
  2. What do primary school English teachers in Spain think are the obstacles to the implementation of the CLT approach?

No matter how you finally go about your study, you have to start by identifying a problem; not an interesting area, not a theme, not a subject, .. a problem! All good research starts with a problem. The problem then has to be articulated as a general Thesis Question, from which Research Questions follow.

These research questions must be formed in such a way that data collected in various ways can answer them. Finally, you have to decide what research tools you’ll use to gather data. It’s important to be clear about the distinction between qualitatitive and quantitative research.

Quantitative Research tries to be objective and is the preferred method of the hard sciences. It relies on empirical observation and it usually reduces the evidence from observations to numbers, focusing on counting and classifying features, and on constructing statistical models and figures to explain what is observed. It makes use of tools such as questionnaires, surveys, measurements and other equipment to collect numerical or measurable data.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, is primarily subjective; researchers often get subjectively immersed in the subject matter. It uses text rather than numerical data, and aims to give a complete, detailed description of the research topic. It is usually exploratory in nature. It uses data-gathering strategies such as individual in-depth interviews, structured and non-structured interviews, focus groups, narratives, content or documentary analysis, and participant or non-participant observation. The data is collected by the researcher himself or herself instead of through the inventories, questionnaires and other means used for quantitative research. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. The researcher can gain an empathetic understanding of the behaviour of others, but the data collection is bound to be subjective and can even include bias.

For the last 15 years or so there’s been a lively discussion going on in the field of applied linguistics, and particularly in SLA research circles, about the best way to do research. The two opposing sides in this discussion can be seen as supporting predominantly quantitative or qualitative research programmes. In a special edition of TESOL Quarterly in 1996 devoted to ethnographic, subjective research in SLA, the contributors argued for a position totally opposed to the those who adopted a rationalist, empirical approach, and presented research papers that struck the rationalists they were attacking as being almost incomprehensible. In the Applied Linguistics journal, Block (1996) wrote a critique of the papers by Long, Beretta, Gregg, Crookes, and others which had appeared in a special issue of the journal devoted to theory construction in SLA (1993), suggesting that they were guilty of “science envy”, that there was no need to recognise accepted findings, no need for replication studies, and an urgent need for SLA researchers to throw off the oppressively restricting constraints of the “scientific” approach, so as to embrace a more relativist, more ethnographic approach.

Interesting though this debate is (I enthusiastically participated on the rationalists’ side), I don’t think it should bother you much as you prepare for your small study. Both types of research have their place in small studies, and very often quantitative data gathered from a questionnaire are combined with qualitative data from interviews. This is actually the path I will recommend.

Research Strategies

We usually distinguish between three research strategies:

  1. Experiment. Here we measure the effects of manipulating one variable (e.g. class size) upon another variable (e.g. results in an end of term proficiency test). The approach usually involves hypothesis testing.
  2. Survey. Here we concentrate on the collection of information in a standardised form from a group of people. The approach usually employs a questionnaire or structured interview.
  3. Case Study. Here we aim to assemble a detail picture, including in-depth insights, about a single ‘case’, or a small number of related ‘cases’. The approach may involve collection of information via a range of data collection techniques including observation, interview and documentary analysis.

Although these three strategies might look very different, in fact they don’t provide a logical partitioning covering all possible forms of enquiry, and there’s no need for you to agnonise about which category your study falls into. As I’ve already hinted above, I encourage you to use a hybrid strategy falling somewhere between these ideal types, e.g., some survey data combined with a small number of case studies, perhaps focusing on selected variables.   The survey provides a general, representative, picture; the case studies, chosen often on the basis of the survey, illuminate, enrich and bring to life the survey findings.


By far the most popular and most frequently-used research tool for M.A. students is the questionnaire. A questionnaire is defined as “a self-report instrument used for gathering information about variables of interest to the investigator”. They are referred to as postal or email questionnaires. They consist of a number of questions or items which respondents answer by themselves. The questions or items can be structured or unstructured. That is, the categories of response may be specified or left unspecified. The key element in the self-completion questionnaire is that the researcher is not present when the questionnaire is being filled in. As Dornyei and Taguchi (2009) point out (Questionnaires in Second Language Research: Construction, Administration, and Processing, Routledge) questionnaires are used to gather three types of data:

  • factual (who the respondents are),
  • behavioural (what the respondents have done or are doing),
  • attitudinal (what the respondents think about things. In this, the most important category, Dornyei and Taguchi (2009) distinguish between attitudes, beliefs, opinions, inteterests and values.

