Teacher Trainers and Educators in ELT

This blog is dedicated to improving the quality of Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE)

The Teacher Trainers and Educators 

The most influential ELT teacher trainers and educators 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. Many of the best known and highest paid teacher educators are also the authors of coursebooks. Apart from the top “influencers”, there are tens of thousands of  teacher trainers worldwide who deliver pre-service courses such as CELTA, or the Trinity Cert TESOL, or an MA in TESOL, and thousands working with practicing teachers in courses such as DELTA and MA programmes. Special Interest Groups in TESOL and IATEFL also have considerable influence.

What’s the problem? 

Most current SLTE pays 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 those delivering SLTE 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, more engaging activities to practice it, and the use of technology to enhance it all, or do it online.  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 SLTE 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 SLTE 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 of those responsible for SLTE talk about it. Teacher trainers and educators don’t tell pre-service or practicing teachers  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 those responsible for SLTE don’t pass on to teachers, 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 is all this knowledge not properly disseminated?

Most teacher trainers and educators, 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  SLTE 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 such 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? Current SLTE doesn’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 and educators 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 educators 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 educators have a duty to know about this stuff and to discuss it with thier trainees.

Scholarly Criticism? Where?  

Reading the published work of leading teacher educators in ELT is a depressing affair; few texts used for the purpose of teacher education 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 SLTE, and their reluctance to engage in any kind of critical reflection on theory and practice. Go through the recommended reading for most SLTE courses and you’ll find few texts informed by scholarly criticism. Look at the content of SLTE 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. Those who deliver SLTE 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 teacher trainers and educators to be so. I suggest that teacher educators 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 educators, 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 and educators 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 and educators 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.

Just How Incompatible are the CELTA Course and Dogme?

On Friday, 3rd Febrary, Scott published the Tweet, above. I replied

Scott replied:

And I replied:

Finally, Scott:

The exchange between Scott and me went on for a bit longer, and there were quite a few comments from others. We all, I’m pleased to say, kept it courteous and I think most of those who followed the discussion agreed with Scott’s point of view  – no surprises there.

In this post, I’d like to make to my case more fully. I’ll restrict it to ELT, but it applies also to teaching other additional languages.  

I want to start by saying (again!) how much I respect Scott, and how much I value much of his work. We agree about a lot, but we disagree about quite a lot, too. I hope that airing our disagreements will help promote constructive discussion and change.   

Scott, Peter Watkins and Sandy Millin have just published a second edition of Scott and Peter’s best-selling books on The CELTA course. As is evident from Scott’s reply to my initial Tweet, the 2nd edition attempts to address many of the criticisms made about CELTA, but I suggest that it remains a woefully inadequate pre-service course.

The CELTA website (Cambridge Assessment English, 2019) states that “tens of thousands” take the course every year at more than 2,800 centers in 130 countries around the world. A full-time course typically involves about 120 hours of work (homework apart) and lasts between four and five weeks.

The CELTA Syllabus consists of five modules:

  • Topic 1 – Learners and teachers, and the teaching and learning context
  • Topic 2 – Language analysis and awareness
  • Topic 3 – Language skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing
  • Topic 4 – Planning and resources for different teaching contexts
  • Topic 5 – Developing teaching skills and professionalism.

Assessment is a combination of marked written assignments, and continuous assessment of participation in tutorials classes and teaching practice, which is a vital part of the course, with trainees being required to teach students at two different levels.

The only attention given to learning a second language is in the first written assignment, but even here there is no requirement for trainees to investigate the process of second language learning or to discuss teaching implications.

Some general weaknesses of the course are:

  • It is far too short in duration.
  • While there is no requirement in the CELTA course that coursebooks be adopted, coursebooks are, in fact, widely used in the tutorials, class discussions and teaching practice.
  • The CELTA course descriptions make no mention of the distinction between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, or of the need to engage in any critical evaluation of the methodological principles which might inform pedagogical procedures.
  • The teaching practice fails to give trainees any real opportunities to learn how to teach
  • The course makes isolated practice of the four language skills a major part of the syllabus and a crucial influence on materials design. Skill separation makes little sense and is in fact, a remnant of the audiolingual era with little empirical or theoretical justification. All SLA research points to the need to integrate language skills for effective language teaching.
  • Brandt (2006) reports a number of problems with the teaching practice. Most trainees feel that success in teaching practice involves being seen to adequately use key techniques, such as transformation drills, marker sentences, counselling responses, concept questions, elicitation, and Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) routines. But since  different tutors have different, often contradictory, views about teaching techniques, trainees’ success or failure depends on keeping in tune with the particular preferences of whichever tutor is observing them.
  • Brandt also found that trainees felt they were not free to experiment and make mistakes without being judged; that they were given few opportunities to reflect on their performance; and that they perceived the purpose of their short teaching practice sessions (lasting from 40 to 60 minutes) as being to show what they could do, rather than to help the students to learn. This feeling among trainees that the teaching practice was something of a sham, that they behaved more like performing monkeys than genuine teachers, was echoed by responses from tutors who complained about experiencing “a dual, conflicting, role: that of guide (to the practising, developing teacher) and that of assessor (of the trainee’s performance)” (Brandt, 2006, p. 256).
  •  Brandt concludes that the CELTA framework fails to recognize the diversity and opportunities of each language learning classroom, and also fails to take into account the distinct contexts in which the course is offered around the world. The course encourages a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, restricting trainees’ opportunities to adequately prepare for the challenges they will face in their local environment, and promoting a view of teachers as “contextually-isolated technicians” (Brandt, 2006, p. 262). Furthermore, the teaching practice tends to treat language learners as ‘tools’ and ‘guinea pigs’, expecting them to jump through a set of hoops for the teachers’ convenience, and the lessons given by the trainees are thus a means of assessment, rather than opportunities for genuine practice.   

Regardless of all the efforts the authors of the 2nd edition of The CELTA Course  books have made to address these weaknesses and those highlighted by Scott in 2017 – the widespread assumption that a grammar-based, structural syllabus as laid out in coursebooks provides the framework for ELT; the predominance of IRF exchanges and display questions; the superficial treatment of texts, the high activity turnover and the prioritising of ‘fun’; etc., – the CELTA course remains an almost insultingly short preparation for the job of teaching English as an L2.

We arrive at the question: Just how incompatible are the CELTA Course and Dogme?  

I suggest the answer is: completely! Most importantly, perhaps, is Dogme’s underlying view of language learning. Scott, following Larson-Freeman, Nick Ellis and others, adopts an emergentist view of SLA which, pace  Krashen and a great many other prominent SLA scholars, claims that languages are not “acquired” but rather, language “emerges” through use. Without going into details here, the implication is that the kind of pedagogic grammar you find in coursebooks is a fiction, and that using a grammar-based syllabus as a framework for teaching English as an L2 contradicts the way emergentists understand language learning.

Scott is famous for lampooning the way teachers serve up innutritious “grammar McNuggets” to students and he applauds Long’s description of teachers haplessly throwing students bits of grammar as if they were zoo-keepers throwing fish to seals at the lunchtime show. Cutting up the target language into items and then presenting and practicing them in a pre-determined linear sequence on the assumption that this will lead to communicative competence is anathema to emergentists like Scott, who believe that language emerges when learners engage in communicative interaction.

The learner talks; others respond. It is the scaffolding and recasting, along with the subsequent review, of these learner-initiated episodes that drives acquisition, argue proponents of task-based instruction, with which Dogme ELT is, of course, aligned. ‘In other words, the emphasis shifts from the traditional interventionist, proactive, modelling behaviour of synthetic approaches to a more reactive mode for teachers – students lead, the teacher follows’ (Long, 2015, p. 70). Or, as Michael Breen (1985) so memorably put it: ‘The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process’ (Thornbury, 2017).

It follows that teachers should not follow an externally-imposed syllabus; rather, they should scaffold student engagement in communicative activities and allow the syllabus to emerge as the course progresses.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the difference between the Dogme approach and the CELTA approach to ELT: they comprehensibly contradict each other! I know that Sandy Millin takes a different view, and I suspect Peter Watkins does, too. I assume that they are both sympathetic to organizing a course of English around a synthetic syllabus, to using a coursebook, to the use of drills, to explicit grammar teaching, to separate skills development, and so on. But Scott is not. Scott is the original creator of Dogme which, on the basis of an alternative, well-articulated understanding of language learning, urges teachers to free the classroom of published materials and coursebooks and to adopt a learner-centred approach where the L2 is treated more holistically, and where the learners and teacher co-construct an emergent knowledge of the L2 and how to use it.  

Scott says that he can live with the contradiction between the CELTA approach and the Dogme approach because “I’m confident that experience has taught me what is needed and feasible on preservice courses”. This is nonsense (sic). What is needed and feasible on preservice courses is an understanding of how languages are learned, an understanding of how to organize a course (i.e. syllabus design) and an understanding, gained partly thru guided practice, of classroom management. The CELTA course imparts no adequate understanding of any of this. It encourages participants to study English morphology, grammar and pronunciation in order to teach an English course which involves the teacher treating the language as an object of study, talking for most of the time, explaining the language, and organising the students to do some whole class / group /pair activities to “practice”. And let’s be crystal clear about one thing: despite everything Dogme has to say, the vast majority of CELTA courses worldwide use coursebooks in the teaching practice component of the course, and assure that when they’ve graduated, teachers will go on to use coursebooks in their jobs.  

There is, IMO, no rational way that Scott can reconcile writing this new edition of The CELTA Course while simultaneously writing books and doing courses which promote Dogme. To claim that CELTA gives a good foundation, while Dogme can help experienced teachers to improve their teaching is no justification for encouraging teachers to do a course whose methodological principles and pedagogic procedures flatly contradict those of Dogme. Dogme is a brave alternative, a rejection of the status quo in ELT, a call for radical reform which offers a bright, vibrant, efficacious learning experience. CELTA is an important pillar of established ELT practice which commodifies language education, fails students, and leads to de-skilled teachers doing precarious, badly-paid jobs.

CELTA makes an important contribution to current ELT practice. More than 90% of those currently teaching English as an additional language are non-native English speakers (British Council, 2015). Most of these teachers have done pre-training courses which echo CELTA’s reliance on the use of courseboks which implement a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus, and it’s shocking how many of them fall down in their ability to communicate fluently in English. The fault lies with the way they themselves were taught. Various studies cited in Jordan and Long (2022) give support to the view that, despite being told of the value of CLT in helping students use English for communicative purposes, and despite stating in their answers to researchers’ questions that they firmly believed in the value of spending classroom time on communicative activities, when the teachers’ classes were observed, it became obvious that their lessons were teacher-fronted, and that the vast majority of the time was spent using a coursebook to instill knowledge about English grammar and vocabulary. When asked to explain the mismatch, the teachers explained that they lacked confidence in their command of English.

