The Works of Hugh Dellar Part 1


Hugh Dellar’s work typifies all that’s wrong with current teacher training: poor scholarship, lack of attention to how people learn languages, and a general reliance on the unexamined assumption that explicit instruction is the biggest part of a teacher’s job. In his books, articles, blogs, conference presentations and YouTube videos, Dellar combines an almost obsessive concentration on the explicit teaching of vocabulary with a glaring ignorance of linguistics in general (for example, he attributes structuralist linguistics to Chomsky*), and of research findings about instructed language learning in particular (only Jeremy Harmer rivals Dellar when it comes to talking baloney about SLA). By criticising his work as a teacher trainer, I hope to open up discussion of the areas that Dellar so hopelessly misrepresents.

In his 2013 presentation Teaching Grammar Lexically, Dellar describes the epiphany he experienced when he read Lewis’ (1993) The Lexical Approach. After years struggling with nagging doubts about his own teaching practice, Dellar finally realised that grammar-based PPP teaching was “a tyranny”, and that language is “not lexicalised grammar, but rather grammaticalised lexis”. Dellar tells us that reading Lewis’ book caused a “profound shift” in his perspective, and that he spent many years “unpicking” its “dense” content. About ten years later, Dellar read Hoey’s (2005) Lexical Priming, and this, he confides, led him to an even deeper understanding of, and commitment to, the lexical approach. On the back of the two constructs “lexical chunks” and “priming”, Dellar has developed his own “Lexical Approach” to ELT which he now travels around the world promoting.

First, I’ll examine Dellar’s view of language learning. In Part 2, I’ll examine Dellar’s view of language, the teaching of lexical chunks, and “bottom-up grammar”. In Part 3, I’ll review Dellar’s contribution to ELT.

*In 1972, Chomsky described structural linguistics as an “impoverished and thoroughly inadequate conception of language”.


Language Learning

Dellar’s views on language learning are laid out in Teaching Lexically (Dellar and Walkley, 2016, p. 7). Here are his “Principles of how people learn languages”:

Essentially, to learn any given item of language, people need to carry out the following stages:

  1. Understand the meaning of the item.
  2. Hear/see an example of the item in context.
  3. Approximate the sounds of the item.
  4. Pay attention to the item and notice its features.
  5. Do something with the item – use it in some way.
  6. Repeat these steps over time, when encountering the item again in other contexts.

More than half a century of SLA research is reduced to a 6-step process which is supposed to explain how we learn “any given item of language”. We’re not told what an “item of language” refers to, but, if we limit ourselves to words and their collocates, there are tens of thousands of them; all learned by repeating stages 1 to 5 above an unspecified number of times. These “stages” are hardly “principles”, and the claim that together they provide an explanation of language learning is ludicrous. Still, let’s proceed and concentrate on the question of  explicit and implicit learning. Step 4 suggests that all language learning is conscious, which in turn points to the incoherence of Dellar and Walkley’s view, as we will now see.

Lexical Priming 

Dellar and Walkley claim that Hoey’s (2005) Lexical Priming gives theoretical support for their view of language learning.  Hoey argues that words which are apparently synonymous – such as result and consequence – typically function in quite different ways. The differences in the usage of these two synonyms is seen in statistics from corpora which show when and how they are used.

Hoey argues that these statistical differences must come about because, when we first encounter these words (he calls such encounters ‘primings’) our brains somehow subconsciously record some or all of this kind of information about the way the words are used. Our next encounter may reaffirm – or possibly contradict – this initial priming, as will the next encounter, and the one after that – and so on. ….   (Dellar and Walkley, 2016, p. 11).

The authors then take Hoey’s citing of “evidence from psycholinguistic studies” as evidence to support the claim that

spoken fluency, the speed at which we read and the ease and accuracy with which we listen may all develop as a result of language users being familiar with groupings of words (ibid).

Subconscious noticing

Dellar and Walkley’s summary of Hoey’s theory fails to properly describe the foundation on which it rests. Hoey claims that we learn languages by subconsciously noticing everything (sic) that we have ever heard or read about words, and storing it all in a massively repetitious way.

The process of subconsciously noticing is referred to as lexical priming. … Without realizing what we are doing, we all reproduce in our own speech and writing the language we have heard or read before. We use the words and phrases in the contexts in which we have heard them used, with the meanings we have subconsciously identified as belonging to them and employing the same grammar. The things we say are subconsciously influenced by what everyone has previously said to us (Hoey, 2005, p. 67).

