The Work of Penny Ur

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.

Ur, P. (2017a) And What about the research?

Ur, P. (2017b) The Future of Professional Development. IATEFL Conference.

Thornbury, S. /(2017) Writing methodology texts: bridging the research/practice gap. IATEFL Conference.

41 thoughts on “The Work of Penny Ur

  1. Today when wandering through Barcelona I saw a newspaper quiosk which had piles of second hand English books at 1 euro each. Being a cheapskate I pondered and rifled through them. Oh what a surprise … LG Alexander, Penny Ur and Jeremy Harmer were nestling closely together along with a correspondence course for secretaries dated 1932….. Was this perhaps the remaining library of a penniless, now demised , obviously ancient English teacher..gone on to the great freedom of Babel’s tower in the sky…. I bought the correspondence course for secretaries, mainly because it was quirky, and well bound in a lovely tan leather….I wonder what will happen to the other books I saw there….. Can’t believe that anybody might really want to read them…might serve as doorstops,,, but perhaps even too light to serve that function….hey ho !!

  2. Hi, Geoff,

    I think these 3 quotes are relevant,

    [T]here are some serious difficulties involved in the use of research evidence by practitioners. One relates to problems in interpreting this evidence without background knowledge about the studies from which it arose. Another concerns the question of how contradictions between research evidence and professional experience are to be resolved.

    But pedagogy is also an art in that these general principles have to be applied to different individual pupils in contrasting school and classroom environments. Thus an effective pedagogy requires that educational theory needs to be integrated with teacher’s craft knowledge, that is knowledge of what works in practice.

    On the practice side, evidence-based education seems to limit severely the opportunities for educational practitioners to make such judgments in a way that is sensitive to and relevant for their own contextualized settings.

    I agree that research ought to be valued more than Ms Ur et al would have us believe, but how realistic it it, in the current climate, to expect teachers to make the effort to access and interpret that research?

    On a related note, education, in every framework, every context, seems lamentably to be becoming victim to all the ills of privatisation, and it is easier and more profitable to dumb pedagogy down to ‘edutainment’ or ‘edupreneurship’. Teachers need to be trained, from grassroots level, to work with research. The PGCE goes some way in doing this, but even there a lot of the research is quite old (Vygotsky, Piaget) and the students are not typically trained to approach it critically.

    Until focus is shifted from dumbing pedagogy down to training teachers and teacher trainees up, Ur and her ilk will remain the underchallenged spokespeople for EFL pedagogy.

  3. Hi Connie,

    What a find! Good shopping decision, I think, although you probably could have sold the Alexander book on to Scott Thornbury. If he hasn’t already got a copy, he might have given you €2 for it.

  4. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for this.

    I agree with Ur that one’s own experience and the advice of one’s peers are extremely important. What I object to is her taking on the role of mediator between academic researchers and the teachers, particularly when, as you say, it’s not realistic to expect teachers to keep up to date with research themselves. Teachers deserve better mediators than Ur and most of the others who presently get well paid for doing the job so badly.

    And, of course I agree with your comments about the dumbing down of teaching in general.

  5. Geoff, I don’t know where you got the idea that Penny Ur had any association with International House. There is no mention of it in her Wikipedia bio, which reads (in part):
    “Penny Ur (born 1944) is a professor at Oranim and Haifa University. She retired as head of the Masters of Education program at the Oranim Academic College of Education. Ur studied at several universities earning her Master of Arts at Oxford University, PGCE at Cambridge University, Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Foreign Language at Reading University. She moved from the United Kingdom to Israel in 1967. She taught in primary and secondary schools in Israel for more than 30 years.”

    This seems to be confirmed by an autobiographical statement in her most recent book (which, to declare an interest, I edited):

    “I started teaching in a primary school in Israel in 1968….I went on to English in primary and secondary classes in State schools – with some breaks to teach in university teacher-preparation courses or to study – up to 2006. I must have clocked up thousands of hours of classroom teaching.”

    And she adds, significantly (to me at least): “My professional knowledge derives primarily from that experience…”

    The experientially-grounded nature of her writings on teaching is what (I would argue) makes them so accessible to practising teachers, of whom she has a devoted following: her work is imbued with what Prabhu calls ‘a sense of plausibility’ – a characteristic which I find is often in short supply in the writings of many of the academics you so venerate.

  6. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for this. I was sure I’d read Penny Ur’s account of her early days at IH and how much they’d influenced her approach to ELT. I’ll edit the post today, and I apologise for the mistake.

    At the end of the comment you say:

    The experientially-grounded nature of her writings on teaching is what (I would argue) makes them so accessible to practising teachers, of whom she has an enormous following: everything she writes is imbued with what Prabhu calls ‘a sense of plausibility’ – a characteristic which is often in short supply in the writings of many of the academics you so venerate.