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 Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Sweden, former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe) about their experiences as teachers. The overwhelming majority of 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. 

Unless we reform ELT practice, by taking Dogme, TBLT and other alternative approaches more seriously, this vicious circle will continue. Scott needs to appreciate that he can’t have his cake and eat it without damaging his own credibility and the hopes of a brighter future for ELT.  

Scott Thornbury’s latest dish of thin soup

Scott was recently asked by Dwight Atkinson of the University of Arizona to talk to his MA TESOL students about the theory-practice interface. I find his talk heart-breakingly disapponting. The man we look to for radical change, he who invented and promotes Dogme, who famously lampooned coursebooks with his talk of grammar McNuggets, and who adopts Nick Ellis’ emergentist view of SLA which emphasises the primacy of implicit learning, here serves up a dish of feeble, non-nourishing thin soup which does precisely nothing to further the fight for change.

Nowhere in this I’m-a-teacher-not-an-academic, laid-back chat does Scott properly consider the interface between theory and practice. His discussion of theories of SLA and their implications for ELT practice is vague and avoids arguing for any coherent view of language learning or for any approach to teaching. If you protest: “It’s only a 30 minute talk, for God’s sake!”, I reply that the theory part of the theory-practice interface can easily be done in ten minutes. There’s no complete, unified theory of SLA, but there’s complete consensus on this essential point: learning an additional language is different from learning other subjects like geography or biology, because procedural knowledge is the goal, and procedural knowledge is not gained by focusing on formal aspects of the language in the false hope that, with a bit of careful practice, declarative knowledge turns into procedural knowledge. Learning a language is essentially a process of learning by doing. That’s the theory. As for practice, the theory calls for the rejection of coursebook-driven ELT, of A1 to C2 labelling, of high stakes exams like IELTS, and of training programmes like CELTA, all of which Scott has, in his own carefully-hedged way, succintly criticised in his published work.

Scott’s presentation does nothing to promote the needed push-back against coursebook-driven ELT. It’s nothing more than comfortable, charming pap, likely to get warm murmurs of support from the tethered sheep everywhere. Where wolf?

Below is the recording, and after that some comments.


All teachers have theories about how people learn an L2, however inarticulate they may be.

Teachers’ views of L2 learning become slowly articulated. They develop through reflecting on their experience. Scott gives the example of teaching the present perfect when a student responded “meaningfully”, disregarding the form. “Were I and my student operating in different, parrallel universes?” he asked himself. He resolved “the dilemma” by reading Skehan.

Moral: teachers who bump into dilemmas like “teaching the present perfect didn’t go as my implicit theory of language learning led me to expect” can gain by looking at SLA research that explains interlanguage development. Scott says that reading about the early morpheme studies, which suggested that learners have their own in-built syllabus, solved his dilemma. He then gives a list of phenomena that SLA scholars examine:

As he goes through the list, Scott hums and haws about what they might mean to teachers, without (of course!) coming to any firm conclusions.

Teachers who want to read more are recommended to read books like these:

But, Scott warns, it’s important to keep abrest of developments in SLA. The original morpheme studies, for example, have been seriously questioned by further research. So heed Ur’s words of wisdom

Anyway, some reading and more experience will put teachers in a better position to reflect on their teaching. Scott provides a handy chart:

And thus, through a bit of critical reading and lots of reflection, helped by the handy “My reflection chart”, teachers develop from their original implicit theory of language learning to an informed theory and finally to an adaptive theory which takes their own particular circumstances into account,

If all goes well, teachers will be better able to answer these questions:

Finally, the takeaways:


The takeaways reflect the banality of the presentation – who could possibly argue with them!

Of course teachers have their own unarticulated views of language learning, and of course becoming familiar with SLA research will jolt that view. The important thing, however, is to encourage teachers to appreciate the implications of the research, because, if they do, they will recognise that current coursebook-driven ELT is inefficacious. All branches of science, and the teaching of most subjects on a modern school curriculum, have advanced thanks to due regard to research findings. ELT lags behind because it refuses to recognise the implications of robust findings about how people learn languages. Explicit teaching about the language must take a back seat and priority given to getting learners to use the L2 to perform communicative tasks that are relevant to their needs.

Scott deals with his list of the phenomena studied by SLA scholars as if he’s picking over a few enigmatic, quasi-philosophical conjectures. “Ooo, Aghhh” he goes, “Look at this: second language learning is variable in its outcomes. Now there’s a thing! Well, well. Maybe if we reflect on this, it could have some influence – don’t ask me what, precisely – on our teaching.” He does absolutely nothing to properly organise the phenomena in question, or to join up the dots, or highlight the importance of the second one on his list: “2. A good deal of SLA happens incidentally”. He should have said “Most of SLA happens implicitly”, and he should have linked it to “9. There are limits on the efects of instruction on SLA”, but anyway, he sails past this “phenomenon”, ignoring the fact that it is the key to the whole damn problem of current inefficacious ELT.

There is absolutely no point in discussing the theory-practice interface in the way Scott does. He follows the awful fashion of encouraging “teacher reflection”. Well how the hell are teachers supposed to reflect if they’re not in possession of the information they need to move their reflections beyond folk lore? Scott suggests three books they might read, and you can bet your hat that most teachers won’t read them. They rely, quite understandably, on teacher educators who are supposed to read this stuff and keep them informed about it. But teacher educators fail miserably in their duty to tell teachers about how people learn languages in their initial training, or to keep teachers informed about new findings in SLA in CPD programmes. Why? Because ELT is a commercial multi-million dollar business, built on selling coursebooks, high stakes exams like IELTS, and training programmes like CELTA.

The truth about how people learn languages is deliberately misrepresented, but the truth will out, and ELT will change – with or without Scott’s help or hinderance.

The Recuperation of Communicative Language Teaching

“Recuperation” was the term the Situationist International coined in the 1960s to characterise the move from capitalist control of the means of production to advanced capitalist control of the means of consumption. This was surely the Sits most notable contribution to political theory. Recuperation describes the process by which radical ideas and images are defused, incorporated, annexed and commodified in order for their threat to be neutralised. It changes the meaning of radical ideas and appropriates them into the dominant discourse of the status quo.

  • Mick Jagger starts out as an outrageous drug-taking rebel and ends up as a multi-millionaire appearing on a BBC arts programme discussing culture with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • The fashion industry re-invents punk, selling ripped jeans and dog collars to the masses.
  • Tattoos are recuperated from their original cultural representation and become a universal “must have”.
  • Banksy’s street art is sold at Sotheby’s for millions.
  • Environmental warriors see the language of transitions to sustainability being recuperated by those seeking to delay and deflect the transition.
  • Bastani writes of the “recuperation of the internet by capital”, describing how billion dollar corporate media quickly recuperate the internet so that it now reinforces  and promotes the interests of the status quo.

Recuperation offers an explanation for what happened to Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) in English language teaching (ELT).

CLT began as a protest, a rebellion, whose proponents were signaling their dissatisfaction with the then dominant approaches to ELT. To quote from Jordan & Long (2022)

They wanted to replace teaching the structural aspects of language with “doing” language, with helping students to express themselves in the L2. This was truly revolutionary; they argued that the typical classroom routine:

•             Teacher: “I am leaving the room”. (Walks towards the door.) “What am I doing?” 

•             Students: “You are leaving the room”

Should be replaced with 

•             Teacher: “I am leaving the room”. (Walks towards the door.)

•             Students: “Hurray!”, or “Wait for us!”

Or, to paraphrase Hymes and Halliday, they thought their job should focus on helping students to appreciate the communicative value of utterances, the functional, as well as the structural, aspects of language. “For, after all, there is rarely a direct equivalent between form and function: the illocutionary force (i.e., the speaker’s intention) of “I’m leaving the room” can be “I feel ill”; “I’ve had enough”; “It’s dangerous to stay”; and many other things besides. As Hymes (1971) put it, “There are rules of use without which rules of grammar would be useless.”

CLT stressed that language should be treated not just as a collection of grammatical and structural features, but also as a system of categories of functional and communicative meaning which are used to construct discourse. … CLT’s emergence in the 1980s coincided with important developments in the study of second language learning, and thus it also stressed the importance of teaching in a way that respected SLA research findings. Perhaps the most important assumption here is that learners learn a language through using it to communicate. Following on from this, CLT adopted a humanistic theory of learning and insisted, therefore, that learning can often be promoted by getting students to work together, often in small groups, on activities which involve them in using the target language in meaningful communication so as to complete relevant tasks.

CLT flowered in the late 1970s and early 1980s; see Earl Stevick’s A Way and Ways for descriptions of some of its more outlandish expressions.

The tremendous potential of CLT was snuffed out by the arrival of the modern ELT coursebook, which recuperated CLT and turned it into a harmless component of the new, almost perfectly commodified version of ELT we have today.

To be clear: modern coursebook series, with all their add-on components, recuperated CLT, commodifiied ELT and returned it to exactly the type of teaching (a focus on learning about the language rather than on learning by doing) that the pioneers of CLT were rebelling against. Coursebooks pay lip service to CLT, but the syllabuses and classroom practices which flow from them contradict the principles and the spirit of CLT. Promotional materials for these coursebook series claim to be promoting CLT in the same way that politicians today in the UK and elsewhere claim that they’re promoting “levelling up”. They talk it up, they misrepresent it, and they betray it. They’re bullshitters blinded by their own bullshit. Karl Marx, George Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Erich Fromm, Jurgen Habermas, and dear old Paulo Freire (probably the sufferer of the most severe recuperation in ELT literature!) described aspects of alienation that are all too evident in the stuff you read by coursebook publishers and in the stuff teachers hear at conferences and workshops delivered by their well-paid representatives.  

In the ELT establishment today we have a plethora of now very rich individuals who took part in the initial push towards CLT and who were “neutralised”. Richards & Rogers and David Nunan are the most spectacular (sic) examples: three radical pioneers of CLT who are now multi-millionaire apologists for today’s inefficacious ELT practices. Less academic, more popular figures such as Alan Maley perfectly represent recuperation: long ago they encouraged rebellion, today, they’re respected, well-heeled members of the establishment, supporting coursebook-driven ELT and voicing their skepticism of Dogme and strong versions of TBLT.  

