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.


2 thoughts on “Do teacher trainers promote good practice?

  1. Thanks for this post. Your posts are always very interesting and thought-provoking. I know you talk a lot about using Task-Based Language Teaching, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts about other teaching approaches and methodologies that also emphasize the importance of implicit learning over explicit learning and that encourage meaningful communication in class rather than using a textbook-based curriculum. For example, I’ve had success in using TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) and Story Listening (a method developed by Dr. Beniko Mason, a teacher in Japan). Another example would be Automatic Language Growth, as used in the AUA program in Thailand. I know that TBLT is studied and discussed a lot among SLA researchers, whereas the other methods I mentioned are not as well-known among researchers. However, a lot of teachers enjoy using them in class and have found them to work well for their students.

  2. Hi Allison,

    Thanks for this. I’m not familiar with any of the approaches you mention. I’ll investigate.

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