Teacher Trainers in ELT

This blog is dedicated to improving the quality of teacher training and development in ELT.


The Teacher Trainers 

The most influential ELT teacher trainers are those who publish “How to teach” books and articles, have on-line blogs and a big presence on social media, give presentations at ELT conferences, and travel around the world giving workshops and teacher training & development courses. Among them are: Jeremy Harmer, Penny Ur, Nicky Hockley, Adrian Underhill, Hugh Dellar, Sandy Millin, David Deubelbeiss, Jim Scrivener, Willy Cardoso, Peter Medgyes, Mario Saraceni, Dat Bao, Tom Farrell, Tamas Kiss, Richard Watson-Todd, David Hill, Brian Tomlinson, Rod Bolitho, Adi Rajan, Chris Farrell, Marisa Constantinides, Vicki Hollet, Scott Thornbury, and Lizzie Pinard. I apppreciate that this is a rather “British” list, and I’d be interested to hear suggestions about who else should be included. Apart from these individuals, the Teacher Development Special Interest Groups (TD SIGs) in TESOL and IATEFL also have some influence.

What’s the problem? 

Most current teacher trainers and TD groups pay too little attention to the question “What are we doing?”, and the follow-up question “Is what we’re doing effective?”. The assumption that students will learn what they’re taught is left unchallenged, and trainers concentrate either on coping with the trials and tribulations of being a language teacher (keeping fresh, avoiding burn-out, growing professionally and personally) or on improving classroom practice. As to the latter, they look at new ways to present grammar structures and vocabulary, better ways to check comprehension of what’s been presented, more imaginative ways to use the whiteboard to summarise it, and more engaging activities to practice it.  A good example of this is Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener’s “Demand High” project, which leaves unquestioned the well-established framework for ELT and concentrates on doing the same things better. In all this, those responsible for teacher development simply assume that current ELT practice efficiently facilitates language learning.  But does it? Does the present model of ELT actually deliver the goods, and is making small, incremental changes to it the best way to bring about improvements? To put it another way, is current ELT practice efficacious, and is current TD leading to significant improvement? Are teachers making the most effective use of their time? Are they maximising their students’ chances of reaching their goals?

As Bill VanPatten argues in his plenary at the BAAL 2018 conference, language teaching can only be effective if it comes from an understanding of how people learn languages.  In 1967, Pit Corder was the first to suggest that the only way to make progress in language teaching is to start from knowledge about how people actually learn languages. Then, in 1972, Larry Selinker suggested that instruction on formal properties of language has a negligible impact (if any) on real development in the learner.  Next, in 1983, Mike Long raised the issue again of whether instruction on formal properties of language made a difference in acquisition.  Since these important publications, hundreds of empirical studies have been published on everything from the effects of instruction to the effects of error correction and feedback. This research in turn has resulted in meta-analyses and overviews that can be used to measure the impact of instruction on SLA. All the research indicates that the current, deeply entrenched approach to ELT, where most classroom time is dedicated to explicit instruction, vastly over-estimates the efficacy of such instruction.

So in order to answer the question “Is what we’re doing effective?”, we need to periodically re-visit questions about how people learn languages. Most teachers are aware that we learn our first language/s unconsciously and that explicit learning about the language plays a minor role, but they don’t know much about how people learn an L2. In particular, few teachers know that the consensus of opinion among SLA scholars is that implicit learning through using the target language for relevant, communicative  purposes is far more important than explicit instruction about the language. Here are just 4 examples from the literature:

1. Doughty, (2003) concludes her chapter on instructed SLA by saying:

In sum, the findings of a pervasive implicit mode of learning, and the limited role of explicit learning in improving performance in complex control tasks, point to a default mode for SLA that is fundamentally implicit, and to the need to avoid declarative knowledge when designing L2 pedagogical procedures.

2. Nick Ellis (2005) says:

the bulk of language acquisition is implicit learning from usage. Most knowledge is tacit knowledge; most learning is implicit; the vast majority of our cognitive processing is unconscious.

3. Whong, Gil and Marsden’s (2014) review of a wide body of studies in SLA concludes:

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

4. ZhaoHong, H. and Nassaji, H. (2018) review 35 years of instructed SLA research, and, citing the latest meta-analysis, they say:

On the relative effectiveness of explicit vs. implicit instruction, Kang et al. reported no significant difference in short-term effects but a significant difference in longer-term effects with implicit instruction outperforming explicit instruction.

Despite lots of other disagreements among themselves, the vast majority of SLA scholars agree on this crucial matter. The evidence from research into instructed SLA gives massive support to the claim that concentrating on activities which help implicit knowledge (by developing the learners’ ability to make meaning in the L2, through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback) leads to far greater gains in interlanguage development than concentrating on the presentation and practice of pre-selected bits and pieces of language.

