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.

10 thoughts on “SLA Part 11: Summary

  1. hi Geoff

    in addition to the reasons you mention of why ELT is the way it is there is also to consider that (adult) foreign language learning is inherently meta-linguistic or reflexive i.e. it is very unlikely an adult learner would not ask questions such as “what does X mean”? where X is a de-contexualised mention of language taken out of its everyday use situation. i think this is what gives the current coursebook approach much of its face validity and its staying power!

  2. Hi Mura,

    I agree that the coursebook provides some answers to the adult’s meta-linguistic questions. Today’s coursebook looks like everything you could possibly want to learn an L2. It starts at Unit 1 and finishes at Unit 12; you can see where you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going; it has boxes with summaries of bits of grammar & vocab.,; etc. etc. And it’s become what adults expect – after 40 years dominance, the coursebook rules. But it doesn’t work!

    In fact, if you decide not to use a coursebook, it’s very easy to explain your decision to students, and if your alternative course invoves a great deal more time spent engaged in communbicative practice, as well as answers to questions like “What does X mean?”; if, that is, they can see that they’re making real progress, then they’ll go for it.

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  4. Hi Thom,

    I’ll cut and paste the text into a Word file “soon”. Thanks for your comments.



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  7. Thanks Geoff, great summary. Gave me a nice overview, and very much chimed with the work we are doing. Though we are using a textbook, we heavily supplement, using the coursebook’s texts as pieces of content that we engage and discuss with. These texts also serve as models for our writing tasks, which again are focused on communicating ideas and content for others to engage with. I completely agree in some aspects with your critique of textbooks, but I’m more inclined to see them as tools to think through and with – mediating language learning, rather than actually teaching anything. In our class (a first year academic English university course in Japan) the textbook presents some interesting enough content, which we engage with. Students research the themes and ideas before the lesson, read and summarise the textbook text content, and then engage critically with the ideas, based on their own research and understanding – using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a frame for scaffolding tasks and thinking. I admit we could probably as easily replace the texts with those chosen by the students. We still would like to keep the textbook texts, as they act as a nice model for their writing tasks. Though we are slowly rewriting them to suit our students better and the specific outcomes we want to achieve.

    Anyhow, I’m working to see how much of your list we can cover – I think we are there in some way, it’s just that the textbook helps to frame some of the content and skills we explore in the course (we don’t focus on grammar, just phrases and structures that can help them with the skill of constructing essays, presenting, managing discussions, etc)

    From your list:

    Course designers resist the urge to chop the language up into hundreds of bits, and instead treat it more holistically; – yes we focus on content and meaning first and foremost.
    A needs analysis finds out what kinds of things the students want to be able to do in English; – yes write essays, present, take notes, etc – we are creating supplementary tasks for many of the skills that are not covered in the textbook (which turns out to be a lot).
    Tasks are designed for students which give them opportunities to build the competence needed to do those things; – yes communicative and task based, with opportunities to practice, get feedback (self, peer, teacher) and repeat tasks.
    Students engage in communicative activities where they themselves talk in English, using the target language for relevant purposes; – yes content and meaning focused, with the language to support specific communicative skills
    Teachers scaffold the learning, giving help and support and information about the language as they go along, – focusing on skills and language to engage students to meaningfully engage in tasks.

    Thanks again Geoff, always appreciate the work you do, helping me to be a bit more rigorous with the work I do as a course designer and teacher trainer… still a way to go I feel…

  8. Sir, your convictions on SLA are correct. As an English teacher of more than 25 years of service in teaching English as second language to mother tongue medium students, I beg to differ with you. To me my main motto is to equip students to an extent with four language skills of LSRW and then wherever grammar required as per the textbook/English Reader. With these at hand, if the students pass the Board Examination, they could learn more English later in life. Among six subjects they need to study and get through, English is one. If they fail/flunk in English, forever they will be drop-outs. I am writing this in the Indian context. Classes are heterogenous, students’ strength is more. Schools are not exclusively meant for teaching English. However, my students those who have gone to the West for greener pastures, are speaking so well, I am amazed at seeing them.

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