The advantages of the questionnaire as a research tool are:

  • they make efficient use of time (the questionnaire can be completed by respondents in their own time and questionnaires consisting of closed questions allow for quick summaries and analysis of responses);
  • anonymity (the questionnaire provides the security of anonymity that few other research techniques offer);
  • standardised questions (in a questionnaire all respondents are presented with the same questions; there is no interviewer coming between the respondent and the question, but there is no scope for negotiating or clarifying the meaning of the question.

These are also the reasons why so much care should be taken drafting questions and why piloting is essential.

The limitations of questionnaires are:

  • they tend to lead to description rather than explanation
  • there is no interviewer to interpret or explain the meaning of questions, or to probe or explore answers
  • resulting information can be superficial. When designing a questionnaire :

These limitations can be overcome to somer extent by following a questionnaire with structured interviews to elicit further clarification.

When designing a questionnaire,

  • Keep it simple. Too many questionnaires are too long, too complicated, and too demanding of the respondent.
  • Make the questions specific. More general questions lead to a wider range of interpretations by respondents and are poorer predictors of behaviour. So, for example, the general question “What newspapers do you read?” should be replaced by the question “Which of the following newspapers have you read this week?).
  • Third, and this is by far the most important issue, use closed questions. Closed questions are often criticised because they force people to choose among stated alternatives rather than replying in their own words. But, precisely because closed questions give the response options, they are more specific and more likely to communicate the same frame of reference to all respondents. There will be times when open questions are preferable, of course, but if you use them,try to keep them to a minimum.

And when it comes to writing the questions, keep these ponts in mind:

  •  When in doubt, leave it out. When you finish the first draft of the questionnaire, go through it and ruthlessly discard any questions that are repetitive or redundant. Ask yourself “Is this question realy necessary?” Redundant items waste everyone’s time, mostly your own.
  • Be careful with the language level: questions have to be phrased in a way that matches the vocabulary of your respondents. Don’t use language that patronises or puzzles your respondents.
  • Be clear. Questions should be clear and unambiguous. Avoid double negatives and long-winded questions. Don’t ask double-barrelled questions. Categories of response should be clear so that the difference among categories is obvious to the respondents.

The Likert scale Questionnaire

The Likert scale questionnaire is the most widely-used questionnaire format among MA TESOL candidates. It was developed by Rensis Likert, a sociologist at the University of Michigan from 1946 to 1970 and is designed to measure attitudes. A typical item in a Likert scale questionnaire looks like this:

The president is doing a good job.       1  2  3   4  5

1 = Strongly disagree

2 = Somewhat disagree

3 = Neither agree or disagree

4 = Somewhat agree

5 = Strongly agree

To make a questionnaire that explores attitudes towards a defined construct (in this case, participants’ attitudes towards the president’s performance in office), you first generate items and then select from among them those that in pilots of the questionnaire proved to be valid, unidimensional (all measuring a common trait), and well discriminating.

The most important thing to note is that a proper Likert scale questionnaire measures the person’s attitude towards a given construct by combining (adding or averaging) their responses across ALL ITEMS. A Likert scale is NOT an individual item; it is always a set of several items, with specific format features, the responses to which are added or averaged to produce an overall score or measurement.

Many MA students make questionnaires using some response scale such as

1 = Strongly disagree

2 = Somewhat disagree

3 = Neither agree or disagree

4 = Somewhat agree

5= Strongly agree”


1 = Extremely Poor

2 = Below Average

3 = Average

4 = Above Average

5 = Excellent

using a variety of items that are do not explore the same topic. For example, an MA student used the 5-interval response scale “strongly disagree to strongly agree” in a questionnaire that asked teachers in Portugal to respond to 20 items which included

  • My boss is a good manager
  • My students are polite
  • My classroom is well-equipped.

