Rachael Roberts on Coursebooks


In her article “How to use coursebooks and deal with emergent language”, Rachael Roberts says this:

Thornbury’s biggest gripe about coursebooks is the way they are generally built around a structural syllabus. Each unit has a handful of language points (which is what he famously refers to as ‘grammar McNuggets’) and the assumption is that these points will be presented, practised and learnt. It’s admittedly something of a false assumption: language doesn’t develop in a linear and predictable fashion and while we may hope to teach a particular point, ultimately all we can do is to expose students to stretches of language, create opportunities for meaningful dialogue and opportunities to notice and, crucially, enable students to engage with language. But none of this militates against using a coursebook as a basis. (My emphasis)

What, none of it?? 

Why not? Well first, because

the teacher is there to mediate the material to ensure that the students are engaged and challenged.

For example, in a reading text, ask students to set their own questions before they start reading, based on the title or illustrations. Or get them to use the book’s questions about the text to  predict the content of the text.

And second, because teachers can supplement coursebook material

with further noticing, repetition and recycling activities. 

For example, teachers can follow up work on language in texts with dictogloss activities, or they can ask students to translate the text into their L1 and later translate it back. Or they can follow up a listening comprehension activity by getting students to listen again; note down language used to give opinions; ask students to remember how the phrases were completed; complete them in different ways; discuss the level of formality and so on; then get students to use them in a discussion. Or ask students to record themselves carrying out a short speaking task and then make a transcription of what they said. The teacher can then reformulate what each student has written and the student can compare their version with the teacher’s version.

That’s it; that’s why coursebooks are OK. Fair enough, you may think; Roberts gives some useful examples of how teachers can mediate and supplement coursebook material.

The article concludes:

 A coursebook is like a set of recipes: some people will prefer to stick to the recipe at least to start with and just produce what’s in the book; some will start experimenting and producing their own take on the recipe; and some people just love making everything from scratch. No one wants to live on a diet of ‘grammar McNuggets’, but pre-prepared food (or lessons) can also be nutritious, delicious and definitely labour-saving!

That elephant again  

When you get to the end of the article, you realise that Thornbury’s gripe remains unanswered. Coursebooks are used – precisely as Roberts herself says – as the basis for courses of General English; they’re used, that is, to implement a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus by presenting and practicing bits of language in a linear sequence. To assume that these bits of language will be learned in the order and manner in which they’re presented is not just “something of a false assumption”, it’s the fatally-flawed basis of the whole approach, and it doesn’t work. While “we may hope” that when we teach a particular point, the students will learn it, we know enough about interlanguage development to know that our “hope” is completely unreasonable, so we’d be well advised to stop teaching “points” in this way, and to spend the time organising activities that really do create opportunities for meaningful dialogue, and that really  do enable students to engage with language.

Roberts, like so many other apologists for coursebook-driven ELT, refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room: she follows the usual line, referring to coursebooks as mere collections of materials and ignoring the crucial fact that a coursebook (the clue’s in the name) is designed to supply the organising principle, the syllabus, which drives the whole course. It’s NOT just a set of materials which teachers can cherry pick from, it’s a general plan; a route through a General English course. And that route clashes head on with the students’ own internal route of interlanguage development. Robust findings from SLA research tell us that it’s quite literally impossible for students to follow the coursebook’s route.

Junk Food

Roberts’ final remarks about a coursebook being like a set of recipes endorse the “pick and choose” misrepresentation (it’s not a recipe book, IT’S A SYLLABUS!), while inviting us all to enjoy the nutricious, delicious contents. This view is challenged by most  experts who have reviewed coursebooks. Not just Thornbury and Meddings, but Mike Long, Stephen Krashen, Peter Robinson, Peter Skehan and a host of other scholars lament the carefully packaged junk food served up. Recall Tomlinson and Masuhara’s conclusion about English File, Outlooks and other such series: they’re bland, unappealing, unchallenging, unimiginative, unstimulating, mechanical, superficial and dull. None of them is likely to to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.