Hoey’s theory obviously hinges on the construct of “subconscious noticing”, and yet, Hoey nowhere explains it. Instead of providing a proper description of subconscious noticing, and then explaining how it leads to communicative competence in the L2, Hoey simply asserts that language learning is the result of repeated exposure to patterns of text – the more the repetition the better the knowledge. This amounts to adopting a crude version of behaviorism.

Hoey rejects cognitive theories of SLA which see second language learning as a process of interlanguage development, involving the successive restructuring of learners’ mental representation of the L2, because syntax plays an important role in them, and syntax is a no-no for Hoey. He also rejects them because, contrary to his own theory, they assume that there are limitations in our ability to store and process information. In cognitive theories of SLA, explaining how relatively scarce resources are used is considered to be a key part of the theory. Various different theories are offered, but they all address the issue of making the most efficacious use of relatively scarce resources; the crucial, often conflicting, claims made about short and long term memory, and explicit and implicit knowledge and learning, all stem from an attempt to address this issue. One cognitive theory of SLA sees learners as developing linguistic competence through participation in meaningful communication, helped by access to innate knowledge. Another sees language learning as involving controlled processes (requiring a lot of attention and time) becoming more automatic, thus freeing up the controlled processes for application to new linguistic skills. What the conflicting and incomplete but nevertheless slowly improving theories have in common is their commitment to providing a causal theory capable of surviving empirical tests, and using constructs such as interlanguagescomprehensible input, apperceived input, working and long term memory, implicit and explicit learning, noticing, intake and output.

In stark contrast to the above, Hoey’s “theory” is no more than a hurriedly-sketched misrepresentation of connectionist theories which concentrates almost exclusively on input. Passing quickly over the rest of the issues, it simply asserts that we remember the stuff that we’ve most frequently encountered. Hoey’s theory does not explain how L2 learners process and retrieve their knowledge of L2 words, or precisely how “L1 primings” affects the SLA process.

Misrepresentations & Confusion  

Hoey’s theory is bad enough, but Dellar manages to make it even worse by misrepresenting Hoey’s construct of priming, and confusing it with Schmidt’s (1990, 1993) construct of noticing. As we have just seen, priming, according to Hoey, is subconscious, while noticing is, according to Dellar, conscious. Hoey states categorically that Krashen’s distinction between acquisition and learning is correct: explicit learning only functions as a monitor, and priming is the unconscious process through which all language acquisition happens. Yet stage 4 of Dellar’s 6-stage process of language learning calls for learners to “pay attention and notice” language items.

It’s possible, of course, to resolve this contradiction by untangling the confusing use of Hoey’s and Schmidt’s theories, and relying more on usage-based theories (Nick Ellis’, for example) which use the construct of priming, but which grant a role for explicit learning. However, as Ellis points out:

There is need for a detailed theoretical analysis of the processes of explicit and implicit learning. What can be learned implicitly? If implicit learning is simply associationist learning and the induction of statistical regularities, what aspects of language can be so acquired? Just how modular and inaccessible are the implicit learning processes for language acquisition? What are the various mechanisms of explicit learning that are available to the language learner? If the provision of explicit rules facilitates, or if Implicit AND Explicit Learning are necessary for the acquisition of certain forms, what is the nature of these rules? What are the developmental paths of implicit and explicit learning abilities? Are there sensitive periods for implicit language acquisition?  (N. Ellis, 2015, p.2)

I’ll return to this in Part 3, but for now, we may simply note that nowhere in Dellar’s published work is there a coherent, scholarly discussion of language learning. In particular,

  • the “Principles of how people learn languages”are not principles at all;
  • the crucial question of the roles of implicit and explicit learning is not even acknowledged;
  • the development of learners’ interlanguages is given scant consideration;
  • the constructs of priming and noticing are heavily relied on, but nowhere are they coherently defined.

Thus, for Dellar, language learning is the result of a 6-step process where tens of thousands of discrete “language items” are somehow assimilated as the result of an unexplained interaction between two badly-defined, seemingly contradictory constructs.


Dellar, H. (2013) Teaching Grammar Lexically. Retrieved from

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

Ellis, N. (2015) Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning: Their dynamic interface and complexity
In Rebuschat (Ed.). Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 3-23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming. London, Routeledge.

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

Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11, 129-158.

Schmidt, R. (1993). Awareness and second language acquisition. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 13, 206-226.