    You turn Ur’s regrettable attitude to scholarship and research into a virtue. Down-playing the importance of research and scholarship while stressing the value of one’s own experience, appealing to the crowd, having an enormous following, and sounding plausible are populist qualities that most of the worst figures in history share, as do most modern “educators”.

    The dig at the end is classic. First, you use a quote from Prabhu (hardly a model of coherence or even plausibility himself) to add a bit of gravitas to your lyrical praise of Ur’s work. I suppose we just have to go along with the spirit of it, carried away on a tide of admiration for “everything she writes”. No doubt it would be considered churlish to point out that claims such as “There is no evidence that TBLT works” and “Different learners have different learning styles”, while perhaps “imbued with a sense of plausibility”, happen, as a matter of fact, to be false.

    You sign off by accusing me of venerating implausible academics who could learn a valuable lesson from Ur. I don’t venerate any academics, but I suggest that the arguments made by many of them, for example, Alderson, Allwright, Bachman, Biber, Breen, Bygate, DeKeyser, Doughty (to go no further through the alphabet), are often more plausible than the unsubstantiated and often false claims made by Ur.

  7. Penny Ur is human; Donald Freeman divine: ‘Although applied linguistics, research in second language acquisition, and methodology all contribute to the knowledge on which language teaching is based, they are not, and must not be confused with, language teaching itself. They are, in fact, ancillary to it, and thus they should not be the primary subject matter of language teacher education.’

    Freeman, D. (1989) ‘Teacher training, development and decision making: a model of teaching and related strategies for language teacher education’. TESOL Quarterly 23/1: 27-45.

    I happen to know that Ur is well-versed in applied linguistics and research in SLA (I edited a book she wrote about vocabulary teaching which made frequent reference to the research in this area) but she knows – like Freeman – that this research is ancillary to teaching, and that teachers might look more usefully to research in education than research in (the very much narrower and more decontexualised field of) second language acquisition.

  8. Hi there,
    I wonder, what is a language teacher supposed to find in “research in education”, models of growth and development, personality theory, curriculum design theories, etc. as opposed to applied linguistics and SLA? Isn’t it wise to look to the disciplinary feeder sciences for guidance? It seems to be the natural choice.


  9. This is ridiculous, Scott!

    I’m not suggesting that applied linguistics, research in second language acquisition, or methodology should do any more than contribute to the knowledge on which language teaching is based, as I’ve made clear in a number of posts – see for example ELT: Art & Rationality

    Teaching English as an L2 … is a creative, imaginative endeavour, where a teacher’s ability to bring language to life; to contextualise it; to create situations where students engage with it; to get students to learn some key parts of it by rote or at least through frequent re-cycling; to create group dynamics and nurture group cohesion; to empathise with the doubts and fears of students, to manage conflicting needs, and also to design, organise and carry out a coherent plan of learning, are all more important than a critical appreciation of theories of SLA and the research they’re based on.

    Of course theories of SLA and research findings shouldn’t be the primary subject matter of language teacher education, but they shouldn’t be ignored or misrepresented either. As I say, Ur’s 300 page book A Course in Language Teaching contains half a page devoted to describing theories of SLA.

    However much you happen to know about the depth of Ur’s knowledge and understanding of applied linguistics and research in SLA, she gives almost no signs of it in her published writings and conference presentations. Ur argues for an approach to ELT which you yourself abhor. She does so by sometimes misrepresenting research findings; by more frequently omitting any mention of research which seriously questions the assumptions on which her “experientially-grounded” approach is based; and by constantly inventing straw man arguments like the one you’ve just come up with here. You use a collection of non-sequiturs to suggest on the one hand that that Ur is an irreproachable scholar, and that on the other hand there’s little point in teachers taking any notice of fifty years work by real scholars who attempt to explain how people learn English as a second language.

  10. If I am teaching someone to drive, I might be more concerned with how the learner-driver manages routine manoeuvres and copes in unpredictable conditions rather than on the inner workings of the internal combustion engine – however fascinating. Likewise, a person who writes books about teaching (such as the unjustly maligned Penny Ur) may find it more apposite to engage with questions of classroom management, teacher-student, and student-student, interaction, the selection and evaluation of materials, the planning of lessons, the relation between classroom learning and the social context, and so on, than in the way individual learners internalize isolated grammar items in laboratory conditions (which is the focus of the bulk of SLA research). Oh, yes, that is interesting – but ancillary.

    If SLA is really ‘a disciplinary feeder science’, why has it had so little impact on classroom practice? This used to drive me cazy, until I realised that the fault lies with the feeder scientists and not with the teachers, who have a job to do.