The focus of coursebooks is on the explicit learning of language. They lead students along a path that students can’t follow, and they provide too few opportunities for engagement in relevant, challenging communicative activities. That’s what’s wrong with them, and what’s ironic about Robert’s article is that she suggests ways in which teachers can supplement coursebooks by providing even more opportunities for explicit learning. Every one of Robert’s suggestions involves working ON the language rather than working IN the language for some communicative purpose. Like so many other teacher trainers, Roberts treats language as an object to be taught explicitly rather than as a means of communication to be taught mostly implicitly through communicative use.


Roberts, R. (2015) How to use coursebooks and deal with emergent language. English Australia Journal, 29, 1.

Tomlinson, B. and Masuhara, H. (2013)  Adult Coursebooks. ELT Jornal.

Do teacher trainers promote good practice?

Efficacious (adj.): successful in producing a desired or intended result; effective.

Is Teacher Trainers’ advice efficacious? 

If you follow the advice of leading teacher trainers like Penny Ur, Jeremy Harmer, Hugh Dellar, Marisa Constantinides, then you use a coursebook and you spend a lot of classroom time talking about the language. As a result, your teaching is unlikely to be efficacious. Robust findings of SLA research suggest that the most effective way to organise ELT is to maximise the opportunities students have for implicit learning, because that’s the default mechanism in SLA. To quote Doughty:

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 (Doughty 2003, p. 298).

Nick Ellis agrees:

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 (N.C. Ellis 2005, p. 306).

Implicit learning 

Implicit learning is learning without awareness of what is learned; it’s the way children learn their L1 and it’s basically the way adults learn L2s, although there’s an important caveat, which I’ll come to. A good way to encourage implicit learning is to scaffold students’ engagement in pedagogic tasks that are relevant to their needs. In a task-based course of the type Long advocates, students spend most of the time – more than 75% – involved in communicative interaction, where they are focused on meaning. Long (2015) reminds us of Hatch’s famous words, forty years ago:

language learning evolves out of learning how to carry on conversations.…One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed (Hatch 1978, p. 404).

and says himself:

A genuine task syllabus does not try to impose the same set of lexical items and collocations and/or the same pre-set, psycholinguistically unmotivated sequence of linguistic features and constructions on whole groups of learners simultaneously, regardless of whether any or all of those learners need them, or if they do, are developmentally ready to incorporate them into their L2 repertoire, and hence, regardless of whether the items are learnable and teachable in Pienemann’s sense at the time they are presented. Instead, students are helped to develop their language abilities gradually to meet the demands of increasingly complex tasks, linguistic problems being treated reactively, as they arise. This approach is consistent with SLA research findings and compatible with the idea that learning grammar evolves out of language use, not the other way around (Long, 2015, p. 222).

Do Teacher Trainers Know Best? 

If you follow the advice of most teacher trainers, you won’t pay any attention to Long, or to the accumulated evidence from research findings that support him. You’ll walk into class, revise vocabulary and grammar points and then use a coursebook to examine a series of short texts by reading or listening to them. You’ll talk a bit about key elements of the language found in the text, do a few activities that are supposed to practice the language, and on you go. You’ll talk about the language, you’ll do exercises about the language, and if you take Dellar’s advice, you’ll even steer listening and speaking activities towards talking about the language. It’s unlikely that the students will engage in any sustained communicative interaction for more than a small fraction of class time, and as a result, it’s unlikely that the teaching will be efficacious.

Long’s TBLT

Long’s version of TBLT involves designing and implementing pedagogic tasks which are derived from a needs analysis that identifies target tasks. By working through initially less complex versions of full target tasks, students are involved in a dynamic process of language use to accomplish those tasks, not passive study of language as object in the form of static texts.

