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.



Below is the final bit of a post I wrote when I first read Long’s 2015 book SLA and TBLT.  Nearly 4 years later, I’m half way through an on-line course for teachers about Long’s version of TBLT, and I think there are signs, however tentative they might be, that we’re making progress.   


Let me emphasise what Long says about the dividends you get from undertaking his kind of TBLT. Yes, it involves “some front-end heavy lifting”, but it’s worth it – it pays big dividends, and the needs analysis & materials production doesn’t have 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 high quality ELT that it seems to me to be an irresistible argument. I reckon that producing a TBLT syllabus of the kind Long proposes for local use could be done with an investment of around 200 hours of teachers’ time.

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, shackles us, restricts us, 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 coursebook, 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.

Nobody in the ELT establishment has offered a good defence of coursebook-driven ELT; they all fall back on arguments of “convenience” and “flexibility” that do nothing to respond to the rational, evidence-based arguments put forward by Long and others against coursebooks. 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, just the way things are. 

How much better it would 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!  Imagine if the hundreds of millions of dollars currently spent on coursebook-driven ELT were spent differently; if Pearson invested in helping local ELT schools all over the world to offer locally produced courses that met local needs; 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; 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. When the inevitable question “How much would profits suffer, Joe?” comes up, he answers “They’re already suffering! How much longer are we going to produce dud materials for TENOR (Teaching English for No Obvious Reason)?”  


  • The British Council is stripped of its privileged position in the commercial market and its mission in TEFL becomes to lead real change and innovation. 
  • Cambridge Assessment scraps CELTA and appoints Glenn Fulcher as its CEO. 
  • Frank and open criticism of the ELT establishment is encouraged.
  • The cosy culture of “Using Cereals Packets to make your own Flash Cards” is replaced by a culture of critical pedagogy.
  • IATEFL and TESOL scrap the Exhibitors Hall at their conferences. 
  • ELT publishers stop producing coursebooks.

The whole edifice of the ELT industry comes crashing down, leaving 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 a change of heart and mind. 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, and it could lead to a situation in ELT where teachers, as Long says, “match the expectations we have that purveyors of 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; They’re too busy; My boss won’t let me, The students wouldn’t like it; It’s not so bad – I like order, you like order, we all like order. Etc., etc.,; we take what we mistakenly see as the easy way out and so on it goes. The establishment figures of ELT who block up the hall and just won’t get out of the way spin the same 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. The times they are a changing.


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.

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

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

Russ Mayne’s Review of Pedagogy of the Oppressed

This is an abridged version of my previous post. 

In his review of Friere’s  “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in EFL Magazine, Mayne gives 4 criteria for assessing what he calls “education themed books”

  1. Interesting and original ideas
  2. Information about research into teaching
  3. Clear, well written prose
  4. Brevity

He goes on:

The first thing I noticed about the Pedagogy of the Oppressed was that it is entirely conjecture. …. the entire work is a collection of one man’s opinions about teaching with a few nods to famous political and intellectual figures. Freire does not present educational research nor talk about the research of others.

Mayne fails to appreciate that Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not about empirical research; rather, it’s about how education should be organised in society. Thus it belongs in the realm of political philosophy, along with books on liberal education by Godwin, Kropotkin, Dewey, Russell, Illich and Goodman, for example. These classics don’t discuss reports of studies giving empirical evidence to support this or that hypothesis, they discuss the educational practices which recommend themselves as a result of an examination of philosophical questions, political principles, and ethical values.

At one point, Mayne seems to appreciate this when he says: 

it is perhaps more accurate to describe the book as a political text which discusses pedagogy than a pedagogical text which discusses politics.

I agree. The consequence is that Mayne is judging it by the wrong criteria and that his characteristic concern for “evidence” is misplaced.  When he says

…  Freire’s ideas about revolution are as evidence free as his ideas about education. Thus when he states “the earlier dialogue begins, the more truly revolutionary will the movement be” is nowhere supported by data,   

he’s applying the wrong yardstick – such statements should not be judged by the amount of supporting data offered in support of them. 

In his final section “Marxism”, Mayne says: 

Freire makes no attempt to hide his admiration for Marx …  the word ‘critical’ in Freire’s sense is not teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions. Rather it is about making ‘the oppressed’ aware of their situation so that they will act in changing it through ‘Praxis’.

He continues, relying on Singer (2018) Marx: A very short introduction,

Marx’s history was Hegelian rather than scientific. He saw it moving inexorably toward some noble aim. The ‘end of history’ was communism. Marx ‘scientifically’ foretold it and Freire’s pedagogy is intend as the midwife of the final revolution.

As a matter of fact, Marx’s history was not Hegelian, and he didn’t see it as moving inexorably toward some noble aim. The communism Marx spoke of had nothing in common with Lenin’s, and Marx did not scientifically foretell the end of history. And I can’t recall Freire claiming that his pedagogy was intended as the midwife of the final revolution. Still, some of Mayne’s criticism is surely right. For example, in my opinion, Mayne is right to criticise Freire for not condemning leaders like Lenin, Guevara and Mao Zedong for atrocities which were carried out on their orders; the book suffers from the over-use of Trotskyist jargon; and Freire took too deterministic a view of how the contradictions of capitalism would unfold.