One of the reasons why so many teachers are unaware of the crucial importance of implicit learning is that so few teacher trainers talk about it. Teacher trainers don’t tell their trainees about the research findings on interlanguage development, or that language learning is not a matter of assimilating knowledge bit by bit; or that the characteristics of working memory constrain rote learning; or that by varying different factors in tasks we can significantly affect the outcomes. And there’s a great deal more we know about language learning that teacher trainers don’t pass on to trainees, even though it has important implications for everything in ELT from syllabus design to the use of the whiteboard; from methodological principles to the use of IT, from materials design to assessment.

We know that in the not so distant past, generations of school children learnt foreign languages for 7 or 8 years, and the vast majority of them left school without the ability to maintain an elementary conversational exchange in the L2. Only to the extent that teachers have been informed about, and encouraged to critically evaluate, what we know about language learning, constantly experimenting with different ways of engaging their students in communicative activities, have things improved. To the extent that teachers continue to spend most of the time talking to their students about the language, those improvements have been minimal.  So why do so many teacher trainers ignore all this? Why is all this knowledge not properly disseminated?

Most teacher trainers, including Penny Ur (see below), say that, whatever its faults, coursebook-driven ELT is practical, and that alternatives such as TBLT are not. Ur actually goes as far as to say that there’s no research evidence to support the view that TBLT is a viable alternative to coursebooks. Such an assertion is contradicted by the evidence. In a recent statistical meta-analysis by Bryfonski & McKay (2017) of 52 evaluations of program-level implementations of TBLT in real classroom settings, “results revealed an overall positive and strong effect (d = 0.93) for TBLT implementation on a variety of learning outcomes” in a variety of settings, including parts of the Middle-East and East Asia, where many have flatly stated that TBLT could never work for “cultural” reasons, and “three-hours-a-week” primary and secondary foreign language settings, where the same opinion is widely voiced. So there are alternatives to the coursebook approach, but teacher trainers too often dismiss them out of hand, or simply ignore them.

How many TD courses today include a sizeable component devoted to the subject of language learning, where different theories are properly discussed so as to reveal the methodological principles that inform teaching practice?  Or, more bluntly: how many TD courses give serious attention to examining the complex nature of language learning, which is likely to lead teachers to seriously question the efficacy of basing teaching on the presentation and practice of a succession of bits of language? Today’s TD efforts don’t encourage teachers to take a critical view of what they’re doing, or to base their teaching on what we know about how people learn an L2. Too many teacher trainers base their approach to ELT on personal experience, and on the prevalent “received wisdom” about what and how to teach. For thirty years now, ELT orthodoxy has required teachers to use a coursebook to guide students through a “General English” course which implements a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus through a PPP methodology. During these courses, a great deal of time is taken up by the teacher talking about the language, and much of the rest of the time is devoted to activities which are supposed to develop “the 4 skills”, often in isolation. There is good reason to think that this is a hopelessly inefficient way to teach English as an L2, and yet, it goes virtually unchallenged.


The published work of most of the influential teacher trainers demonstrates a poor grasp of what’s involved in language learning, and little appetite to discuss it. Penny Ur is a good example. In her books on how to teach English as an L2, Ur spends very little time discussing the question of how people learn an L2, or encouraging teachers to critically evaluate the theoretical assumptions which underpin her practical teaching tips. The latest edition of Ur’s widely recommended A Course in Language Teaching includes a new sub-section where precisely half a page is devoted to theories of SLA. For the rest of the 300 pages, Ur expects readers to take her word for it when she says, as if she knew, that the findings of applied linguistics research have very limited relevance to teachers’ jobs. Nowhere in any of her books, articles or presentations does Ur attempt to seriously describe and evaluate evidence and arguments from academics whose work challenges her approach, and nowhere does she encourage teachers to do so. How can we expect teachers to be well-informed, critically acute professionals in the world of education if their training is restricted to instruction in classroom skills, and their on-going professional development gives them no opportunities to consider theories of language, theories of language learning, and theories of teaching and education? Teaching English as an L2 is more art than science; there’s no “best way”, no “magic bullet”, no “one size fits all”. But while there’s still so much more to discover, we now know enough about the psychological process of language learning to know that some types of teaching are very unlikely to help, and that other types are more likely to do so. Teacher trainers have a duty to know about this stuff and to discuss it with thier trainees.

Scholarly Criticism? Where?  

Reading the published work of leading ELT trainers is a depressing affair; few texts used for the purpose of training teachers to work in school or adult education demonstrate such poor scholarship as that found in Harmer’s The Practice of Language Teaching, Ur’s A Course in Language Teaching, or Dellar and Walkley’s Teaching Lexically, for example. Why are these books so widely recommended? Where is the critical evaluation of them? Why does nobody complain about the poor argumentation and the lack of attention to research findings which affect ELT? Alas, these books typify the general “practical” nature of TD programmes in ELT, and their reluctance to engage in any kind of critical reflection on theory and practice. Go through the recommended reading for most TD courses and you’ll find few texts informed by scholarly criticism. Look at the content of TD courses and you’ll be hard pushed to find a course which includes a component devoted to a critical evaluation of research findings on language learning and ELT classroom practice.