While each item might say something about how satisfied the teacher is with his or her job, the sum of the responses to all 20 items can’t be used to measure anything very interesting.

So the summing or averaging across several items is essential for a true Likert scale questionnaire. In order to report on such a questionnaire, you sum the values of each selected option and create a score for each respondent. In the example above about an online software purchase, the scores can be from 4 to 20. This score is then used to represent a specific trait – satisfied or dissatisfied, for example – and to create a chart of the distribution of opinion across the population. For further analysis, you can cross tabulate the score mean with contributing factors. But it’s important to stress that for the score to have meaning, each item in the scale should be closely related to the same topic. I should add that the questionnaire can have different sections, each one a set of closely-related items.

Note several characteristics or features that define a Likert scale:

  1. The scale contains several items.
  2. Response levels are arranged horizontally.
  3. Response levels are anchored with consecutive integers (e.g. 1,2,3,4,5).
  4. Response levels are also anchored with verbal labels which connote more-or-less evenly-spaced gradations.

It is absolutely essential that you get a good understanding of Likert scale questionnaires, and of questionnaires in general. I recommend that you get a copy of Dornyei and Taguchi (2009) Questionnaires in Second Language Research: Construction, Administration, and Processing . This has everything you need andf more to design, write, administer and analyse a Likert scal questionnaire, or, indeed any questionnaire. Dornyei’s personal website is a great source for help on questionnaires.


This is the second most popular tool used by MA students in their studies. They’re often used to back up questionnaire data, but they can be the main tool used. Interviews are commonly divided into three types

  1. Structured Interviews consist of a set of carefully-formulated of fixed questions which are both systematic and sequenced.
  2. Semi-structured interviews are much more open. Tthe inteviewer has some questions prepared on key issues, but feels free to follow other leads and to let the interviewee digress.
  3. Unstructured interviews, as the name suggests, are more like a conversation, where the interviewer goes with the flow. It’s quite likely that you will interview people you know, and if you do, you have to be careful to that this doesn’t affect or compromise your ability to remain impartial.

When conducting interviews, make sure your questions are clear and non-threatening ; don’t ask leading questions (ones that lead interviewees to respond in a particular way); show interest; and don’t speak too much – your job is to listen and probe.


In this MA, some students choose to do classroom observations, with the goal of recording the behaviour of the teacher, or of the learners, or of the interactions among them. The observations are done by the researcher, and a video recorder is often used. In order to count as a good research tool, the observation must be recorded systematically, related to well-articulated research questions, and subjected to checks and controls on validity and reliability; so this is really quite a demanding research tool. Observations can be structured or unstructured, both having their own advantages and disadvantages.

In unstructured observation, the researcher can be a non-participant observer, sitting at the back of a classroom taking notes, or a participant. Unstructured observation has the advantage of not imposing concepts or frames of reference, so that the researcher is free to record behaviour as it occurs, making special notes of ‘critical incidents. On the other hand, as with unstructured interviews, it is much more difficult to make organise and analyse the data collected, and it requires a great deal of the observer (validity vs. reliability issues).

In structured observations, the researcher must carefully define what behaviour is to be observed; for example, the number of times a teacher gives negative feedback, or the proportion of classroom time dedicated to explicit grammar instruction, or the turn-taking language used by students when engaged in group tasks. This implies that the researcher has a good understanding of of the phenomenon under study, so as to be able to determine, in advance of the observation sessions, what kinds of behaviour should be monitored to get the relavant data. Furthermore, a research tool must be individually devised for recording the observations – some sort of template or score sheet – and, if there is more than one observer, this must be used by all the observers, following the same criteria. So the tool needs to specify whose behaviour is to be observed and the categories of behaviour to be noted, and might also have to specify affective elements (attitudes), cognitive elements (intellectual components, learning strategies) and psychomotor elements (posture, gesture, movement); activity (repetition, etc.).

The problems of structured observation include inadequate definitions of what kinds of behaviour correspond to a given concept; lack of confidence of observers in their own judgement; and the possibility of observer effect i.e. the presence of the observer changing the environment.