Watching Barcelona or Arsenal play soccer is unforgettable and inspiring, but is no substitute for young players getting out on the practice field and trying to do it themselves – putting in the long hours required to master the necessary technical skills. And when out on the field, for beginners to try to play like Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Neymar, Koke, Wilshire, Cazorla, or Ozil right away is equivalent to low proficiency language learners trying to (re-) produce full native speaker texts from the get-go. Both are mirages and doomed to failure. Selection and grading in task syllabi are essential.   Long, 2015, p. 223).

Adults need help re-setting dials

While incidental and implicit learning remain the dominant, default processes, Long points out that adult SLA is “maturationally constrained”, and adults are “partially disabled language learners”. As a result of the effects of critical or sensitive periods for the acquisition of phonology, morphology and syntax, adults are stuck with processing mechanisms which helped them to acquire the L1, but which are not appropriate for the L2. Infants use “tuning mechanisms” in order to make segmentation and mapping more efficient for learning the particular L1 to which they are exposed. The problem is that, after a certain age, these tuning mechanisms don’t adapt to the requirements of the new L2, and this leads adults to adversely “filtering” L2 input, in such a way that some of the “fragile” features of the L2  are “tuned out” and remain unlearned.

Long explains:

Unless “reset” by some form of intervention such as explicit learning or teaching, implicit processing tuned by and for the native language will filter the L2 through the L1 grid, tending to diminish the size and importance of some differences that are perceived and missing others altogether.

Fragile features are of low perceptual saliency, due to their being one or more of infrequent, irregular, non-syllabic, string-internal, semantically empty, and communicatively redundant, and/or because they involve particularly complex forms, or meanings, or form–meaning mappings.

In Long’s opinion, the role of intentional learning and explicit knowledge is to modify entrenched automatic L1 processing routines, or, as Ellis puts it, “to reset the dial”.  This is intentional learning, it requires attention and noticing in Schmidt’s sense, and it can be facilitated by a number of pedagogic procedures, including focus on form (using  recasts, for example) and input simplification and elaboration.

Explicit learning helps implicit learning 

It’s very important to note what Long says next: the aim of intentional, explicit learning is to alter the way in which subsequent L2 input is processed implicitly. So what Long suggests is that implicit learning gets interrupted now and then so that the fragile features get the attention they need, but that learners should remain predominantly in the default implicit learning mode. Here’s what Long himself (2015, p. 48) says:

Learner awareness of a problem triggers a temporary switch to selective attention to form (and helps explain why recasts are as effective as they are). With Nick Ellis and others, what I claim is that explicit learning (not necessarily as a result of explicit instruction) involves a new form or form–meaning connection being held in short-term memory long enough for it to be processed, rehearsed, and an initial representation stored in long-term memory, thereafter altering the operation of the way additional exemplars of the item in the input are handled by the default implicit learning process. It is analogous to setting a radio dial to a new frequency. The listener has to pay close attention to the initial crackling reception. Once the radio is tuned to the new frequency, he or she can sit back, relax, and listen to the broadcast with minimal effort. Ellis identifies what he calls the general principle of explicit learning in SLA: Changing the cues that learners focus on in their language processing changes what their implicit learning processes tune (Ellis 2005, p. 327).

Negotiation for Meaning

One more important component of Long’s view of SLA must be mentioned, and that’s negotiation for meaning which can make a major contribution to the learner’s selective attention and his/her developing L2 processing capacity. Negative feedback obtained during negotiation work facilitates L2 development, at least for vocabulary, morphology, and language-specific syntax, and is essential for learning certain specifiable L1-L2 contrasts. When learners run into communicative trouble, they are likely to switch their attention from meaning to form long enough to solve the problem and notice the necessary new information. Negotiation for meaning, and especially negotiation work that triggers interactional adjustments by the teacher, facilitates acquisition because it connects input, internal learner capacities, particularly selective attention, and output in productive ways.