Nevertheless, Mayne’s review of Pedagogy of the Oppressed makes no attempt to summarise its main points or to give any fair or balanced assessment of it. Freire himself was not doctrinaire, or the kind of bigoted zealot Mayne’s remarks imply. He was deeply religious and deeply committed to his literacy projects. His book has been an inspiration to teachers working in some of the poorest parts of the world who have taken up Freire’s call for an approach to education which engages with those who have been marginalized and dehumanized by oppressive regimes. His banking metaphor of education is powerful precisely because banking is so closely associated with capitalism. 

To return to Mayne’s complaint that 

the word ‘critical’ in Freire’s sense is not teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions. Rather it is about making ‘the oppressed’ aware of their situation so that they will act in changing it through ‘Praxis’, 

Freire was indeed trying to make those who he saw as oppressed aware of their situation, and he certainly hoped that they would act to change it, and this is Freire’s main – very considerable – contribution. Before the 1964 coup, Freire did a great deal in his literacy programme to improve the education of millions of the poorest people in Brazil.  Furthermore, Freire’s work has inspired hundreds of thousands of teachers world wide to take a liberal approach to education, and has contributed to the critique of mainstream education in advanced capitalist countries.

Mayne’s review makes too little effort to appreciate where Freire’s work is coming from, or to recognise Freire’s contribution to discussions about the philosophy of education and its political ramifications.    


Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. NY, MacMillan.

Godwin, W. (1793) An enquiry concerning social justice. 

Goodman, P. (1966) Compulsory Miseducation. NY, Random house.

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society. Penguin.

Kropotkin, P. (1902) Mutual Aid. London, Freedom Press.

Russell, B. (1924) On Education. London: Allen & Unwin.

Plodding Through the Mire with Mayne 

Russ Mayne’s latest publication is an article in EFL Magazine about Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”.

Mayne starts by telling us

Not knowing anything about Freire or Critical Pedagogy, I decided to read the book which has, according to the cover, sold millions of copies.

After that lucid explanation of his decision to read the book, Mayne continues:

When I read education themed books there are generally four things I hope to find:

  1. Interesting and original ideas
  2. Information about research into teaching
  3. Clear, well written prose
  4. Brevity

A book doesn’t have to meet all of these criteria to be good but meeting one or two would certainly be a good sign.

Yes, well, expecting a book to meet all 4 criteria is perhaps expecting too much, especially if you write prose like Mayne’s. He goes on:

The first thing I noticed about the Pedagogy of the Oppressed was that it is entirely conjecture. As someone who places a lot of importance on research to inform my teaching practice I was somewhat alarmed to realise that the entire work is a collection of one man’s opinions about teaching with a few nods to famous political and intellectual figures. Freire does not present educational research nor talk about the research of others.

If you’re someone who places a lot of importance on research to inform your teaching practice, it would be reasonable to be “somewhat alarmed” at what you read in Freire’s book if and only if you were entirely ignorant of the genre to which the book belongs. Criticising Freire for not presenting educational research and talking about the research of others is like criticising Marx and Engels for not giving more precise information about the length, width and composition of the chains they refer to in their manifesto. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not about empirical research, it’s about politics. From Socrates on, philosophers and educationalists have written books like Freire’s, and while they could, I suppose, be clumsily described as “education themed books”, they’re not therefore obliged to enter into discussions of educational research. Books by Godwin, Kropotkin, Dewey, Russell, Illich and Goodman are a few examples of classics in the field of liberal education, where reports of studies giving empirical evidence to support this or that hypothesis are hard to find, but which nevertheless make valuable contributions to our understanding of education.

Mayne tries to apply his crude criterion of “evidence” where quite different criteria are called for. When reading Freire’s text, we have to appreciate that we’re in the field of political philosophy, where abstract constructs are used, political principles are avowed, and value judgements abound. Mayne actually gets warm when, at one point, he says (contemptuously)

Freire’s writing is more poetic than analytical

and towards the end he actually nails it – even though he seems to think he’s adroitly putting another nail in Friere’s coffin:

it is perhaps more accurate to describe the book as a political text which discusses pedagogy than a pedagogical text which discusses politics.  

Bingo! That’s a very good description of the book. We might all sympathise with the view that Freire’s prose sometimes suffers from an overdose of French and German philosophical terminology, but the terminology goes with the territory, so to speak. If you want to understand 20th century (political) philosophy, just as if you want to understand Chomsky’s theory of UG, or Darwin’s theory of evolution, you have to get to grips with the constructs and terms most commonly used. Freire leans quite a lot on the earlier, more philosophical, writings of Marx, and it’s essential to have a minimum grasp of his theory of dialectical materialism and terms like praxis if you want to appreciate Freire’s argument.