Case Studies

A case study is not a method or even a type of research – it’s defined quite simply by its interest in individual cases. Whether there is only one case, or there are multiple cases, the crucial feature of a case study is the individuality of the case: it is not a sample and the numbers of cases which fall into any category is not important. The cases in question may be individual people, small groups, organisations, communities, classroom groups or events. An individual case study might look at a senior executive’s experience of classroom English in a Barcelona private language school; and an organisational case study might examine how the English department of a university in Boston tried to improve English language support over a four year period.

Case studies make no attempt to generalise; no hypothesis, or theory, or general explanation of a phenomenon is made (although they can be useful in the early stages of research on a subject, in suggesting hypotheses, and in providing a trial run for research methods). So why use them? First, intrinsic case studies are used when one is interested in a case not because we want to generalise from it, but because it’s interesting in its own right. The purpose of the study is is not theory building, but rather intrinsic interest in a particular case. Second, instrumental case studies are undertaken to provide insight into an issue, or to refine a theory. The case itself is of secondary interest. While It is still looked at in depth, the case is studied to help us pursue an external interest. In the context of an MA dissertation, the instrumental case study is thus not appropriate. So if you want to do a case study, you have to explain to your tutor what the intrinsic interest of the case is for you, and you then have to persuade him or her that it’s interesting enough to warrant the effort. Case studies use qualitative methods more often than not, unstructured interviews, observations, field notes, diaries, that sort of thing, They can be very interesting, but they’re actually very difficult to do well. It’s certainly not a soft option – only consider it if you’re really fired up about a case, and if you have a tutor who can guide you carefully through it.

Getting The Study Underway 

Let’s go through the process of starting a small study for your MA dissertation.

1) Decide on an area you want to study. Play to your strengths: choose an area you already know about, and maybe that you’ve already done well on in an earlier part of the MA. Recall that earlier in this chapter, I invented the example of an MA student like you who is an English language teacher working with young learners in Spain. You want to look at classroom methodology , an area you are particularly interested in.

2) Define the problem. Articulate a Thesis Question which focuses on a particular problem. As we saw earlier in the example, in your school, you’re aware that results are poor, and you have the impression from anecdotal evidence and things you’ve read that most Spanish children finish primary school with little ability to communicate in English, as measured by results in the Cambridge CET exam, for example. You think that teachers’ widespread use of the “PPP” approach to teach a grammar-based syllabus is a significant factor, and you formulate the question “Why are the teachers not embracing a more up-to-date, “Communicative Language Teaching” (CLT) approach?

3) Consider Your Resources

  • Can you participate actively (as a teacher trainer or trainee) in the study? If you do, does this mean your study will be broadly speaking qualitative?
  • How many teacher trainers, teacher trainees, and practicing teachers can you count on to participate in a questionnaire? Remember that you can use online questionnaires, so how many particiapnts can you get from your internet, social media, connections?
  • Who can you interview?
  • Can you observe teacher training sessions? Can you record them?
  • Can you get access to teacher trainer notes /teacher journals / learner diaries etc.?
  • What IT equipment can you get access to?
  • What software (e.g., SPSS) can you get access to?
  • Can you travel?
  • What’s the time frame?

4) Articulate Research Questions. Note first that you have to be clear about what you mean by “a CLT approach”. This will be an important part of the literature review, but you need to begin with a definition that you think you can work with, or define the term yourself. Next, you have to decide if you’re going to take a case study approach, or widen it a bit so that the study has some generalisability. Let’s say you decide that this is going to be a small study not a case study. OK, now you can write the research questions. Suppose you come up with these:

RQ 1: What are the perceptions of English teachers working in primary education in Spain of the CLT approach?

RQ 2: What do these primary school teachers think are the obstacles which stand in the way of the implementation of the CLT approach ?

You might also want to use one or two hypotheses to help the study stay focused. For example:

H 1: The teachers in the study claim to be favourably disposed towards the CLT approach, but feel insecure about implementing it.

H 2: The teachers think that resistance from superiors and parents is the main obstacle to implementing a CLT approach.