There is a general “craft” culture in ELT which rather frowns on scholarship and seeks to promote the view that teachers have little to learn from academics. Teacher trainers are, in my opinion, partly responsible for this culture. While it’s  unreasonable to expect all teachers to be well informed about research findings regarding language learning, syllabus design, assessment, and so on, it is surely entirely reasonable to expect the top teacher trainers to be so. I suggest that teacher trainers have a duty to lead discussions, informed by relevant scholarly texts, which question common sense assumptions about the English language, how people learn languages, how languages are taught, and the aims of education. Furthermore, they should do far more to encourage their trainees to constantly challenge received opinion and orthodox ELT practices. This surely, is the best way to help teachers enjoy their jobs, be more effective, and identify the weaknesses of current ELT practice.

My intention in this blog is to point out the weaknesses I see in the works of some influential ELT teacher trainers and invite them to respond. They may, of course, respond anywhere they like, in any way they like, but the easier it is for all of us to read what they say and join in the conversation, the better. I hope this will raise awareness of the huge problem currently facing ELT: it is in the hands of those who have more interest in the commercialisation and commodification of education than in improving the real efficacy of ELT. Teacher trainers do little to halt this slide, or to defend the core principles of liberal education which Long so succinctly discusses in Chapter 4 of his book SLA and Task-Based Language Teaching.

The Questions

I invite teacher trainers to answer the following questions:


  1. What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?
  2. How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?
  3. What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?
  4. What materials do you recommend?
  5. What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?



Bryfonski, L., & McKay, T. H. (2017). TBLT implementation and evaluation: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research.

Dellar, H. and Walkley, A. (2016) Teaching Lexically. Delata.

Doughty, C. (2003) Instructed SLA. In Doughty, C. & Long, M. Handbook of SLA, pp 256 – 310. New York, Blackwell.

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

Ur, P. A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

Whong, M., Gil, K.H. and Marsden, H., (2014). Beyond paradigm: The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of classroom research. Second Language Research, 30(4), pp.551-568.

ZhaoHong, H. and Nassaji, H. (2018) Introduction: A snapshot of thirty-five years of instructed second language acquisition. Language Teaching Research, in press.

Words from the Wise

Here are some quotes from ELT experts who currently inform teachers. Who said them?

  • J. Harmer
  • A. Holliday
  • A. Maley
  • P. Ur
  • D. Larsen-Freeman
  • S. Carroll
  • L. Selivan
  • J. Anderson
  • S. Richardson
  • H. Dellar

(Note: There’s one “rogue statement” in there which I profoundly agree with.) 

1. It’s time to shift metaphors. Let’s sanitise the language. Join with me; make a pledge never to use “input” and “output” again.

2. Instead of the big top down grammar, which we just drop words into as Chomsky suggested, it’s thinking about the individual words that drive our communication and the grammatical patterns which often attach themselves to those particular words.

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

4. It’s essentially racist to imagine a group here and a group there who are essentially different to each other.

5. Chunks …. are stored in the brain as single units. .. However, this does not completely negate the role of generative grammar. Knowledge of grammar rules is still important to fine-tune chunks so that they fit new contexts.

6. We have no evidence that PPP is less effective than other approaches.

7. We should not expect research to have any necessary or close link with the activity of teaching.

8. There is no evidence that TBLT works.

9. You can’t notice grammar. ..  the stuff of acquisition (phonemes, syllables, morphemes, nouns, verbs, cases, etc.) consists of mental constructs that exist in the mind and not in the environment at all. If not present in the external environment, there is no possibility of noticing them.

10. Most SLA researchers assume that native speakers make the best teachers.. and view the L1 as “an obstacle”.










1. Larsen-Freeman; 2. H. Dellar; 3. J. Harmer; 4. A. Holliday; 5. L.Selivan; 6. J. Anderson; 7. A. Maley; 8. P. Ur; 9. S. Carroll; 10. S. Richardson

A Reply to Dellar on the difference between his “Lexical Approach” and TBLT

Dellar has a new video on YouTube explaining the difference between his “Lexical Approach” and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).

Dellar’s Lexical Approach is distinguished by its special “approach to language”. While most ELT approaches wrongly see language as “grammar and single words”, his approach sees language as more “patterned and formulaic” than is commonly assumed, where collocations, chunks, “fixed and semi-fixed expressions, discoursal patterns that are predictable and repeatable” should be the focus of teaching. That’s it – that’s the special approach which Dellar claims teachers need training in, so as to think about language in “a more sophisticated, nuanced way”.

