A Review of Leo Selivan’s (2018) “Lexical Grammar”

In the Introduction to his book Lexical Grammar, Selivan explains what lexical chunks are, why they’re so important, and how they should be used in ELT. I will argue that the explanation is confused and simplistic; that the works by scholars advocating a usage-based theory of language learning are misrepresented and misinterpreted; that Selivan fails to give any coherent account of how chunks are stored, or what part they play in learning an L2; and that he fails to make the case for using chunks “to drive grammar acquisition”.

What is a chunk? 

Selivan says “A chunk is a group of words customarily found together”. He gives these examples:

  • fixed expressions, e.g., as a matter of fact,
  • combinations of words that allow variation, such as see you later/soon/tomorrow,
  • collocations, such as pursue a career; a scenic route; a chance encounter,
  • stems that can be used to build various sentences in English, such as If I were you; It’s been a while since; It took me a long time to
  • full sentences, such as It’s none of your business; There’s no doubt about it; What are you gonna do?

 Given the wide spread covered by chunks, Selivan asks:

Is everything chunks, then? He answers:   

Yes, to a large extent. Evidence suggests that our mental lexicon does not consist of individual words but chunks. Chunks …. are stored in the brain as single units. Research shows that about 50–80% of native-speaker discourse consists of recurring multi- word combinations (Altenberg, 1987; Erman and Warren, 2000).

We may quickly note that everything is not chunks, and the claim made for the research on recurring multi- word combinations is exaggerated. Selivan goes on to say that chunks “blur the boundary between vocabulary and grammar” because of “the tendency of certain words to occur with certain grammatical structures and vice versa”. True enough.

In the next section, Selivan asks “Is there more to knowing a language than just reproducing chunks we have encountered?”, and replies by giving a summary of Hoey’s “new theory of language acquisition”.

Hoey’s Lexical Priming

Here is Selivan’s summary:

Hoey (2005) argues that as we acquire new words we take a subconscious note of words that occur alongside (collocation) and of any associated grammatical patterns (colligation). Through multiple encounters with a new word, we become primed to associate it with these recurring elements.  According to Hoey’s theory, our brain is like a giant corpus where each word is accompanied by mental usage notes. Language production is not a matter of simply combining words and rules but rather a retrieval of the language we are primed for, i.e. the patterns and combinations we have previously seen or heard. …. The theory explains why, when producing language, our first port of call is our mental store of pre-fabricated chunks. However, this does not completely negate the role of generative grammar. Knowledge of grammar rules is still important to fine-tune chunks so that they fit new contexts. Because we are only primed to repeat language we have encountered in particular contexts, if we find ourselves in a new communicative situation, we might not have any ready-made language to draw on. This is when grammar knowledge can help us produce completely new sentences.

This is actually a very poor account of Hoey’s theory, and there are several things wrong with it, but let’s focus on storing chunks. According to Selivan, Hoey says that our brain is like a giant corpus where each word is accompanied by mental usage notes. But how does that fit with the claim that our brain stores chunks as whole single units? As Tremblay, Derwing and Libben (2007) point out, ‘stored’ could mean one of two things. The words making up the chunk could be seen as individual items which are linked together through knowing that they go together. So the chunk in the middle of  would be [in -> the -> middle-> of]. On the other hand, ‘stored’ could mean that the chunk had no internal structure and would look something like [inthemiddleof]. Selliven repeatedly says that chunks are stored as single holistic units, but if so, then these units are indivisible chunks with no internal parts – they’re not linked together through knowing that they go together – and therefore they can’t be “teased apart”, or used as templates, or used to drive the process of grammar acquisition .We’ll return to this is a minute.

The confusion mounts when Selivan goes on to talk about “the role of generative grammar” (sic) in allowing learners to “fine-tune chunks so that they fit new contexts”. Selivan suggests that we are only primed to repeat language which we have encountered in particular contexts, and that consequently “if we find ourselves in a new communicative situation, we might not have any ready-made language to draw on”. He goes on: “this is when grammar knowledge can help us produce completely new sentences”. Not only does this show a complete failure to understand Hoey’s theory, it also paints an unlikely picture of L2 learners’ dichomotomous behaviour, suggesting that when they’re in “familiar contexts” they repeat language they’ve already encountered, whereas when they’re confronted with “new communicative situations”, they must resort to grammar knowledge in order to produce completely new sentences.

Chunks in Language Acquisition

According to Selivan, chunks allow learners to produce language such as I haven’t seen you for ages “when their own grammatical competence doesn’t yet allow them to generate new sentences in the present perfect”. But they do more – much more – than that:  memorised chunks also “drive the process of grammar acquisition”. The argument is (and I’m re-arranging the original text a bit) that children acquiring their L1 start out by recording pieces of language encountered during their day-to-day interaction and then repeating words (e.g. dog) or multi-word phrases (e.g. Let me do it, Where’s the ball?). They then slightly modify the encountered language to suit various communicative needs:

  • Where’s the ball?
  • Where’s the dog?
  • Where’s Daddy?

Only later, says Selivan, do abstract categories and schemas, such as the subject–verb–object word order or inversion in interrogatives, begin to form “from these specific instances of language use”.

But this is not how children learn their first language. O’Grady (2005) explains how children use a collection of abilities to learn language. They begin by distinguishing speech sounds from other types of sounds and from each other. They then use the ability to produce speech sounds in an intelligible manner, stringing them together to form words and sentences. For words, there is first of all the ability to pick the building blocks of language out of the speech stream by noticing recurring stress patterns (like the strong–weak pattern of English) and which combinations of consonants are most likely to occur at word boundaries. For meaning, they have the ability to “fast map” – to learn the meaning of a word on the basis of a single exposure to its use, using linguistic clues to infer (for instance) that a zav must be a thing, but that Zav has to be a person. For sentences, there’s the ability to note patterns of particular types (subject–verb–object constructions, passives, negatives, relative clauses), to see how they are built, and to figure out what they are used for.

Most relvant to Selivan’s central claim for chunks is O’Grady’s account of the beginning of an infant’s language learning. Right at the start, children pick what they can out of the stream of speech that flows past their ears. They often pick out single words, but sometimes they get larger bites of speech – like what’s that? (pronounced whadat) or give me (pronounced gimme). O’Grady says there’s a simple test to decide whether a particular utterance should be thought of as a multi-word sentence or an indivisible chunk with no internal parts: if there are multiple words and the child knows it, they should show up elsewhere in his speech – either on their own or in other combinations. That’s what happens in adult speech, where the three words in What’s that? can each be used in other sentences as well.

But in child language, what’s that is almost certainly an indivisible chunk. There’s no indication that the different parts of an utterance have an independent existence of their own, and there’s no evidence that they get “slightly modified to suit various communicative needs” in the way Selivan suggests.

O’Grady suggests that children have two different styles of language learning.