More evidence of recuperation is found in the work of today’s ELT influencers. They come in two categories. First are those who claim to be radicals with no credentials or credibility. A good example is the work of Hugh Dellar, Leo Sellivan and others who peddle a “Lexical Approach”. They claim to offer a radical alternative to established ELT practice, while turning the work of pioneers like Pauly & Syder into dross: they write coursebook series and books aimed at “teacher educators” which nullify the radical content of their sources. Another example is the work of Tyson Seburn, who promotes himself as a radical champion of the rights of LGBTQ+ people without for a moment considering, let alone challeging, the commodification of ELT.

Then there are those who simply ignore what’s really going on. Badly-informed gurus like Jeremy Harmer and Penny Ur continue to tour the conference circuit, nodding at CLT without the slightest commitment to its core principles or its real value, while promoting their own, best-selling, truly appalling books on how to teach.

And then there’s the curious case of Scott Thornbury, one of our best ELT educators, who seems to actively participate in the recuperation of his own work. Scott is the proponent of Dogme, the prime supporter of the “Hands Up” project, the man who invented the now famous “teaching grammar McNuggets” meme, the leader in many ways of today’s gathering push back against coursebook-driven ELT. Yet Scott refuses to outrightly reject courses based on grammar teaching in particular or coursebook-driven ELT in general. “There’s no perfect method”, he says, as if anybody suggested that there were. He tells his huge following that if teaching grammar is the basis of their teaching, if they use coursebooks as the syllabus, then who is he to say they’re wrong.

Maybe, as usual, Scott is ahead of the game. Maybe he’s a pioneer in the next stage of post-post-modernism, the inevitable successor of those described by the Situationists. Maybe Scott deliberately contradicts himself. Maybe he’s the new version of Wittgenstein’s beautifully enigmatic volte-face: if you’ve followed me so far, you’ll know I’m talking nonsense. “Don’t do as I say, just kind of soak it up in your own way. It’s all bad, but if it’s good for you, who am I to disagree, as the song goes”. Scott acts out the mismatch between theory and practice like a jester: he’s a radical at heart, wearing a conventional suit betrayed by a swiveling bow tie. Actually, now I think about it, forget Wittgenstein, the real reference is Hegel. Scott goes beyond thesis and antithesis, marching on towards true, dialectically resolved synthesis. I’m joking.              

Fakers and Pretenders

The vast majority of the “influencers” in the huge, multi-billion dollar industry of English language teaching (ELT) are fakers and pretenders.

An influencer is someone with sway.

ELT Influencers do the conference circuit, giving plenaries at the international IATEFL and TESOL conventions and at as many other of the hundreds of ELT conferences around the world that they can. They write best selling “How to Teach” books. They write coursebooks. They design teacher training courses and they contribute to high stakes tests. They have a big presence on social media.

Most ELT influencers fake knowledge about language learning and pretend to know how to teach. They know next to nothing about how people learn an additional language and, as a result, they base teaching practice on unquestioned false assumptions about language learning.

As in all walks of life, ELT influencers give the impression that they’ve convinced themselves that the bullshit they spout isn’t bullshit. Are they sincere? Does their absence of pretence, deceit, or hypocrisy shine through?

Most ELT influencers are in the pay of the business people who run ELT for profit. Ergo, most ELT Influencers are reactionary.

A few ELT influencers are progressive and challenge the status quo. Most of them will be recuperated, bribed back into compliance.

Beware ELT Influencers.

VanPatten’s Processing Instruction


A recent thread on Twitter prompts me to discuss VanPatten’s “Processing Instruction”. The thread was quite lively and interesting, but I thought VanPatten’s model was being misrepresented, and also that the influence of Schmidt’s Noticing construct was being ignored. So here’s my view. I lean mostly on the book VanPatten edited in 2004: Processing Instruction: Theory, Research and Commentary.

I should begin by saying that I share many of VanPatten’s views on SLA and their teaching implications. In a short essay outlining his view of SLA (VanPatten, 2010), VanPatten claims there are two distinct aspects of acquisition. “One involves the acquisition of an abstract and implicit mental representation, …. the other is skill —the ability to use language fluently (measured by speed and accuracy) in both production and comprehension”. Without getting involved in a discussion about this, we may simply note that VanPatten (2010) argues

neither language as mental representation nor language as skill can be directly taught. Teachers and materials cannot directly intervene in the development of either.

I understand VanPatten to be saying that he sees little value in ELT courses that rely on the explicit teaching of any of the formal features of language – syntax, phonology, lexicon-morphology and the semantics that relate to structure – or on the explicit teaching of speaking, listening, reading or writing. The problem is that this view is not clearly implemented in his discussions of Processing Instruction.

Input Processing and Processing Instruction

There are two parts to VanPatten’s approach: Input Processing (IP) and Processing Instruction (PI).

The IP model describes how learners of additional languages (henceforth “learners”) process input and argues that learners’ attempts to understand spoken and written input are hampered by faulty processing.

This lays the foundation for PI, which consists of a number of pedagogic procedures aimed at dealing with the problem of faulty processing.

Regarding IP, VanPatten proposes various principles that constrain the way learners process input, especially in early and intermediate stages. Two key principles are now summarised.

1. The Primacy of Meaning Principle

Learners process input for meaning before they process it for form: they look for content words in the input before anything else. This “push to get meaning” combined with limited resources for processing input, means that “certain elements of form will not get processed for acquisitional purposes”. The principle is broken down into a number of sub-principles including the Lexical Preference Principle (“If grammatical forms express a meaning that can also be encoded lexically (i.e., that grammatical marker is redundant), then learners will not initially process those grammatical forms until they have lexical forms to which they can match them”), and the Sentence Location Principle (“Learners tend to process items in sentence initial position before those in final position and those in medial position”.)

2. The First-Noun Principle

 “Learners tend to process the first noun or pronoun they encounter in a sentence as the subject”. The principle predicts, for example, that learners will incorrectly process passives such as ‘John was fired by Mary’ (taking John to be the one having done the firing).

The result of such principles is that learners sometimes end up with “incorrect data” or with data in which “crucial elements are simply not processed”. VanPatten argues that “less than optimal input processing” is one of the major inhibitors of acquisition.

Processing Instruction

PI provides activities that “push learners away from less than optimal processing” and towards processing along a better path so as to enable intake for acquisition. The essence of PI is structured input, which helps input become intake. In its original formulation, and in many subsequent studies, PI is a four-step process:

Step 1: Identify the problem in the processing.

Step 2: Provide a metalinguistic explanation

Step 3: Lead learners through a number of Structured Input Processing activities

Step 4: Provide feedback.

Note that in many of his discussions of PI, VanPatten makes scant, if any, mention of Steps 2 and 4. In VanPatten (2018), for example, a  “typical IP treatment” is described, and it consists only of “referential activities” followed by “affective activities”, both parts of Step 3: structured input processing. If the problem involves the first-noun principle, learners are asked to listen to and read a mixture of sentences (in English, a mixture of actives and passives) and then asked to indicate who did what to whom (via picture selection, logical sentence follow-up, translation, and other means). This pushes learners to abandon the first-noun principle and find other cues that lead to correct interpretation. These referential activities are followed by affective activities, where learners indicate what is true for them, using information about themselves and the world they live in. “These activities reinforce the appropriate processing that has begun with the referential activities”. 

In the 2004 book, VanPatten gives the example of a teacher who concludes that learners need help with yes/no questions. Again, no mention is made of metalinguistic explanation, or feedback.  

The problem from a processing perspective is the processing of do. Because do is a dummy verb and basically meaningless, if learners cannot attach meaning or function to it during comprehension, it may be skipped or processed incorrectly, perhaps something like the Japanese particle ka for making yes/no questions. What PI might do, prior to class, is provide structured input activities that force learners to process do for tense and person, as in the following:

A. Listen to each sentence and then select the time frame that best goes with the sentence.

1. a. at this moment b. yesterday in class c. in the next class

2. a. right now b. last night at home c. next week

3. a. every summer b. last summer c. next year

4. a. every summer b. last summer c. next year

and so on

Script: 1. Did the teacher hear the student correctly? 2. Does the student understand

the material? 3. Do the teachers at your school take vacation? 4. Did the

teachers take vacation? and so on

B. Listen to each sentence and select the next most logical sentence to follow.

1. a. Yes, at least once a month. b. No, they never visited.

2. a. Yes. I went to China. b. No. I am at home.

and so on.

Script: 1. Does your family visit you? 2. Did you take a vacation? and so on.

Presumably, there would be a series of four to five activities of this type, each with about 10 items. The purpose is to get students to begin processing do for its tense and person features, which would then allow its properties in the lexicon to be made available for participation in yes/no question formation. Class time would consist of interactional activities in which yes/no questions are used to get information related to some theme or topic. For example, the topic of the class might be “Can you live with your classmate? Are you compatible?” One activity might be something like this.

C. Step 1. Answer the following questions for yourself. Yes No

1. Do you usually clean up the dishes right away after eating?

2. Did you clean up the dishes right away after eating last night?

3. Do you usually make your bed in the morning?

4. Did you make your bed this morning?

5. Do you usually leave your clothes on the floor when you take them off?

6. Did you leave your clothes on the floor yesterday?

Step 2. Now, interview a classmate and ask him or her the questions from Step 1. Write down their responses next to yours.

Step 3. Using the information from Steps 1 and 2, rate yourself and your classmate on the scale of neatness below. Be prepared to share information with the class.

Very neat – 5  Kind of messy – 1.      Me 5 4 3 2          1    My classmate 5 4 3 2 1

Follow-up to in-class work might include online listening activities in which someone is interviewed about his or her neatness (video would be best) in which yes/no questions are used by the interviewer. After listening, the student might draw conclusions about the person interviewed, the nature of the questions asked (e.g., what other questions could you ask?), and so on.


Input Proccessing       

Let’s look first at VanPatten’s model of IP. In his introductory chapter to the 2004 book, VanPatten starts with definitions:  

Processing, as VanPatten uses it, refers to making a connection between form and meaning.

A learner notes a form and at the same time determines its meaning (or function). The connection to meaning may be partial or it may be complete (for example, given the complexity of verb endings in Spanish, a learner may “realize” that a form denotes pastness but has not grasped the aspectual meaning also encoded in the inflection).