Teacher Trainers As Mediators

This is an adapted version of a post from my previous blog. I reproduce it here in the hope that it will encourage teachers to not only question coursebook-driven ELT but also to expect teacher trainers and methodolgy writers to explain what they think they’re doing.

In his post M is for Mediation  last year, Scott Thornbury commented further on his recent conference presentations where he had reported on a small survey he’d done to find out how methodology writers mediate between researchers and practitioners. It turned out that the writers who answered his questionnaire didn’t keep up with research findings in instructed SLA, and didn’t spend much time talking to teachers about such stuff. As I explained in my opening post for this blog, Penny Ur was particularly outspoken on this matter, opining that there’s really no reason to bother teachers with such stuff.  Thornbury explored the follow-up question

Would you consult/recommend/approve of a methodology text that made little or no reference to published research? 

and got a predictablly wide range of responses from his big Sunday audience; but I’d like to pose a slightly different question:

Are there any research findings about language learning and teaching that have important teaching implications, and if so, who should tell teachers about them?

This is my own answer:

  1. A very 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.

1. A small subset of research has important teaching implications that teachers should know about

The example that I bang on about is research in the area of interlanguage development. This research suggests that there are stages all learners go through when learning a second language, and consequently that teachers can influence the rate but not the route of interlanguage development. It follows that basing ELT methodology on the presentation and practice of a sequence of grammatical forms is mistaken. (Note that research (see, for example, Norris & Ortega, 2000) also indicates that explicit form-focused instruction can be effective in promoting learning, and that implicit learning has been shown by later work (see ZhaoHong and Nassaji, 2018) to be more effective for long-term gains in interlanguage development.

A few more examples:

  • 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”.
  • 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 Thornbury 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.

2. Mediators are needed to inform teachers about new developments 

In my opinion, it’s unreasonable to expect teachers to keep up with research, and it’s reasonable to expect methodology writers and teacher trainers, who, after all, get paid for giving information and advice to teachers, to do so. Of course, teachers should make an effort to keep informed themselves, but I think it’s reasonable for them to turn to mediators rather than to academic journals, and to expect those who write methodology texts and those who organise and carry out teacher training to give them a well-informed and well-considered view of teaching which takes research findings into account.

How do mediators find the relevant research? Well, that’s their job, and individually they have to decide for themselves what to do. As the four writers who replied to Thornbury’s questionnaire made clear, there are different ways of keeping in touch, which include attending conferences, networking, using social media, taking advantage of meta analyses, reading a few “state of the art” articles, and keeping your ear to the wire, so to speak. The aim is thus to stay in touch with developments, have a general feel for what’s happening, and so be in a good position to dig deeper when necessary.

3. Methodology writers and teacher trainers currently do a bad job as mediators

The problem is that many methodology writers and teacher trainers don’t seem to share this view of their responsibilities. The impression given from Thornbury’s study, from  teacher trainer blogs, from the publications of TD SIGs, and from the presentations about teacher training given at the 2017 TESOL conference, the International IATEFL conference, 2017, and the various national IATEFL conferences in 2017, is that they don’t keep up to date with what research tells us about language learning, or see mediation as part of their remit. From all the TD sources just mentioned, I can find no  discussion of the research findings of interlanguage development, or of the roles of explicit and implicit learning, or of the relative effects of explicit and implicit focus on form, for example.  Thornbury himself has discussed these research findings more than once, so if he thinks it’s important o keep in touch with research and to use research findings to inform his views on methodology, why doesn’t he expect the same of others? More particularly, if Thornbury thinks that research findings call into question the assumptions underlying a grammar-based synthetic syllabus and the PPP methodology which implements it, why doesn’t he mention this when discussing his findings?

We get a hint from this exchange:

Luiz Otávio Barros: … it seems that a lot of what has been researched and discovered in the past 30 years is at odds with what teachers are expected to do in class. So, SLA research can keep telling teachers – till it’s blue in the face – that linear syllabuses, grammar mcnuggests and controlled practice with a view to proceduralization don’t work… The whole educational system is set up in such a way that these claims are hard to embrace.

Thornbury: Thank you Luiz (and lovely to be communicating with you again!) If I may quote Penny Ur here (an excerpt of which I used in my talk), because it seems to chime with your own sentiments, …….