  11. This is from previous posts:

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

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

    The example that I bang on about is research in the area of interlanguage development. Doughty and Long (2003):

    There is strong evidence for various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development, such as the well known four-stage sequence for ESL negation (Pica, 1983; Schumann, 1979), the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses (Doughty, 1991; Eckman, Bell, & Nelson, 1988; Gass, 1982), and sequences in many other grammatical domains in a variety of L2s (Johnston, 1985, 1997). The sequences are impervious to instruction, in the sense that it is impossible to alter stage order or to make learners skip stages altogether (e.g., R. Ellis, 1989; Lightbown, 1983). Acquisition sequences do not reflect instructional sequences, and teachability is constrained by learnability (Pienemann, 1984).

    Teachers can influence the rate but not the route of interlanguage development. It follows that, while explcit grammar teaching has its place, basing ELT methodology on the presentation and practice of a sequence of grammatical forms will mean that very often students won’t learn what teachers try to teach them.

    Equally important, Gil and Marsden (2014) concluded from a big meta-study that, despite other differences, most SLA researchers agreed on the relative importance of the roles of implicit and explicit learning.

    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”.

    Research findings from instructed SLA studies strongly suggest that most of classroom time should not be devoted to grammar teaching. There are greater gains to be made in interlanguage development by concentrating on activities which help implicit knowledge than by concentrating on the presentation and practice of bits and pieces of language. Activities which develop the learners’ ability to make meaning in the L2, through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback should take up the majority of classroom time.

    When designing classroom activities, we can choose the type of input to which learners are exposed, the relevance of the input to the learner’s needs, the sequence and salience of linguistic features within that input, and the tasks we give learners. Some tasks, like dictation, oral drills, written fill-in-the-blanks exercises, focus on language as object and encourage intentional and explicit language learning. Others, like “solving a problem through small group discussion, reading an interesting story, or repairing a bicycle while watching a ‘how-to’ video on YouTube”, to give Long’s examples, encourage a focus on meaning and communication, and in the process create opportunities for incidental learning. Our decisions about how to manipulate the linguistic environment should, I suggest, be made in a principled way that respects what we know about the process of SLA.

    A few more examples of relvant research findings:

    • There is no evidence to support the view that matching pedagogy to putative “learning styles” has any positive effects.
    • By manipulating certain factors and conditions of oral classroom tasks, teachers can guide students to producing either more fluent or more accurate language.
    • Certain types of L1 use in the classroom help, while others hinder, vocabulary learning.
    • “Focus on form” has a better long term effect on learning than traditional “Focus on Forms”.
    • Teaching lexical sets is counter-productive: learners actually learn new items much better if they are disconnected, or connected thematically;
    • Guessing from context is an unreliable way of accessing meaning.
    • Non-salient features of the L2 are the most difficult to learn.
    • Extensive reading speeds up learning.
    • A negative attitude towards the L2 culture inhibits learning.

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

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

    I should add that I think it’s inaccurate and unfair of you to say that I’m unjustly maligning Penny Ur. Nothing you’ve said answers the criticisms that I’ve made; namely that she sometimes misrepresents research findings, and that she pays too little attention to research findings which challenge the approach to ELT that she confidently promotes.

  12. Thanks, Geoff, for taking the trouble to spell out your priorities. In defence of Penny Ur, I would argue that she is also well informed and that her methodological recommendations are also soundly based in research. In the Introduction of her book Vocabulary Activities (Cambridge 2012), for example, she cites the following studies:

    Schmitt, N. (2008). Instructed second language vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research, 12(3), 329-363.
    Laufer, B. (2003). Vocabulary acquisition in a second language: do learners really acquire most vocabulary by reading? Some empirical evidence. Canadian Modern Language Review, 59(4), 567-587.
    Zahar, R, T. Cobb & N. Spada. ( 2001). Acquiring vocabulary through reading: effects of frequency and contextual richness. Canadian Modern Language Review , 57(4), 544-72.
    Papathanasiou, E. (2009). An investigation of two ways of presenting vocabulary. ELT Journal, 63(4), 313-322.
    Laufer, B. (2005). Focus on form in second language vocabulary learning. EUROSLA Yearbook, 5, 223-250.

    But I suspect that all these research studies are first scrutinized through the lens of her own experience. That’s the point I wanted to make.

  13. Thanks for replying,

    I guess the crux of the matter is the affinity of the analogy. Is the driving / combustion engine relationship akin to the workings of the mind and language teaching?

    I would say not really. For example, I could remove the propulsion mechanism, and use electricity, or wind energy, without having any impact on the driving.

    I can, however, not really mess around with the brain, thinking that teaching and learning is unaffected. Students on drugs, or with a hangover are not the same students as when fully alert.