One of the quotes Mayne uses to illustrate what he sees as Freire’s “mysticism” is a good example

Education is thus constantly remade in the praxis. In order to be, it must become. 

Such a statement is not best understood as mystical, but rather the opposite. It’s an expression of the philosophical notion of praxis. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx “turns Hegel on his head” and describes praxis as understanding the world by acting in the world in order to change it. He dismisses the search for absolute truth and replaces it with action involving both thinking about and changing the world. Whether or not one accepts such an epistemological position (and I certainly don’t) is not the point here – the point is that Mayne’s criticism is based on misconstruing Freire’s argument and expecting it to conform with his own narrow view of what “education themed books” should be like.

Mayne’s review is shot through with the clumsy use of the same wholly inappropriate litmus test: evidence. At one point he says:

(As an aside Freire’s ideas about revolution are as evidence free as his ideas about education. Thus when he states “the earlier dialogue begins, the more truly revolutionary will the movement be” is nowhere supported by data.)  

What a way to read a book on the philosophy of education!

But Mayne saves the worst for last. In the final section on “Marxism”, Mayne says

Freire makes no attempt to hide his admiration for Marx …  the word ‘critical’ in Freire’s sense is not teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions. Rather it is about making ‘the oppressed’ aware of their situation so that they will act in changing it through ‘Praxis’.

Mayne continues, reliably informed by Singer (2018) Marx: A very short introduction,

Marx’s history was Hegelian rather than scientific. He saw it moving inexorably toward some noble aim. The ‘end of history’ was communism. Marx ‘scientifically’ foretold it and Freire’s pedagogy is intend as the midwife of the final revolution.

Well Marx’s history was not Hegelian, and he didn’t see it as moving inexorably toward some noble aim. The communism Marx spoke of had nothing in common with Lenin’s, and Marx did not scientifically foretell the end of history. And I can’t recall Freire claiming that his pedagogy was intended as the midwife of the final revolution, either. But still, there’s a good argument in there somewhere, if only Mayne were able to make it while respecting what Marx, Hegel and Freire actually said. It’s certainly a good idea to challenge books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and the time has obviously come when it becomes so iconic that people like JJ Wilson start referring to it at an IATEFL plenary. What’s more, Freire was wrong about a lot of things, including, as Mayne says, failing to condemn psychopaths like Lenin, Guevara and Mao Zedong who committed atrocities in the crazed belief that they were defending the revolution. Freire frequently contradicted himself and he took too deterministic a view of how the contradictions of capitalism would unfold.

Nevertheless, Mayne’s review of Pedagogy of the Oppressed makes no attempt to summarise its main points or to give any fair or balanced assessment of it. Freire himself was not doctrinaire, or the kind of bigoted zealot Mayne’s remarks imply. He was deeply religious and deeply committed to his literacy projects. His book has been an inspiration to teachers working in some of the poorest parts of the world who have taken up Freire’s call for an approach to education which engages with those who have been marginalized and dehumanized by oppressive regimes. His banking metaphor of education (and yes, Mayne, of course it’s a bloody metaphor) is powerful precisely because banking is so closely associated with capitalism, and nothing in Mayne’s confused remarks comes close to a coherent argument against Freire’s view.

To return to Mayne’s claim that

the word ‘critical’ in Freire’s sense is not teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions. Rather it is about making ‘the oppressed’ aware of their situation so that they will act in changing it through ‘Praxis’, 

Freire was indeed trying to make those who he saw as oppressed aware of their situation, and he certainly hoped that they would act to change it. We may ask: What’s Mayne trying to do? When he suggests that Freire’s text is revolutionary propaganda, an attempt at brain washing, a betrayal of the quest for truth, he shows no awareness of the ideological baggage attached to his own prose. “Teaching learners to be independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions” sounds very like the language Thatcher used when she was Minister For Education in the UK. Too often these demands for independent thinkers to come to their own conclusions are used to support neoliberal, individualistic, everybody-for-themselves values, where Freire’s concerns for social justice are coldly ignored.

By all means let’s scrutinise Freire’s work and challenge its iconic status. But let’s do it with intellectual honesty and rigour.


Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. NY, MacMillan.

Godwin, W. (1793) An enquiry concerning social justice. 

Goodman, P. (1966) Compulsory Miseducation. NY, Random house.

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society. Penguin.

Kropotkin, P. (1902) Mutual Aid. London, Freedom Press.

Marx, K. (1843) Theses on Feuerbach Available here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/index.htm

Russell, B. (1924) On Education. London: Allen & Unwin.

Living in a glass house

A few days ago, Silvana Richardson tweeted

Strong words from Ms. Richardson. But is she in a position to throw such stones? Below are some extracts from her IATEFL 2016 conference plenary. My comments follow the ***s. 

Most SLA researchers assume that Native Speakers make the best teachers.  *** False.