The quote from Ur might have chimed with Barros’ sentiments, but it did almost nothing to address the point he was making. Once again, Thornbury deftly ducks controversy, choosing not to be drawn on the political issue raised by Barros, namely that “the whole educational system” has little appetite for research findings which seriously rock the boat. Moderators work for publishers and for companies. The bosses of these commercial enterprises dissuade employees from making any serious attacks on current ELT practice – witness Thornbury’s publishers making it clear to him that they’re “not interested” in his McNuggets views. Barros, rightly I think, suggests that the ELT educational system is set up in such a way that teachers are unlikely to hear about “inconvenient” research findings. They’re unlikely to hear, for example, about the research findings which indicate that a grammar-based product syllabus delivered with a PPP methodology is inefficient; or that coursebooks have serious failings; or that the Pearson Test of English is bulit on sand; or that the Common European Framework of Reference is, as Fulcher says “a prime example of in the way political and social agendas can impact on language testing, and how language testing can be made to serve those agendas”. And so on and so on. In brief, moderators, no doubt voluntarily and in good faith, tell teachers what the bosses want them to hear.

4. Open Discussion is Needed

We should fight against the way sweeping generalisations about the obscurantism of research and the practical nature of teaching are used to dismiss research findings which challenge established ELT orthodoxy. ELT practice would improve if writers of methodology texts and teacher trainers, plus bloggers and other interested parties, engaged with teachers in open discussion about well-conducted applied linguistics research dealing with, among other things, interlanguage development, task design, error correction, vocabulary learning, extensive reading, pronunciation teaching, and testing & assessment.


Norris, J. & L. Ortega (2000). Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-analysis. Language Learning 50, 417-528.

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

The Works of Scott Thornbury: Part 1


In July 2015, commenting on Steve Brown’s post “Concerning Coursebooks”, Thornbury had this to say:

  • If it’s syllabuses that teachers want, these can be fabricated out of existing coursebook syllabuses and printed on a sheet of A4. No violation of copyright is involved since all coursebook syllabuses are clones of one another anyway.. And if it’s a semantic or functional or task-based syllabus they want, they will have to design it themselves anyway (but the exercise could do wonders for in-service development and staff morale).
  • If it’s texts that teachers want, they need only do what coursebooks writers do anyway: trawl the internet. At least the texts that they plunder themselves are likely to be more up-to-date than those in even a recently-published coursebook, and can be selected to match their learners’ needs and interests.
  • If it’s activities the teachers want, there are any number of excellent resource books available, and a school’s materials budget might be better spent on the complete Cambridge Handbooks series (I declare an interest) than on a truckload of Headway.
  • Syllabus. Texts. Activities. Is there anything else a coursebook offers? Comfort. Complacency. Conformity. Professional atrophy. Institutional malaise. Student boredom. Slow death by mcnuggets.

Bravo, Scott!


On the other hand, …..

In the same year, thousands of copies of Thornbury and Watkins’ best-selling The CELTA Course were used by teacher trainers and trainees all over the world as their guide through a widely-criticised, ultra-conservative ELT training course dedicated to training teachers to do exactly the opposite of what Thornbury recommends when he’s wearing his Dogme hat. In the CELTA course, coursebooks form an integral part of ELT practice; trainees are actively encouraged to use them in their teaching practice, and no part of either Thornbury’s CELTA books or the training course itself questions using toxic texts like Headway which Thornbury, in some sort of parallel universe, eloquently blames for causing the complete ruin of the ELT profession.

Does the Vicar of Bray come to mind? If you’re a young non-Brit it probably doesn’t, and you’re unlikely to get another analogy from 17th century rural England: running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.  Both allusions refer to the attempt to hold two contradictory views at the same time, and while this usually leads to disaster, in Thornbury’s case, it’s brought him fame and fortune, and helped him to remain one of the most popular and well-respected figures in ELT for over forty years. Apart from my own occasional pot shots at him, what’s so remarkable about Thornbury is that he can run with hares and hunt with hounds without anybody charging him with duplicity, or at least confusion. Thanks to his singular ability to somehow transcend the confines which affect the rest of us, Thornbury can have lunch in a damp basement near the river with members of a cabal plotting to sabotage the Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, and afterwards emerge from the gloom, flick the specks of gunpowder off his sleeve, hail a cab, and finally alight, fresh and immaculate, at Claridges, there to have tea with a nervous group of rival publishers. Washing down the last jam-topped scone with the hotel’s own Tieguanyin tea, Thornbury finally bows to the highest bidder and signs a contract for his new book: Appreciating Raymond Murphy. All in a day’s work.