1. The analytic style breaks speech down into its smallest component parts, and short, clearly articulated, one-word utterances characterise the early stages of language learning. They like to name people (Daddy, Mummy) and objects (Kitty, car) and they use simple words like up, hot, hungry to describe how they feel and what they want.

2. Other children take a different approach. They memorize and produce relatively large chunks of speech (often poorly articulated) that correspond to entire sequences of words in the adult language. Whasdat?, dunno, donwanna, gimmedat, lookadat. This is called the gestalt style of language learning.

No child employs a completely analytic strategy or a purely gestalt style. Rather, children exhibit tendencies in one direction or the other. Whatever direction they tend towards, all children eventually become competent language users, and to suggest, as Selivan does, that this process can be described – and even explained – by saying that they unpack chunks that are stored as holistic units in the brain is not just absurdly simplistic, it’s also so confused as to be preposterous.

L2 Learning 

Selivan argues that the SLA process is very similar to L1 learning: L2 learners use memorized chunks to drive “the process of grammar acquisition” by “extrapolating grammar rules” from them. Selliven cites SLA studies which show that new grammatical structures are often learned initially as unanalysed wholes and later on broken down for analysis. For example, learners may learn the going to future form as a chunk, such as I am going to write about for writing essays (Bardovi-Harlig, 2002), before adapting the structure to include other verbs: I am going to take/try/make, etc. Holistically stored chunks gradually evolve into more productive patterns as learners tease them apart and use them as templates to create new sentences:

  • I haven’t seen you for ages.
  • I haven’t seen her for ages.
  • I haven’t seen him since high school
  • I haven’t heard from her for ages.

 Here we go again! Holistically stored chunks by definition can’t gradually evolve into more productive patterns. While there’s every reason to think that L2 learners unpack chunks, Selivan fails to cite the relevant literature, and fails to situate the process of unpacking, analysing and re-packing certain types of chunks in any coherent theory of SLA.

Things get worse. Selivan continues his discussion by raising the question:

Why is it that while children effortlessly acquire their mother tongue from examples using their pattern-finding ability, the process of L2 acquisition is often so laborious, with many learners never reaching native-like performance?”

One of the main reasons, says Selivan, is lack of exposure – L1 proficiency is the result of thousands of hours of exposure to rich language input, while the exposure L2 learners receive is often not suficient to enable them to identify patterns from specific examples. But even when there is plenty of input, Selivan admits that there are additional factors which may hinder the process of L2 acquisition. He focuses on salience, the lack of which, he says, may explain why certain grammatical forms are notoriously difficult for learners to acquire. Selivan points out that many grammatical cues in English (for example tense marking, the third person singular -s and articles) are not salient. And grammatical words tend to be unstressed in English, making them more difficult to perceive aurally. We stress know in I don’t know, not don’t, which results in something sounding like I dunno in spoken English. We stress taken in You should have taken an umbrella, which is reduced to You should’ve taken an umbrella, or even You shoulda taken an umbrella.


There are a number of problems with this account. First, it relies on a usage-based theory of language acquisition, which is not accepted by the majority of scholars working in the field of SLA. Selivan should at least respond to crtiics of his preferred theory, which is still in its infancy, does not accurately describe langauge learning, and does not explain how children acquire linguistic competence. I’ll just mention a few points from Gregg’s 2003 article on emergentism:

  • Usage-based theories don’t tell us anything about children’s linguistic knowledge which comes about in the absence of exposure (i.e., a frequency of zero), including knowledge of what is not possible.
  • While N. Ellis aptly points to infants’ ability to do statistical analyses of syllable frequency, he fails to acknowledge that those infants didn’t learn that ability. How do young children uniformly manage this task: why do they focus on syllable frequency (instead of some other information available in exposure), and how do they know what a syllable is in the first place, given crosslinguistic variation?
  • How does usage-based theory account for studies showing early grammatical knowledge, in cases where input frequency could not possibly be appealed to?
  • Regarding infant L1 learning, claims by Ellis and others that “learners need to have processed sufficient exemplars…” are either outright false, or else true only vacuously (if “sufficient” is taken to range from as low a figure as 1).
  • “It is precisely because grammar rules have a deductive structure that one can have instantaneous learning, without the trial and error involved in connectionist learning. With the English past tense rule, one can instantly determine the past tense form of “zoop” without any prior experience of that verb, let alone of “zooped”…. If all we know is that John zoops wugs, then we know instantaneously that John zoops, that he might have zooped yesterday and may zoop tomorrow, that he is a wug-zooper who engages in wug-zooping, that whereas John zoops, two wug-zoopers zoop, that if he’s a Canadian wug-zooper he’s either a Canadian or a zooper of Canadian wugs (or both), etc.  We know all this without learning it, without even knowing what “wug” and “zoop” mean.” (Gregg, 2003, p. 111).

Second, as already stated, Selivan doesn’t explain how “holistically stored chunks” can “evolve into more productive patterns as learners tease them apart and use them as templates to create new sentences”. In order to be used in this way, the chunks need to be better defined, and the way in which they’re stored and retrieved has to be properly explained.

Third, Selivan fails to grasp what usage-based theory has to say about associative learning or about differences between L1 and L2 learning. His discussion of salience is completely out of place in a simplistic model which sees language learning as a process where you start by memorising chunks, then, when the occasion demands, tease them apart and use them as templates to create new sentences, and thus learn grammatical rules. Such an account doesn’t accurately describe any usage-based theory of learning, and it doesn’t explain why salience is a problem for L2 learners of English but not for infant L1 learners of English.

In brief, Selivan misrepresents and misinterprets Hoey, Tomasello, and Ellis; he makes no attempt to address the criticisms made of usage-based theories; he fails to explain the enormous disparities between the results of L1 and L2 learning; and he fails to give any coherent account of what chunks are, or what part they play in learning an L2. There is little to recommend it as an explanation of how people learn an L2.

Chunks in Language Teaching

In the final section, Selivan looks at chunks in language teaching.  He argues that “the learning of new structures” should start off as gradual exposure to and accumulation of chunks containing the target structures. As the number of stored chunks grows, chunks exhibiting the same pattern will gradually feed into the grammar system. This is when grammatical competence with a particular structure begins to emerge. To speed up the process of chunk accumulation and pattern detection, chunks need to be taught explicitly. Here are some bits of the advice offered:

  • Learners’ attention should be drawn to chunks containing certain grammatical structures. They can practise and learn the chunks lexically before moving on to any kind of grammar explanation, i.e. they should be encouraged to memorize before they analyse.
  • Many classroom activities should focus on highlighting chunks in reading and listening input. Such receptive, awareness-raising activities can be gradually combined with more productive ones, where learners manipulate the chunks to fit different communicative situations and scenarios.
  • Learners should be eased into new grammar areas through chunks. For example, Have you ever been to can be presented in the context of travel or holidays, without delving into a grammatical analysis of the present perfect. Similarly, Have you seen can be presented when discussing films in class. Start by getting learners to practise and memorize chunks containing a new grammatical structure, resisting the temptation to move too quickly into any grammar explanation.
  • Getting learners to produce new language is an essential pedagogical activity. Using new grammatical structures, however partially or provisionally understood, promotes fluency and acquisition of these structures. It also allows learners to produce language which is structurally beyond their present level of competence. It is, therefore, the teacher’s role to encourage learners to incorporate new structures in their output and ‘push’ them beyond their comfort zone.