Mike Long, Nick Ellis and others are developing an approach to ELT based on the view that while implicit learning remains the default mechanism for learning an L2, explicit learning is required to improve implicit processing. Teachers can play a key role in facilitating the explicit learning required, not by a clumsy PPP approach to grammar and lexis, but, as already stated above, by a number of pedagogic procedures, including focus on form (using  recasts, for example) and input simplification and elaboration.

Will Teacher Trainers Ever Change Their Tune? 

Long’s TBLT is an alternative approach to ELT, based on students active participation in relevant, scaffolded, pedagogical tasks. Students spend the time talking in the target language, not listening to a teacher talk about it. It has a good track record, and it is not as difficult to implement as many make out.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that coursebook-driven ELT is not efficacious, and that more viable alternatives exist. Yet the well-known, influential teacher trainers continue to ignore the evidence, and refuse to engage in open debate with their critics**. Just as in other walks of life, the ELT community doesn’t get the trainers it deserves; it gets the trainers who represent the interests of the status quo. Local, grass roots organisation of teachers, who design and deliver their own training, is the best response.

** Sandy Millin is a noteable exception. My thanks to her for her carefully-considered and lively response on her own blog. 


Bryfonski, L. and McKay, T. (2017) TBLT Implementation and Evaluation: A Meta-Analysis. Language Teaching Research, 1-30.

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

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisiton and TBLT. Wiley.


Brian Tomlinson on Coursebooks

Brian Tomlinson 

Prof. Tomlinson features in a podcast this week by TEFL Training called “Stop complaining and start adapting – how to make best use of your coursebook.” The title’s rebuke is silly, and certainly doesn’t reflect the prof’s own views; as the interviewer points out.  Years ago, an exasperated Tomlinson got his students to all stand up, and, on the count of three, throw their coursebooks out the window. Anyway, there’s some great advice in the interview (e.g.: start at the end of the unit), and listening to Tomlinson’s cheery voice is always a real pleasure. Highly recommended.

Tomlinson has long specialised in materials design and development, and he has consistently fought for materials to be “written in such a way that the teacher can make use of them as a resource and not have to follow them as a script.” He’s been engaged in a good-natured but doggedly-determined argument with publishers for more than 30 years, fighting against the increasingly-bloated form of coursebooks, their increasing reliance on explicit grammar teaching, and

the scarcity of narrative, of extensive reading and listening, of intelligent adult content, of achievable cognitive challenges, of real tasks which have an intended outcome other than the practice of forms, and of activities which make full use of the resources of the learners’ minds. In other words, … the apparent disregard of the findings of second language acquisition research.

Reviewing Coursebooks 

Over the years, Tomlinson has done a series of reviews of popular ELT coursebooks, the most recent being in 2013, when he wrote an article with Hitomi Masuhara, published in ELTJ and downloadable for free (see below). Six popular ELT coursebooks are reviewed:

  • New Headway,
  • The Big Picture,
  • Speakout,
  • Outcomes,
  • Global,
  • English Unlimited.

The evaluation focuses on the extent to which the six coursebooks help students to achieve long-term acquisition of English by facilitating “deep processing”. Tomlinson sees deep processing as the result of students taking part in challenging cognitive tasks and meaningful interaction with others. This deep engagement with the language contrasts with activities which concentrate on linguistic decoding  and encoding (e.g., the presentation of grammar points and vocabulary, and controlled and guided practice activities) and which lead only to shallow processing and short-term learning.

The Criteria

Units 5 and 10 of each book is examined in the light of 15 criteria, as follows:

To what extent is the course likely to

  • provide extensive exposure to English in use
  • engage learners effectively
  • engage learners cognitively
  • provide an achievable challenge
  • help learners to personalise their learning
  • help learners to make discoveries how the language is typically used
  • provide opportunities to use the language for communication
  • help to develop cultural awareness
  • help learners to make use of the English environment outside the classroom
  • cater for the needs of all the learners
  • provide flexibility needed for localisation
  • help learners to continue learning after the course
  • help learners use EFL
  • help learners to become meaningful communicators in English
  • achieve its stated objectives.