Perception of a form. A “form” is

the acoustic signal registration that happens to all auditory stimuli. This occurs prior to assignment of meaning and in a number of cases something perceived may get deleted before assignment of meaning to a sentence (see, for example, the discussion in Wolvin & Coakley, 1985).


… any conscious registration of a form, but not necessarily with any meaning attached to it (Schmidt, 1990).”  Terrell (1991), for example, very clearly illustrates his ability to notice a form in the input but an inability to assign any meaning (or function to it).

VanPatten summarises:

Thus, processing implies that perception and noticing have occurred, but the latter two do not necessarily imply that a form has been processed (linked with meaning and/or function).

A few pages later, he says:

I take as a point of departure the following claims: that during interaction in the L2 (1) learners are focused primarily on the extraction of meaning from the input (e.g., Faerch & Kasper, 1986; Krashen, 1982), (2) that learners must somehow “notice” things in the input for acquisition to happen (Schmidt, 1990 and elsewhere), and that (3) noticing is constrained by working memory limitations regarding the amount of information they can hold and process during on line (or real time) computation of sentences during comprehension (e.g., Just & Carpenter, 1992).

This is all rather puzzling. When VanPatten says he takes Schmidt’s Noticing hypothesis as “a point of departure”, does he mean he accepts it? If not, what does he mean? And why does he make his own peculiar distinctions between perception, noticing and processing, especially since processing can be “partial” or “complete”? What motivates this description? The model consists of constraining principles, but no coherent explanation of them is given.

Input Processing

In her contribution to the (2004) book Processing Instruction, Susanne Carroll points out that the IP Model is not a model of input perception, parsing, or sentence interpretation, but rather a model of constraints on processing. The problem here is that defining constraints on processing pre-supposes that one knows what processing involves, and VanPatten doesn’t tell us. The IP model needs a theory of perception and parsing, without which it is difficult to interpret and evaluate.

Carroll goes on to say that if input processing involves connecting forms with meaning, then we need to know how forms come to be mentally represented, i.e., how forms emerge from stimuli that have been noticed. Otherwise, the Primacy of Meaning Principle is a tautology. Note that Carroll sees the Noticing Hypothesis as “critical” to Processing Instruction, since its aim is to help learners to notice how the occurrence of particular forms in the input mean certain things. Thus, “If the Noticing Hypothesis is inadequate in some respects, it will seriously limit the applicability of the Processing Instruction Theory”.

And, of course, Carroll has consistently argued that the Noticing Hypothesis is inadequate in many respects. Schmidt acknowledged that the claim in his original version of the Noticing Hypothesis (that there can be no acquisition without noticing) is simply wrong. First, it is, by definition, simply not possible to consciously “notice” parts of grammar from input because such abstract formal aspects of language aren’t part of input from the environment. You can’t notice things that aren’t there. This led Schmidt to revise his hythosesis to the much weaker claim that learners must pay attention to “surface elements”. As Doughty (2007, see below) says, while Schmidt fails to say what precisely these surface elements are, he states that “the objects of attention and noticing are elements of the surface structure of utterances in the input -instances of language—rather than any abstract rules or principles of which such instances may be exemplars (Schmidt, 2001, p. 5)”.

Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence to support the claim that many aspects of the speech signal are detected well below the threshold of awareness in the processing of language and good reason to suggest that much of our syntactic and semantic acquisition is similarly not consistent with the Noticing Hypothesis. Carroll concludes:

Attention and attentional control are usually discussed in the context of the regulation of our behavior. It is unclear to what extent input processing can be characterized in these terms. Input processing may be better characterized as something that happens to us rather than something we do.

In brief, VanPatten’s Input Processing model consists of principles which

1) use confusing terms;

2) imply that noticing is required, and

3) lack a theoretical explanation.

As it stands, I don’t think the model provides a satisfactory underpinning for the PI approach. Clarification and explanation are needed, if the intention is to demonstrate the implicit nature of L2 learning and to provide the justification for pedagogic structured processing activities which rely on implicit learning.

Processing Instruction

Turning now to PI, I suggest that here too there are signs of confusion. Despite VanPatten’s statement, quoted above, that “neither language as mental representation nor language as skill can be directly taught”, accounts of PI include

1 talk of metalinguistic explanation (involving noticing and/or explicit grammar teaching),

2 feedback (ditto), and

3  referential activities which sometimes involve noticing and affective activities which sometimes involve focus on forms.   

Much of this is dealt with by Cathy Doughty later on in the same book. In Chapter 13, Doughty argues that

PI often comprises more elements than are necessary for inducing the noticing of forms while processing meaning, and hence is either inefficient or, at times, may be counterproductive.

First, note that Doughty, like Carroll, interprets PI as designed to induce the noticing of forms. Next, Doughty is surely right about there being too many elements, and right to identify the explicit instruction component as an unnecessary element of PI.

The explicit instruction evident in PI should be recognized for what it is—metalinguistic explanation that is known to lead to declarative knowledge about language rather than deployable language ability. A number of studies in the PI paradigm have now shown that, as was to be expected, the metalinguistic explanation that precedes structured processing activities is not a necessary component of PI.

Commenting on the design of the three studies reported in the book which are intended to lend support to claims for PI, Doughty says:

On close examination of the structured processing activities employed in all three, it becomes evident that they often depart considerably from some SI activities used in earlier studies. …. The activities are much more like language manipulation and metalinguistic activities (e.g., fill in the blank, label the sentence) than are many of the referential and affective processing activities in earlier studies.

Doughty concludes that only the structured input activities that facilitate focus on form are likely to emerge as a psycholinguistically valid operationalization of PI, because “only they remain true to the original insight from input processing theory that when learners misanalyze the input, their input processing strategy must be altered”. In contrast, the metalinguistic components of PI implemented either in the phase prior to SI activities (the EI) or in the feedback are not necessary.

Doughty also argues that the PI studies reported in the book and elsewhere claim that IP receives support from the data, but they do so by relying on outcome measures which are not valid for testing whether the learners’ underlying interlanguage system has been changed in any way. Doughty is surely right to say that if PI claims to help learners to process input so that it becomes intake for acquisition, then the test of its effectiveness must include a valid measure of how input processing changes have led to L2 restructuring.


VanPatten’s work is, in my opinion, of great importance and value both to the study of SLA and to the practice of ELT. The Input Processing model needs some clarification and expansion, but it is well-motivated and in the last twenty years has provoked enormous interest, not just among scholars of SLA, but also among teachers and teacher educators. I personally welcome the challenge it represents to the increasingly well-established emergentist paradigm. The increasing number of published studies aimed at evaluating the efficacy of different structured processing activities make interesting and thought-provoking reading. Despite the limitations of their outcome measures, they represent a real challenge to coursebook-driven ELT, and that, for me, is the main thing. VanPatten is a force for change. He speaks directly to teachers and, while I wish he would make his message a bit clearer, it is, I think, clear to everybody that he would like to see radical reform in the way that additional languages are taught. 


VanPatten, B. (2004). Processing Instruction: Theory, Research and Commentary. Routledge.    

VanPatten, B. (2010). The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill. International Journal of English Studies10(1), 1–18.

VanPatten, B. (2018) Processing Instruction. In The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching.Wiley.


Five Minute Quiz for Cunning Linguists

1. What’s the square root of 69?

2. Who claimed that language is a systematic resource for expressing meaning in context?

3. Who said “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”?

4. Who said “He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own”?

5. Who said “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”?

6. Chomsky’s UG theory describes principles and …..   What?

7. The 5 most popular romance languages are French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and….  What’s the fifth?

8. “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” is an example of a ….. what?

A couple of extras about two of my favorite novels:

9. What novel starts: “A screaming comes across the sky.”?

10. And this one: “Call me Ishmael.”?

How did you do? I know my pal Neil will get 9 and 10, so here’s a special extra one for him – and all of us:

What novel finishes with these lines:

“We can get jobs”. said William, “save enough to go out where you were, – “

“Marry me and go out where you were,” said Doc.

“The Stars are so close you won’t need a Telescope.”

“The Fish jump into your Arms. The Indians know Magick.”

“We’ll go there. We’ll live there.”

“We’ll fish there. And you too.”


Thesis on ELT, Part Three

20. There are more than twelve million English teachers active in the world today  (British Council, 2015), so second language teacher education (SLTE) is, like materials production and exams (discussed in Parts 1 & 2), another billion dollar business.

In most of the world, pre-service courses consist of a Masters or a post-grad. TEFL certificate, but in Europe, no degree is required, and a short, month-long course suffices.

21.1. The most popular certificate course is CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), while Trinity College, London, offers the rival Cert TESOL.  

More than 2,800 centers in 130 countries around the world offer the CELTA course, which involves about 120 hours of work (homework apart) and lasts between four and five weeks. The CELTA Syllabus consists of five modules:

  • Topic 1 – Learners and teachers, and the teaching and learning context
  • Topic 2 – Language analysis and awareness
  • Topic 3 – Language skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing
  • Topic 4 – Planning and resources for different teaching contexts
  • Topic 5 – Developing teaching skills and professionalism.

There are two assessment components:

Teaching Practice:participants teach for a total of six hours, working with classes at two levels of ability. Assessment is based on overall performance at the end of the six hours.

Written Assignments: Four written assignments count towards assessment: one focusing on adult learning; one on the language system of English; one on language skills; and one on classroom teaching (Cambridge Assessment English, 2019).

21.2. CELTA is the most widely recognized English teaching qualification in the world. It is the qualification most often requested by employers: three out of four English language teaching jobs require a CELTA qualification (Cambridge Assessment English, 2019). It is recognized by the British Council and by a large number of employers and governments worldwide, and it is endorsed by almost all of the most widely published teacher trainers and educators in the UK, with the notable exception of Scott Thornbury (see below).

CELTA’s widespread recognition and endorsement is not surprising; its curriculum reflects the interests of corporate ELT, i.e, the very commercial publishers, examination boards, teacher education bodies and course providers who persuade the public that proficiency in English as an L2 is best accomplished by doing a succession of courses from A1 to C3, using their syllabuses, their coursebooks and their exams, taught by teachers who have done their SLTE courses.

21.3. The CELTA course pays almost no attention to how people learn languages. The only mention of learning a second language is in the first written assignment, but even here, there is no requirement for trainees to investigate the process of second language learning or to discuss teaching implications.