Let’s just pause here and look at that last one. Selivan suggests that teachers should get learners to produce new language which is structurally beyond their present level of competence by using new grammatical structures which they only partially understand. Does producing memorised chunks that have been stored in the brain as single units count as producing new language? If not, how are teachers to get learners to do it?

Rather than examine Selivan’s methodology in any detail, it’s enough to note that he thinks teachers of English as an L2 should

  • continue to use coursebooks,
  • continue to use a PPP methodology to present and then practice a sequence of formal elements of the language,


  • get students to memorise chunks and then use those chunks as a way of easing into grammar teaching.

His version of ELT is thus subject to the same criticisms made of other types of synthetic syllabuses which are implemented using a PPP methodology. Still, there’s one particular problem that has to be faced, and that is, of course: Which chunks should be presented for memorisation and further work, and in what order? Given the impossibility of getting students to memorise the tens of thousands of chunks needed for fluent communication, how do you select and sequence the necessarily small fraction of chunks that will drive any particular course of ELT?  Selivan doesn’t answer the question, which is hardly surprising, because there is no answer. If you select some chunks and then teach them in the way Selivan suggests, even if students actually learn them all, you won’t cover enough to get anywhere near the number known by competent English users. Now doesn’t that suggest that there’s some fatal flaw in the whole project, and that there are better ways of helping students to develop communicative competence?


Gregg, K. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 19, 2.

Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. London: Routledge.

O’Grady, W. (2008) How Children Learn Language. Cambridge, CUP.

Selivan, L. (2018) Lexical Grammar. Cambridge, CUP.

Tremblay, Derwing and Libben (2007) Are lexical bundles stored and processed as single units? Proceedings of 23rd Linguistics Conference, Victoria, BC, Canada.


An email exchange with Jim Scrivener about ELT

I sent Jim Scrivener “The 5 questions about ELT” with which I started this blog, and he suggested that we discuss them in an exchange of emails. Below is the result. We didn’t actually get through all the questions, so there might be a Part 2.


Hi Jim,

Maybe I can start by asking you the first of my questions for teacher trainers: What is your view of the English language?


Hi Geoff,

I think language is the toolset of intelligent life – a huge and interconnecting set of linguistic and social systems that we only partially understand – but which allows us to become more intelligent and to play a role in the over-centuries growth of the intelligence of all humanity. The growth of our personal language is deeply intertwined with our experience of family, friends, life environment and the overall culture we live in and it’s especially to do with our interpretation of the expectations of others.

So,“language” combines deep rules, rules of thumb, lists of data, social conventions, formulae, copied habits, fashionable fads, personal experiments, etc. Some of this is very deeply processed but much is not – on top of the underlying rules and systems we try out new behaviours, words and expressions to see what impact they have. Much of this is entirely unteachable to a second language learner – because it has tobe learnt` through living – directly connected to growing up, personal life, character, events, negative experience etc. But – we can offer some of the underlying structure and allow individuals to start finding their own way of expressing themselves with the toolset as latecomers to a different language.

At the heart and foundation of everything – I do think that grammar has a special role. I still (unfashionably) see it as the necessary motherboard that the rest of the components organise themselves onto and from which the software makes the message. Communication is mainly built on grammar + variable data (e.g. lexis). I’m deliberately using a computer metaphor here. I don’t know if you’ve ever programmed computers – but it’s an instructive experience. One has a very limited set of language and grammar rules with which to produce unlimited results. Get the rules wrong and nothing happens or terrible things happen. Get it right and you can make the machine do almost anything you can imagine – from launching a spaceship to autonomously writing the words and music of a new song. It is the grammar that needs to be learnt – but once learnt there are no limits to how creatively you manage the variable data that it’s used with.

Similarly, with English (or any human language) I can’t do any of the communication I mentioned unless I can put pieces of language together in a way that makes some sense to another person listening or reading. It’s not quite as finickity as programming a computer but it needs to be close to an acceptable structure. I can’t get even a simple message across without that and I can’t fine-tune what I’m saying unless I share that rule-set – an understanding of how the community understands my fine-tuning. It’s grammar / discourse rules that provide that shared consensus. Lexis is important and infinitely expandable and changeable – but there is a finite grammatical system that remains relatively stable through the years – and on which the rest of communication depends.


Calling language “the toolset for intelligent life” is a splendid way to kick things off, and I’m glad that you don’t follow the lead of so many ELT trainers who call it “a tool for communication”; because of course, language isn’t just used for communication. It helps us to think, reflect and imagine; to moralise, believe and have faith; to wish, regret and daydream; and, as you say, to become more intelligent. Perhaps it follows from your taking this wider view of language that you see language as a complex formal system, described crucially, if not entirely, by a grammar, rather than as a huge collection of Saussurean “linguistic signs” which we amass through use.

If we can agree that we’re both “formalists”, standing resolutely against the smart new constructioners, we can surely agree not to waste time on the lexical chunkers, at least until they manage to explain their view coherently. The question remains: What is the grammar “that needs to be learnt”? What knowledge of the rules for constructing words and sentences is involved? And how does it combine with knowledge of lexis? What are the essential rules that learners need to know in order to endlessly and flexibly generate their own meaning? And what else do they need to know? Widdowson, after a lengthy discussion of formulaic language, claims that learners need to know how to apply “a scale of variability” to grammar rules.

Communicative competence is a matter of knowing a stock of partially pre-assembled patterns, formulaic frameworks, and a kit of rules, so to speak, and being able to apply the rules to make whatever adjustments are necessary according to contextual demands (Widdowson, 1989).

What do you think? What is the competence that we are trying to teach?


From the Cobuild project onwards I have been interested in the discoveries about lexis and I’ve been persuaded by the arguments for lexis being much more complex and important than the lists or sets of words that I used to teach when I started out. There clearly is a “grammar of words” beyond basic adjacent word collocation. I remember an eye-opening seminar from Jimmie Hill on how using a simple word like “book” has resonances and implications and imposed restrictions that ripple outward through the surrounding sentences.

But I think that, for a learner of a second language, once you’re a step beyond beginner level, when a few basic greetings and expressions get you a long way, knowing grammar is more useful than knowing lexis or functional expressions. Because at its heart, lexis isn’t a system, it’s a list. There are some systematic features but basically it’s a long, long list. So is functional language. Yes, I need to learn lots of words – thousands of them. But the way that I wield them is grammar.

