Alan Maley: Elephant? What elephant?

This is an adapted version of a post from my previous blog.

In June 2016, Alan Maley published an article called ‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far?”, arguing that, with regard to ELT,

research and the practice of teaching are quite different forms of activity, with no necessary connection between them. .. We recognise the value and legitimacy of research and theory-building within its own domain.  But we should not expect it to have any necessary or close link with the activity of teaching.  

Maley uses Lightbown’s (2000) survey to summarise the contribution of SLA research to developments in TESOL over the past 50 years.

  1. “Adults and adolescents can ‘acquire a second language’
  2. The learner creates a systematic interlanguage….
  3. There are predictable sequences in L2 acquisition
  4. Practice does not make perfect
  5. Knowing a language rule does not mean one will be able to use it in communicative interaction
  6. Isolated error correction is usually ineffective in changing language behaviour
  7. For most adult Ls, acquisition stops before the L has attained native-like mastery of the target language
  8. . One cannot achieve native-like…command of a second language in one hour a day.
  9. The learner’s task is enormous because language is enormously complex.
  10. . A learner’s ability to understand language in a meaningful context exceeds their ability to comprehend de-contextualised language and to produce language of comparable complexity and accuracy.”

Maley comments:

While it is useful to have common-sense intuitions verified by research, the above list does not appear to make a radical contribution to our understanding of how we learn languages.


Maley’s points 2 to 6 deal with interlanguage development, according to which SLA is a process whereby the learner creates a systematic interlanguage, made up of predictable sequences in L2 acquisition. One implication of the nature of this interlanguage development is that knowing a language rule doesn’t mean that one will be able to use it in communicative interaction. To put it another way, decarative knowledge does not lead, via selective decontextualised practice, to procedural knowledge. More generally, robust research findings have shown that teaching can affect the rate but not the route of interlanguage development, and that, therefore, the most widely-used method of teaching English in the world today, namely using a coursebook to present and practice a pre-determined series of linguistic forms (pronunciation contrasts, grammatical structures, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc., etc.) is doomed to failure: learners will simply not learn what they’re taught.

How can Maley ignore this elephant in the room? How can he simply sweep it aside on the assumption that it’s not worth discussing? Not that he’s alone in this posture: none of the 15 teacher trainers who respond to Maley’s article draws attention to the implications of research into interlanguage development for teaching practice. Why is no attempt made by Maley or any of the 15 respondents to examine SLA research findings and to then evaluate their implications for teaching practice? Could it be that their positions in the upper echelons of the ELT establishment makes them reluctant to deal with research findings which so seriously challenge the principles on which current ELT practice rests? Maley, Scrivener, Medgyes, Thornbury and the rest of those who comment show what might be seen as an understandable reluctance to bite the hand that feeds them.

Maley rehearses the usual litany of complaints about the research community, many of them perfectly reasonable. There’s no doubt that the academic community too often induges in navel-gazing, and often fails to make important findings accessible to those otside the walls. Maley also makes some good points about what teachers can reasonably be expected to do in terms of on-going training and development. But none of this justifies the erroneous argument that

we should not expect research to have any necessary or close link with the activity of teaching.

Currently, a great deal of research is specifically targeted at understanding instructed SLA, and the findings of this research should surely be of interest to teachers. While few teachers will have the time or inclination to regularly read articles that appear in scholarly journals reporting on the latest studies, that doesn’t mean that they’re not interested in on-going research and its implications for teaching practice, or that teacher trainers have no duty to tell them about it.

Krashen’s theory of SLA had a profound effect on ELT, and for all its failings as a theory, it remains the starting point for the most important question that affects ELT: to what extent is instructed SLA a matter of unconscious “acquisition”, and to what extent is it “conscious learning”? Associated with this question are questions about putative sensitive periods, syllabus design; focus on formS versus focus on form;  noticing, priming, pronunciation teaching; vocabulary teaching, extensive reading, error correction and much more besides. All these questions have a direct effect on teaching practice. How are we to evaluate conflicting claims made about teaching practice by the advocates of the Lexical Approach, Dogme, CLT, and so on, if not by an appeal to the evidence about how people learn and about how they respond to various types of instruction? This evidence needs to be critically evaluated in order for us to propose tentative principles that guide our work. Until we articulate such principles, until we take a position on the fundamental issue of how implicit learning is best supplemented by explicit instruction, we remain in the world of the blind, at the mercy of one-eyed quacks who tell us to shun research findings and trust in their folksy wisdom which has nothing more to recommend it than the stamp of authority.