    The analogy does match the unpredictability of teaching/learning situations. But then this is true whether you teach math, biology or political science. I’d think that managing unpredictable situations is a skill that will serve in any classroom, or let’s say life.

    Classroom management is one of those self-induced skills of our education system. We need them because we have it—formal education. We homeschooled our 3 children. Classroom management was obviously not a primary concern. Language learning nevertheless flourished. Interaction patterns are peripheral to language learning. It is part of communicative language teaching, but it is not essential to language learning. I learned languages in different ways, not engaging in pair-work, not doing info-gaps, or dictations etc. I write to you in my 3rd language. So, to me it seems that only what is present under all circumstances can truly be fundamental. That is, the way the mind copes with communication needs.

    Maybe we need to agree on what we think a science has to accomplish to be called a feeder science. I can imagine that some papers in particle physics feed very little in physics, and some papers in SLA read like sawdust. Maybe we do not need engage with the twigs but we should know which branch we are planning to sit on, i.e. I am not yet sure what to make of the interlanguage proposal.

    If SLA has so little impact who is to blame? I am not going to push Geoff’s line of the captured market. It is not rare to our experience that we act contrary to our better knowledge. We have smoking doctors, drunk drivers, and corrupt politicians, and we have teachers that can’t do the present perfect because students haven’t done the simple past. I can remember statements where researchers keen digging down there for evidence say that their findings have no bearing on the way we want to teach. It is obviously easier to stay underground and not take risks with claims that could be tested in the classroom. This is one way that I like the priming idea, which so fervently attacked in this place, attempts to haul over something applicable from the lab.

    There is shared blame. In all workshops I attended, prepared, have given, I do not recall teachers pondering SLA questions. I try to remember preparing check lists where I asked teachers to mark familiar terms pertinent to language learning. Top of mind is linguistic and methodology jargon. I guess this goes to show how the system replicates itself. But teachers are at loss when asked about memory, or meaning making, emotions. Speaking from a distance, because I got to know him only though his books, Earl Stevick seemed to me an example of somebody who pulled the theoretical into the classroom and vice versa.


  14. Citing studies is one thing, Scott; showing critical acumen and good judgement about what you might have read is another. Likewise, scrutinising things you read through the lens of your own experience is one thing; misrepresenting important research findings while ignoring a mass of findings that challenge your approach to ELT is another.

  15. Hi Thom,

    Thanks very much for these comments. I suppose everybody’s to blame a bit for the sorry state of current ELT practice, but my argument is, as you know, that the main culprits are the commercial companies who find coursebook-driven ELT, skills-based teacher training and certification, and CEFR assessment scales the best way to package their products. People like Ur support this commercialised form of ELT and do little to encourage any serious debate about its shortcomings. I’m sure Ur is quite sincere in her passionate support for coursebook-driven ELT, I just happen to think she’s wrong.

  16. Dear God, this is sad and makes me happy to be leaving the ELT/ EFL/ ELT/ ESOL/ EAP world to retire. Much as I have appreciated your contributions, Scott, I have used few books in my teaching as much as ‘Five Minute Activities’ by Penny Ur (from the 1980s) I’m disappointed to hear that she’s not PC now and I didn’t know about any Israeli connection. Bye!

  17. Hi Geoff,
    Thanks to you I’m up to date with research. That means that is you who does the job . Your article
    , views, and opinions had a strong influence on my teaching practice.

  18. Surely this analogy would be more apt if the instructor took to telling learners that modern theories of combustion were unproven, at best, false, at worst?

    Or if students were instructed to, say, rub their seatbelt to reduce fuel consumption (reflecting the countless pages of grammar mcNugget teaching philosophy espoused by Ur et al)?

  19. Geoff, it seems that your main beef with Ur is that she claims that ‘there is no evidence that TBLT works.’ I don’t have my copy of Ur to hand so I can’t check the context in which this otherwise unsupported statement occurs, but I suspect that Penny’s doubts about TBLT derive from the fact that there has been so little uptake of TBLT in the kinds of contexts of language teaching in which the bulk of the world’s language teachers operate – i.e. large classes of teenage learners focused on passing exams being taught by teachers with minimal training and low confidence in their own English fluency. Where is the evidence that TBLT works in these kinds of contexts? Or even that it is practicable? A writer of methodology books needs to be confident that any research-based recommendations are based on research that is easily generalisable to the kinds of contexts in which her readers are working.

    Even enthusiastic proponents of TBLT such as Bygate, Norris & van den Branden (2009) admit that TBLT cannot ‘rely on individual case studies of learners conducted outside the context of programs of instruction, or on laboratory studies, nor on studies carried out in host classrooms in which the use of tasks is investigated without relating their use to the teaching of the on-going program’ (p.497) – which, to date, represent the bulk of studies in TBLT.