So, for learners I think the priorities are something like: Beginner: Expressions, basic vocab, pronunciation (sounds & intonation); Elementary / Pre-Intermediate: Grammar and key vocabulary sets; Higher than that: Lexis – and all the rest of the complex jungle of it all. If I teach you a grammatical item – even if I give a discredited item a name like “first conditional” – then I give you something that you can work with to make your own sentences – and start to understand others when they communicate to you. And although I spent many years arguing that you can’t teach discrete item grammar and that acquisition doesn’t follow from such learning – I now doubt my doubts. I’ve seen too many students who, having had a lesson on, say, first conditional, are able to integrate that item with their own choice of lexis and intended meaning – and use it successfully to express themselves – and retain it over time. There is a value in explicit grammar teaching – if done well. As a minimum, it is a way of fronting and spotlighting useful things to learn.

There is no sense in the sequence of the coursebook grammar syllabus – of course – it’s simply a product of habit and inertia. But, no alternative order would be significantly better. And it actually doesn’t matter very much. The goal is simply to introduce items to students and the priority of “teachability” is more important here than “order of acquisition” or other SLA concerns. Students will learn some items. They won’t learn others. But they will, in many cases, over time, gather a workable set of ground-level tools that allow them to build their own communication.


You say grammar can be successfully taught explicitly. Well I wouldn’t argue with that, but I’m arguing more generally against coursebook-driven ELT. My claim is that a coursebook-driven approach flies in the face of 60 years research into how people learn an L2. It ignores the fact that SLA is a non-linear, dynamic process whereby learners pursue a zig-zag, U-shaped, unsystematic route as they develop their own mental grammar for themselves, and this route is largely impervious to explicit grammar teaching. Whatever success you as a teacher might have had teaching discrete formal elements of language, that’s no argument for using a series of coursebooks to teach people English, because there is, as you say, no sense in the sequence of the coursebook grammar syllabus.

When you say “it actually doesn’t matter very much”, I have to disagree. Every year, hundreds of thousands of students fail to make the progress they were led to expect. Presenting and practising a sequence of bits of language in the way coursebooks organise them guarantees that students won’t learn what they’re taught, because they can’t, because that’s not the way language learning works. They will, of course, learn something, and most of them will be persuaded to do the next course with the next coursebook, embarking on the next bit of their unnecessarily slow trudge towards an uncertain proficiency, hobbling on, blaming themselves, too often feeling like an idiot when they’re called on to use English spontaneously. What nobody wants to recognise is that they can’t communicate easily in English because they’ve spent most of the time being told about English instead of being encouraged to use it.

My argument is that ELT would be much more efficacious if it were based on an approach which respected learners’ interlanguage development and which encouraged their mental grammars to develop in their own ways, by giving them a more or less 5 to 1 cocktail of scaffolded opportunities to use appropriate oral and written texts for relevant communicative purposes, and explicit attention to formal aspects of the language.


OK – so this is one area where we seem to totally disagree. But maybe less than it seems. The route of language learning is certainly zig-zag and non-linear – no argument there. But I don’t think that that requires input to attempt to follow that route. And especially in a classroom of 30, 40 or maybe 50+ students we have to compromise on a possible sequence for offering language samples and information.

The best language teaching is likely to be in circumstances where there is a relatively small number of learners and the teacher is competent in language, aware of how humans learn and well-versed in a range of methodological options. In these (privileged and relatively rare) circumstances I would hope that the teacher would then be able to study how each individual was learning, where they had reached in their language competences and then explore a range of need-focussed, responsive, alert teaching options. Not using the coursebook would then be one entirely valid choice, and probably the most productive decision for the class.

But this is not the reality for a substantial number of teachers around the world: they have large classes; many have minimal training; they have minimal support; they are largely unaware of what is possible methodologically (due partly to poor quality of training); they may be weak in their own English level (or at least extremely wary of using it and making mistakes); they would struggle to create materials more valid or useful than those in the coursebooks; they may be fearful of being “found out” as wanting in some way – especially if they took even a small step away from what their managers expected them to do.  I’m not saying that any of this is good or desired or cannot ever be changed. It is just the reality of the wider world. I sometimes wonder if your arguments for not using coursebooks come partly – as mine used to – from seeing most frequently lessons in a rather untypical segment of the globe – and not fully taking enough into account the significantly poorer situations that many teachers work with.

I should restate that I was very anti-coursebook myself for many years – but I now believe that I was wrong. My change of mind comes partly from my own teaching and training experiences but more so from observing many teachers in different countries around the world.

Let me go back to “teachability” as being a vital (and under-researched) factor. L2 learners in many parts of the world have teachers who are not especially good at English (sometimes below PET level) and who have little idea of methodology beyond how they were themselves taught. As a result, many teachers (and therefore their students) will absolutely flounder without the support of a coursebook to provide language and practice materials and a basic methodology.

The coursebook provides, at the very minimum, lots of samples of language. Depending on the book, these may be anywhere on the continuums from high quality and real to odd and rather inauthentic – but, whatever the quality, they are a language input. When there is no other exposure to language – perhaps not even from a teacher who only speaks L1 in class – the printed words and the recordings are an invaluable source. Beyond that, the book provides ways to practice items. You could criticise much of it as dull and predictable – but it is practice – and it does help learning to happen.

And, sadly, when a school decides not to use coursebooks, this often means that the replacement is not rich TBL but random unexamined googled gobbets of free downloaded exercises – typically poorly written and aimless without quality control.

I stand by my statement that the teaching sequence of language items “doesn’t matter very much” and that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t follow current beliefs about learning order. Whatever order a book was in, it would never mirror any individual’s learning.

I have made many (rejected) proposals over the years to publishers for coursebooks with radical syllabi. My first ever proposal was for a book that might still be considered radical if it was published today; it was task-based long before the pseudo task-based coursebooks came along. But if I was designing a coursebook freely without publisher control right now at this late point in my career, I might actually go with a discrete item syllabus (though I’d probably start grammatically with Past Simple questions and answers).

The current “received order” of syllabus, indefensible as seems to be, does have the advantage of possessing a certain teaching (not learning) logic. It allows the teacher to plan and teach with a sense of progression of items that jigsaw (in the teaching plan)one after the other over time.

As you say “Presenting and practicing a sequence of bits of language in the way coursebooks organise them guarantees that students won’t learn what they’re taught, because they can’t, because that’s not the way language learning works. They will, of course, learn something …” Yes – certainly this is not how we learn, but all the same, exposure to a range of items over time will lead to an unpredictable uptake of some – and, as you say, “they will learn something”. I suspect that that is the best that we can hope for in almost any language class whatever the syllabus, sequence or method.

I think abandoning the coursebook in favour of working only with language that arises for task need is going to make ELT absolutely unteachable for a large percentage of the world’s teachers.  Take away this resource and almost nothing will be left.

You say “What nobody wants to recognise is that they can’t communicate easily in English because they’ve spent most of the time being told about English instead of being encouraged to use it.” And this is absolutely right. Of course students should not be mainly “told about English” – they need to be in a cycle of using the language with feedback and repeated improvements – and minimal “telling” when it’s necessary and useful.

