The Works of Scott Thornbury: Part 2

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

At the Seventh International Conference on Task-Based Language Teaching last year, Thornbury’s plenary, called “A view from the bridge”, reported on a study he’d done. The research question was:

How do methodology writers mediate between researchers and practitioners?

He consulted four “methodology writers” – well-known teacher trainers and ELT figures who give plenaries at ELT conferences, travel around giving workshops, and are authors of best-selling books including the following:

  • The Practice of English Teaching
  • How to Teach English
  • Learning English
  • Teaching English Grammar
  • A Course in Language Teaching
  • A Hundred Teaching Tips.

These four writers were asked the following questions:

  1. How did you get into writing methodology texts?
  2. How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?
  3. How have you kept/do you keep abreast of new developments in research, e.g. SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?
  4. Given that most research is somewhat inconclusive, how do you select from – and prioritize – the research findings that inform your texts?
  5. Do you feel you have an ‘agenda’, i.e. a bias towards a particular theoretical (or a-theoretical) position? If so, do you think this matters?
  6. If not (or even if so) do you attempt to be balanced/impartial/non-prescriptive? How do you achieve this?
  7. Does it concern you that you might be ‘dumbing down’ or otherwise misrepresenting research findings? How do you guard against this?
  8. To what do you attribute your success? (Don’t be modest!)

Thornbury summarised their answers as follows:

  1. Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.
  2. Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
  3. Methodology writers are sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends, while, at the same time recognizing their inherent weaknesses.
  4. Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’.
  5. Methodology writers present options rather than prescriptions.
  6. Methodology writers adopt a voice that is non-academic and practitioner-oriented.

Thin Soup!

Not the most impressive small study in the canon, now is it?  I wonder why Thornbury considered it worth presenting at three successive conferences: a study with four participants; a few chummy, unchallenging questions; and some very predictable findings hardly warrants such exposure, does it? Is it really so remarkable that these four worthies “have an interest” in keeping abreast of developments in research; or that they “try not to be biased”; or that they are “sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends”; or that they use a non-academic style to talk to teachers – or even that they “present options not prescriptions”?

Even these blurred generalities give a fairly liberal interpretation of the data. Thornbury smooths over the important differences among the 4, uses one single sentence in the whole data to support the generalisation that “Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’” (whatever that might mean), and presents the 6 points as if they represented some fine distillation of the common wisdom of his participants.

The responses to Questions 2 and 4 provide the only interesting data about the writers’ beliefs and practices, indicating a general disregard for research. The writers “filter” research findings; they rely on Twitter or on what somebody told them; and often, well, they just haven’t got time to read the research. They “present options rather than prescriptions” (i.e., they refrain from any critical evaluation of conflicting methodologies) and, most telling of all, they “use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones”. To speak more plainly, they use research findings to support current ELT practices and they ignore inconvenient research which challenges it. Given their prominent positions in the ELT establishment, this is only to be expected, but what’s so noteable is that Thornbury makes no criticism of such an unscholarly, not to say intellectually dishonest, approach to research findings. Thornbury also fails to comment on the confessed tendency among his four participants to trust their own hunches, feelings and beliefs,

So, if Thornbury’s data are any guide, books about ELT methodology, recommended reading for everybody studying to become qualified, or better qualified teachers in ELT, are based more on the authors’ biases, intuitions, feelings and what somebody else told them, than on any serious attempt to critically evaluate research findings. Terrible, no? Well, no. Not according to Thornbury, anyway. Far from criticising his chums’ frank confession that they ignore even the minimal criteria required for a critical appraisal of research evidence, he actually congratulates them for doing a good job and for serving as a model for others.

I’ve already suggested that this lack of interest in research findings about instructed SLA among teacher trainers can be explained by the prevailing anti-academic, craft culture in ELT; a culture which leading figures like Penny Ur and Alan Maley encourage, and which Thornbury himself does far too little to counter. While most of the well-established ELT figures actually defend coursebook-driven ELT, Thornbury ducks and dives, hedging his radical Dogme stuff with at least as much other stuff that contradicts it. When challenged to take a stand against current ELT practice, he tends to throw his hands up in despair at the enormity of the task: “Who are we to challenge the enormous power of the British Council, the big publishers, the examination bodies, and so on?”; better to stay inside the tent, etc., etc..

A Different Club 

But what does Thornbury himself actually think about teaching English as an L2? Well, I take him to be perfectly sincere when he condemns coursebook-driven ELT, as he does in several articles (available for download on his website) and when he talks about Dogme.

In his article Who ordered the McNugget?, Thornbury rejects the ‘incremental steps’ approach which coursebooks exemplify, on the grounds that it “blissfully ignores current thinking (both then and now) with regard to how languages are actually learned”.  He quotes Long and Robinson (1998: 16):

Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time … bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those items.

Why, then, Thornbury asks, does the ‘accumulated entities’ view persist?

Because, construed as ‘mcnuggets’, grammar offers a means of disguising the inherently chaotic and idiosyncratic nature of language learning, rendering it instead as systematic, predictable, manageable and, ultimately, testable. 

It is not just grammar that has been freeze-dried and vacuum-wrapped, either. Communicative competence itself, as Leung (2014: 135) points out, has been subject to the same reductionist treatment.   …  Leung concludes that present-day curriculum and pedagogic manifestations of the concept of communicative competence have tended to work with an inert and decomposed knowledge view….  When communicative competence … becomes ‘inert and decomposed’, you can safely consign CLT to the dust-bin of methodological history.

As Lin (2013) warns: ‘Language teaching is increasingly prepackaged and delivered as if it were a standardised, marketable product […] This commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning has gradually penetrated into school practices, turning teachers into “service providers.” The invisible consequence is that language learning and teaching has become a transaction of teachers passing on a marketable set of standardised knowledge items and skills to students.’