Each criterion is scored on a scale of 1 to 3

  1. = unlikely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition
  2. = likely to be partially effective in facilitating long-term acquisition
  3. = likely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.

The Scores 

And the scores (got by averaging the scores for all 15 criteria) were:

  • New Headway: 1.1 = very unlikely to be effective in facilitating long- term acquisition.
  • The Big Picture: 1.2 = unlikely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.
  • Speakout: 1.3 = unlikely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.
  • Outcomes: 1.4 = unlikely to be very effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.
  • Global: 1.9 = likely to be partially effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.
  • English Unlimited: 2.1 = likely to be partially effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.

In other words, none of the coursebooks was judged likely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition, and all but two were judged to be relatively useless (my words).

Some adjectives used to describe the texts: short, contrived, inauthentic, mundane, decontextualised, unappealing, uninteresting, dull.

Some adjectives used to describe the activities: unchallenging, unimiginative, unstimulating, mechanical, superficial.

Reading Tomlinson and Masuhara’s comments, I feel that they came to the same conclusion as I did when I read the New Headway and Outcomes Intermediate Students books. As they say, ” the focus is on explicit learning of language rather than engagement”. Students are led through a course which consists largely of teachers presenting and practicing bits of the language in such a way that only shallow processing is required, and, as a result, only short term memory is engaged. There are very few opportunities for cognitive engagement; most of the time, teachers talk about the language, and students are asked to read or listen to short, artificial, unchallenging texts devised to illustrate language points. When they are not being told about this or that aspect of the language,students are being led through a succession of frequently mechanical linguistic decoding and encoding activities which are unlikely to have any permanent effects on interlanguage development.

Commenting on New Headway Intermediate, the authors say:

So much help is given to the learners that all the tasks seem to become both linguistically and cognitively easy. The questions tend to be superficial in a sense that answers can be found in the texts without really having to think. It feels like many of the activities are like easy quizzes.  …. 

Nearly all the ‘production’ activities are actually practice activities, as the learners are told what to say and how to say it.

With reference to Outcomes Intermediate, they say:

The learners do not really have to think about any of the texts or the language used in them. Some of the texts could have been used to stimulate thought and discussion about issues, but they are only used as a basis for comprehension questions and language work. Some of the activities have potential for cognitive engagement, but the emphasis is on practising language rather than on expression of ideas.  …. 

The production activities focus on practising language just presented (for example ‘Role-play a conversation. Use at least two “be/get used to” comments’) rather than on communication.


In their concluding remarks, the authors say that the explanation for these unsatisfactory results is simple: publishers‘ interests prevailed. Publishers like profit; they’re  risk averse and have no interest in any radical reform of a model that has endured for over thirty years. They choose to give priority to face validity and the achievement of “instant progress”, rather than to helping learners towards the eventual achievement of communicative competence.


We should thank TEFL Training for giving us a chance to listen to Prof. Tomlinson’s wise words, but we shouldn’t take any notice of their call to “Stop Complaining”. We should complain with all our mights; we should call out the teacher trainers who condone, and even encourage, the use of coursebooks, and we should make our voices heard. At the start of a new term, wouldn’t it be great to follow the young Tomlinson’s example.

OK, everybody. Go to the nearest window with your coursebook.

Open the window.

Take the coursebook in your hand.

Raise your hand above your head.

Now, on the count of three, I want you to throw your coursebook out of the window.

OK? Ready? One, Two, Three, .. Go!