    They continue ‘if TBL T is able to appeal to empirical criteria in the way outlined above, then it would be justified in claiming to teachers, teacher trainers, designers and administrators that it has classroom-and program-based evidence for what it proposes. It will be able to demonstrate how the broad project can be refined in myriad discriminating ways for actual implementation – for instance through the research development of ranges of materials for the instruction of language both through written and spoken media, at different levels of proficiency, and for different ages, for different needs, and for different cultural contexts, showing how the options can impact on language development. It should be able to adduce a number of syllabus proposals and report their implementation in a range of contexts and for a variety of different purposes. It should also be able to report thorough documentation and an informative data-base for the use of new and practising teachers, showing a wide range of documented options for the classroom use and exploitation of tasks within lessons and schemes of work. It should be able to offer a data-base for the use of appropriate assessment types and test items for different purposes. It should provide a constellation of researched resources for use in teacher and program development. If TBL T can overtime gradually accumulate a research-base of this order, then its proponents will genuinely be able to show that they have evidence for their claims, and have documentation to support innovation and development within real-world contexts.’ (Ibid.).

    Of course, you could argue that the prevailing grammar-driven PPP methodology is even more impoverished in terms of its research agenda. But it is the devil that most teachers know, and until TBLT researchers can persuade them otherwise, it is the devil that they (and Penny Ur) will stick to.

    Bygate, M., Norris, J. & Van den Branden, K. 2009. ‘Understanding TBL T at the interface between research and pedagogy’, in van den Branden, K., Bygate, M. & Norris, J. M. (Eds) Task-based language teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  20. The public wants what the public gets. Like Dogme, there is little to sell with TBLT. Like Dogme, sadly, TBLT will not make an impact in commercial ELT, just among enthusiasts in the university, some eccentric schools, and BE/ESP sectors. Nobody gets trained in TBLT in initial training. That’s why nobody uses it on a comparable scale.

  21. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for taking the time to continue this discussion.

    My main beef with Ur is that she does a bad job as mediator between academic researchers and teachers. In her books and teacher training courses she pays scant attention to any research, while in some articles (the Guardian (2012) the (2017) MATSIG piece, for example) she pretended to keep teachers in the loop, while ignoring a mountain of evidence against her preferred approach to ELT.

    Ur’s assertion about TBLT was made at the IATEFL Conference in 2017 (see the reference) and she’s often voiced the same opinion. Of course TBLT takes many different forms and has its supporters and critics, but Ur’s assertion is simply false.

    As for Ur and teachers sticking to the devil they know, their reasons are different. Ur sticks to a grammar-based PPP methodology delivered by a coursebook because she believes in it and has an enormous stake in current ELT practice, which she defends against all-comers. Teachers stick to it partly because they often have no choice, and partly because, thanks to Ur and the other mediators, they’re constantly reassured that it’s the best way of organising ELT, while at the same time being either misinformed or kept in the dark about feasible, coherent, learner-centred alternatives.

    If teachers were helped and encouraged to become familiar with, for example, Long’s (2015) version of TBLT and to critically evaluate it for themselves, I’m sure that many of them would react a lot more favourably to it than Ur would, if she bothered to read it. There’s a report of a meta analysis of 52 studies of TBLT coming out in the next issue of Language Teaching Research; what are the chances, do you think, that Ur will bring it to teachers’ attention?

  22. Thank you Scott for expressing my own opinions so well. 🙂
    If it hadn’t been for Penny Ur I wouldn’t even know there is reseach to look for. She is the one who has taken the initiative to come to conferences and bothered to share what she knows with the young, the inexperienced and the ignorant in a language that is comrehendable and encouraging. I am truly thankful to her. It pains me to see that some people are jealous of the respect she has earned among many ‘front line’ teachers.

  23. Hi Anna,

    You’re welcome to express your high opinion of Penny Ur. You’re less welcome to suggest that my criticism of Ur is motivated by jealousy. It isn’t.

  24. Appologies. I got too emotional reading your feed. Sorry for that.
    But we all know there is no learning without emotions. Penny Ur’s presentations and interviews stirr emotions in me – scientific research doesn’t. Therefore I choose her – even if, as you tried to prove, in places she is not 100% right.
    In my reality there has been far too much criticism and not enoughf praise of anybody or anything recently. And I just got upset. So once again – accept my appology.
    On the positive side – thanks to our exchange I am going to ‘investigate’ TBLT and Pienemann’s teachability now – two notions I have never heard before. Something new to learn. Thank you.