But using a coursebook does not presuppose this kind of bad teaching. The fault here is not with coursebooks themselves but with how teachers use them, how they are trained to use them and how ministries, school heads and department heads require them to be used – and especially the requirements to “cover” material in specific periods of time. This is the real villain. Coursebooks are not the villain. When teaching, I would always prefer to have a coursebook to provide language, topic ideas, material, tasks, practice exercises etc but I don’t want anyone to tell me how to use this resource or how much I have to use it or when. This is, I believe, where trainers and anyone with any influence or authority should be intervening – to help teachers to “own” their coursebooks in order to teach the people in the room. I think it is possible to use a coursebook as a backbone of a course and teach a relentlessly exciting and needs driven personal course for a group of students – but without the need to invent each lesson as new from scratch – which is often a huge burden on pressurised teachers.

So that’s one way I’m out of step with a lot of contemporary ELT thinking. I also find myself increasingly unsure of the traditional binary description of language systems and skills – and with the current emphasis on the primacy of skills – and especially task achievement – over systems. I think I probably view things more as an inverted pyramid with grammar at the base – and growing from it – lots of twined strands of strategies (e.g. to better interpret listening items I can’t catch), lexis (holographic cross-referenced RAM of items), practice (e.g. reading faster and understanding more). I’m not saying that I don’t value skills teaching and task-based work– but I am saying that I think that we may have misjudged how they fit in with grammar, lexis etc.

The task does not come first. Language does. If I have no (or insufficient) language, I can’t do the task or I am dependent on constant interventions and drip-feed input while I do the task. But when I have almost enough language, I can hone it on tasks – and upgrade using small amounts of memorable help and feedback. Then, the task is invaluable as a way of allowing learners to work on integrating, coordinating and purposefully using what has been learnt. The task is practice and provides the “upgrade push” at the heart of learning.

I’ve started to think of “practice” less as a teaching / learning technique / tool and more as something fundamental to language itself. Practice isn’t quite the right word –I mean something that incorporates: trying out / testing / using / repeatedly using and measuring feedback – in a cycle. But I’ll call it “practice”. The “skill” a learner needs to work on isn’t “reading” or “writing” etc – but being able to use your current systematic knowledge and current data set of known items to push the limits of what you can do and achieve with it – again and again.

OK That’s a very long answer to a short (but huge) question. I think I need to pause for you to have a go back.


You argue that TBLT is only suitable for relatively privileged ELT contexts and that coursebooks are the best solution for “the realities of the wider world”. Yet more than 60 studies of ELT courses using a TBLT approach (reported in Bryfonski and McKay, 2017) show that obstacles (large class size, limited resources, cultural resistance) can be overcome, and that the results far outstrip those obtained in comparable environments using coursebooks. It’s simply not true that TBLT is too difficult or too demanding to be a realistic option for most ELT contexts; you just need to take off the coursebook blinkers.

If teachers are not especially good at English and have little idea of methodology, they will NOT necessarily flounder without the support of a coursebook; they can be shown as easily how to use materials to work through tasks as they can how to use a coursebook. I worked with Connie O’Grady in the early 80s (before coursebooks took over ELT) and we helped Spanish teachers in 2 big schools in Barcelona to implement TBLT courses of English which were very successful indeed. Other similar examples – from work done by Chris Candlin, Mike Long and John Fanselow to name but three – abound.


But this is where we hit some of my problems with research. I have no doubt that what you say is true – but … being trained and mentored by inspiring helpers like yourself or Candlin or Fanselow, etc., is a very privileged context. In short experiments of this sort there are no doubt measurable proofs of this success. But I’d challenge you to do this with, say, all of Nepal or Mexico over three years. There is an inescapable degree of resistance and inertia and, of course, a fading out of bold initiatives once the local trainer and teacher are two steps away from the initial inspirers and promoters.


You suspect that the best we can hope for in almost any language class whatever the syllabus, sequence or method is that the students will learn something; you fear that abandoning the coursebook in favour of TBLT will make ELT absolutely unteachable for a large percentage of the world’s teachers; you judge that if we take away the coursebook, almost nothing will be left. To put it bluntly, Jim, and with great respect, I think you’re wrong. The Bryfonski and McKay (2017) review; the work of Long, Crookes, Doughty, Robinson, Breen, Pica, Krashen, Wilkins, Willis, Faneslow, and a host of other scholars supports the view that there are realistic alternatives to the coursebook.

Your defence of coursebooks seems both pessimistic and half-hearted to me. Please don’t take offence, but it reminds me of the way some good people I know in the late 70s defended Franco by pointing to the wayward Spanish character and the need of such ill-disciplined, ignorant people for a strong leader.

At the end, you rally and say that coursebooks are absolutely fine as long as they’re used by teachers who know how to use them in the right way. But they’re not. Coursebooks implement a syllabus that is antithetical to language learning, and it’s only by completing subverting that syllabus – ignoring the sequence and order of its activities and substituting them for real communicative activites that address real needs – that teachers can do a decent job. And while the key point is that coursebooks implement a synthetic syllabus which flies in the face of robust SLA findings, there’s also the view of most of the experts who have ever reviewed coursebooks. A host of scholars agree with Thornbury and Meddings that the carefully packaged junk food served up in coursebooks is not nutritious. Tomlinson and Masuhara, in their 2013 review of coursebooks, conclude that English File, Outlooks and other such series are bland, unappealing, unchallenging, unimaginative, unstimulating, mechanical, superficial and dull, and that none of them is likely to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.


OK – Just a quick comment. I loved English File. I taught with the first edition and found it brilliantly constructed, hugely teachable, enjoyed by wide ranges of students and, more importantly, I saw it lead to visible, tangible, measurable learning. So, whatever the research says, my own classroom experience is entirely at odds with it. I have seen learners learn using many different coursebooks. Some are terrible; many are OK; a few are brilliant. And, though I hesitate to say it, many probably offer more varied and successful lessons than if I had burnt midnight candles inventing my own tasks and materials.


Let’s now deal with your more general points about tasks and language learning. I entirely agree with your view of “practice” – or “praxis” as Friere, or Gramsci might like to call it. Exactly as you say, learners develop competence by pushing the boundaries – again and again. But what’s wrong with using tasks to help them do this? Tasks aren’t content free. Let’s say you’re doing a course with a class of professional people who need English for their jobs, and it turns out that they all go to restaurants with foreign business colleagues, and they all find it difficult to handle the small talk. It’s easy enough to find material to prepare for the task (“Having a meal in a restaurant with foreign business colleagues”). You get the students to tell you about their experiences; ask them for their company’s guidelines; get excerpts from films, TV, or video recordings, menus; etc., etc. From all the data, you produce a schematic representation of the meal: arriving, sitting down, choosing the food, talking to the person next to you, dealing with exchanges with others, dealing with the bill, leaving. From there, you devise prototypical dialogues, and, building on these, you design a module for the course, consisting of six Pedagogical Tasks (PTs).