In a different piece, Thornbury says:

By commodification I mean, specifically, the drive towards converting print materials into ‘adaptive learning’ programs, which will involve reducing learning to discrete-units of testable ‘knowledge’ and delivering these without any mediation by teachers – resulting in the ‘disintermediation’ and de-skilling of teachers, and the reconfiguring of learners as simply consumers.

What’s Thornbury’s alternative, when he’s wearing his “The Radical Alternative ELT Club” t-shirt?

task-based approaches, content-based learning, immersion, and emergent-syllabus approaches like community language learning or dogme. Sceptics will rush to point out that these are only possible in certain contexts, and I would rush to respond that, since they go closer to replicating first language acquisition experiences (always successful) they should perhaps be given more credence, and dismissed less facilely, than approaches that are purely instructional (almost always unsuccessful, at least in terms of ultimate achievement).

The Alternative: Genuine CLT

Thornbury has said repeatedly that he is against ELT practice where most classroom time is devoted to the teacher talking about the language, and in favour of ELT practice where most of the time is given over to the learners talking in the language about matters of genuine interest and concern to them. That’s the essence of dogme, which I understand to be a learner-centred approach, where teachers scaffold learners’ attempts to drive forwards their interlanguage development through using the language to communicative ends. The notion of “method” is rejected because of its association with top-down structures, while Dogme-style teaching is  driven from the bottom up; both the syllabus and the lesson content generated out of local and immediate concerns.

In his 2013 article on dogme, Thorbury answers the questions I began this blog with.

  1. the nature of language: language is a resource for making meaning and is realised as discourse, either written or spoken, which is constructed from elements of varying degrees of conventionality (words, collocations, verb patterns etc);
  2. the nature of second language learning: learning occurs when these elements are enlisted in discourse for the purposes of making meaning, and shaped and refined in response to implicit or explicit feedback and instruction;
  3. goals of teaching: to enable learners to become resourceful and self-directed language users, by providing the optimal conditions for discourse creation, and the linguistic means for doing this;
  4. the type of syllabus to use: an emergent syllabus (of lexis, constructions, genres etc) that evolves as a (negotiated) response to the learners’ developing needs and abilities;
  5. the role of teachers, learners and instructional materials: the teacher motivates and scaffolds interactions between learners, providing instruction at the point of need, using materials contributed or accessed principally by the learners themselves;
  6. the activities, techniques and procedures to be used: these are not prescribed, but would need to be consistent with the above goals, contextually appropriate, and mutually agreed. They are likely to share features with the practices of task-based instruction or whole-language learning.

What a great start! If only teacher trainers would take these short answers as the base line for their methodology books and their training courses! If they did, ELT practice would be transformed. I don’t agree with some of what Thornbury says about the nature of language or the nature of language learning, and I’m sure we wouldn’t agree about lots of other matters concerning syllabus design or the use of materials, for example. But never mind: the important thing is that we agree on the need to fight coursebook-driven ELT, with all the trappings of certification and assessment that are associated with it, and to replace it with an approach where most of classroom time is dedicated NOT to teachers talking about the target language, but rather by students talking in the target language. We begin with a commitment to implicit learning, to genuine discourse, to a learner-centred, bottom-up approach, rooted in local contexts and using local resources, and to doing things in the classroom that help students to make progress towards communicative competence, all the while respecting the trajectories of their developing interlanguages.

For years, Thornbury has done training courses in Barcelona and elsewhere where he’s encouraged the trainees to not just think about and openly discuss his radical alternative view, but to also try out lots of the ideas in the classroom. These courses have always been really well-received by the lucky trainees, and there are many testimonials talking of transformation, revolution, conversion, renewal, etc.. Furthermore, he supports and participates in the inspiring Hands Up project in Palestine, he visits schools to talk about dogme, and he corresponds widely with educators trying to implement real change.

Thornbury finishes his 2013 article about Dogme with these words:

methods are only as good as the ‘sense of plausibility’ (to use Prabhu’s [1990] phrase) that they evoke. If the Dogme ‘method’ seems to you ‘both simplisitic and romantic’ (as my blogging friend claims), and hence lacks plausibility, then you might be well advised to ignore it!

It seems that Thornbury himself doesn’t have much faith in dogme. He wistfully bows to the status quo. If you look at what he’s published, apart from a number of books on language, grammar, discourse analysis and SLA, you’ll see the following books about teaching English as an L2:

  • 3 books on how to teach grammar
  • 1 book on how to teach speaking
  • 1 book on how to teach vocabulary
  • ! book (with Jim Scrivener) on Classroom management
  • 1 book on the history of teaching methodology
  • 2 books (one for trainers and one for trainees) on how to get through the CELTA training course

All these books more or less accept the coursebook-driven framework which (as Thornbury points out elsewhere) has dominated ELT since the late 1980s. Here’s the great contradiction: not just in these books, but also in his influential conference presentations, interviews, and presence on social media, Thornbury’s voice is too often muted, too often conciliatory and sometimes downright encouraging towards those who run the ELT industry.

In reply to my criticisms of his CELTA preparation books, Thornbury said “you can see them as either a hypocritical money-grabbing exercise, or as a sincere attempt to help. You decide”. Good rhetoric, but hopeless reasoning. The assertion that there are glaring contradictions in Thornbury’s published work and public persona doesn’t lead to the necessary conclusion that he’s an insincere, money-grabbing hypocrite.  But these contradictions, which give the impression that he wants to have his cake and eat it, do, I think, weaken his right to be taken seriously. He should get off the fence and speak out more consistently against those responsible for shoving ELT so relentlessly down the slippery slope towards “the de-skilling of teachers, and the reconfiguring of learners as simply consumers”.

References can all be found on Thornbury’s website. 

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