Obviously, there will a lot of other factors to consider, but these 2 predictions ,whether they turn out to be supported or not by the data, indicate the main thrust of your argument and help to position you.

5) Decide on the research tools. The most usual, and in my opinion, the best, tools to use for such a study are a Likert scale questionnaire and follow-up interviews.

6) Find examples of the chosen research tools that have been used in previous studies. Whatever your topic, it’s important that there is already a body of literature to consult. This literature will include studies, and it’s quite likely that one or more of the studies will have used a Likert scale questionnaire. If you can use a Likert scale questionnaire that has been used in a previously published study, this is a tremendous boost to your own study and will save you a great deal of work. It’s difficult to exagerrate the value of doing a replication study, but a full, faithful replication study is usually beyond the resources of MA students. Never mind – you can still use a published questionnaire, or an adapted version of it, and I strongly advise you to do so.

7) Design the questionnaire and the interview form.

8) Find particiapnts for the questionnaire and the interviews. Generally speaking, 50 respondents to a questionnaire and 6 interviews is fine.

9) Get the ethics permissions sorted out. You can’t ask people to fill in questionnaires or take part in interviews for a study without getting their permission and addressing ethical questions like privacy. Each university handles these matters in its own way, so make sure you comply with your uni’s requirements before doing any field work.

10) Show your tutor what you’ve done so far, get feedback and revise as necessary. You should be in regular contact with your tutor when doing the dissertation, and it’s really important not to take any major decision without consulting him or her. After some less formal consultations, you should finally write a dissertation proposal, which will be submitted to your tutor. The proposal will be 2 or 3 pages long and will include:

11) Write the Proposal

  1. Decide on a provisional title. Don’t spend much time on this; here the title is just to give a “ball park” indication of the diss.
  2. The background. A brief explanation of why you find this area interesting, and what particular aspect of this area you will focus on. This is NOT a literature review! You might mention a few sources, but the idea here is to tell your tutor what the area is, why you’re interested, and why it’s interesting.
  3. The Thesis Question which will inform your research. I think it is much better to articulate a question, rather than an “overall aim”, for example, because this is the
  4. Two or three Research Questions and hypotheses if you choose.
  5. Your research methods and participants.
  6. The value of your intended research. What do you think the results of your study will contribute to the problem that you’ve tackled?
  7. Ethical issues which arise from the proposal. If you intend to ask students or teachers or administrators for their opinions on colleagues, for example.
  8. References. Give your tutor an indication of the literature you will include.

Once you’ve got your tutor’s feedback and final approval, and once you’ve got the ethics issues sorted, you’re ready to start the field work, which I’ll discuss in Part 2.

Post Mortem IATEFL 2017 Conference

What happened, Jane?

You had to be there!

Jane Jones, let’s call her that, was paid by her school to go to Glasgow. She stayed in a nice hotel, she went to lots of sessions, she sat in the huge auditorium and watched the stars do their stuff, she went to a couple of parties, and she went home feeling that it had been really rewarding. Her enjoyment of the conference depended little on the plenaries;  it was more that she felt privileged to be there; that she was excited to be away from the work place and away from home; that she felt the buzz of the conference; that two or three of the sessions she went to hit a cord; that she dined out; and, more than anything, that she met new people, shot the breeze with them, and felt that they (not the plenary speakers) had made her think about her job.

What did the organisers do? They laid on baloney with shovels, they played to the sponsors, and, inevitably, they emphasised the gap between “them and us”. Invitation Only events proliferated, including a cocktail party on the top floor of a 5 star hotel where the lucky few who’d won raffles at publishers’ stands could rub shoulders with the ELT stars.

At this year’s IATEFL conference, judging from the British Council’s coverage of it that I watched, nothing much happened.

  • The commercialisation and commodification of ELT was celebrated.
  • The IATEFL organisation did nothing much to address the ever-worsening condtions of most of its membership.
  • No real challenge to coursebook-driven ELT was presented.
  • The publishers were more shameless than ever in their sponsorship of presentations.
  • The plenaries were all duds, with the possible exception of the last one by Tomlinson.
  • The stars trotted out their usual baggage on stage.
  • Boring interviews took place between the stars and the British Council’s uncritical interviewers. (But Horray for the guest interviewer Scott Thornbury, who did a splendid interview with Angelos Bollas!)
  • Nicola Prentis’ criticisms of gender inequality went unanswered.