Most SLA researchers view the L1 as “an obstacle”. *** False.

 Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar supports Native Speakerism, is ideologically biased, and has contributed to discrimination against NNESTs.

*** False. In Chomsky’s theory of UG, the term “native speaker” is used to refer to an “ideal” speaker; it’s a construct used in a very carefully-defined domain. Richardson seems unable to distinguish between a theory of linguistic competence and ethnographic studies of language use, where the term “native speaker” is often used to unjustly discriminate against a certain group of teachers. It’s quite common to find Chomsky’s theory so airily misrepresented, but, given his record of fighting social injustice, it’s surely ironic to hear Richardson accuse Chomsky of ideological bias.

Task-based language teaching and the lexical approach thrust a monolingual approach upon the world.  

*** False.  What unites the very different views of proponents of TBLT and Lexical approaches, such as the Willises,  Long,  Nunan, Ellis, Skehan (TBLT), and Walkley & Dellar (Lexical Approach), is their commitment to the fight for equal rights for NNESTs.

If you look at theories of SLA, you find yourself in a dark, narrow, confined cognitivist theoretical space which results in a narrow approach to teaching, learning and teacher education, and to native speakerism, monolingualism and monoculturalism. 

*** False. This  sweeping, unwarranted assertion shows little understanding of SLA research or of the people who do it. For a start, Richardson supports her own views by citing the work of Vivian Cook and Guy Cook, and then, twenty minutes later, she accuses both men of shunning the light. But it’s worse than that – the people Richardson portray working in a nasty, dark tunnel include her heroes! She seems not to appreciate that under the wide umbrella of cognitivists stand the emergentists, including, of course, the wonderful Diane Larsen-Freeman and Scott Thornbury. In fact, cognitivists include academics as diverse as Krashen, Pienemann, Gass, Towell, Hawkins, Doughty, Long, Skehan, Robinson, Pica, Schmidt, White, R. Ellis, Mackay, Brown, Bygate, Chaudron, Foster, Lightbown, Spada, Tomasello, MacWhinney, and Nick Ellis, to name but a few. Richardson’s remarks really don’t bear examination.      

A paradigm shift from “SLA” to “Plurilingual Development” will usher in a new world of ELT practice where NNESTs are no longer discriminated against. 

*** False. Blissfully unaware of her confusion, Richardson steps further into the mire by attributing ideological positions to two  groups inside the cognitivist camp. On one side are those she refers to as “the “cognitivists”. These are the baddies, portrayed as conservative reactionaries doggedly protecting the status quo. On the other side are the emergentists, including Larsen-Freeman. These are the goodies, the liberal vanguard, fighting to bring about the paradigm shift to “Plurilingual Development”.  Two points need making.

First, the most cursory examination of the ideological views of members of the two groups will quickly show that their views on education, social inclusion and politics don’t depend on what explanation of second language learning they favour. Some of the most radical political views are held by those who staunchly defend a generativist theory – including Chomsky himself, of course. The moral high ground doesn’t belong exclusively to those who believe that language learning is best explained by appeal to some elementary version of the power law of practice processing frequently occurring exemplars encountered in the input (sorry, in the affordances).     

Second, there is the question of the relative academic merits of these two groups. A quick way to judge is to watch Larsen Freeman’s IATEFL 2016 plenary and then to read as much as you can bear of Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) Complex systems and applied linguistics. I think it’s fair to say that the obscurantist writing and the lack of clarity are notable. and that those familiar with the topics dealt with will also notice the poor standards of scholarship and argumentation displayed. In contrast, if you read Topics 7 and 8 in Cook and Singleton (2014) Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition, I think it’s fair to say that the writing is clear and the scholarship exemplary.    

Apart from regular appearances in the Cambridge English Teacher, a now defunct, promotional arm of Cambridge Assessment English, I can find no published work by Richardson in any applied linguistics or  ELT journal. Richardson rebukes conference organisers and teaching associations for giving under-informed speakers a platform to spread half-baked ideas. Yet she herself continues to use the biggest platforms at the biggest conference to deliver ill-informed and poorly judged opinions on SLA research.  Mind the glass. 

Coursebooks: A Recap

In the light of two threads which I took part in on Twitter yesterday, I’d like to quickly re-cap my position on coursebooks.

In a number of posts, I’ve argued that coursebooks should be replaced by analytic syllabuses, for the following reasons:

1 Using a coursebook means that a lot of classroom time is devoted to talking about the L2 as an object. However, if communicative competence is the goal, better results can be obtained by devoting classroom time to students talking in the L2 about matters that are relevant to their needs. This, like the other reasons below, is based on a consideration of efficaciousness: coursebook-driven ELT is not efficacious – the results are better if you emphasise learning by doing.