  25. Hi Geoff,

    As always, I really enjoyed your blog post and found it very thought-provoking. Unfortunately, I think by focusing too heavily on Penny Ur that the conversation has been shifted away from the central and more important topic of the disconnect between research and what is either known by, or presented to, language teachers as good practice.

    Penny Ur is not the only writer held as a mediator between research and teachers so the problem cannot rest solely with her.

    I think that ELT would benefit from more well-reasoned and well-researched criticism, similar to what you provide here on your blog, but that the criticism needs to be applied evenly. It may also be useful to separate the author (her publication history, accolades, and her possible reasons for expressing the views she does) from the statements presented in her works.

    I would also agree with your earlier comment that teachers need to know more about language acquisition as it can inform their classroom practices. It certainly helped me a lot.

  26. Hi Anna,

    Thanks very much for this generous, gracious follow-up; I quite understand those who get carried away by their feelings! 🙂 And I appreciate all the good things that Pennny Ur has done for teachers; I think I actually said as much, somewhere. I hope you find the investigations useful. Best wishes.

  27. Hi Richard,

    Thanks very much for your comments. I think one has to be straightforward about one’s criticisms and name the people one’s talking about. That doesn’t mean one should be rude, or make personal remarks. My criticisms of Penny Ur’s published work and public comments are hard, but I obviously think they’re justified. The disconnect between research and teachers is, after all, partly the result of bad training programmes and bad on-going teacher development. There are influential people who lead this training and development; they have the greatest access to and influence on teachers because they have commercial backing, and, in my opinion, when we think they’re talking baloney, we should say so, and expect them to explain themselves.

  28. Scott Thornbury, Penny Ur, and others demand lots of evidence that TBLT “works”, while providing none that traditional grammar-based PPP does. And if some of the evidence is from laboratory studies, they dismiss it as ivory tower, etc., etc., etc.

    Here’s the abstract from a forthcoming statistical meta-analysis of 52 evaluations of program-level implementations of TBLT in real classroom settings, including parts of the Middle-East and East Asia, where arm-chair pundits have decided it could never work for “cultural” reasons, and “three-hours-a-week” primary and secondary foreign language settings, where they have also decided it could never work:

    “Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is an empirically investigated pedagogy that has garnered
    attention from language programs across the globe. TBLT provides an alternative to traditional
    grammar translation or present-practice-produce pedagogies by emphasizing interaction during
    authentic tasks. Despite several previous meta-analyses investigating the effect of individual
    tasks or short-term task-based treatments on second language (L2) development, no studies
    to date have synthesized the effects of long-term implementation of TBLT in authentic language
    classrooms. The present study uses meta-analytic techniques to investigate the effectiveness of
    TBLT programs on L2 learning. Findings based on a sample of 52 studies revealed an overall
    positive and strong effect (d = 0.93) for TBLT implementation on a variety of learning outcomes.
    The study further examined a range of programmatic and methodological features that
    moderated these main-effects (program region, institution type, needs analysis, and cycles of
    implementation). Additionally, synthesizing across both quantitative and qualitative data, results
    also showed positive stakeholder perceptions towards TBLT programs. The study concludes with
    implications for the domain of TBLT implementation, language program evaluation, and future
    research in this domain.”

    The full article is already published in the On-line First section of the LTR web-site:

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

    Of course, it’s only 52 studies, some with methodological weaknesses, no doubt, and Scott and Penny probably have 53 in favor of PPP up their sleeve . . .

  29. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for this. Good of you to tear yourself away from the lab for long enough to send it.

  30. Thanks, Mike: I very much look forward to reading this. Contrary to what you may infer from the comments above, I am a vocal proponent of TBLT. I even co-wrote a secondary course that subscribed to task-based (and not task-supported) principles. And, as I suggested earlier, the research supporting PPP and/or explicit teaching of pre-selected grammar items is impoverished – to the point of being non-existent. But that doesn’t necessarily invalidate it as a teaching strategy in contexts where to do anything other than teach pre-selected items of grammar explicitly would undermine the teacher’s authority. After all, people have learned languages any number of ways in and out of classroom settings, and it’s not unlikely that it is often the teacher’s overt and enthusiastic commitment to a method – however groundless – and the authority that this projects that keeps many of them motivated, such that they make progress in spite of the method, not because of it. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that learning is as much affective and social as it is cognitive.;-)

    (My task-based course bombed spectacularly, in case you were wondering!).

