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 Outlooks 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


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