2 Presenting and practicing a pre-set series of linguistic forms (pronunciation, grammar, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc.) contradicts research findings about how people learn an L2.  Teaching via PPP doesn’t ensure that what is presented and practiced will be available to the learner for future spontaneous use. Furthermore, the assumption that the best  approach to ELT is to teach linguistic forms first, and then practice them might seem like common sense, but actually, it’s putting the cart before the horse.  As Hatch (1978) so famously said:

“Language learning evolves out of learning how to carry on conversations. One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed”.

3 The cutting up of language into manageable pieces usually results in impoverished input and output opportunities. Short “safe” texts are too frequently used with display questions to produce poor quality Initiation –> Response –> Feedback exchanges (e.g.:  Where’s Paris?” -> It’s in France -> Good) between teacher and students.

4 Results are poor. It’s hard to get reliable data on this, but evidence strongly suggests that most students who do coursebook-driven courses do not achieve the level of proficiency they expected.

Defenders of coursebooks argue that all coursebooks can’t be lumped together in the same bag. I accept that some coursebooks don’t follow the synthetic syllabus I describe, but these are the exceptions. The coursebooks I’ve reviewed along the years belong to the same set: best-selling General English coursebooks, versions of which are sold all over the world. They all use a synthetic syllabus and they all make the same fundamentally mistaken assumptions about how people learn an L2. To accuse me, as someone did on Twitter yesterday, of making “an obvious and unhelpful over-generalisation” is mere hand waving, and to say, as he also did, that I fail to support my arguments with detailed reviews of coursebooks is quite simply false.

It’s also said that coursebooks are OK, the problem is that teachers use them too slavishly. But coursebooks are not OK: their job is to help teachers to implement a synthetic, usually grammar-driven syllabus, where bits of language are first presented and then practiced in a sequence going from the first to the last Unit of the book. The coursebook says Do this and then do that. It says: Present this bit of language using these texts and diagrams, and then practice it by doing these activities.

And that’s what millions (sic) of teachers do. Depending on a number of factors such as teaching experience and the attitude of the boss, teachers may skip some pages of the book, or change the order in which activities are done, or use some additional material, or do activities that are “off piste”. They may, that is, bend the rules a little, or quite a lot, but they’re still letting the coursebook guide the course. If they seriously depart from the prescribed PPP treatments of the designated bits of the L2, then they stop using the coursebook for its designed purpose.

On Twitter yesterday, Tim Hampson and Rob Sheppard say that they just take a few of their favorite things from a collection of  coursebooks, treating them like a materials bank. If this is really what they do, then they no longer implement the syllabus of any given coursebook and they have to answer the question: “What syllabus have you put in its place?” If they dedicate most classroom time to scaffolding students’ engagement in relevant communicative activities, then they have effectively abandoned the coursebook and put an ad hoc, learner-centred, analytic syllabus in its place.

In other posts, I’ve replied to those who say there are no practical alternatives to coursebook-driven ELT. I’ve discussed alternatives such as Dogme, immersion courses, Breen’s process syllabus, CLIL, some ESP and EAP courses, and, most of all TBLT. I’ve spent some time describing and discussing different versions of TBLT and supporting my opinion that Long’s version, as described in his 2015 book SLA and TBLT, is the best. I think that Long’s TBLT is highly recommended for those teachers who are doing many kinds of in-company courses, or who have private clients, or who are doing special needs courses, or who have the chance to design courses for a group of learners.

But I recognise that lots of teachers can’t chuck the coursebook in the bin just yet. At the moment, I’m doing a course with teachers where, among other things, we’re exploring ways in which those who find themselves using coursebooks because that’s what they’re told to do by their bosses can “loosen the grip” of the coursebook and slowly work towards a more learner-centred, TBLT approach.

P.S. I pursue a few of these points in more detail in the post: Why Teach Grammar

Notes on Thornbury’s Performance Approach to Language Learning

Scott Thornbury recently gave a talk called “Towards a performance-based approach to language learning”, which was skillfully summarised by Jessica Mackay. I base my notes on her summary and I recommend that you click on this link to see Jessica’s summary.

Performance as usage

Thornbury suggests that Chomsky’s focus on linguistic competence should be replaced by a focus on language performance.

Note 1.

This is well-trodden ground for Thornbury, but in this talk he doesn’t go over the ground in any detail. He makes do with the bulldog, bulldog bullldog .. example to stress how locked up in an ivory tower Chomsky is, and contrasts it with examples of what people actually say. This appeal to common sense and to how common people speak doesn’t last long – by the time Thornbury gets to the end of his talk he’s visited a succession of obscurantist works, starting with Malinowski’s special take on functionalism, through Goffman’s symbolic-interaction perspective, or dramaturgical analysis, Judith Bulter’s gender performativity and geneological feminism, Deborah Cameron’s neoliberal feminism, ending up in la la land with Lapaire, Holmes, and research into embodied cognition.

Getting off to a brisk start, Thornbury once again dodges the question of how children’s demonstrated knowledge of language can be explained by those like him who adopt a usage based, emergentist view of language learning. Recall that, years ago, in his discussion of Chomsky in P is for Poverty of the Stimulus , Thornbury answered the question thus:

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 Thornbury wants to follow Nick Ellis in adopting an associative learning model and an empiricist epistemology, he needs to pay more serious attention to these questions:

  • 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: 2).