Tomlinson, B. and Masuhara, H. (2013)  Adult Coursebooks. ELTJ. Click here to Download

SLA Part 11: Summary

Here are some highlights from my posts on cognitive theories of SLA:

  1. Learning an L2 is a process whereby learners slowly develop their own autonomous mental grammar with its own internal organising principles. This developing system is referred to as interlangage (IL).
  2. The “mental grammar” refers not just to syntax, but also to pronunciation, vocabulary, formulaic chunks, collocation, and sentence patterns.
  3.  IL development is dynamic, idiosyncratic, “messy”. At any one time, lots of different parts of the mental grammar are being revised and refined. Zig zag and “U-shaped” patterns of acquisition are often observed.
  4. IL development of individual structures is not sudden, categorical, or linear. Learners do not achieve native-like ability with structures one at a time, while making no progress with others.
  5. IL development exhibits common patterns and features. Learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to different end-state proficiency levels.
  6. Learners slowly master the L2 in roughly the same way, regardless of the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented by teachers.
  7. Teaching can affect the rate but not the route of IL development. The acquisition sequences displayed in IL development are  impervious to explicit teaching.
  8. SLA shares many features of L1 learning: it is predominantly a matter of implicit learning; learning through doing.
  9. Explicit instruction about the L2 is constrained by the learners’ interlanguage development.
  10. Instructed L2 learning can speed up the rate of acquisition, and explicit teaching can help adult L2 learners to learn fragile features of the L2.


Compare these 2 approaches to ELT:

Approach A: The English language is treated holistically. Students work through a series of relevant, communicative tasks, talking in English. Teachers organise the tasks and give students the feedback and information about the language they need, as they need it.

Approach B: The English language is broken down into constituent parts which are then presented and practiced sequentially following an intuitive easy-to-difficult criterion. Teachers spend most of classroom time talking about English.  

Compare the consequences:

Approach A leads to relatively high levels of learning and success.

Approach B leads to relatively high levels of frustration and failure.

So What? 

The vast majority of teacher trainers around the world promote the use of Approach B, while dismissing Approach A as impractical.

There is no other subject on the educational curriculum which is as badly taught as English as an L2 and no other subject which gets such bad results.

Thanks to the consistent and continuing refusal of teacher trainers to face the facts, teachers continue to implement a flawed approach to ELT which makes impossible demands on learners.

The British Council 2016 Annual Report estimated that the ELT industry had a turnover of $2000 billion. Commercial interests trump educational principles. The promotion of an approach to ELT which largely fails learners is motivated by profit.

All over the world teachers clutching coursebooks stand in front of students and together they turn the pages of a book. They read, listen, write, repeat. They study English; a subject which we know needs a radically different approach to the rest of the curriculum.

Students CANNOT learn an L2 by a strict adherence to Approach B; it contradicts all we know about language learning. You do not learn English as an L2 in a classroom the same way that you learn human biology, for example. While studying bits of the body one by one and then assembling them all to get a good general knowledge of the whole thing makes a lot of sense, this is not a good way to go about helping somebody learn an L2, as I hope the review of research on SLA makes clear.

Using a coursebook and a PPP methodology to implement a synthetic syllabus has been likened to serving up McNuggets or tossing fish to seals in the zoo: “Here comes a nice lexical chunk; Catch!”. It ignores the fact that students will not, because they cannot, learn bits of knowledge about the language in the sequence in which they’re presented in coursebooks.

Approach B guarantees that students will not learn what they’re taught.

Yes, but… 

The answer one hears to this damning criticism is

1. re-cycling, and

2.  teacher ingenuity.

Teacher trainers say “Yes, we know that students won’t get it all the first time it’s presented to them, and that’s why we keep re-cycling stuff, so that eventually they get it in their own way”.

They also say, more reasonably, that teachers show extraordinary skills, sensitivity, patience, perseverance, dedication, and so on, and they often manage to help individual students in their classes to develop their own personal interlanguages, somehow giving them the information and practice they need to move along their own personal trajectories.

Perversity Rules

This is like putting students and teachers through an obstacle race, where the syllabus and the materials hinder more than help the learning process. And it encourages, indeed it enforces, an approach to ELT where teachers take their cues from coursebooks and spend most of classroom time talking about the language.