  31. Dear Michael,
    I am sure any experienced teacher (like myself) will have noticed that TBLT works. By observing the students and onself. The reason whyTBLT has not been as widespread as we might wish lies not in WHETHER teachers should implement it but HOW it could be done. Especially if you teach outside an English speaking country (i.e. where most of English teaching happens and most language coursebooks are sold).
    In Poland, where I am based, there is absolutely NO NEED to use English. Students can solve any problem in Polish. In rare situations they might have to resolve to useing Google-translate.
    There was a brief time in history when computer games were available only in English and my language school was full of kids who had learnt sophisticated phrases out of nowhere. But those days are gone 😦
    CLIL could be a solution, but most language teachers feel threatened by it. So I will welcom any suggestions as to HOW.

  32. Geoff, I will persist in taking issue with your claim that Penny Ur has ‘an enormous stake’ in a coursebook-driven ELT industry. Not only has she NOT written coursebooks, but her endorsement of them is both measured and pragmatic, and consistent with her declared commitment to improving teaching – on the assumption that this will contribute to student learning. Here she is on using coursebooks, from one of her recent books (Penny Ur’s 100 Teaching Tips, Cambridge 2016 – again, I declare an interest!)

    “Some writers have suggested that we shouldn’t use coursebooks, on the grounds that they de-skill and disempower the teacher, and deny us the right to teach creatively. But in fact it’s a useful – or even essential – tool for most of us. I certainly needed one. I didn’t have the time to find my own texts or exercises or plan my own course programme. On the other hand, using the coursebook doesn’t mean going through it page by page doing everything the writers provide. There are bound to be bits you don’t like so much. Maybe the content of a text isn’t suitable for your students; maybe it’s just boring; maybe you just can’t see how a task would ‘work’ in your classroom; maybe there’s just too much of it. ….” etc.

    Needless to say, I don’t agree with all her sentiments, but I don’t doubt their sincerity.

  33. Pursuant on the above, I was wrong to state that Penny Ur had not written coursebooks (Geoff has provided a link on Twitter to a series she co-authored for Spanish secondary schools). While agreeing that this undercuts my argument, I still maintain that it is an exaggeration – and misrepresentation – to claim that she has ‘an enormous stake’ in this market. There are plenty of more eligible candidates for this role!

  34. Scott, quoting Freeman (1989), is perhaps right in claiming that applied linguistics, research in second language acquisition, and methodology are “ancillary” to language teaching itself, the word ancillary itself meaning “providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, system, etc.”

    But surely this misses the central point of everything that Geoff has been saying on this blog – especially with theories regarding learner interlanguage. That is, it’s become clearer and clearer that language teaching itself is increasingly “ancillary” to language learning. And if this is true, then the ELT coursebook – as a long-supposed bridge between teaching and learning – doesn’t have a very rosy future, destined perhaps to become the pedagogical equivalent of a medieval cod-piece: expensive, showy, but altogether useless. (Apart from the odd trot around the Globe theatre, or the odd joust at the annual ELT conf’rance.)

    The dominant ELT commerce- and industry-driven justifications: that coursebooks are “pragmatic”, that they help “real teachers” (often a synonym for teachers in developing countries who need a pedagogical push from the world’s centre), and that we (always) need more “research” are perplexing. Because you could once make a similar argument for the continuing use of leeches in the treatment of blood disorders.

    I’m not saying that science, or scientific reasoning, or scientific research can solve all research problems. But the kind of flat-earth ELT reasoning associated with coursebooks (and much else) solves no research problems.

  35. Geoff – you’re very justified to be outraged that someone might suggest TBLT is without merit. No matter the research – for me, it passes any teacher’s sniffer test and I can’t see why any teacher trainer would suggest that the interaction hypothesis is hocus pocus. We learn by communicating – interacting with messages we need and want to hear. I’m always amazed at how CLT has been totally derided by the commercialization of our profession through corporate attack and strategy since the late 80s. It’s almost as if there is no longer anyone caring about getting results – just doing worksheets and getting through the course book or passing a standardized weakly valid, costly level test.
    I do agree with Scott that we need to listen more to the findings and best practices of general education – but it doesn’t have to be either or (at the expense of educating teachers about research findings from SLA).

  36. Dear Professor Long,
    Unfortunately, I don’t have institutional access to the LTR and $36 for a one day pass is a bit steep for me. Could you please tell me what the ‘authentic classrooms’ were? Were they small classes in private language schools or were they large numbers (30+) in state schools as happens to be the case in Spain?
    Many thanks

  37. Hi All,

    I’m very sorry that your comments were left unattended for 3 days . Have just come back from internet-free zone.

    Thanks for all the comments. I hope those who the comments are directed at will respond.