And yet, he never has given any coherent answer to these questions, nor has he presented  his own usage-based theory of language learning. To read my comments on Thornbury’s attempts to explain his view of language learning, please see the post The Works of Scott Thornbury: Part 1 


Next, Thornbury invokes Halliday’s (1978: 38) suggestion that

‘Instead of rejecting what is messy, we accept the mess and build it into the theory’.

And follows with Hopper’s (1998: 166-167) observations that

language is akin to a collage, improvised from a collection of ready-made elements, and the skill of speaking depends more on remembering procedures than on following rules.

Note 2

Thornbury doesn’t discuss the theory that Halliday built from studying messy performance data, or do more than repeat Hopper’s suggestion that language is akin to a collage. While Halliday’s systemic functional grammar certainly looks at the performance data, I doubt that Halliday would sign up to the the view which Thornbury’s trying to articulate in this talk.

As for the Hopper quote, accepting the assertion that the skill of speaking depends more on remembering procedures than on following rules depends on accepting a usage-based theory of language learning. Instead of arguing the case for such a theory, Thornbury gives a quote as if it argues his case for him.

Next, Thornbury recommends seeing language as “accumulated by the process of repeated performance”. As an example, Scott showed the incomplete phrase:

“You must be ……….ing!”

While most expert users of English would give the complete sentence as “You must be joking”, a search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals that the most frequent verb appearing in this structure is doing.

Note 3

What does it mean to say that language should be seen as “accumulated by the process of repeated performance?” Supposing that it makes sense, what reasons are there to suppport it? Is the example supposed to serve as evidence supporting this view?  Surely “You must be doing!” isn’t as frequently found in the COCA corpus as “You must be joking!”, is it? And anyway, how does this support Thornbury’s assertion that language is accumulated by the process of repeated performance? If the instinct of native speakers is to expect the missing word to be “joking”, and it turns out that we’re all wrong, what follows?

Finally, we get to the nitty gritty: Thornbury makes the big statement: humans are primed to look for and identify patterns in the mess of language performance data which they’re exposed to, and therefore, learning grammar involves abstracting regularities from the stock of known lexical sequences” (N. Ellis, 1997).

Note 4

I’ve commented on Thornbury’s attempts to use usage based language learning theories in other posts (see The Works of Scott Thornbury cited above, or What good is relativism? for example), but since here he endorses Nick Ellis’ view of grammar learning, we might pause to look at other things he’s said on the matter. His “Slow release grammar” piece might be seen as an attempt to follow Ellis. He says:

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.

Elaborating on this, Thornbury explains that lexical chunks – memorised initially as unanalysed wholes – slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Thus, language emerges as “grammar for free”.

How does this square with some of Thornbury’s other publications? Look at his CELTA books, or Grammar Practice Activities, for example, where a much more traditional view seems to be adopted. Then there’s his book Natural Grammar, which is in a class of its own. Does Thornbury’s increasing commitment to alternative views of grammar imply a further turn? Given that language is accumulated by the process of repeated performance, will he now recommend Hoey’s view (there’s no such thing as grammar), or some version of Construction Grammar, or perhaps Dellar’s view of “Bottom-up grammar”?

Back to the talk. Thornbury concludes the section with this:

What does it mean? Is it meaningful? Is it a legitimate inference? How can we decide if the state of affairs described in the antecedent (language is learned for worldly use) is a sufficient condition on the circumstance described in the consequent (the learning process must be use-based)? What are the constraints on “worldy use”? How can we test whether language is learned for wordly use? What might an unworldly use look like?

This is, of course, the kind of language that those trying to develop a sociocognitive view, or a sociocultural approach, or a complexity theory approach, or an identity approach, or a language socialization approach, or an embodied cognition approach, like to use. It’s not exactly a good example of the messy stuff of “performance language”, the sort of thing normal folk walk around saying to each other, now is it? Which raises the question of its existential, embodied status. What if it fails to make it into the COCA corpus? Does the fact that Thornbury’s said it once, and that there’s every chance he’ll say it again, improve its chances? Will it finally become a pattern that our children will be primed for?

Next time:

1. The Malinowski challenge

Thornbury introduces his Performance as embodiment section with the following quote from Malinowski:

“Ultimately all the meaning of all words is derived from bodily experience.”

  • Can you think of a word that might challenge this assertion? “Bollocks” obviously won’t do, but how about “tree” or “cat”?
  • For Malinowski all meaning is “occasional meaning”. Can you see any problems with that view? Does it, perhaps ignore the fact that occasional meaning can only be understood within the limits defined by the usual meaning of a word?
  • Do you agree with Malinowsky’s peculiar functionalist view of language? Is there any problem with equating language  with function? If the same result can be got from different verbal utterances that don’t mean the same thing; and the same expression with a single meaning can produce different results, might Malinowsky have taken things just a bit too far?