On the other hand, CLT is “primarily to do with classroom methodology” – “interaction is both the means and the ultimate goal of study (sic)”.  Dellar has no objections to communicative activities, but he thinks teachers can do them better by adopting his more sophisticated approach to language, because it better equips them to provide students with “the actual language that they need in order to carry out communicative tasks”. Thus, TBLT and Dogme could be improved by doing what he does – “predict the language students need to perform these tasks”.

On Language

Dellar fails here, as he does elsewhere, to give any coherent description of this special view of the English language. I’ve discussed Dellar’s view of language in a separate post, so suffice it to say here that Dellar & Walkley’s Teaching Lexically gives one of the most absurd misreprentations of pedagogical grammars (“grammar plus words”) ever published, and follow it with an incoherent account of the important role that collocations and lexical chunks play in understanding the English language. Dellar’s various attempts to describe his special approach to the English language  – in this video, in Teaching Lexically, in his podcasts, videos and conference presentations (note particularly his contorted versions of a “bottom-up” grammar) – are an unscholarly sham.

On Teaching 

Dellar, as we’ve seen, says that teachers following TBLT and Dogme syllabuses would benefit if they shared his more sophisticated, more nuanced understanding of English, because this would allow them to predict the language which students need to perform tasks. But how would it do that? What guidance does Dellar give teachers to inform their “predictions”? Given his focus on lexical chunks, and given that proficient English speakers know tens of thousands of lexical chunks, how does Dellar suppose that teachers, once trained in his approach to language, will select the chunks that their students need? What criteria  will they use to narrow down the many thousands of candidate chunks to a managable number? Dellar has never offered any coherent criteria or principles for making such a selection, nor has he shown any critical acumen in assessing the enormous problems involved in selecting and teaching lexical chunks. For example, what principles or criteria inform the selection of chunks to be found in Dellar’s One Minute videos? A recent aticle in Applied Research on Language Learning, lists the most frequent idioms used in contemporary American English, in the academic, fiction, spoken, newspaper, & magazine genres. Not one of Dellar’s over 200 selected chunks (which include the gems “It does my head in”, and “budge up”) is mentioned in the lists. So if teachers ever make the mad decision to base their teaching on presenting and practicing chunks, how will they “predict the language their students need”? Throw darts at a board full of “Hugh’s Favorite Chunks”? No, of course not – all they have to do is leave it Hugh, and use the Outcomes series of coursebooks.

I wonder if “Help! Get me out of here!” appears in any of them.

Arguing about mansplaining on Twitter

This Tweet appeared recently. You can see my comment below it, and the 21st comment after that, which got over 200 “Likes”. 















The Reaction

Dozens of tweets followed my “What nonsense!” tweet. Some, from men, were crass and insulting (You’re shit. Shut the fuck up moron), while women preferred joshing and taking the mickey. Just about everybody agreed I was mansplaining. For example, A tweeter called M commented:

This really is quite meta: a historical reference to mansplaining met by the the most peak of mansplainers ever imaginable.

While Raw posted this

I wrote more than 30 replies in 3 hours; a few were angry; many were ill considered; and many had mistakes (in one, I referred to Eleanor Marx as Karl Marx’s sister, for example); so I’m not pretending that I put my case coherently and cohesively and I’m not complaining about the reactions, either. I just want to state my case calmly here and make a couple of comments.

Louise Raw’s view 

From the tweet, I judge Raw’s view to rest on the special status of Eleanor Marx. She was a Marxist scholar; she’d spent years working with Marx; she was chosen by Marx to carry on his work; and Marx entrusted her with the job of publishing the English version of Capital. In a famous quote (Florence, 1975) Karl Marx said “Tussy [Eleanor] is me”. Thus, it is extremely unlikely that the man who stood up at the end of her lecture and told her what Marx really meant knew better than she did what Marx meant. So the man is guilty  of mansplaining.   

My View

Mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending or patronising way. If the man explained what Marx meant to to Eleanor in a condescending or patronising way, then he was mansplaining. But if the man offered an interpretation of some aspect of Marx’s work which contradicted Eleanor’s account, without stooping to condescension or patronisation, then he wasn’t mansplaining. The fact that he was talking to Eleanor Marx doesn’t mean that his remarks were necessarily condescending or patronising – or even wrong. Louise Raw gives no information about the man’s intervention, and without a reliable acount of what the man said and the way he said it, we can’t be sure he was mansplaining. Saying that the man “told her what Marx had really meant” could be seen as implying that he was being patronising & condescending, but Raw’s a historian – she should have supported her assertion of historical mansplaining with a reliable account of the man’s words and actions at the 1893 lecture given by Eleanor Marx in Aberdeen.   

The False Claim: You say that the man knew better than Eleanor what Marx meant. Ergo: you’re anti-feminist.  