The course simply assumes that ELT consists of teachers working through a synthetic syllabus presenting and then practicing pre-determined items of English and developing the four skills. Inauthentic spoken and written texts, mostly taken from coursebooks, are used as vehicles for skills and language work. Most of the course is devoted to how to present and practice grammatical forms or to carry out isolated skills-focused activities. ELT is seen as consisting of a systematic, item by item study of the language, followed by relatively controlled practice.

21.4. While there is no requirement in the official CELTA course outline that General English coursebooks are used, these coursebooks are, in fact, widely used in the tutorials, class discussions and teaching practice. No mention is made in CELTA course descriptions of the distinction between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, or of the need to engage in any critical evaluation of the methodological principles which might inform pedagogical procedures.

21.5. In CELTA, isolated practice of the four language skills is a major part of the syllabus. As Kumaravadivelu (1994, p. 31) argues, the principle of skills practice in ELT is adopted “more for logistical than for logical reasons”, since skill separation makes little sense and is in fact, “a remnant of the audiolingual era with little empirical or theoretical justification”. As we saw in Part 1, communicative use of an L2 involves the interrelated and mutually reinforcing use of skills, and teaching is therefore likely to be far more efficacious when students are given the chance to learn and use language holistically. No matter how much teachers are advised by CELTA tutors to use ‘skill-building’ activities to help their students ‘automatiize’ what they learn in the presentation stage of the lesson, research shows that learners will, nevertheless, use language skills in different combinations. and not learn the L2 to automatized native speaker levels one structure at a time. Kumaravadivelu concludes that “all available empirical, theoretical, and pedagogical information points to the need to integrate language skills for effective language teaching” (p. 35).

21.6. In her study of CELTA, Brandt (2008) reports a number of problems with the teaching practice part of CELTA. Brandt first draws attention to the large number of trainees who felt that their limited teaching time put great pressure on them to teach according to the different tutors’ expectations and preferences. Teaching practice on the CELTA is evaluated by the tutors, and success involves being seen to adequately use key techniques, such as transformation drills, marker sentences, counselling responses, concept questions, elicitation, and Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) routines, to name just a few. But, as Brandt points out, the problem is that different tutors have different, often contradictory, views about teaching techniques – some love drills while others frown on them – and it is thus vital to trainees’ success or failure to discover and keep in tune with the particular preferences of whichever tutor is observing them.

Other issues highlighted by Brandt were that trainees felt they were not free to experiment and make mistakes without being judged; that they were given few opportunities to reflect on their performance; and that they perceived the purpose of their short teaching practice sessions (lasting from 40 to 60 minutes) as being to show what they could do, rather than to help the students to learn. This feeling among trainees that the teaching practice was something of a sham, that they behaved more like performing monkeys than genuine teachers, was echoed by responses from tutors who complained about experiencing “a dual, conflicting, role: that of guide (to the practising, developing teacher) and that of assessor (of the trainee’s performance)” (Brandt, 2008, p. 256).

Brandt concludes that the CELTA course amounts to learning a set of techniques so that the trainees’ use of these techniques might then be judged. Such a framework fails to recognize the diversity and opportunities of each language learning classroom, and also fails to take into account the distinct contexts in which the course is offered around the world. The course encourages a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, restricting trainees’ opportunities to adequately prepare for the challenges they will face in their local environment, and promoting a view of teachers as “contextually-isolated technicians” (Brandt, 2006, p. 262). Furthermore, as suggested above, the teaching practice tends to treat language learners as ‘tools’ and ‘guinea pigs’, expecting them to jump through a set of hoops for the teachers’ convenience, and the lessons given by the trainees are thus a means of assessment, rather than opportunities for genuine practice.

21.7. Finally, here is the view of Scott Thornbury, co-author of best-selling books for student teachers and tutors of CELTA (Thornbury and Watkins, 2007a; Thornbury Watkins, 2007b). In his blog The A to Z of ELT, in a reply to comments on his post P is for Pre-training, Thornbury (2017) confirms that the “vast majority” of CELTA courses are “coursebook centerd (i.e., teaching practice is based on coursebook lessons, and example materials are taken from coursebooks)”. Further characteristics of the CELTA courses pointed out by Thornbury are as follows: 

  1. The general assumption made by tutors is that a grammar-based, structural syllabus (i.e., the syllabus laid out in the coursebook) will be used.
  2. Tutors encourage the use of a “direct method methodology” which proscribes the use of the L1.
  3. Initiation-Response-Feedback exchanges and display questions are the predominant style of teacher talk.
  4. The demonstration classes given by the teacher trainers are characterized by a superficial treatment of texts, a high activity turnover and the prioritising of ‘fun’.
  5. The courses are ‘hermetically-sealed’, “i.e., there is little or no reference to, or integration of, local context”.

In short, the CELTA course has severe limitations in its preparation of teachers. Today, it is likely to produce teachers who lack any proper understanding of how people learn languages, and who adopt a coursebook-driven approach to ELT, largely unaware of the evidence-based arguments against it.

22.1. In the last twenty years, SLTE has taken a socio-cultural turn, where the constructs of ‘teacher cognition’, ‘teacher thinking’ and ‘teacher-learning’ are ubiquitous. An early and influential contribution to the socio-cultural view is Freeman and Johnson’s (1998) article, which argues that SLTE should focus on understanding how teachers’ professional lives evolve, by focusing on their cognitive worlds and personal teaching practices. Johnson (2009), Freeman (2016), Borg (2015), Norton (2013), Richards (2012) and Barkhuizen (2017) have developed the argument that SLTE must reject the traditional “transmission of knowledge” approach to teacher education, in favour of a concern with ‘teacher learning’ and ‘practitioner knowledge’ which help teachers to understand and articulate their own beliefs, assumptions, and knowledge about subject matter and pedagogical practices.

22.2. Woods’ (1996) influential book on teacher cognition is the first to make teachers’ ‘beliefs, assumptions, and knowledge’ an acronym – BAKs. The three components of a teacher’s BAKs together are said to make up teacher cognition, which crucially affects how teachers translate information on teaching into classroom practice – they explain the mismatch between what teachers are told to do and what they actually do, and also between what they say they do and what they actually do in the classroom. Thus, the socio-cultural perspective on SLTE concludes that awareness of teachers’ BAKS must be the starting point in reflections and play a key role in teacher education programmes.

Richards (2008, p. 162) puts the case as follows:

“Teacher-learning is not viewed as translating knowledge and theories into practice but as constructing new knowledge and theory through participating in specific social contexts and engaging in particular types of activities and processes. This latter type of knowledge, sometimes called “practitioner knowledge”, is the source of teachers’ practices and understandings.”

He suggests that SLTE should be based on the “theorization of practice……, making visible the nature of practitioner knowledge”. Learning, says Richards, emerges through social interaction within a community of practice, and participants in SLTE courses should be seen as a community of learners engaged in “the collaborative construction of meanings” (p. 163).

22.3. While paying attention to student-teachers’ BAKs may well be recommended, and while the research into teacher cognition and decision making has produced some interesting findings, there is surely a problem in putting so much emphasis on teacher cognition. There is also the prior problem of deciphering the peculiar style of socio-cultural postmodernist discourse, of working out what it all means, and what the point of it is. What, for example, is Richards getting at when he urges us to see student-teachers as a community of learners engaged in the collaborative construction of meanings? How do people collaborate in constructing meanings? What do these constructed meanings look like? What ‘postmodern frame’ is Freeman referring to? What does he mean by “the storied character of teachers’ knowledge”? What point is he making?

22.4. Freeman’s claim that “different people will know the same things differently” reveals the relativist epistemology of the socio-cultural approach. Those adopting a scientific approach to research adopt a realist epistemology, which assumes that an external world exists independently of our perceptions of it, and that it is possible to study different phenomena in this world, to make meaningful statements about them, and to improve our knowledge of them. The main way in which phenomena are studied is by testing hypotheses (tentative explanations of the phenomena) using logic and an appeal to empirical evidence. So, for example, we notice that all our L2 learners seem to learn certain parts of the target language in a common order, regardless of their L1. We decide to do a study of the phenomenon of what we suspect might be staged development among L2 learners, and we find that the participants in the study do indeed go through a series of “transitional stages” towards the L2 target language (see Part 1). Now, if we accept a realist epistemology, we assume that the external world will remain stable enough for different observers who carry out the same study in similar conditions with similar participants to observe the same things. Thus, replication studies, if done carefully, can test the robustness of our study’s findings, by providing evidence that either supports or challenges the results of the first study.

22.5. Those adopting a sociocultural perspective reject this realist epistemology, which they refer to as the “positivist” epistemology of scientists, whose research methods, epistemological assumptions, and authority they roundly reject. Early on in her book extolling the virtues of a sociocultural perspective on SLTE, Johnson (2009, p. 7) explains the need for a “shift” in teacher education towards an “interpretative epistemological perspective”, which involves “overcoming” the “positivist epistemological perspective”. Johnson urges us to adopt the view that there is no one fixed, immutable reality, but rather, a multiplicity of realities, all of which are social constructs. Since the construction of reality is a social process, it follows that there are simply different ways of looking at, seeing, and talking about things, each with its own perspective, each with its own set of explicit or implicit rules which members of the social group construct for themselves. From this new perspective, it follows that the ‘knowledge base’ which Johnson, Richards, Freeman and others refer to has no common, objective base at all: what one teacher ‘knows’ at the end of a teacher education course about interlanguage development or criterion performance tests, for example, will differ from what another teacher will ‘know’. Every teacher has their own ‘knowledge bases’ and sees the same ‘knowledge’ differently.

22.6. One can hardly dispute the need to appreciate what pre-service teachers’ prior experience and set of beliefs bring to any learning task, and to take into account the many contextual factors which affect the implementation of any particular SLTE program in any particular context. Equally, it’s certainly the case that different teachers will learn different things from the same SLTE programme, and that every teacher’s practical classroom work will be crucially affected by the local context in which it takes place. But none of this warrants the view that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, or that there can be no rational assessment of rival theories of language learning and language teaching, or that SLTE should focus only on reflecting on teachers’ subjective feelings, beliefs and experiences. After all, what is the actual content of teachers’ BAKs? How do we evaluate that content?

Imagine a seminar on language learning. The question of ‘learning styles’ comes up, a student teacher says it makes a lot of sense, and the teacher trainer goes to some lengths to explain that there is not one shred of evidence to support the ‘neuro-linguistic programming’ (NLP) view that all language learners have a predominant learning style (visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic). The teacher trainer explains how the NLP theory first appeared, its popularity, its demise, and encourages the student teachers to talk about their own beliefs and experiences of NLP, how they were taught, how their bosses and colleagues and students might react to NLP, and so on. In the end, there is general agreement that NLP is baloney and that ELT should not be influenced by its so-called principles.