2. The Lapaire Tapes

What support from research into embodied cognition do you think Lapaire gets from this quote from Holme (2009: 53):

The body can be rethought as the expressive instrument of the language that must be taught.?

Does the quote help you to understand what Lapaire is doing in the video clip? Do you think you can use a similar approach in your teaching?

Why teach grammar?


Implicit language learning is learning by doing, learning how the language works by engaging in relevant communicative tasks. The learners’ focus is on meaning, with occasional, short, teacher-instigated focuses on form. SLA research findings make it clear that implicit learning is more basic, more important and superior to explicit learning. Implicit learning is the result of deeper processing, and thus is more durable. It results in automatic, fast access to interlanguage knowledge, and it underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency.

That’s why those of us involved in the SLB TBLT course are against explicit grammar teaching of the sort found in coursebooks. Such explicit grammar teaching takes up a lot of time; it crowds out the real communicative practice needed to achieve communicative competence, it slows up implicit learning. It’s a question of efficacy, especially in teaching environments where opportunities for practice outside the classroom are limited. You can help students reach their goals more efficiently and effectively by finding out what they need to do in the L2 and by then giving them tasks to do which help them reach their objectives. The needs analysis is not difficult, and apart from a bit of heavy lifting at the start, TBLT courses are no more demanding than coursebook-driven ones, but they’re certainly more efficacious, as Bryfonski & McKay’s 2017 review shows.

It’s not that grammar teaching is completely useless. But since using a coursebook to teach grammar fails to respect the restraints imposed by interlanguage development, students often fail to learn what they’re taught. And anyway, since it’s been demonstrated that with the right kind of input and scaffolding, students can work the grammar out for themselves in their own way, why bother?

I spent 30 years teaching English as an L2, and I’ve spent almost that long reading the SLA literature, talking to SLA scholars, teaching in an MA programme, and trying to make my own sense of how people learn an L2 and the implications for teaching. But while it all seems fairly clear to me, I’m aware that it doesn’t seem at all clear to most people currently working in ELT, a fact which  was brought home to me recently when I got involved in a thread on Twitter. Matthew Ellman kicked off:

Coursebook authors! Changing active sentences into the passive voice and vice versa is a complete waste of time and doesn’t teach learners anything.

Most people who joined in the discussion agreed with this opinion, and suggested various other bits of English which might or might not benefit from explicit teaching. There was general agreement that explicit grammar teaching was a good thing. I suggested that it wasn’t a good thing, which led Steve Smith to give a link to this article by Catherine Walter, published in 2012 in The Guardian, a UK newspaper:

Walter confidently claims that, while grammar teaching has been under attack for years,

evidence trumps argument, and the evidence is now in. Rigorously conducted meta-analyses of a wide range of studies have shown that, within a generally communicative approach, explicit teaching of grammar rules leads to better learning and to unconscious knowledge, and this knowledge lasts over time.

She goes on:

Teaching grammar explicitly is more effective than not teaching it, or than teaching it implicitly; that is now clear. What this implies is that the grammar in a course should be planned, to ensure coverage of the structures learners will need. Teachers cannot depend on a range of texts or a range of topics or a range of tasks to yield all the grammar in a course. Taking each class as it comes is not an option. A grammar syllabus is needed, along with the other syllabuses and word lists that structure a course.

I replied to Steve, saying that Walter’s piece was “a disgraceful misrepresentation of the evidence”, that no meta-analysis ever published made such claims, and that there were severe reservations about pre 2015 meta-analyses which looked at studies on teaching very simple forms and testing by gap filling & multiple choice questions soon after the teaching had been done. I also referred to newer studies and to the meta-analysis by Kang et al in 2018. Steve Smith replied that he’d read it, adding:

My reading of the article is that it confirms the well-known Norris and Ortega study, with a particular advantage for instruction for beginners.

Wrong!, I yelled. The article did no such thing – see Kang et al 2018, p. 13:

 “implicit instruction (g = 1.76) appeared to have a significantly longer lasting impact on learning … than explicit instruction (g = 0.77). This finding, consistent with Goo et al. (2015), was a major reversal of that of Norris and Ortega (2000).

By this time I’d realised, once again, how deeply entrenched explicit grammar teaching had become. Leading teacher trainers must take some of the credit or blame for this state of affairs, because they encourage teachers to use coursebooks and to see themselves as teachers of the code; teachers who must first tell their students about the language, bit by bit; then get them to practice the bits by doing lots of focused exercises; and then, finally do short bits of “freer” practice. Where did this view come from? We have to go back a while to get the answer.

Back to the bad old, good old days 

We’re back in the 1960s, 1966 to be precise, when John Carroll wrote:

“Once the student has a proper degree of cognitive control over the structure of a language, facility will develop automatically with the use of the language in meaningful situations.”