Who cares if in a comment on one blog Thornbury lambasts coursebooks, while in a different comment on a different blog he staunchly defends Penny Ur’s endorsement of them!  If in one presentation he’s the champion of Dogme, while in another he’s advising teachers on the best way to present and practice bits of grammar, well, so what!  And if in one book he writes a chapter (with Christine Jacknick) for the Schmidt festschrift, while in another he explains that, pace Schmidt, there’s no need to notice things in the input, because grammar “emerges”, “for free”, then doesn’t that just show what an erudite, eclectic, flexible chap he is! Thornbury has written books on how to teach the present perfect and other books on why teachers shouldn’t do it; he’s claimed that learners benefit from doing written grammar exercises, and that there’s really no need for them; he’s defended the raft of leading teacher trainers who downplay the relevance of academic research, while at the same time giving post-graduate courses on SLA at a radical New York university, where he encourages teachers to critically appraise the work of academics, many of whom he’s on first-name terms with.

The Five Questions for Teacher Trainers 

Not surprisingly, perhaps, looking at Thornbury’s published work doesn’t provide clear answers to the 5 questions that I’ve invited teacher trainers to consider. And since he’s already indicated that he sees no point in taking part in my enquiry, I’ll give my own critique of his work, hoping that he might still make some comments. In Part 1, I’ll look at Thornbury’s views of language learning.

Thornbury on Chomsky

In his P is for Poverty of the Stimulus, Thornbury challenges Chomsky’s PoS argument (children know things about language that can’t be inferred from the input they get) by saying:

you have to prove that aspects of syntax couldn’t have been acquired from input… otherwise it’s an ’empirically-empty’ assertion.

Since it’s logically impossible to prove that X could not have caused Y, Thornbury’s demand is illogical and indicates that he doesn’t understand fundamental aspects of theory construction. In the same discussion Thornbury says

Surely the onus of proof is on the nativists … to show that the stimulus is impoverished?

Again we have the “proof” thing. Thornbury seems unaware that scientific theories are never proved; rather, for as long as they survive tests from empirical studies they remain tentative explanations of the phenomena involved.

Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask nativists who endorse Chomsky’s theory to provide evidence that supports it, and in fact more than 60 years of empirical studies have been carried out at linguistics faculties in the best universities in the world to try to establish what young children know. Reacting to my assertion that Chomsky’s theory of UG has a long and thorough history of empirical research, Thornbury replied:

“Chomsky’s theory of UG has a long and thorough history of empirical research”. What!!? Where? When? Who?

When I mentioned some of the well-known grammaticality judgement studies, Thornbury seemed to think these didn’t count. All of which suggests that Thornbury doesn’t have a good grasp of the theory which he so unconditionally dismisses.

(Just by the way, despite what Thornbury says, I’m not a slavish devotee of UG. I think there are some important weaknesses in Chomsky’s theories (in particular, the allegation that he keeps moving the goalposts to deflect criticism seems justified); I’m not sure UG has a big part to play in SLA theory; and I think the work of Nick Ellis, Tomasello and others on usage-based theories of SLA is very interesting and even promising.)

Thornbury and Emergentism

The question remains: Does Thornbury show that the input stimulus is, pace Chomsky, enough to explain language learning? The answer is: No, he doesn’t. Thornbury has made a number of attempts over the past 15 years to explain his own particular view of emergentism, but these attempts show about as much critical acumen as his attempts to make sense of Chomsky. Here’s what Thornbury says about emergentism on his blog:

The child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input. A little stimulus goes a long way, especially when the child is so feverishly in need of both communicating and becoming socialized. General learning processes explain the rest.

If we generalize the findings beyond the single word level to constructions and then generalize from constructions to grammar, then hey presto, the grammar emerges on the back of the frequent constructions.

In an article he wrote in 2009 for English Teaching Professional called “Slow Release Grammar” Thornbury confidently asserts that

  • emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development;
  • emergentism explains language, language learning, and the failure of classroom-based adult ELT;
  • emergence is also the key to successful syllabus design.

This is his argument. Emergence is everywhere in nature, where a system is said to have emergent properties when it displays complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level. There are millions of such systems; the capacity of an ant colony to react in unison to a threat is an example. Because there is no “central executive” determining the emergent organisation of the system, the patterns and regularities which result have been characterised as “order for free”.