  • PT1: Intro (Schema Building)
  • PT2: The Real Thing. Recording of a dinner.
  • PT3: What Happened?
  • PT4: Reading Along.
  • PT5: Role Play 1
  • PT6: Role Play 2: The Exit Task: a simulation of a dinner.

In a TBLT course like this, you start with a needs analysis to identify a number of “Target Tasks”. From these, pedagogic tasks are designed and then the materials are assembled. The pedagogic tasks include explicit attention to form. If it were practically feasible to organise a course which began with a needs analysis and ended up as a series of pedagogic tasks which involved students in using the language for 80% of classroom time, would you give it a whirl?


It sounds like a fine lesson and I can imagine teaching it. I have no problem with this at all – as a lesson in the context you state i.e. “you’re doing a course with a class of professional people who need English for their jobs, and it turns out that they all go to restaurants with foreign business colleagues”. But it’s a very privileged teaching context (and I’m also imagining the word “smallish” before the word “class”).

In global terms, in many other contexts, that lesson type is a complete non-starter. Imagine a poor state school in central China, more than 50 14-year olds in the one room with almost no space to move around, even between rows. The lesson you’re describing needs teacher preparation, teacher language skills and confidence, classroom management skills, behaviour management skills. It needs time for preparation and collection of materials in quantity (NB zero photocopying possibilities). It needs a bravery to explain to managers why the lesson isn’t from the coursebook or preparing for an exam. It needs a confidence of setting-up and listening and responding that is outside the experience of many teachers. Bear in mind that for a fair number of state school teachers internationally, the idea of students talking in pairs is still considered quite radical.

The problem is not your lesson. The problem is not the methodology. The problem is not the coursebook. The problem is the training that told these teachers how a lesson should be and the problem is how these teachers are managed so that they feel that they dare not take even small teaching risks for fear of management, student or parental disapproval.

These teachers need professional resources that have had some quality control and some prospect of allowing teachable lessons in difficult circumstances. They need help to find ways of using these resources more effectively. They don’t need us arguing that these materials are the thing that is holding them back – because this is just the sort of thing that is misused by school bosses who are seeking ways of reducing costs who will say “I went to a conference / I read an article … so we are going to stop using coursebooks”. And it is just the sort of thing that will lead to worse lessons based on half-understood googled bad ideas.

I’m not a teacher who believes that the communicative approach (in whatever form including TBL) is an imperialist imposition on other countries. It isn’t simply a western thing. But, all the same, we do need to find methodology and materials that are appropriate for teachers at their stage of understanding, development and in their contexts and with their resources. I see the coursebook as the best way of providing a pack of resources and gently helping teachers towards better learning–probably not because the coursebook itself teaches English well but because it helps lead to better teaching – and eventually to the point where it is itself rejected.  I learnt to teach by using good coursebooks and especially good Teachers Books accompanying them – and then I rejected them as not good enough (and then I came back).In the absence of quality training and support round the world, the coursebook is a viable substitute.


Well thanks, Jim. Our main differences seem to be in our views of the merits of the coursebook and the difficulties of implementing TBLT. I think the coursebook is a fatally flawed resource which leads to skewed teaching, and I think TBLT is a much better, feasible alternative. You think the coursebook is – like democracy, perhaps –the least bad option for an imperfect world, and that TBLT is – like anarchism, perhaps –an unattainable, unrealistic dream. I suspect that most people will agree with you, which could explain my scepticism about what passes for democracy these days!

We haven’t covered Questions 3 to 5 very thoroughly, and I’m particularly interested in your “Demand High” initiative with Adrian Underhill. Maybe, after a restorative break, we can resume our chat. Till then, thanks again.



Bryfonski, L. and McKay,T. (2017) TBLT implementation and evaluation: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research.

Tomlinson, B. and Masuhara, H. (2013)  Adult Coursebooks. English Language Teaching Journal. 

Widdowson, H.G. (1989) Knowledge of language and ability for use. Applied Linguistics, Vol. 10, No.2.

Does PPP really make perfect sense?

Richard Smith recently reminded his Twitter followers of Jason Anderson’s (2016) article Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education . After an exchange of comments on Anderson’s blog, The PPP Saga Ends, I wrote a brief post on my own blog. Here’s a revised version.

In his Introduction, Anderson explains his thesis:

I discuss some important research findings from SLA studies since the turn of the century that lend support to PPP-type lesson structures. I briefly analyse parallels between PPP and other teaching paradigms deriving from skill learning theory, linking these paradigms to the expectations of many learners worldwide, and the organisation of content in many mainstream ELT coursebooks. I identify three potential contexts for using PPP, including that of primary and secondary teachers working in low- and middle-income countries, and describe a PPP lesson structure from my own work as a teacher and teacher trainer compatible with best practice in mainstream teaching. While I caution that PPP cannot and should not be used to structure every lesson, I argue that it can be an appropriate and effective vehicle for the teaching of grammar, functional language and lexis, especially at lower levels of proficiency (up to B2), where the majority of ELT around the world happens, and is likely to happen for the foreseeable future (Graddol 2014).

First, let’s establish what we know about the SLA process after 60 years of SLA research. Students do not learn target forms and structures when and how a teacher decrees that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Studies in interlanguage development have shown conclusively that L2 learners exhibit common patterns and features across differences in learners’ age and L1, acquisition context, and instructional approach. Independent of those and other factors, learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to mastery of target-language structures, or, as is often the case, to an end-state short of mastery.

Acquisition of grammatical structures (and also of pronunciation features and some lexical features such as collocation), is typically gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, the product broadly conforming to developmental sequences observed in naturalistic settings. They master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both.

That’s what we know. As a result Anderson’s claim below is quite simply false.

while research studies conducted between the 1970s and the 1990s cast significant doubt on the validity of more explicit, Focus on Forms-type instruction such as PPP, more recent evidence paints a significantly different picture.

Recent research doesn’t do anything to validate the kind of focus on forms instruction prescribed by PPP, and no study conducted in the last 20 years provides any evidence to challenge the established view among SLA scholars, neatly summed up by Ortega (2009):

Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.

Teaching is constrained by the learners’ own powerful cognitive contribution, and to assume that learners will learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it using a PPP paradigm is false.

These assertions by Anderson are also false:

  • we have no evidence that PPP is less effective than other approaches
  • writers in academia have neither evidence nor theoretical justification for criticising coursebook writers 
  • The research on which writers such as Michael Long have based their promotion of focus on form is scant

But let’s get to the heart of the matter, which is really quite simple. Anderson bases his arguments on the following non-sequitur, which appears throughout the paper:

There is evidence to support explicit (grammar) instruction, therefore there is evidence to support the “PPP paradigm”.