What he meant was: once you’ve taught the student the grammar of a language, the rest will follow through language use. That was how US teachers did it in the massive foreign language training programmes in the 1960s, and that was how they did it in the UK through the Situational Approach. But the results were very disappointing, even if they were slightly better than the disastrous results of grammar-translation courses and secondary school courses in foreign languages, where after 5 years teaching, students couldn’t hold the most rudimentary conversation in the target language. But they weren’t much better. The problem was that all they had was explcit knowledge of the language; they knew about it, so they could answer questions about it in tests, but their knowledge didn’t enable them to use the language in spontaneous communicative situations. It was these poor results which led to the emergence of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).

What happened?

In 1967, Pit Corder proposed that we acquire the rules of language in a predictable way (some rules tending to come early and others late) and that the order is independent of the order in which rules are taught in language classes. In 1975 Krashen and Selinger published “The Essential Contributions of Formal Instruction in Adult Second Language Learning”. In 1976, Wilkins made the important distinction between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, and in 1977, Krashen published “The monitor model of adult second language performance”, which made the distinction between acquisition and learning, that is, between implicit and explicit learning. All these advances in the study of SLA were used as steps to build CLT, which rejected the “Teach the grammar first” precept, and adopted the view that students could work the grammar of the target language out for themselves if they were provided with the right input and enough opportunities to engage in scaffolded, meaningful communicative practice, where the teacher organised classroom activities and gave help with the problems they encountered along the way.

Real Change

Teachers were encouraged to stop teaching grammar, to stop telling students about the language, and, instead, to devote classroom time to orgnising activities where students could learn by doing, by practicing using the language. Teachers used written and spoken texts where the language was treated holistically; they organised activities that were task-oriented not exercise-centred and that involved integrating skills not isolating them. Priority was given to student interaction, so the classroom layout changed and students spent time working in pairs and small groups.

More and more research in SLA supported the CLT movement. Most important were the studies of interlanguage development, given a framework by Selinker’s (1972) paper which argues that L2 learners develop their own autonomous mental grammar (interlanguage (IL) grammar) with its own internal organising principles. More work on the acquisition of English morphemes, and then studies of developmental stages of negation in English, developmental stages of word order and questions in English, and then Pienemann’s studies of learning German as an L2 where all learners adhered to a five-stage developmental sequence (see Ortega, 2009, for a review) put together an increasingly clear picture of interlanguage development.

Putting all the research together, it was clear, even by the mid 1980s, that learning an L2 is a process whereby learners slowly develop their own autonomous mental grammar with its own internal organising principles. Development of individual structures is not categorical or linear; rather interlanguage development is dynamic, so that at any one time, lots of different parts of the mental grammar are being revised and refined. Learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to different end-state proficiency levels, slowly mastering the L2 in roughly the same way, regardless of the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented by teachers. Teaching can affect the rate but not the route of IL development. The acquisition sequences displayed in IL development are impervious to explicit teaching. SLA shares many features of L1 learning: it is predominantly a matter of implicit learning, and explicit instruction about the L2 is constrained by the learners’ interlanguage development.

Now you see it, now you don’t 

And yet, just as it was really taking off, along came coursebooks, which, by 1995 had succeeded in throwing CLT into the dustbin of history. The myth lingers that we’re still in the era of CLT, but we’re not, we’re in the era of coursebook-driven ELT, and we’ve been here for decades. OUP celebrated the 40th birthday of the Headway series in 2017, now in its 4th edition. A cursory look at any of the most popular General English coursebooks will reveal the demise of CLT: there’s little to distinguish these coursebooks from the Kernel English series which used a no-nonsense Situational Approach 40 years ago.

On we go, then 

The reason why so many teachers associate their jobs with grammar teaching is because that’s what they’ve been trained to do and because they’ve been given little encouragement to critically evaluate the syllabuses and the methodology imposed by using coursebooks which enshrine explicit grammar teaching. The argument that this is an inefficacious way of going about ELT, and that there are viable, better ways, hardly gets heard. So on we go, stumbling on, putting too much faith in teacher trainers, most of whom refuse to give serious consideration to the weaknesses of coursebook-driven ELT or to alternatives.

Meanwhile, some of us, a merry, motley crew, are breaking away, sailing the good ship TBLT out into open seas. No coursebooks, no grammar teaching, just a commitment to the principles of learning by doing and learner-centred teaching. Everybody welcome!


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

Corder, S. P. (1967) The significance of learners’ errors.International Review of Applied Linguistics 5, 161-9.

Eun Yung Kang, Sarah Sok, Zhao Hong (2018) Thirty-five years of ISLA research on form-focused instruction: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research

Krashen, S. (1977) The monitor model of adult second language performance. In Burt, M., Dulay, H. and Finocchiaro, M. (eds.) Viewpoints on English as a second language. New York: Regents, 152-61.

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

Seliger, H. (1979) On the nature and function of language rules in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly 13, 359-369.

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

Wilkins, D. A. (1976) Notional syllabuses. Oxford, Oxford University Press.