Over 50 tweets had the same theme: I was called a “sexist”, “misongynist”, “old white man”, “woman hater” who “despised feminists”. The tweet from Audrey shown above says this: 

So random man knew better what Karl meant than Karl’s own daughter who worked with him…. Were you related to that man by any chance? 

Audrey puts words in my mouth and attributes completely false views to me. In no tweet did I say, or imply, that the man (now “random man” and perhaps my relative) knew better than Eleanor Marx what Marx meant, or question Eleanor’s expert status. But, never mind; the twisting of my words became an established “fact” from then on. Dozens of tweets supposed that I had indeed said that random man knew better, and, on that basis, accused me of bias and sexism.  Today, this was posted:  

That quote is not what I said; I don’t know where bb davey got it from; but there it is again: the false assumption that I had suggested that “random man” knew better.  

A bit later Audrey says:  

Yeah… How dare we thinking that a woman who is also his daughter would know better the subject she was working on?? We’re so silly Louise…. Aren’t we?

I didn’t criticise anybody for thinking that Eleanor knew more than “random man”, but again, never mind; it sounds good and was the cue for merry “I’m in the kitchen, where Geoff thinks I belong” exchanges among some women tweeters, which, stupidly, rattled me enough to call them “dummies”.

Ad Hominens or Gratuitous Insults? 

Louise Raw’s tweets contained these remarks: 

  • (Geoff) is an heroic leftie whose politics are beyond question. As we know, loathing feminists & insulting women is no bar to this. 
  • (Geoff) doesn’t realise Eleanor Marx was one of the feminists he despises.
  • (Geoff) sees no irony in getting furious with having HIS knowledge challenged whilst saying it was fine for a random dude to challenge ELEANOR’S
  • (Eleanor) was absolutely Marx’s literary collaborator, as everyone acknowledges- apart from Geoff!
  •  (Geoff) came to us, calling us dummies and idiotic feminists, but is The Real Victim Here? 
  • Geoff likes to insult women whilst accusing US of ad hominems.

The Appeal to authority 

Louise Raw says this:  Karl Marx: ‘Eleanor IS ME’. He meant politically. So the mansplainer was doing the closest thing he could, after Karl’s death, to correct Marx himself on Marxism.

The actual quotation is ‘”Jenny is most like me, but Tussy (Eleanor) is me” (Florence, 1975, p. 57). I think it’s fair to say he meant politically, but to suggest that Eleanor Marx was the voice of Marx himself is surely taking things too far. Marx trusted his daughter to faithfully interpret hiis work, but that doesn’t mean she always did so. Marx died in 1883, and in 1884 Eleanor, along with other members of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), including William Morris and Ernest Bax left the SDF and formed the Socialist League. It’s a mute point what Karl Marx might have advised. And it’s not sure whether father and daughter were entirely in agreement about sexual politics and the wrongs of the bourgeois family. In any case, while it’s perfectly reasonable to claim that Eleanor was a reliable source of information about Marx’s work – especially the later work, including Capital – that doesn’t mean she had – or should have had- the final word on all the myriad controversies and disagreements that raged in the 1890s about what Marx really meant, or that in her lecture that day she didn’t say anything that might be seen as offending the Marxist canon. 

Critical Thinking

Here’s a tweet from Bygone (sic) Jim:  

The pompous adage in the first sentence is followed by a completely unsupported criticism in the second. But my argument during the exchange, and now, more calmly here, is based on the first principle of critical thinking: Question everything: examine the logic of any assertion and ask for evidence; don’t believe what you’re told. In a polite exchange with Sue Lyon-Jones, she agrees that mansplaining is when a man tells a woman something she already knows in a way that is patronising and dismissive, and she thinks that Louise Raw’s tweet demonstrates that the man was guilty of it. Where’s the evidence? I ask. She replies: 

That is how I read it. As a woman, it rings a fairly loud bell for me.
I replied, a bit hysterically
But you don’t know what he said! …..  WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!  
And there’s the rub. I don’t think we should take Louise Raw’s word for it that the man was “obviously” mansplaining and I think she failed as a historian to give the evidence that would have allowed us to judge for ourselves. Either Raw doesn’t have the evidence, in which case she shouldn’t have made the accusation, or she has it, and for some reason decided not to give it in a follow up to her original tweet. 



 Florence, R. (1975) Marx’s Daughters. Dial Press,    

Synthetic and Analytic Syllabuses

In on-going discussions about the weaknesses of coursebook-driven ELT, references are made to two types of syllabuses: synthetic and analytic. The distinction was first made by Wilkins (1974), and ammended by Long and Crookes (1992). There seems to be some confusion about them, so here’s a summary of what Long (2015) says. My apologies to Mike for the awful liberties I’ve taken with his much more carefully written text.

‘Synthetic’ and ‘analytic’ refer to the learner’s role in the learning process.