While there is certainly evidence to support explicit (grammar) instruction, and indeed, it is generally accepted that explicit  instruction has an important role to play in classroom-based SLA, this evidence can’t be used to support the use of PPP in classroom based ELT. Explicit instruction can take many forms, including, for example, different types of error correction, different types of grammar explanation, and different types of explanations of unknown vocabulary. PPP, on the other hand, involves explicit (grammar) instruction of a very specific type – the presentation and practice of a linear sequence of chopped up bits of language. PPP runs counter to a mass of SLA research findings, and that’s that. Anderson appeals to evidence for the effectiveness of a variety of types of explicit instruction to support the argument that PPP is efficacious in many ELT contexts. In doing so, he commits a schoolboy error in logic.

The rest of Anderson’s paper says nothing to rescue a PPP approach from the fundamental criticism that students don’t learn an L2 in the way it assumes they do. The paper consists of a series of non-sequiturs and unsupported assertions which attempt to argue that the way the majority of institutions go about ELT is necessarily the best way.  Here ‘s the argument:

  • Explicit (grammar) teaching can be effective;
  • the PPP approach is popular with students;
  • coursebooks are consumer-driven;
  • PPP is attractive to low income countries.
  • Therefore a “PPP paradigm” is an appropriate and effective vehicle for the teaching of grammar, functional language and lexis, especially at lower levels of proficiency.

Apart from being illogical, the argument has other faults. First, the remarks about low income countries seem patronising. Second, Anderson makes an appeal to an “apples and pears” group of factors that need to be carefully examined and properly separated. I won’t go into any proper analysis now, but, just for example, the ELT coursebook business is not so much driven by the opinions of the end users, as by the language teaching institutions, both public and private, that deliver foreign language courses to them. For these institutions, the coursebook is convenient – it packages the otherwise “messy” thing that is language learning.  Which is not to say that coursebook-driven ELT is efficacious, or that we can’t find cheaper, better, more rewarding ways of organising ELT.

Third, Anderson flouts the elementary logical rule “you can’t get an ought from an is“. In his blog post The PPP Saga Ends, Anderson says in reply to a comment by Neil McMillan:

the notion of ‘linear progress’ is a reflection of a much wider tendency in curricula and syllabi design. Given that the vast majority of English language teaching in the world today is happening in state-sponsored primary and secondary education, where national curricula perform precisely this role, we can predict to a large extent that top down approaches to language instruction are going to dominate for the foreseeable future

Well yes, as a matter of fact, the notion of linear progress is a reflection of top-down approaches, and yes, they do dominate ELT today, but that doesn’t mean that we should countenance the idea of linear progress or approve of top-down approaches.

Fourth, Anderson appeals to rhetoric as it it were evidence. In reply to another comment on his blog post, Anderson gives a long quote from Penny Ur, which includes this:

such features as students’ socio-cultural background, relationships, personalities; motivation …. often actually have more influence on how grammar is taught, and whether it is successfully learnt, than any of those dealt with in research.

Here, Anderson seeks support from an exercise in rhetoric which blithely ignores sociolinguistic research on relationships, motivation, etc., and provides neither evidence nor arguments to challenge SLA research findings with regard to the development of interlanguages.

In conclusion, Anderson’s attempt to defend PPP is marked by poor scholarship and argumentation, and fails to make any real case for PPP. Furthermore, it fails to address important, wider issues. Those of us who oppose PPP do so not only because it contradicts robust findings from SLA research, but also because it gives little say to students in the decisions that affect their learning, de-skills teachers, and represents the increasing commodification of education.


Ortega (2009) “Sequences and processes in language learning”. In Long and Doughty (2009) Handbook of Language Teaching. Wiley

My view of ELT

My huge thanks to Tim Hampson, Sandy Millin and Steve Brown for answering the 5 questions that I posed at the start of this new blog, and to Michael Griffin and Marek Kiczkowiak for their responses. My aim is to stimulate discussion about what teacher trainers think they’re doing, and it’s not surprising that most of them stay silent, thus starving the discussion of oxygen. Most teacher trainers are committed to the established way of doing ELT, and thus they prefer to ignore the elephant in the room and to pretend that basically, everything’s fine. But as Mark Walker recently commented on this blog: “It’s not a question of doing things right, but doing the right thing”. And that’s why I’m so grateful to first Tim, and then Sandy, Steve, Mike and Marek for breaking the siege. Now that, thanks to them, a certain interest has been aroused, I think it’s time I answered the questions myself.

1. What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?

Bachman’s 1990 diagram gives a reasonable summary of what knowledge of the English language consists of, although lexical chunks is an important omission on the left.

To me, the best model of English from a teacher’s perspective is a grammar that describes how words are formed and how they can be combined to make meaningful sentences. Apart from surface structure, the poverty of the stimulus argument persuades me that all human languages share the same underlying, deep structure – a set of abstract principles which characterise their core grammars – and that human beings have innate knowledge of this set of principles.

Prefabricated language, formulaic language, and in particular lexical chunks, are the essential “third element” in the English language. Still, they’ve led to some pretty spectacular charges down blind alleys, including the Collins Cobuild Project and Hoey’s theory of lexical priming. Both take the implications of lexical chunks much too far, wrongly confining English to attested behavior and unhelpfully denying the legitimacy of structural grammar.  More mundanely, Dellar and Walkley’s (2015)Teaching Lexically gives a preposterous account of “structuralist” versus “lexical” views of the English language which has nothing but its brevity to recommend it.     

Halliday’s functionalist account of language views it as a resource for “expressing meaning in context”, which of course it is, but from a teaching perspective, I know of no useful functionalist model of language. Many usage-based theories of language learning adopt functionalist principles, and more recently, emergentists have adopted construction grammar. Perhaps the wild assertions about language made by emergentists will eventually be grounded in more than the flimsy support they’ve so far got from computer modelling, but so far, I’m sceptical. My scepticism is fuelled by Scott Thornbury’s (2004) Natural Grammar, which uses a naive and ill-digested version of emergentism in an attempt to extract “slow release grammar” from words like any, by, in, it, and up. Needless to say, the attempt fails. In comparison to such an ill-conceived venture, alchemy looks promising.

What do you tell teachers? 

I tell teachers that in order to build students’ communicative competence, English should be seen holistically as a dynamic system best explored by using it for genuine communicative purposes. Strictly limited classroom time should be spent dissecting the language and inspecting its bits and pieces. Knowledge of English can be got from a few handy reference books: the Oxford Shorter English dictionary;  a good pedagogical grammar like Swan’s Practical English Usage; Crutendon’s Gimson’s Pronunciation; and David Crystal’s Encyclopedia of the English Language. To those I’d add Pawley and Syder’s seminal (1983) article Two Puzzles for Linguistic Theory. Apart from having a basic knowledge of English grammar and pronunciation, and a good awareness of the importance of lexical chunks, it’s also important to appreciate how many varieties of English there are, and to avoid any strict, myopic views about pronunciation or rigid rules of grammar such as avoiding split infinitives. Some appreciation of what Bachman’s diagram puts under pragmatic competence is also needed. Finally, I talk to teachers about the political role English plays in today’s world, in the same vein as Steve Brown suggests.