Now, according to the epistemological perspective adopted by Richards, Freeman, Johnson and others, the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support NLP counts for little, so what sense does it make for the teacher trainer to focus on getting the student-teachers to articulate their beliefs about NLP?  What is the point of everybody becoming more aware and able to articulate what they think about NLP? It would only have a point if their reflections led them to change their beliefs, but why should they? On what authority can we say that neuro-linguistic programming is mistaken, or not worthy of belief?  In general, how do Johnson, Freeman, Richards and others decide on the content of any SLTE course, on recommendations, on what they want the participants to learn? Trapped in the Humpty Dumpty relativist world, how do they escape the culture of navel-gazing?

22.7. In education, as elsewhere, we need to improve our understanding of things in order to get things done and to make progress. Assuming a realist epistemology and recognizing the usefulness of the scientific method has led to enormous progress, and seems like a more promising way of going about designing and assessing SLTE than shifting towards the ‘interpretative epistemological perspective’ adopted by Johnson and others. Let us accept that many of the SLTE courses currently being implemented do not meet the needs of its participants, and that Tarone and Allwright (2005, p. 12) are right when they say “differences between the academic course content in language teacher preparation programs and the real conditions that novice language teachers are faced with in the language classroom appear to set up a gap that cannot be bridged by beginning teacher learners”.  The conclusion to be drawn is surely that the SLTE courses must change in such a way that the gap is bridged. We must critically evaluate courses, recognize their shortcomings, and listen carefully to suggestions that ensure that teachers are better prepared to meet the challenges of their jobs. Engaging teachers in reflective practices, uncovering their assumptions and beliefs, improving collaboration and feedback channels, introducing more and better-organized teaching practice and peer observation, all these are welcome suggestions. But they do not comprise a persuasive argument for making teacher reflection on learning to teach the main focus of SLTE.

23. Jordan & Long (2022) argue that a teacher’s competence is made up of a range of knowledge, skills, behaviors, attitudes and values which can be discussed and evaluated by appeal to empirical evidence and rational thinking. Thus, SLTE should begin with the critical examination of theories which attempt to explain the phenomena of second language acquisition and in particular of instructed second language acquisition. These theories can be evaluated in terms of their coherence, cohesion, logical consistency and clarity, and their empirical content.  From the basis of an understanding of the reliable findings about (instructed) second language acquisition which emerge, we may then examine various approaches to ELT in terms of their methodological principles, pedagogic procedures, syllabus, materials and assessment procedures. How such content is best delivered in SLTE courses, will be discussed in Part 4.

Thesis on Current ELT, Part Two


In part One, I suggested that coursebook-driven ELT is a prime example of the commodification of education. Here, in Part Two, I focus on the Common European Frame of Reference (CEFR) and high stakes tests. The global adoption of coursebook-driven ELT is illustrated by the increasing use of the CEFR, which informs not just coursebooks, but the high stakes tests which loom large in the background. I rely mostly on the work of Glenn Fulcher and on Jordan & Long (2022).  

18,1. As Fulcher (2010), argues, citing Bonnet (2007), the CEFR is increasingly being used to promote a move towards “a common educational policy in language learning, teaching and assessment, both at the EU level and beyond”. The rapid spread of the use of the CEFR across Europe and other parts of the world is due to the ease with which it can be used in standards-based assessment. As a policy tool for harmonization, the CEFR is manipulated by “juggernaut-like centralizing institutions”, which are using the CEFR to define required levels of achievement for school pupils as well as adult language learners worldwide.

The indiscriminate exportation of the CEFR for use in standards-based education and assessment in non-European contexts, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, shows that it is being increasingly used as an instrument of power ((Davies 2008: 438).

18.2. Fulcher (2008: 170) nails the problem of the CEFR. It requires a few seconds close reading, if you’ll forgive me, to appreciate its full import.

It is a short step for policy makers, from ‘the standard required for level X’ to ‘level X is the standard required for….’ (emphasis added).

Fulcher (ibid.) comments: “This illegitimate leap of reasoning is politically attractive, but hardly ever made explicit or supported by research. For this step to take place, a framework has to undergo a process of reification, a process defined as “the propensity to convert an abstract concept into a hard entity” (Gould 1996: 27)”.

18.3. The CEFR scale descriptors are based entirely on intuitive teacher judgments rather than on samples of performance. The scales have no empirical basis or any basis in theory, or in SLA research. They’re “Frankenstein scales”, as Fulcher calls them. We can’t reasonably expect the CEFR scale to relate to any specific communicative context, or even to provide a measure of any particular communicative language ability. To quote Fulcher (2010) again:

Most importantly, we cannot make the assumption that abilities do develop in the way implied by the hierarchical structure of the scales. The scaling methodology assumes that all descriptors define a statistically unidimensional scale, but it has long been known that the assumed linearity of such scales does not equate to how learners actually acquire language or communicative abilities (Fulcher 1996b, Hulstijn 2007, Meisel 1980). Statistical and psychological unidimensionality are not equivalent, as we have long been aware (Henning 1992). The pedagogic notion of “climbing the CEFR ladder” is therefore naïve in the extreme (Westhoff 2007: 678). Finally, post-hoc attempts to produce benchmark samples showing typical performance at levels inevitably fall prey to the same critique as similar ACTFL studies in the 1980s, that the system states purely analytic truths: “things are true by definition only” (Lantolf and Frawley 1985: 339), and these definitions are both circular and reductive (Fulcher 2008: 170-171). The reification of the CEFR is therefore not theoretically justified.

19.1. Current English language testing uses the CEFR scale in three types of test: first, placement tests, which assign students to a CEFR level, from A1 to C2, where an appropriate course of English, guided by an appropriate coursebook, awaits them; second, progress tests, which are used to decide if students are ready or not for their next course of English; and third, high-stakes-decision proficiency tests (a multi-billion-dollar commercial activity in its own right), which are used purportedly to determine students’ current proficiency level.

19.2. The key place of testing in the ELT industry is demonstrated not just by exam preparation materials which are a lucrative part of publishing companies’ business, but by the fact that most courses of English provided by schools and institutes at all three educational levels start and finish with a test.

Perhaps the best illustration of how language testing forms part of the ELT “hydra” is the Pearson Global Scale of English (GSE), which allows for much more finely grained measurement than that attempted in the CEFR. In the Pearson scale, there are 2,000 can-do descriptors called “Learning Objectives”; over 450 “Grammar Objectives”; 39,000 “Vocabulary items”; and 80,000 “Collocations”, all tagged to nine different levels of proficiency (Pearson, 2019).  Pearson’s GSE comprises four distinct parts, which together create what they proudly describe as “an overall English learning ecosystem” (Pearson, 2019, p.2.). The parts are: 

•           The scale itself – a granular, precise scale of proficiency aligned to the CEFR.

•           GSE Learning Objectives – over 1,800 “can-do” statements that provide context for teachers and learners across reading, writing, speaking and listening.

•           Course Materials – digital and printed materials, most importantly, series of General English coursebooks.

•           Assessments – Placement, Progress and Pearson Test of English Academic tests. 

As Jordan & Long (2022) comment:

Pearson say that while their GSE “reinforces” the CEFR as a tool for standards-based assessment, it goes much further, providing the definitive, all-inclusive package for learning English, including placement, progress and proficiency tests, syllabi and materials for each of the nine levels, and a complete range of teacher training and development materials. In this way the language learning process is finally and definitively reified: the abstract concepts of “granular descriptors” are converted into real entities, and it is assumed that learners move unidimensionally along a line from 10 to 90, making steady, linear progress along a list of can-do statements laid out in an easy-to-difficult sequence, leading inexorably, triumphantly, to the ability to use the L2 successfully for whatever communicative purpose you care to mention. It is the marketing division’s dream, and it shows just how far the commodification of ELT has already come.

19.3. The power of high stakes tests is exemplified by the work of the Cambridge Assessment Group. It has three major exam boards: Cambridge Assessment English, Cambridge Assessment International Education, and Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations. (Note that all these companies are owned by the University of Cambridge and are registered as charities, exempt from taxes!) The group are responsible for the Cambridge B2 (formerly the First Certificate Exam) and Cambridge C1 (formerly the Cambridge Advanced Exam), and also, along with their partners, for the IELTS exams, used globally as a university entrance test (the Academic module), an entrance test to many professions and job opportunities, and as a test for those wishing to migrate to an English-speaking country (the General English module).

In 2018, the Cambridge Assessment Group designed and delivered assessments to more than 8 million learners in over 170 countries, employed nearly 3,000 people in more than 40 locations around the world and generated revenue of over £382 million (tax free). More than 25,000 organizations accept Cambridge English exams as proof of English language ability, including top US and Canadian institutions, all universities in Australia, New Zealand and in the UK, immigration authorities across the English-speaking world, and multinational companies including Adidas, BP, Ernst & Young, Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft. The Cambridge English exams can be taken at over 2,800 authorized exam centers, and there are 50,000 preparation centers worldwide where candidates can prepare for the exams. The impact of the Cambridge Assessment Group’s tests on millions of individual lives can be life-changing, and the scale of their activities means that they have global political, social, economic, and ethical consequences, suggesting to many that an independent body is needed to regulate them.

19.4. As indicated above, “proficiency” in the high scale tests is an epiphenomenon – a secondary effect or by-product of the thing itself. Overall “proficiency” is divided into levels on a proficiency rating scale, determined by groups of people who write proficiency level descriptors, and decide that there are X levels on the particular scale they develop. In fact. only zero and near-native proficiency levels are truly measurable. We know this from the results from countless empirical SLA studies that have tried to identify the advanced learner, which has required the ability to distinguish near-native speakers from true native speakers. Results of these studies consistently show such distinctions are possible provided measures are sufficiently sensitive (Hyltenstam, 2016), and they demonstrate that any other distinctions along proficiency scales are unreliable.

19.5. Beyond the proficiency scale descriptors, there are numerous problems in the tests that elicit language samples on which scores and ratings are based. For example, proficiency tests typically employ speaking prompts and reading texts which purport to have been “leveled,” i.e., judged to aim at the level concerned. This is nonsense. Apart from highly specialized material, all prompts and all texts can be responded to or read at some level; the amount of information conveyed or understood will simply vary as function of language ability. Moreover, proficiency scales offer little in the way of diagnostic information which could indicate to teachers and learners what they would need to do to improve their scores and ratings.