Of course, there were a few gems.  There was an extraordinary, dead pan defence of absurd teaching practice in China by Wan Jung who replied to well-rehearsed questions by Jim Scrivener without even a hint of irony. It was weirdly fascinating, a great double act, and by far the most interesting thing I saw. But with the exception of this and no doubt one or two other talks, the real value of the conference, as always, was what didn’t get reported: it’s what happened to Jane that made it all worthwhile.

Which raises some obvious questions:

Q1: Why not do without the stars and the all the rest of the showbiz nonsense?

Q2: Why not give the membership of IATEFL a bigger say in the agenda of the conference?

Q3: Why not address the issues raised by the banned TaW SIG group?

Q4: Why not talk more openly about the false assumptions underpinning coursebook-driven ELT?

Q5: Why not challenge the CEFR?

Q6: Why not talk more critically about teacher training certificates?

The obvious answer to Q1 is that the stars and all the rest of the showbiz nonsense is the outward, necessary flaunting of the power of the ELT business today. We can’t do without it: it is, as we say in Spain, “lo que hay” – it’s the way things are. Being part of an industry with an $18 billion annual turnover (Pearson’s estimate), means that this kind of circus is expected: it’s the tried and trusted  way of celebrating might. The bigger the plenary stage, the more reinforced the stature of those who strut it.

And the answers to the other questions are that the IATEFL organisation is not democratic, not concerned with workers’ rights, and not willing to challenge its sponsors.

What’s the alternative? Is it an ashen-faced, sandal wearing, humourless group of ELT Vegans meeting in a candle-lit cave near Stonehenge to talk about Zen-driven ELT? Well, I don’t think so. The alternative is locally organised groups of teachers who link together in a federation which has a big annual conference where all the issues that IATEFL fails to confront are discussed and fun is had by one and all.

IATEFL 2017 Part 3: The Limits of Reform: Tomlinson’s Plenary

Brian Tomlinson’s talk Let’s listen to the learners highlighted the fact that learners are not consulted about the content of the courses that they pay for.

To quote from Adi Rajan’s summary , Tomlison says

We don’t listen enough to what:

  • they have to say about life
  • they have to say about learning a language
  • they need
  • they want

And yet:

Learners only learn:

  • what they want and need to learn;
  • when they want and need to learn it

Tomlinson then suggested lots of practical ways of involving learners more, which are well summarised by Adi.


The problem is, yet again, the elephant in the room! Tomlinson didn’t challenge the coursebook itself. He didn’t, that is, recognise that ANY coursebook which is used to implement a product / synthetic syllabus is fatally flawed. And thus, I have to diasagree with Adi, who opines that it was

a brilliant talk! Filled with insights from research, experiences from the classroom, practical strategies and the unsaid implication of the extent to which teachers like you and me are inadvertently letting the status-quo go unchallenged.

Yes, right, but unless we get to the root of the problem, which is coursebook-driven ELT, we’ll never get what close to what Tomlinson wants ELT to be. To be clear:

There’s little point in getting learner input into a coursebook if the coursebook still does the same thing, i.e., guide a grammar-based, PPP syllabus.

It’s interesting to note that Tomlinson’s talk, despite all its criticisms of coursebooks, prompted many to see it as an endorsement of coursebook driven ELT. In a long exchange on Twitter, Marek Kiczkowiak suggested that Tomlinson’s talk supported the use of coursebooks, and replied to questions by saying that Tomlinson had given good references to support this claim. I doubt that Kiczkowiak had read the references, and anyway, his attempt to defend coursebooks finally fell back on the tired and irrelevant defence that teachers don’t have time to do any more than use coursebooks.

Let me deal here with the oft-repeated refrain “Coursebooks are not the cause, but merely the symptom of the problem.”