2. How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?

There’s a Menu of 10 posts about SLA on the right, which trace the development of cognitive theories of SLA. Part 10 gives my view of how people learn an L2, and expresses my opinion that we’re at an interesting moment, where two seemingly contradictory theories are coming together and sharing some important common ground. Here’s a quick summary of that  common ground:

  • Learning an L2 is a process whereby learners slowly develop their own autonomous mental grammar with its own internal organising principles. Development of individual structures is not categorical or linear; rather iInterlanguage development is dynamic, so that at any one time, lots of different parts of the mental grammar are being revised and refined.
  • Learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to different end-state proficiency levels, slowly mastering the L2 in roughly the same way, regardless of the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented by teachers.
  • Teaching can affect the rate but not the route of IL development. The acquisition sequences displayed in IL development are impervious to explicit teaching.
  • SLA shares many features of L1 learning: it is predominantly a matter of implicit learning, of  learning through doing, and explicit instruction about the L2 is constrained by the learners’ interlanguage development. Nevertheless, teachers can can speed up the rate of acquisition, and explicit teaching can help adult L2 learners to learn fragile features of the L2.

In my opinion, it’s imperative for all teachers to have a good understanding of how people learn languages, and I’m shocked that most teacher trainers pay such scant regard to it. In our MA programme, we have a module on SLA. In it, I stress the unique nature of language learning and I emphasise the distinction between explicit and implicit knowledge and learning. There’s a crucial difference between knowing about an L2 and knowing how to use it efficiently for communicative purposes, as the hundreds of millions of people who have been taught for years about this or that L2 at school, and yet are unable to carry on an elementary conversation in it so strikingly demonstrate. I think it’s important for teachers to have a basic knowledge of the development of cognitive theories of SLA, and in particular of the theory of interlanguage development. I recommend O’Grady’s (2012) How children learn languages and Lightbown & Spada’s (2013) How languages are learned.

3 What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?

This is surely the heart of ELT. A syllabus provides a teacher with a plan. It translates the wider philosophy of the curriculum into a series of steps leading towards defined outcomes and objectives. And yet, most teacher trainers pay little attention to the syllabus that teachers work with; the subject is ignored in the CELTA programme, and the most popular “How to teach English” books hardly mention it. Why? Because it is assumed that teachers will use coursebooks, and coursebooks have a built in syllabus.

I discuss a range of syllabuses with teachers, and point out the distinction between two different types:

  • Product and Process (Breen, 1987)
  • Synthetic and Analytic (Wilkins, 1972; Crookes and Long, 1992)
  • Type A and Type B (White, 1998)

I concentrate on the synthetic versus analytic syllabus distinction:

  • ‘synthetic’ syllabus: items of language are presented one by one in a linear sequence to the learner, whose job is to build up, or ‘synthesizes’, the knowledge incrementally.
  • ‘analytic’ syllabus: the learner does the ‘analysis’, i.e. ‘works out’ the system, through engagement with natural language data.

English coursebooks like Headway and Outcomes use a synthetic syllabus . The L2 is treated as the object of instruction, divided up into bits of one kind or another, and the bits are then presented and practiced, one by one in a linear sequence. The false assumptions underpinning this syllabus are:

  1. Explicit knowledge about the target language is the basis of language learning. In fact, it is not: implicit knowledge of how to use the language underpins the learning process.
  2. Declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge. In fact, no such simple conversion occurs.
  3. SLA is a process of mastering, one by one, an accumulated collection of “items”. In fact, it is not: all the items are inextricably inter-related and interlanguage development is dynamic and non-linear.
  4. Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it. In fact, they do not: as Pienemann (1987) has demonstrated, teachability is constrained by learnability.

In contrast to synthetic syllabuses, which chop up the L2 and where teachers spend a lot of time talking about the language  there are analytic syllabuses such as Dogme, immersion course, content based instruction, and task-based language teaching (TBLT), where students spend a lot of time talking in the language. I discuss all these types of analytical syllabuses with teachers, and focus on Long’s (2015) version of TBLT.

The tacit acceptance of synthetic syllabuses in ELT is the elephant in the room. It is simply scandalous that those responsible for teacher training programmes and certification, the big teacher organisations, and institutions such as the British Council and Cambridge Assessment English spend so little time talking about syllabuses, which, after all, play the biggest role in determining how ELT is carried out.

4 What materials do you recommend?

I recommend that all teachers should have access to a cross-referenced materials bank, consisting of written, audio, video and multi-media texts that can be used to make pedagogic tasks. Chapter 9 of Long’s (2015) SLA and TBLT discusses task-based materials and devotes 40-pages to “Sample task-based materials”. Given a reasonable grasp of the criteria used for selecting texts and building pedagogic tasks, I think it would take teachers working in cooperatives and forward-looking schools and institutions 250 to 300 hours to build up a good basic materials bank. So we’re talking about a big investment, which requires people involved to make a long-term investment; but it can be done, and it doesn’t have to happen all at once.

5 What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

I discuss Long’s 10 methodological principles (see This Post for more):

  • MP1: Use Task, Not Text, as the Unit of Needs Analysis
  • MP2: Promote Learning by Doing
  • MP3: Elaborate Input
  • MP4: Provide Rich Input
  • MP5: Encourage Inductive (“Chunk”) Learning
  • MP6: Focus on Form
  • MP7: Provide Negative Feedback
  • MP8: Respect Developmental Processes and “Learner Syllabuses”
  • MP9: Promote Co-Operative/Collaborative Learning
  • MP10: Individualize Instruction

Long’s MPs are offered as language teaching universals, and these he distinguishes from pedagogic procedures, comprising the potentially infinite range of options for instantiating the principles at the classroom level.  MPs specify what should be done; pedagogic procedures suggest how it can be done, how instruction can be made appropriate for learners of different ages, aptitudes, cognitive styles, proficiency, or L1 and L2 literacy level, for more salient and less salient target forms, and so on. Choices among different pedagogic procedures is a matter of teacher judgment, with different choices potentially justified at different times with the same learners or at the same time with different learners. For example, how to provide negative feedback – from the overt and explicit end of the spectrum, such as use of a rule or explanation, to the covert and implicit end, such as corrective recasts, and many points in between – depends on the context.


The question “What do you think you’re doing?” is often asked as a reproach, and that’s precisely the spirit in which I ask the question to the people who design and teach CELTA and other such courses, and to the conference speakers and globe trotting “consultants” who give ELT workshops. My suggestion is that while they might sincerely believe that they’re helping teachers do their job better, most of them largely ignore fundamental questions  about the English language, about language learning and about syllabus design. Why? Because they start from the assumption that coursebooks are a good way to organise ELT. If this assumption is allowed to pass unchallenged, then there’s no need to answer the 5 questions I’ve discussed here. Worse still, there’s a defensive reaction to criticism of coursebook-driven ELT and a reluctance bordering on refusal to join in the discussion.

References: See “Bibliography for Theory Construction in SLA” in the Header at the top of the page