19.6. There is little evidence that proficiency ratings are predictive of success in any language use domain. Even if a test taker can succeed in the testing context, there is no way to tell whether this means the person will succeed outside that context, for example in using language for professional purposes.

19.7. The administration and management of high stakes tests raises the issue of discrimination based on economic inequality. The test fees are high and vary significantly – in the IELTS tests, fees vary from the equivalent of approximately US$150 in Egypt to double that in China, a difference explained more by Chinese students’ desire to study abroad than by any international differences in administration or management costs. Such are the expenses involved in taking these tests that they evidently discriminate against those with lower economic means and make it impossible for some people to take the test multiple times in order to achieve the required score. W.S. Pearson (2019) also points out that the owners of IELTS produce and promote commercial IELTS preparation content, which takes the form of printed and on-line materials and teacher-led courses. These make further financial demands on the test-takers, and while some free online preparation materials are made available on the IELTS website, full access to the materials costs approximately US$52, and is free only for candidates who do the test or a preparation course with the British Council. Likewise, details of the criteria used to assess the IELTS writing test are only freely available to British Council candidates; all other candidates are charged approximately US$55 for this important information. Finally, it should be noted that it is common, for those who can afford it, to take the IELTS multiple times in an attempt to improve their scores, and that the score obtained in an IELTS test is only valid for two years.   

19.8. The simplicity and efficiency with which high stake test scores can be processed strengthens the perception that the scores are used blindly by the gatekeepers of university entrance,. If an overseas student does not achieve the required score, their application for admission to the university is normally turned down. Even more questionable is the use of the test by employers to assess prospective employees’ ability to function in the workplace, despite the fact that, in most cases, none of the test tasks closely corresponds with what an employee is expected to do in the job. Worst of all, band scores in the test are used by some national governments as benchmarks for migration: It is quite simply immoral to use a score on these tests to deny a person’s application for immigration. 

Those who seek to study at universities abroad or to work for a number of large multinational companies, or to migrate, are forced to engage with these tests on the terms set by the test owners, conferring on the owners considerable global power and influence; and they suffer dire consequences if they fail to achieve the required mark in tests which, in a great many cases, are not fit for purpose.

I’ll give a full list of references at the end of the thesis.

2022: A Personal View of The Ups and Downs in ELT


It’s been another bad year for ELT. You win some, you lose some, and if you’re fighting the hydra of the ELT establishment, you generally lose. A quick look at the money made by the owners and main stakeholders of a 200 billion dollar industry is enough to appreciate the power that vested interests have to ensure that coursebook-driven ELT keeps on going, despite its abysmal failure to deliver the promised goods. What chance have those who promote radical alternatives like Dogme or TBLT got?

After all, those of us fighting for change in ELT share the obstacles facing any group that fights for radical change – we fight against a well-entrenched establishment that defends and promotes the interests of a ruling class bent on accruing wealth. And today, the hopes of success are surely worse than they’ve ever been – David has never been so puny, Goliath never so colossal. Our enemy is truly imperial. Above our bosses – those who run the ELT industry (stuffing their own pockets while pushing their employees towards, or further into, poverty) – are their bosses: a ruling class of plutocrats.  

Piketty’s acclaimed “Capital in the 21st Century”, for all its analytical shortcomings, provides some good, quantifiable descriptors of 21st century wealth and describes how, after a short dip in the mid 20th century, wealth is increasingly concentrated in ever-fewer hands. The Squeeze goes on, the gap between rich and poor widens, the middle classes collapse, the lives of the uber-wealthy serve as vulgar, unobtainable goals for the rest, who become spectators, as the Situationists called them in the sixties, of the fake accounts of the lives of celebrities. Neoliberal Capitalism strides on. It drives not just coursebook-driven ELT, but also the commodification of education and the commodification of everyday life. As a necessary consequence, it also drives the destruction of the planet. Homo sapiens (“the wise human”!) has so lost its way that it has now turned its back on wisdom, on living a good life, on its own survival. We’re on our way to such catastrophic climate change that talking about the state of ELT – like talking about anything other than what’s happening to the planet – seems absurd. Hey Ho. The band strikes up Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side” and onward thru the fog we go.


1. The Book

For me, the highlight of the year was the publication of the book Mike Long and I had worked on for two years. A huge cloud hung over its publication because Mike Long wasn’t here to see it; but, thanks to Cathy Doughty’s efforts, it’s finally out there. Even with Mike’s clout behind it, we couldn’t find a big publisher willing to take it on, so we ended up with a publisher that has aimed the book exclusively at university libraries. If you haven’t got access to it, and you’d like to read it, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a pdf. copy.

Our book starts from the premise that ELT practice should be informed by what we know about how people learn an L2. The first six chapters outline a view of SLA based on 60 years of SLA research. It goes on to describe how current ELT largely ignores that view, and thus leads to inefficacious ELT practices: synthetic syllabuses, teacher training, classroom practice and high stakes exams all focus on the English language as an object of study, rather than as something that is learned by doing. We argue that, driven by commercial interests which insist on packaging ELT into commodities for sale, ELT today betrays educational principles in general, and the special characteristics of learning an L2 in particular. We conclude with a chapter that describes and discusses promising alternatives. See here for a review.

It was an honour to collaborate with Mike on this book; it represents the most enjoyable and rewarding work in my professional life.

2. Lunch with Scott Thornbury

After forty years of reading Scott’s stuff, bumping into him at conferences, tangling with him on social media – his blog, mine, Twitter – we finally met for a lunch in Barcelona. I was so looking forward to our meeting that I drank too much wine too quickly (the story of my life, right there!), but anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Scott hurried into the restaurant looking fit, vibrant, handsome, and then sat down in a way that all of us over 70 years old do: you take in the height of the chair, you poise yourself, you let go in an act of faith, and you let out a sigh of relief as your bum mercifully hits the middle of the chair: “Aghhh Umphhhh!”. Warm handshakes, “It’s been too long…”, all that, and off we went.

We went down memory lane and talked about our initiation into ELT. We both did International House courses in London. While I remember that course as one of the worst “educational” experiences of my life – to me, it felt like brain-washing  –  Scott remembers it as informative and inspiring. Well there you go. On then to our encounters with leading figures in ELT history. Chris Candlin (abrasive, radical, a dauntingly assertive pioneer); Henry Widdowson (a beautifully articulate, incisively critical conservative); Earl Stevick (the maestro, a truly lovely human being. We agreed that he was the most influential voice for humanistic teaching that we’d ever met); Jack Richards (multi-millionaire who paid a six-figure sum for a tiny bit of Ming pottery while shopping in Barcelona); David Nunan (charming, well-informed, workaholic, almost as rich and ambitious as Richards); Dick Schmidt (frighteningly brilliant; a bit like Mike Long: if you weren’t at your best, he’d shoot you down in flames); John Fanselow (another lovely human being, the very best, much neglected expert on class observation and, IMHO (with Scott a close second), the best plenary speaker in the history of international IATEFL and TESOL conferences); Mike Long (despite his reputation, enormously witty and fun to be with); and many others. What had we learnt? Me: respect for scientific enquiry and humanistic pedagogy are the recipes for good ELT practice. Scott: learn from the past, take gems from everywhere, be realistic and tolerant, base ELT on doing things in the L2.      

Then, as the pudding was served (flan de la casa, of course), we waded into the present malaise of current ELT. There were few things we disagreed about. Scott, after all, is the one who has most often and most eloquently skewered coursebook-driven ELT. He famously described current ELT as serving up “grammar McNuggets”, and he is, with co-author Luke Meddings, the driving force behind “Dogme”, a radical alternative to current ELT practices. While he’s pessimistic about any big changes in ELT happening soon, he works for change. Scott supports the “Hands Up” project, he engages with radicals, he’s a force for change.    

As we left the restaurant, my “unsteady gait” led Scott to gently express concern. “Are you OK?”, he asked. “Don’t worry”, I told him cheerfully, as I waved vaguely at passing taxis, “I’ll make it”. Slumped in a taxi, I reflected on Scott. What a man! He walks the tightrope between the establishment and its dissidents with remarkable grace and aplomb. He so often wobbles perilously up there on the high wire, his theoretically-opposed left and right arms outstretched, flapping precariously up and down, seeking balance, dangerously aware of contradictions. Will he fall? No he won’t! He’ll stay up there, charming us all, doing much more good than harm to the cause of efficacious ELT. Like so many, I’m a devoted fan of Scott Thornbury, and I remember my lunch with him very fondly.

3. Employment

Late this year, I took on a new job as supervisor for Ph.D. students at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. I was afraid that my age (78 years old) would disqualify me, but I’m very pleased to say that it didn’t. I get paid significantly more than Leicester University pays me and I will work with students who are engaged in what I regard as the only real challenge left in today’s higher education certificates.

Doing a Ph.D. involves intellectual curiosity, digging (by copious reading), intellectual discipline to cope with the digging, stamina and motivation. Supervising Ph.D. students involves appreciating the task they’ve taken on, a real engagement with their topic, helping with the formulation and execution of their study, helping with the organization and presentation of the thesis, and giving them encouragement throughout. This is the kind of teaching I enjoy the most.

I got my love of studying (the necessary quality of an academic) from my school days. Aged 16, in the “Sixth Form”, I chose three A-Level subjects (economics, philosophy and European history), exam results in which would decide if I went to university. The way I was taught suddenly changed: teaching went from working through a coursebook to asking students to explore for themselves. We were given a topic (e.g., “Causes of the First World War”), a list of books, and we were required to produce an essay which was improved by successive drafts, helped by peer and teacher feedback. I took to this new way of learning like the proverbial duck takes to water.

At university, the same kind of teaching continued, but far less guidance was given. My tutor in my first year as an undergraduate at the LSE was Prof. De Smith, an expert in International Law who wrote constitutions for African countries recently freed from British rule. His efforts – hundreds of pages of closely-argued guidance on how to run a country – were usually tossed in the bin soon after the new governments got power. I made several unsuccessful attempts to see my tutor before I learned from conversations with post-grads in the Three Tuns bar that Prof. De Smith never talked to undergraduates. His room was on the top floor of the East Wing building, and whenever he heard a knock on his door, he scooted up a ladder and sat on the roof till he was sure the would-be intruder had gone away. In the entire year, I never spoke to Prof. De Smith, or heard from him, so I got on with my work without his help. At the end of the year, I got a letter from the uni. telling me I’d passed all my exams. In the same envelope was a letter from the great man himself. He congratulated me on my results and concluded “You have been a model tutee. If ever you need a reference, do not hesitate to contact me.”