Language exhibits emergent properties, and there are 2 basic processes by which language “grows and organises itself”. The first is our capacity to detect and remember frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to. In language terms, these sequences typically take the form of chunks (AKA formulaic expressions or lexical phrases). The second is our capacity to unpack the regularities within these chunks, and to use these patterns as templates for the later development of a more systematic grammar. It is, says Thornbury, as if the chunks – memorised initially as unanalysed wholes – slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Language emerges as “grammar for free”.

These 2 processes explain emergence in learning. Thornbury calls on Hoey’s (2005) account of how particular words and chunks re-occur in the same patterns. These can be seen in collocations, such as good morning; good clean fun; on a good day …; fixed phrases, such as one good turn deserves another, the good, the bad and the ugly; and colligations, as in it’s no good + -ing. Hoey argues that, through repeated use and association, words are ‘primed’ to occur in predictable combinations and contexts. The accumulation of lexical priming creates semantic associations and colligations which, says Hoey, nest and combine and give rise to an incomplete, inconsistent and leaky, but nevertheless workable, grammatical system. Precisely how all this happens, Hoey doesn’t say and Thornbury doesn’t ask – it just happens.


Thornbury starts with Stuart Kauffman’s familiar claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”. This highly-controversial view is then used in an attempt to add credibility to the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”. Thornbury tells us that many formulaic chunks yield little or no generalisable grammar, which must surely impede their wonderous ability to slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess?

Thornbury’s inadequate and mangled account of emergentism claims that lexical phrases explain English grammar, how children learn English and why adults have difficulties learning English as a foreign language. His unqualified assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to is probably wrong and, in any case, certainly not the whole story. At the very least, Thornbury should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that it faces severe challenges as a theory.

We may note that various scholars have been working on emergentist / connectionist / associative learning views, and developing usage-based theories of SLA views for over 30 years now. The first thing we have to do is to leave behind the rantings of Larsen-Freeman that Thornbury finds so persuasive, and then go on to distinguish, as Gregg (2003) does, between, on the one hand, the work of Nick Ellis,  MacWhinney, and Tomasello, for example, who claim that the complexity of language emerges from relatively simple developmental processes being exposed to a massive and complex environment, and, on the other hand, the work of William O’Grady and his associates, who argue that certain types of innate concepts are required.

Gregg gives this summary of the difference:

“So the lines are drawn: On the one hand, we have .. nativist theories which posit a rich, innate representational system specific to the language faculty, and non-associative mechanisms, as well as associative ones, for bringing that system to bear on input to create an L2 grammar. On the other hand, we have the emergentist position, which denies both the innateness of linguistic representations (Chomsky modularity) and the domain-specificity of language learning mechanisms (Fodor-modularity) (Gregg, 2003: 46).

If we concentrate on the emergentist position, then we come full circle, because any empiricist account of language learning is faced with the poverty of the stimulus argument. Emergentists, by adopting an associative learning model and an empiricist epistemology (where no innate knowledge, and certainly not innate linguistic representations, are allowed) have a very difficult job explaining how children come to have the linguistic knowledge they do. Thornbury’s response:

The child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input. A little stimulus goes a long way,…

is little more than rather desperate hand-waving. How can general conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate? How come children know which form-function pairings are possible in human-language grammars and which are not, regardless of exposure? How can emergentists deal with cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure – including knowledge of what is not possible?

In a comment much earlier this year, Thornbury gives an impressive list of books that he’s read on emergentism, which at least suggests that he’s got a much better grasp of the issues involved in SLA than this post on his views of language learning implies. I’ve read most of Thornbury’s work, and I haven’t found a single article or chapter in a book, or conference presentation where his views are more carefully and coherently explained. I sincerely hope that he’ll take the trouble to either point us to something he’s already published, or fill the gap.

In Part 2, I’ll look at Thornbury’s views of language teaching.


Ellis, N. C. (2006) Language acquisition and rational contingency learning. Applied Linguistics, 27 (1), 1-24.

Eubank, L. and Gregg, K. R. (2002) News Flash – Hume Still Dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 2, 237-248.

Gregg, K.R. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 19, 95.

Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. Psychology Press.

Teacher Trainers in ELT

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


The Teacher Trainers 

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

What’s the problem? 

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

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

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

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

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

2. Nick Ellis (2005) says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Scholarly Criticism? Where?  

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

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

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

The Questions

I invite teacher trainers to answer the following questions:


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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