In the last thirty years, Penny Ur has published more than 30 books: coursebooks, work books; grammar practice books, skills practice books and “How to Teach” books. In all that time she has never wavered in her support of the same approach to ELT that she was taught when she did a PGCE at Cambridge University all those years ago.
What’s remarkable is that today, Ur continues to recommend, as keenly as she ever did, the same carefully controlled, anodyne routines that the PGCE course recommended way back then. According to this view, teachers, wherever they happen to be in the world, should use a coursebook produced in London to deliver a synthetic, grammar-based syllabus by working their way steadily through a succession of Units where “language items” are “presented, practiced and tested”, until they come to the bit of the book at the back with no writing on it, when they should stop.
Given that coursebooks have been adopted around the world as the preferred way of implementing ELT since the early 1990s, we may say that Ur’s faith in the coursebook-driven approach has been vindicated. Certainly, her tireless, consistent promotion of the same cause has won her a fair amount of success, fame and recognition, which includes being awarded an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for services to English Language Teaching in 2013.
I happen to think that the approach championed by Ur is wrong, partly because it’s based on false assumptions about how people learn a foreign language (see this post for more about these false assumptions), and partly because it represents a stifling orthodoxy which has gone hand in hand with the commodification of ELT in particular and education in general. It fits perfectly with the general drive towards the implementation of ‘adaptive learning’ programmes which reduce education to the learning of discrete units of testable ‘knowledge’, delivered with minimum mediation by teachers. The result is the de-skilling of teachers, the reconfiguring of learners as consumers, and, as Scott Thornbury so memorably put it, to Comfort. Complacency. Conformity. Professional atrophy. Institutional malaise. Student boredom. Slow death by mcnuggets.
Whichever side of the argument you’re on, you’ll surely agree that the powerfully entrenched, coursebook-driven model of ELT should at least be open to criticism, and that it’s a “good thing” for there to be open discussion about how best to help people learn English as an L2. Even if everybody were happy to implement the kind of ELT recommended by Penny Ur, in the name of professionalism teachers should at least know something about on-going research into the English language, how people learn English as an L2, and how various teaching programmes have been evaluated.
And here’s where we hit a problem, because Penny Ur, apart from staunchly defending coursebook-driven ELT, also promotes herself as a mediator between the academic world of applied linguistics and the classroom teacher; able, she claims, to reliably inform teachers about what’s going on in academia, despite the fact that she has no credentials for such a job. Ur has never published an article in an academic journal, she shows few signs of knowledge of the SLA literature, and she consistently dismisses significant research findings when they challenge her own approach to teaching. Ur tells readers of the UK Guardian newspaper, and of the ELT Gazette, and all those who attend her teacher training courses and conference presentations about what’s going on in applied linguistics research, while at the same time admitting that she misses a lot of what’s published, and breezily dismissing the inconvenient mountain of data which point to the fact that students don’t learn what they’re taught if they’re subjected to a synthetic, grammar-based syllabus. When asked, for example, “Why don’t you mention the research findings on interlanguage development?”, Ur replies “We have no conclusive proof” (Ur, 2017a), as if all the evidence that we do have counts for nothing.
Ur’s claim to be able to mediate between the world of academic research on the one hand, and the world of the classroom teacher on the other, is not just unwarranted, it’s also misleading and unfair, especially to novice teachers who assume that Ur knows what she’s talking about when she tells them, for example, that there is no evidence that TBLT works, or that Pienemann’s teachability hypothesis has only very doubtful implications for teaching. In her article in the Guardian (2012) Ur makes her disdain for most of what passes for academic work perfectly clear. First, Ur says, academics concentrate “almost exclusively on language acquisition”; second, the studies reported on “are selected for reasons that have nothing to do with their usefulness to the practitioner”; third, “topics that are difficult to research, though possibly more valuable for the teacher, tend to be neglected”; and finally:
researchers are not practitioners. Many have very limited or nonexistent teaching experience so their ideas on the pedagogical implications of their results may not be very practical and need to be treated with caution.
Notice that while Ur has no doubts about her own ability to speak on academic matters, she cautions against giving any credence to academics’ ideas on teaching.
In her books on how to teach English as a foreign language, Ur spends very little time discussing the question of how people learn an L2, or encouraging teachers to take part in a critical evaluation of theoretical assumptions underpinning her practical teaching tips. The updated edition of her widely recommended A Course in Language Teaching includes a new sub-section where precisely half a page is devoted to describing 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 or articles or presentations does Ur attempt to seriously describe and evaluate arguments and evidence from academics whose work challenges her approach, and nowhere does she encourage teachers to do so.
Ur’s work is evidence of the distinction Richards (2008) makes between two broad streams in teacher education: the first at the certificate level, where trainees receive instruction in classroom skills, and the other, ‘teacher development’, where teachers learn more about second language acquisition. 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? Can we really afford to agree with Ur’s view that there’s nothing broken in teacher training in ELT?
Here are a few excerpts from Ur’s books and articles. Note that the first 4 quotes are from the 1991 edition, updated in 2009, of A Course in Language Teaching.
1. Ur, P. (1991, p. 10)
In principle, the teaching processes of presenting, practising and testing correspond to strategies used by many good learners trying to acquire a foreign language on their own. …………….
In the classroom it is the teacher’s job to promote these three learning practices by the use of appropriate teaching acts.
Comment: Notice the careful hedging of the first claim (“In principle”, “strategies used by many good learners” ) and the sweeping non-sequitur that follows. This is a good example of Ur’s argumentation.
2. Ur, P. (1991, p. 12)
The learners need to take the material into short-term memory; to remember it, that is, until later in the lesson when you and they have an opportunity to do further work to consolidate learning.
Comment: The duration of short-term memory is between 15 and 30 seconds.
3. Ur, P. (1991, p. 14)
Note than some learners remember better if it is seen, others if it is heard, yet others if it is associated with physical movement (visual, audio and kinaesthetic input)…..
Comment: There is, of course, no evidence to support the theory of NLP or the notion of learner styles; it’s all been thoroughly debunked.
4. Ur, P. (1991, p. 26) RE a Spelling Activity.
The students remarked afterwards that the activity had helped to fix the spellings in their minds and the teacher noticed that this was borne out by their subsequent performance in free writing.
Comment: Any doubts about the weight of this “evidence” will no doubt come from academics whose opinion can be safely ignored, since they know nothing about real classroom practice.
5. Ur, P. (2012)
Teaching grammar proactively through traditional focus on formS is effective.
Comment: No ifs, no buts, it’s effective. So there.
6. Ur, P. (2017b)
There is no evidence that TBLT works.
Comment: There have been over 60 studies of TBLT published in academic journals in the last 15 years. The vast majority of them report an overall positive and strong effect for TBLT implementation on a variety of learning outcomes. Furthermore, both the quantitative and qualitative data show positive stakeholder perceptions towards TBLT programmes.
7. Ur. P. (quoted by Thornbury, 2017)
It’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.
Comment: There you have it.
Richards, J. (2008) Second Language Teacher Education Today. RELC Journal, 39,2.
Ur, P. (1991) A Course in Language Teaching. CUP.
Ur, P. (2012) How useful is TESOL academic research? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/oct/16/teacher-tesol-academic-research-useful
Ur, P. (2017a) And What about the research? https://mawsig.iatefl.org/and-what-about-the-research/#comment-12754
Ur, P. (2017b) The Future of Professional Development. IATEFL Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4dA-Ldus4o
Thornbury, S. /(2017) Writing methodology texts: bridging the research/practice gap. IATEFL Conference. https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2017/session/writing-methodology-texts-bridging-researchpractice-gap