  38. In reply to Scott Thornbury.
    Hi Scott,

    You pick up on something I said in a reply to a comment, having done surprisingly little to reply to the main points raised. So lets deal with the comment first. I said “Ur sticks to a grammar-based PPP methodology delivered by a coursebook because she believes in it and has an enormous stake in current ELT practice, which she defends against all-comers”. I didn’t say or imply that she was making money hand over fist from the sales of coursebooks, like Nunan, Richards, Mr. and Mrs Soars, and others, just that she is, and has been for over 30 years, a staunch defender of coursebooks, CELTA training, PPP methodology, the British Council, Cambridge exams, IATEFL and all the other pillars of ELT orthodoxy which have got us into this mess, a mess you describe as “Comfort. Complacency. Conformity. Professional atrophy. Institutional malaise. Student boredom. Slow death by mcnuggets”.

    As to the main points, let me repeat them.

    1. Ur is a bad mediator between academic researchers and teachers.
    2. As Mike Long points out, Ur offers little support for her own the views of ELT, while demanding complete proof that TBLT “works”.
    3. In her books and teaching training courses, Ur does not encourage discussion of important matters related to the teaching implications of SLA research.
    3. Ur misrepresents important research findings and ignores a lot of robust research findings which challenge her own view of ELT.
    4. Ur encourages teachers to believe that using coursebooks to deliver a synthetic, grammar-based syllabus using a “present, practice and test” approach is the best way to organise ELT.
    5. The ELT industry is following a general educational tilt into commodification, where deskilled, poorly-paid teachers are trained to deliver packaged bits of knowledge to consumers who then have to regurgitate this reified “knowledge” in high stakes exams in order to get residence permits and jobs. This is the ELT industry that Ur supports, saving her poorly-informed criticism for those like Mike Long who are fighting for an alternative.

    In defence of Ur’s record in ELT you say the following:

    * Her experientially-grounded, accessible writings on teaching are imbued with ‘a sense of plausibility’ – unlike the writings of many of the academics I so venerate.

    * She has a devoted following of practising teachers.

    * You know that Ur is well-versed in applied linguistics and research in SLA because (a) you edited a book she wrote about vocabulary teaching which made frequent reference to the research in this area, and (b) she cited 5 sources in another book.

    * Ur knows that research is ancillary to teaching, and that teachers would be better off looking to research in education than research in the very much narrower and more decontexualised field of second language acquisition.

    * I unjustly malign Ur for writing books about teaching which engage with questions of classroom management, interaction, materials, lesson planning, the social context, etc., rather than concentrating on how learners internalize isolated grammar items in laboratory conditions (which is the focus of the bulk of SLA research).

    * It’s the scientists’ fault that SLA research has had so little impact on classroom practice.

    * Ur’s doubts about TBLT are well-founded because “even enthusiastic proponents of TBLT such as Bygate, Norris & van den Branden (2009)” admit that TBLT has not yet proved its worth or applicability to most teaching situations. . Until TBLT researchers can persuade teachers otherwise, it is the devil that teachers (and Penny Ur) know (i.e. coursebook-driven ELT) that they will stick to.

    * I exaggerate and misrepresent Ur on her view of coursebooks because “her endorsement of them is both measured and pragmatic”. Then you quote Ur saying that the coursebook is “a useful – or even essential – tool for most of us”. In her books, articles, teacher training courses and conference appearances, Ur has consistently promoted the use of coursebooks in ELT and defended their use against critics.

    Finally, here’s the video clip where Ur says (Miute 2 and 4 seconds)

    “There’s no particular evidence that TBLT is any better than any other kind of methodology”.

    Without a trace of irony, Ur complains that TBLT is a “wonder cure” that “pre-empts teachers decisions about what to do”, while blithely ignoring the fact that this is exactly what couersebooks do.

    It’s worth watching the whole thing to get a good idea of Ur’s style. She makes an appeal for the future of ELT to be guided by “the evidence”, and yet she claims that there’s no particular evidence to support TBLT, and makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of the moutain of evidence that challenges the approach to ELT that she continues to promote.

  39. Class sizes are not mentioned. Of the 47 studies cited, over half (25) were in universities. The most common locations were the Middle East (17), followed by East Asia (9), then North America and South East Asia (7 each).

  40. Sorry for the delay in replying. Have been otherwise occupied for a few days.

    Here, from p. 13 of the Bryfonski and McKay (2017 LTR) meta-analysis of longitudinal studies of TBLT programs in situ is some of the information Tom asked for about them.

    Target languages included English (40), Spanish (5) and Mandarin (2). 44 programs were in foreign language settings. 18 were at the k – 12 level, 25 in universities, and 4 in language institutes. 17 were located in the Middle East, 7 in North America, 3 in Europe, 9 in east Asia, 2 in South America, 7 in Southeast Asia, 1 in Africa, 1 in South Asia.

    I am only familiar with a few of the original studies, so cannot vouch for the methodological rigor of the others. B and M express caveats about some of them.

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