A synthetic approach focuses on the language to be taught (the L2). The L2 is divided into units: words, collocations, grammar rules, sentence patterns, notions and functions. These units, or items, are then sequenced according to criteria (normally intuitively defined ‘difficulty’) and presented one by one.

Synthetic syllabuses assume a central role for explicit instruction and explicit learning, followed by proceduralization of declarative knowledge, and automatization of procedural knowledge. Language teaching is seen “as a process of filling the learner’s linguistic quiver one shiny new arrow at a time” (Long, 2015).

Students are exposed to “simplified” dialogues and reading passages “seeded” with the structure(s) of the day. Practice of the structure(s) is followed by “freer practice”. The approach relies on a battery of exercises, and linguistically focused tasks for intensive practice during the proceduralization and automatization phases.

Analytic Syllabus 

An analytic approach does the reverse. It starts with the learner and learning processes. Students are exposed to samples of the L2, and engaged in meaningful target language production. The learner’s job is to analyze the input, and thereby to induce rules of grammar and use. There is no overt or covert linguistic syllabus. More attention is paid to message and pedagogy than to language. The idea is that, much in the way children learn their L1, adults can best learn a L2 incidentally, through using it.

Analytic syllabuses are implemented using spoken and written activities and texts, modified for L2 learners, chosen for their content, interest value, and comprehensibility. Classroom language use is predominant. Grammar rules, drills, and error correction are seldom, if ever, employed.


Synthetic syllabuses view L2 learning as a process of skill building. Declarative knowledge (conscious knowledge that) is implanted first. It’s gradually converted into procedural knowledge (unconscious knowledge how). Reflecting the power law of practice, performance moves from controlled to automatic processing, with increasingly faster access to, and more fluent control over, new structures achieved through intensive linguistically focused rehearsal.

Skill-building models contradict research findings on interlanguage (IL) development. IL development of individual structures has very rarely been found to be linear. Accuracy in a given grammatical domain typically progresses in a zigzag fashion, with backsliding, occasional U-shaped behavior, over-suppliance and under-suppliance of target forms, flooding and bleeding of a grammatical domain (Huebner 1983), and considerable synchronic variation, volatility  (Long 2003a), and diachronic variation.

The assumption of synthetic syllabuses, that learners can move from zero knowledge to mastery of formal parts of the L2  one at a time and move on to the next item on a list is a fantasy.

Explicit instruction in a particular structure can produce measurable learning. However, studies that have shown this have usually devoted far more extensive periods of time to intensive practice of the targeted feature than is available in a typical course. Also, the few studies that have followed students who receive such instruction over time (e.g., Lightbown 1983) have found that once the pedagogic focus shifts to new linguistic targets, learners revert to an earlier stage on the normal path to acquisition of the structure they had supposedly mastered in isolation and “ahead of schedule.”

IL development is regulated by common cognitive processes and what Corder (1967) referred to as the internal “learner syllabus,” not the external linguistic syllabus embodied in synthetic teaching materials. Students do not – in fact, cannot – learn (as opposed to learn about) target forms and structures on demand, when and how a teacher or a textbook decree that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so.

In instructed SLA contexts, research (see, for example, Sok et. al., 2019; Kang, et.al., 2019) increasingly shows that following a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus is not as efficacious as using an analytic syllabus such as that recommended by Long (2015), which treats the L2 holistically and leads students through a series of scaffolded tasks where the focus is on meaning, and where focus on form is used to deal with problems which arise when the students indicate a need for it.


Kang, E. Y., Sok, S., & Han, Z. (2019). Thirty-five years of ISLA on form-focused instruction: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research23, 4, 428–453.

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

Long, M., and Crookes, G. (1992). Three Approaches to Task-Based Syllabus Design. TESOL Quarterly, v26 n1 p27-56 Spr 1992.

Sok, S. Kang, E. Han, S. (2019). Thirty-five years of ISLA on form-focused instruction: A methodological synthesis. Language Teaching Research 23, 4, 403-427).

Wilkins, D. (1974). Notional syllabuses and the concept of a minimum adequate grammar. In S.P. Corder, & E. Roulet (Eds.). Linguistic Insights in Applied Linguistics. AIMAV/Didier.

End of Year ELT Quiz

PART A: Who said

1.  I’m very aware that I fly far too much.  

  1. Sylvia Richardson
  2. Sandy Millin
  3. Donald Trump

2.  Things are getting better and better.

  1. Stephen Pinker
  2. David Nunan’s accountants
  3. Buckingham Palace

3. Language is the toolset of intelligent life.

  1. Nim Chimsky
  2. Jim Scrivener
  3. The Pope

4.  It’s essentially racist to imagine a group here and a group there who are essentially different to each other.

  1. J. Thribb (age 17)
  2. Christopher Columbus
  3. Adrian Holliday

5.  We should not expect research to have any necessary or close link with the activity of teaching.

  1. Boris Johnson
  2. Alan Maley
  3. Anthony Joshua

6.  General English Coursebooks are bland, unappealing, unchallenging, unimiginative, unstimulating, mechanical, superficial and dull. None of them is likely to to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.