Inevitably, Maley trots out the old saw that language teaching is not a science, ending with a quote from Stevick that does the job nicely:

So we flee back to the temples of science, to its priesthood that can feed us on reliability and validity.

Scrivener sings from the same hackneyed hymn sheet:

I remain convinced that teaching is more a live, personal, creative, intuitive, human art than a measurable science. I cannot determine the quality of a Toulouse Lautrec picture by counting the number of colours he used, or measuring the length of his brush strokes, though both these things may give insights about his techniques and style. I can learn to appreciate his work by observing and thinking. I feel that much the same can be said of teaching.

This is, of course, a ridiculous straw man argument: nobody is suggesting that teaching is a science, or that it should be; and nobody is threatening the creative, human, craft of teaching when they suggest that if we want to understand how people learn languages, and if we want to find out the best ways to help them do so, then we need to go beyond anecdotes and feelings and folk lore, and to base ourselves on an appeal to a rational interrogation of the evidence. Which is what good SLA research does.

How are we to make decisions about contradictory claims about the principles and practice of ELT? Do we go along with Scrivener’s view that

It all works. It all fails. I have listened to many ELT experts taking up similar or contrary positions on every topic. They are all right. They are all wrong.

or do we include a critical evaluation of what research has to say in our deliberations? Are teachers really as anti-research as Maley and Scrivener suggest, or are Maley and Scrivener trying to justify their own positions? I believe that teachers would welcome the chance to hear reports of the research done on instructed SLA and to discuss its implications.

Imagine that as part of their 2019 teacher development programme, teachers belonging to the SLB Teachers Cooperative in Barcelona are given the chance to attend these two workshops:

  1. A workshop run by any one of the 15 respondents to Maley’s article on “How to grade your Concept Questions when presenting grammar points.”
  2. A workshop run by Carmen Muñoz from Barcelona University on Godroid’s (2016) study of the effects of implicit instruction on implicit and explicit knowledge development.

As one of the SLB group, I personally would be interested in attending both, and I dare to say that all the other teachers would feel the same. To suggest that Workshop 2 above a) has “no close link with the activity of teaching”, and b) that teachers aren’t interested in such matters is a) absurd, and b) insulting.


Godroid, A. (2016). The effects of implicit instruction on implicit and explicit knowledge development. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 38, 2, 177-215.

The journal “Humanising Language Teaching “ published Maley’s ‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far? . Responses were written by Jim Scrivener, Willy Cardoso, Peter Medgyes, Mario Saraceni, Dat Bao, Tom Farrell, Tamas Kiss, Richard Watson-Todd, Scott Thornbury, David A. Hill, Brian Tomlinson, Rod Ellis, Rod Bolitho, Penny Ur and Adrian Underhill. You can download both articles free here:

One thought on “Alan Maley: Elephant? What elephant?

  1. Well, based on my recent experience attending TESOL events, I can tell you that most talks and workshops presented are only based on teachers’ experiences/beliefs about what works in teaching other languages and no evidence of learning is shown (photos of students engaged in a certain activity is no evidence of learning for me). However, as a presenter of a research I carried out, though my audience is always smaller than those of other presenters, I’ve felt that for some teachers research is important. What I’ve learnt so far about Tesol events is that teachers are eager to learn the best ways to teach and to apply them immediately, so what I decided to do (as a teacher myself) was to include the pedagogical implications of my research bearing in mind the context where I present it. And it has worked, according to the feedback I’ve received afterwards.
    On the other hand, we must acknowledge that (big) editorials play an important role in sponsoring ELT events and the speakers who talk on their behalf usually model the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of other presenters.

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