Lesson plans are too often concerned with presenting and practicing

  • this bit grammar,
  • that bit of pronunciation,
  • the other bit of lexis


  • reading and listening to manufactured texts,
  • doing form-focused exercises,
  • talking about bits of the language,
  • writing summaries on the whiteboard,

all the while treating the language as an object, and wrongly supposing that whatever students learn from what they read in the book, hear from the teacher, say in response to prompts, read again on the whiteboard, and maybe even read again in their own notes will lead to communicative competence. It won’t – most of it is wasted effort.

One more time: students don’t learn a second or foreign language by being led through the units of a coursebook like this – language learning simply doesn’t work like that.


Here’s an alternative which respects learners’ interlanguage development:

  1. Course designers resist the urge to chop the language up into hundreds of bits, and instead treat it more holistically;
  2. A needs analysis finds out what kinds of things the students want to be able to do in English;
  3.  Tasks are designed for students which give them opportunities to build the competence needed to do those things;
  4.  Students engage in communicative activities where they themselves talk in English, using the target language for relevant purposes;
  5. Teachers scaffold the learning, giving help and support and information about the language as they go along,

In such a scenario, interlanguage development is encouraged rather than obstructed; learners are far more actively involved in using the L2 rather than just being told about it; teachers are freed from the chains of the coursebook.

But of course this is utopian – a silly dream impossible to implement. Except that it isn’t. There are reports of more than 60 studies of instructed SLA using a TBLT approach (see Bryfonski and McKay, 2017) which detail the results of implementing courses based on the 5 criteria listed above, and they all show that whatever the “impossible” obstacles to implementing such courses might be thrown up by those intent on protecting the status quo, they can be overcome. In the SLB cooperative in Barcelona, we’re developing TBLT courses which help local people learn the English they need quickly, enjoyably, effectively, and we’re developing teacher training courses to help teachers design and implement these courses. It can be done.



Bryfonski, L. and McKay, T. (2017) TBLT Implementation and Evaluation: A Meta-Analysis. Language Teaching Research, 1-30.

SLA Part 10: Nativism vs Emergentism


In this series of posts about SLA, I’ve focused on the psychological processes involved, and suggested that Pienemann’s Processability Theory is one of the strongest theories in the field. But, given the mounting interest in emergentist theories, I think I should end by looking at the differences between nativism and emergentism.

What is Language? 

I suggested in Part 6 that “the big issue” between formal and usage-based approaches concerns their different views of the nature of language; those working in the two camps can’t agree about how input gets processed because they can’t agree about what gets processed. It’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” problem, but, logically at least, the “What?” problem should come first. If language is regarded as a highly complex formal system best described by very abstract, very complicated rules constraining how words can be combined, then the explanation that we are hard wired with a processor dedicated to language learning which helps us to acquire linguistic competence seems reasonable. If, on the other hand, language is seen in terms of its communicative function, then it might seem more reasonable to take Saussure’s view that “linguistic signs arise from the dynamic interactions of thought and sound – from patterns of usage”. The signs are form-meaning mappings; we amass a huge collection of them through usage; and we process them by using relatively simple, probabilistic algorithms.

Construction Grammar 

I referred above to simple form-meaning mappings. Nick Ellis (2006, following Tomasello, 2003) sees “constructions” as the basic units of language representation.

Constructions are symbolic in that their defining properties of morphological, syntactic, and lexical form are associated with particular semantic, pragmatic, and discourse functions….. We learn constructions through using language, engaging in communication.  …  an individual’s creative linguistic competence emerges from the collaboration of the memories of all of the utterances in their entire history of language use and from the frequency-biased abstraction of regularities within them (Ellis, 2006. P. 100).

Shirai and Juffs ( 2017, p. 4) summarise construction grammar thus:

All kinds of form–meaning associations are considered to be constructions: words (book), morphemes (-ed), periphrastic constructions (be going to), idioms (put up with) syntactic constructions (ditransitive), with syntactic constructions themselves carrying a (non- compositional) meaning (e.g. open me a beer, even though the verb open does not have a meaning of transfer).