  1. Brian Tomlinson
  2. John Soars
  3. Pearson Help line

PART B. Numbers

1.  How many levels are there in

  • the CEFR scale
  • the ALTE scale
  • the Pearson Global Scale

2.  How many empirical studies of language use were consulted in order to establish these scales?

  1. 50
  2. 100
  3. 1,000
  4. None

3. For each scale, which does this statement belong to: Can write letters or make notes on familiar or predictable matters

  1. A1
  2. A2
  3. B1
  4. B2
  5. C1
  6. C2
  7. I don’t understand the question

4. Which scholar has not criticised these scales

  1. Alderson
  2. Bachman
  3. Fulcher
  4. Long
  5. J. Thribb (age 17)?

5. How many lexical chunks do proficient users of English as an L2 need to know?

  1. 1,000 +
  2. 2,000+
  3. The ones Hugh Dellar picks

C  Grammar

1.  How many tenses are there in English?

  1. 4
  2. 3
  3. 2
  4. 1
  5. 0
  6. Other

2.  What is CxG?

  1. Z squared
  2. Jenkins’ Grammar for Construction Workers
  3. A folorn attempt to build grammar from putative learned pairings of linguistic forms with functions or meanings

3.  Is this a well-formed sentence: There are many different ways to teach English and places where it is taught. (J. Harmer, 2015).

  1. No
  2. If Harmer wrote it, it must be.
  3. The conjunction ‘also’ is missing.

D. Vocabulary

Readers are invited to add to this list of definitions from the BBC Radio 4 show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:

Chairs – toast by the Queen

Childhood – young gangster

Delight – make things go darker

Extemporary – permanent

Fondue – affectionate sheep

Inhabit – dressed as a monk

Khaki – device for starting car

Laminated – pregnant sheep

Microbe – tiny dressing gown

Minimal – small shopping centre

Mucus – feline swear word

Negligent – Male lingerie

Overrate – nine

Paradox – two medics

Parasites – view from Eiffel Tower

Posterity – inherited botom size

Property – decent cuppa

Ramshackle – male chastity belt

Scandal – footwear to be ashamed of

Xenophobia – fear of Buddhists

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.


Part A

  1. Sandy Millin
  2. Stephen Plunker
  3. Jim the Man
  4. A. Halliday
  5. Alan Maley
  6. Brian Tomlinson

Part B

  1. 7; 7; 10 to 90
  2. None
  3. B2
  4. Thribb
  5. 2,000+

Part C

  1. 2
  2. 3
  3. You decide!


Against Intellectual Sloth, Part 2.

In Part 1, I looked at the first part of Dellar’s post Five things I’ve Learned from running-the “English Questions Answered” group, so as to comment on his claims about NNESTs. In this second part, I’ll look at the post as a whole.

The first thing Dellar learned was Language awareness is not something you’re born with. This invites the questions: What does “language awareness” refer to?; and: What’s the point of saying that it isn’t something you’re born with? Neither question is answered in the text.

The second thing he learned was Difference in meaning is inseparable from different usage. Again, we may ask: What does this mean? Following Widdowson (1979), a distinction is usually made between rules of usage (the rules for making language, i.e. syntax) and rules of use, which consider the communicative meaning of language. I presume Dellar just picked the wrong word, and is, in fact, referring to different uses. If he is, then the point seems to be that when trying to tease out the differences between closely-related words, it’s a good idea to not just look at dictionaries, but to “give examples of what the words are used to do – and to show the other words that often go with them”. I quite agree, and I’m sure you do too.

And I agree with points 3,4 and 5, too. Notions of correctness are more complicated that we may realise; some things are more worth worrying about than others; and tensions between descriptivists and prescriptivists remain high. Dellar’s remarks on all three points are reasonable enough, but his approach to the issues remains vague. In the case of notions of correctness, for example, Dellar says “we need to recognise and accept diversity and the fact that it’s often far easier to say what’s most normal than what’s ‘correct’”. OK, but how are teachers to decide the correctness or “acceptability” of particular sentences, or collocations, or pronunciation patterns? For example, when students ask “How do you pronounce the word ‘grass’?”, what should teachers say? Hugh says [gra:s] and Andrew says [græ: s]. Should teachers teach both? Or teach how they themselves pronounce it? Or use Jenkins’ ELF guide? Or assume that their students want to be taught British English RP / American Standard English? Similarly, Dellar chides “prescriptivist” teachers, but does little to address the frustration he admits they might feel when they’re told to be more “descriptive”. To say that “most of the old rules and generalisations remain”, but that we must consider emerging  “new norms” is not very helpful. What are the old rules and generalisations that teachers can continue to use, and how do teachers decide which new norms to incorporate?