It’s true, of course, that coursebooks are the symptom, but they’re the essential symptom of the commodification of ELT. The cause is not, as Robert  suggests, bad training, but the political organisation of the whole damn planet. It isn’t training, Robert, it really is not. You’ve got it wrong, because you lack a political framework and a historical perspective. Long before you started teaching, in the 1970s and 80s, ELT went through a glorious phase in the West of mad experimentation, where teachers tried every which way to help their students learn. No CELTA course demanded that trainees show their prowess in using a cousebook because coursebooks hardly existed. Coursebooks flourished in the 1990s as the ELT industry boomed: they were what the market needed. It’s as simple and horrible as that.  So coursebooks, I suggest, will do very well as a focus for criticism of current ELT practice.

Coursebook driven ELT is a reflection of global capitalism. The capitalists, including the biggest capitalists of them all these days, the State, want things to be run for profit. And that means that the multi billion dollar ELT industry just loves coursebooks, because they package a product into, here we go again, McNuggets. As the daft remarks of Kiczkowiak give sad evidence of, people get misled into thinking that it’s all to do with convenience. Educational values get chucked out of the window and we all get further away from our real goals.

In order to get back to, and on with, good teaching, we need to get rid of coursebooks.

Tomlinson had a lot of good things to say. What his plenary lacked was a critical evaluation of the data he collected and an appreciation of the need to go beyond tinkering. Coursebooks don’t need to be tinkered with, they need to be abolished.

IATEFL 2017 Part 2: Thornbury The Apologist

One of the worst presentations I saw in the BC’s coverage of the IATEFL conference was Scott Thornbury’s Writing methodology texts: Bridging the research-practice gap.

First, it was a sales pitch.

Thornbury starts off by praising his publishers for the frantic efforts they made to get his books ready to be sold at the conference. This is just one example of the commercialisation of the conference that Steve Brown discusses.

Second, it was devoid of critical acumen.

Thornbury has a good idea: ask a few writers of “How to Teach English” books a number of questions:

  1. How did you get into writing methodology texts?
  2. How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?
  3. How have you kept/do you keep abreast of new developments in research, e.g. SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?
  4. Given that most research is somewhat inconclusive, how do you select from – and prioritize – the research findings that inform your texts?
  5. Do you feel you have an ‘agenda’, i.e. a bias towards a particular theoretical (or a-theoretical) position? If so, do you think this matters?
  6. If not (or even if so) do you attempt to be balanced/impartial/non-prescriptive? How do you achieve this?
  7. Does it concern you that you might be ‘dumbing down’ or otherwise misrepresenting research findings? How do you guard against this?
  8. To what do you attribute your success? (Don’t be modest!)

He gives samples of their responses such as

PU: It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.

JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti- research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching.

JS: Mainly, I think I write what I do and what I see other teachers doing. Informed ideas that may or may not work for others. These need to fit in with my own internal schema for how I think people learn, study, behave etc.

Then he summarises his findings:

  1. Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.
  2. Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
  3. Methodology writers are sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends, while, at the same time recognizing their inherent weaknesses.
  4. Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’.
  5. Methodology writers present options rather than prescriptions.
  6. Methodology writers adopt a voice that is non- academic and practitioner-oriented.

He concludes that their responses are a good guide to how teacher professional development should be carried out.

No critical assessment, not one word of criticism. Everything’s fine.

Look at Conclusion 2:

Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.

In other words, methodology writers cherry pick, looking for stuff that supports their own biases. They ignore the minimal criterion for a critical appraisal of evidence, a criterion which they hypocritically impose on those doing the teacher training course they all run.

Thornbury’s data show that those who write methodology books pay scant regard to research into how people learn languages. They “filter” research findings; they rely on Twitter or on what somebody told them; and often, well, they just haven’y got time to read the research. They “present options rather than prescriptions”, i.e., they refrain from any critical evaluation of conflicting methodologies.

Thornbury’s data is disquieting, to say the least. It turns out that the books which are recommended reading for the hundreds of thousands of people studying to get a qualification in ELT are based more on the authors’ biases, intuitions, feelings and what somebody else told them, than on any serious attempt to critically assess what research findings tell us about how people learn languages.

And this, says Thornbury, is a good model for professional development in ELT.

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: .

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: .

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

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