That’s a radical version of learner-centred education, but it’s one I’ve always tilted towards. Teachers should get out of the way of their students’ learning trajectory, and nowhere is that imperative more true than in ELT.



Most of the “downs” of 2022 relate to the increased precarity of teachers’ jobs. In all sectors of education – private & public, primary, secondary, tertiary – we’ve seen the erosion of decent contracts, pay and pension plans. The ELT section of education is worse than most. It’s such a big profit-maker that it’s particularly riddled with government corruption, cronyism, and disgraceful exploitation of workers in unregulated private schools all over the world. IATEFL’s non-engagement in the fight for teachers’ rights is a disgrace. Despite attempts by Paul Walsh and others, IATEFL refuses to change its constitution, refuses to allow these matters to be discussed in plenaries at their conferences, refuses to devote time or funds to fighting the most blatant examples of worker exploitation. Shame on the organization, and shame particularly on those who lead it and its Special Interest groups.  

2. Raciolinguistics and Translanguaging

This year has seen the continued promotion of raciolinguistics and translanguaging in ELT circles, perhaps influenced by the increasing number of articles on these topics appearing in academic journals. However much the discussion of these topics might help those involved in ELT think more carefully about racism and about the English language as a purveyor of imperialist ideologies, I suggest that

  1. they’re both blighted by their reliance on relativist epistemologies, and
  2. neither offers any clear progressive alternative to how ELT should be carried out.       

As to the first point, relativists argue that there’s no such thing as objective knowledge – everything we “know” is socially constructed; there’s no reliable way we can judge between rival explanations of certain phenomena. Anybody who takes this view seriously, or adopts it as an intellectual posture (“trying it on” as Auden said) is beyond the realm of critical, rational discourse. Note that one thing is to discuss epistemology in a philosophical way, and another is to simply adopt a relativist stance because it suits you. I like reading Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and others. I confess that they often lose me, there’s stuff I just don’t get, and much that I think is rubbish. But I don’t think it’s bullshit, which, in my opinion, is what people like Shawer, Guba and Lincoln write. They adopt relativism because it suits them, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. (Bullshit involves talking about things that you don’t know much about as if you knew a lot more. Critical thinking (one more commodity these days) involves logical thinking, but after that, it’s largely about developing the ability to recognise bullshit.) Guba & Lincoln’s bullshit has led to millions of gullible people with Masters degrees in TESOL completely misunderstanding scientific method. By extension, it’s led to the flimsy support offered for a lot of sociolinguistic research in the last 30 years.  

Talking of bullshit, the worst example of it in 2022 is surely Gerald’s attempt to apply raciolinguistics to ELT in his frantically self-promoted book Antisocial Language Teaching. I’ve reviewed the book already, so let me here focus on its contribution to ELT practice. It’s pathetic. My on-line thesaurus suggests feeble, paltry, miserable, puny, useless as synonyms and I think they all apply. Gerald is one of those native speaker chancers who taught EFL for a few years abroad (S. Korea) and then came home (New York) to do a Ph.D. and join the crowded ranks of social media bullshitters. There’s no indication in anything that he’s published to suggest that Gerald has even the most elementary grasp of SLA, or of the development of ELT methodology, or syllabus design, or language assessment, or any damn thing related to the principles or practice of ELT. Gerald’s suggestions for improving things indicate a flimsy, superficial understanding of what ELT involves. More than that, they indicate that, really, he doesn’t give a flying fuck about ELT.    

Let’s go from the gutter to the dizzy realms of academia. Up here, where the air is thin, translanguaging is trending. Garcia, Flores, Rosa and Li Wei are the translanguaging crusaders whose obscurantist prose is a give-away for the fact that they have nothing interesting to offer ELT practice (or anything else for that matter). During 2022 I’ve written several posts on their stuff, so here, it’s enough to say that seeing language as “a fluid, embodied social construct” contributes little to the task of bringing about new, innovative English language education. None of the Fantastic Four has come anywhere near to presenting a clear outline of how translaguaging – a fashionable, incoherent theoretical construct, handy these days to gain quick promotion up there in acamedia – can encourage the radical change in ELT which is so urgently needed.

Onward thru the fog, then, and best wishes for 2023.             

SLB: Task-Based Language Teaching Course No. 4

Roll Up! Roll Up! Limited Places! Hury! Hurry! Hurry!

The fourth run of our online TBLT course starts on January 23rd 2023 and subscription is now open. It’s a 100-hour, online tutored course aimed at 

  • classroom teachers
  • course designers,
  • teacher-trainers, 
  • directors of studies and 
  • materials writers.

The growing popularity of TBLT as an approach to language teaching is surely explained by increasing dissatisfaction among EFL professionals with current ELT practice. As convenient as coursebook-driven courses might be, they’re tedious, based on false assumptions about how people learn an L2, and they frequently fail to deliver the improvement that students hope for. In contrast, TBLT focuses on meaning-making and engagement with real-world language needs; they give experienced teachers fresh opportunities to re-engage with their practice, they offer new teachers a more challenging, much more rewarding framework for their work, and they allow students to learn through scaffolded use of the language (learning by doing), which, as we know from evidence from research, is the best way to learn an L2.

The vibrancy of TBLT is evidenced by animated discussions on social media, by increasing presentations at conferences (including the biennial International Conference on TBLT), by the recently-formed International Association of TBLT (IATBLT), and by the wave of new publications, including thousands of journal articles, special issues in prominent journals, and the new journal specifically dedicated to the topic, TASK: Journal on Task-Based Language Teaching and Learning, the first volume of which appeared in 2021. Books which followed Long’s seminal (2015) SLA and TBLT include

  • Ahmadian & García Mayo, M. (2017) Task-Based Language Teaching: Issues, Research and Practice,
  • Ellis, R., Skehan, P., Li, S., Shintani, N., & Lambert, C. (2019) Task-Based Language Teaching: Theory and Practice. and
  • Ahmadian, M. & Long, M. (2021) Cambridge Handbook of Task-Based Language Teaching. 

All of these will be dealt with in the course.

The Course

Our SLB course tries to “walk the talk” by working through a series of tasks relating to key aspects of TBLT, from needs analysis through syllabus and material design to classroom delivery and assessment. While we are influenced by Long’s particular version of TBLT, we also explore lighter, more feasible versions of TBLT which can be adopted by smaller schools or individual teachers working with groups with specific needs.

 Neil McMillan (president of SLF) and Geoff Jordan (both experienced teachers with Ph.Ds) do most of the tutoring, but we are priveleged to be assisted by the following experts:

Roger GilabertAn expert on TBLT, Roger worked with Mike Long on several projects and has developed a TBLT course for Catalan journalists. His contributions to our three previous courses have been extremely highly rated by participants.

Marta González-Lloret: Marta did her PhD with Mike Long at the University of Hawai’i, is currently book series co-editor of Task-Based Language Teaching. Issues, Research and Practice, Benjamins, and is espcially interested in using technology-mediated tasks.

Glenn FulcherGlenn is a renowned testing & assessment scholar. His (2015) Re-examining Language Testing. A Philosophical and Social Inquiry was winner of the 2016 SAGE/ILTA Book Award, jointly with Fulcher and Davidson (2012) The Routledge Handbook of Language Testing.  He’ll help us with our discussion of task-based, criterion-referenced performance tests.

Peter Skehan Peter is one of the most influential scholars in SLA, with a particular interest in TBLT. Peter was the inaugural recipient, along with Mike Long, of the IATBLT’s Distinguished Achievement Award, made in 2017 at the Barcelona conference. We will use recordings we made of discussions with Peter, where he helps us get to grips with a key part of TBLT: designing and sequencing pedagogic tasks. We hope Peter will also join us for a video-conference session during the course.

Ljiljana Havran Ljiljana is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer who works in Belgrade. Her blog is one of the most read and respected in the ELT community. Ljiljana will share her experiences of designing and implementing a TBLT course for pilots and air traffic controllers.

Rose Bard Rose Bard works in Brazil and, like Ljiljana, has a blog which enjoys a wide audience. In this course, Rose is going to tell us how she uses Minecraft in her TBLT courses aimed at young learners.

Mike LongThe course will also include exclusive recordings of Mike Long, who inspired Neil and me to design the course, and who contributed to our first three versions of the course.

1. Modules

Now you can choose individual modules or the whole course. The whole course takes 100 hours and consists of five modules (see below). If you choose to do one or two individual modules, you’ll have the chance to do further modules in later courses to achieve complete certification.

2. TBLT & Technology

We will give more attention to the increasingly important influence of new technologies on the TBLT field. As the tasks people need to perform are increasingly mediated by technologies, so is TBLT itself, with consequences for how TBLT courses are designed and run.

3. More Flexible approach to TBLT

Thanks to the truly impressive work of the participants in the three previous courses, we’ve learned a lot about the problems of implementing a full version of Long’s TBLT, and we now better appreciate the need for a flexible case-by-case approach to the design and implementation of any TBLT project.

In the third course, we were very pleased to see how each participant slowly developed their own TBLT agenda, working on identifying their own target tasks, breaking these down into relevant pedagogic tasks, finding suitable materials, and bringing all this together using the most appropriate pedagogic procedures.

Another gratifying aspect of all the courses has been the way participants have learned from each other; most of the individual participant’s TBLT models contain common elements which have been forged from the forum discussions.

So in this course, we’ll make even more effort to ensure that each participant works in accord with their own teaching context, and at the same time contributes to the pooled knowledge and expertese of the group.

2. There are 5 modules:

  • Presenting TBLT
  • Designing a TBLT Needs Analysis
  • Designing a task-based pedagogic unit
  • Task-Based Materials:
  •  Facilitating and evaluating tasks

3. Each Module contains:

  • Background reading.
  • A video presentation from the session tutor and/or guest tutors.
  • Interactive exercises to explore key concepts. 
  • An on-going forum discussion with the tutors, guest turors and fellow course participants.
  • An extensive group videoconference session with the tutors and/or guest tutors. 
  • An assessed task (e.g. short essay, presentation, task analysis etc.). 

Sneak Preview

To get more information about the course, and try out a “taster” CLICK HERE