Dellar’s reflections on the 2019 postings among his teachers’ group show his on-going confusion about language, and about language learning. The inability to distinguish between Hoey’s and N. Ellis’ use of the key constructs of priming and noticing is again in evidence, as is the habitual vagueness. In ELT, there’s no doubt that familiarity with formulaic language of all kinds, collocations included, is essential, but the vital question of how best to facilitate learning different kinds of formulaic language remains deeply problematic, as scholars including N. Ellis (2017), Long (2015), and, perhaps above all, Boers (e.g., Boers & Webb, 2018), all agree. Most importantly, they agree that trying to explicitly teach the thousands of “chunks” that learners need for a proficient use of English is quite simply out of the question; yet Dellar continues to extol teachers to do precisely that. He gives only the vaguest answers to questions such as: “What principles guide the choice of the chunks that we should teach? How can enough of these notoriously difficult-to-learn chunks be learned by students? What balance between explicit and implicit teaching and learning is required?” In this latest post, Dellar seems to prefer to muddy the water some more, rather than make the effort needed to address the issues.


Boers, F., & Webb, S. (2018) Teaching and learning collocation in adult second and foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 51, 77-89.

Ellis, N. C. (2017) Chunking. In Hundt, M., Mollin, S, and Pfenninger, S. (Eds.) The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives (pp. 113-147), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Long. M. (2015) Second Language Acquision and Task-Based Language Teaching. Malden, MA. Wiley.

Widdowson, H.G. (1979) Explorations in Applied Linguistics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Against Intellectual Sloth

Dellar’s latest post: Five things I’ve learned from running the ‘English questions answered’ group has been lauded without any attempt at a critical examination of its contents. Five points are made, and here, I’ll discuss the first one.

1. Language awareness is not something you’re born with.

Dellar begins:

In this day and age, it should hardly need stating that traditional notions about the relative merits of so-called ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers are ridiculously outdated. It is impossible to tell from the language used by many of the most regular contributors whether English is their mother tongue or not. It’s also, of course, irrelevant.

I agree with the first sentence.

The second sentence carefully refers only to “many of the most regular contributors”, thus ignoring the fact that in other cases it is possible to tell from the language used by contributors whether English is their mother tongue or not. Here’s the sloth, the lazy generalisation that needs comment. And it isn’t mere nit picking. While, of course we should defend non-native English speaker teachers (NNESTs) against wrongful discrimination, we should do so with respect for the evidence. There are tens of thousands of NNESTs whose command of English is demonstrably excellent; and the arguments about the added qualifications which they bring to the job, including bilingualism, knowledge of local contexts, and often superior knowledge of English and of teaching methods compared to that of native speaker teachers are persuasive.

But these teachers are not completely representitive. More than 90% of those currently teaching English as a foreign language are non-native English speakers (British Council, 2015). Most of these NNESTs teach in their own countries, and the evidence suggests that many – probably a majority – of these teachers today don’t have the command of English required to teach the English courses set out in the national curricula, which increasingly focus on communicative language teaching (CLT). To take the example of China, studies by Zhang (2012), Chen and Goh (2011), and Yan (2012) highlight the teachers’ lack of proficiency in oral communication in English as one of the key factors impeding the successful implemenation of a CLT curriculum.

Similar results have been found in studies carried out in other countries. A 1994 study by Reves & Medgyes (cited in Braine, 2005) asked 216 native speaker and non-native speaker English teachers from 10 countries (Brazil, former Czechoslovalua, Hungary, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Sweden, former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe) about their experiences as teachers. The overwhelming majority of the participants were non-native speakers of English, and in their responses, 84% of the non-native speaker subjects said that they had various difficulties using English and that their teaching was adversely affected by these difficulties. Difficulties with vocabulary and fluency were most frequently mentioned, followed by speaking, pronunciation, and listening comprehension.

No good comes from ignoring these facts. To skate so carelessly over the evidence surely harms more than it helps the cause of NNESTs , and it clouds more than it clarifies the complicated arguments involved in moving towards a better, more pluralistic view of the English language and of what should, and, should not, be taught in ELT.


Braine, G. (2005) A History of Research on Non-Native Speaker English Teachers. In: Llurda E. (eds) Non-Native Language Teachers. Educational Linguistics, vol 5. Springer, Boston, MA.

Chen, Z. and Goh, C. (2011)  Teaching oral English in higher education: Challenges to EFL teachers Teaching in Higher Education, 16(3), 333 – 345.

Yan, C. (2012) ‘We can only change in a small way’: A study of secondary English teachers’ implementation of curriculum reform in China. Journal of Educational Change, 13, 431 – 447.

Zhang, D. (2012). Chinese Primary School English Curriculum Reform. In Ruan, J. and  Leung, C. Perspectives on Teaching and Learning English Literacy in China. NY Springer