Having outlined his view of grammar, Tomasello explains L1 acquisition as a bottom up process, where children start by learning a small number of “items”, then “semi-productive patterns” and, finally, “fully productive constructions”. It’s important to point out that Tomasello argues that abstract knowledge of grammar emerges from the interaction of input and innate aspects of general cognition not specific to language (in other words, he doesn’t adopt a strict empiricist epistemology), and this position is also taken by Nick Ellis. We can also note that Pinker, a former champion of Chomsky’s nativist view of language, sees construction grammar as a better account of knowledge of language than Chomsky’s minimalist program (Jackendoff and Pinker, 2005,  p. 220).

Performance vs Competence 

The emergentist view of language is primarily concerned with performance data – things that people actually say, as revealed in the massive spoken and written corpora now available for inspection by very fast and very sophisticated concordance programs. Researchers using these new tools to look at these new data pay particular attention to lexical and morphological acquisition patterns. Meanwhile, the nativists’ formal framework favours experimental data which can tell them about not just what is, but also what is not possible in grammars.

So, to some extent at least, we can see arguments about SLA theories among formalists and emergentists as deriving from their view of language and, from the kinds of data which they collect and try to explain. For example, emergentists try to explain frequency effects in use, while formalists try to explain our knowledge of abstract categories. In the field of SLA, generative linguistics has dominated for about forty years, but there’s no doubt that we’re now seeing a shift, which is partly the result of new work by Tomasello and associates in L1 acquisition, and partly thanks to Nick Ellis’s work in promoting functional approaches to the study of SLA. As Shirai and Juffs ( 2017, p. 5) say:

Since the mid-1990s Ellis has been a major proponent of usage-based approach in SLA. In a series of influential articles (see, among others, Ellis, 1998, 2002, 2003) he advocated a connectionist, emergentist, and usage-based approach with construction grammar as linguistic framework (along the line of Tomasello’s approach in L1 acquisition).

A non-binary choice

We now have two approaches offering competing accounts of language acquisition, both first and second. But it isn’t a binary choice. Let me give three very brief examples.

1. In a personal communication to Hulstijn (2015), Pienemann and Lenzing comment on Processability Theory (PT) as follows:

The position that we assume is a combination of a minimal innate component and a constructivist component. …… The epistemological basis of PT, therefore, differs from both empiricism and from Chomsky’s approach.

2. O’Grady’s (2015) position, as briefly mentioned in Part 7,  is also distinct from both the usage-based and the generative school.

3. The increasing agreement between Mike Long and Nick Ellis, both of whom have a special interest in instructed SLA, indicates how scholars from very different research traditions are now converging on the same view of instructed SLA.

Common ground 

The common ground now shared by Long and N. Ellis is of enormous significance for those of us interested in ELT; despite differences in their views of language and of the kind of processing involved in SLA, both these scholars agree that SLA is a process whereby learners develop their own autonomous mental grammar with its own internal organising principles. This developing system is referred to as interlangage, and its development refers not just to syntax, but also to vocabulary, formulaic chunks, collocations, and sentence patterns. Furthermore, Long and N. Ellis agree that SLA is predominantly a matter of implicit learning, the result of learners using the target language for relevant, communicative purposes. Explicit learning is also important – vital, even – but, as I’ll suggest in the next post, it’s not best helped by the kind of explicit teaching which currently dominates ELT.


Ellis, N. (2006) Cognitive perspectives on SLA. AILA Review.

Hulstijn, J. (2015) How Different Can Perspectives on L2 Development Be? Language Learning, 65:1, pp. 210– 232.

Jackendoff, R. and Pinker, S. (2005) The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language: Reply to Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky. Cognition, 97, 211–25.

O’Grady, W. (2015). Processing determinism. Language Learning, 65, 6–32.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shirai, Y. and Juffs, A. (2017) Convergence and divergence in functional and formal approaches to SLA. Second Language Research, 33(1) 3–12.