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


11 thoughts on “Does PPP really make perfect sense?

  1. Hi Jason,

    Very sorry that I forgot this exchange. I’ve edited the main text, and I hope readers will do as you suggest: follow the link to your blog post, read the comments, and decide for themselves.

  2. We find this phrase ‘developmentally ready’ quite often (as in “only when they are developmentally ready to do so” above). It seems central to arguments against structural syllabuses but I’ve never seen it satisfactorily defined or explained. What does it mean to be developmentally ready, in terms of learning a second language?

  3. Hi Alison,

    “Developmentally ready” means that a learner is at that point in his/her interlanguage development where a given new feature can be incorporated.

    Pienemann’s Processability Theory attempts to explain SLA development in terms of what input the learner can process at different stages in the development of their “interlanguage” – their current model of the L2. This model started out as the Multidimensional Model, which came from work done by the ZISA group mainly at the University of Hamburg in the late seventies. A full account can be found in Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991: 270-287. I will describe the original model as briefly as possible.

    One of the first findings of the group was that all the children and adult learners of German as a second language in the study adhered to the five-stage developmental sequence. .

    Stage X – Canonical order (SVO)
    die kinder spielen mim bait
    the children play with the ball

    (Romance learners’ initial SVO hypothesis for GSL WO is correct in most German sentences with simple verbs.)

    Stage X + I- Adverb preposing (ADV)
    da kinder spielen
    there children play

    (Since German has a verb-second rule, requiring subject—verb inversion following a preposed adverb {there play children), all sentences of this form are deviant. The verb-second (or ‘inversion’) rule is only acquired at stage X + 3, however. The adverb-preposing rule itself is optional.)

    Stage X + 2- Verb separation (SEP)
    alle kinder muss die pause machen
    all children must the break have

    (Verb separation is obligatory in standard German.)

    Stage X+3- Inversion (INV)
    dam hat sie wieder die knock gebringt
    then has she again the bone brought

    (Subject and inflected verb forms must be inverted after preposing of elements.)

    Stage X+4- Verb-end (V-END)
    er sagte, dass er nach house kommt
    he said that he home comes

    Learners did not abandon one interlanguage rule for the next as they progressed; they added new ones while retaining the old, and thus the presence of one rule implies the presence of earlier rules.

    The explanation offered for this developmental sequence was that each stage reflects the learner’s use of three “speech-processing strategies” (Clahsen 1987). Clahsen and Pienemann argue that processing is “constrained” by the strategies available to the learner at any one time, and development consists of the gradual removal of these constraints, or the “shedding of the strategies”, which allows the processing of progressively more complex structures.

    The strategies are:
    (i) The Canonical Order Strategy. The construction of sentences at Stage X obeys simple canonical order that is generally assumed to be “actor – action – acted upon.” This is a pre-linguistic phase of acquisition where learners build sentences according to meaning, not on the basis of any grammatical knowledge.

    (ii) The Initialisation-Finalisation Strategy. Stage X+1 occurs when learners notice discrepancies between their rule and input. But the areas of input where discrepancies are noticed are constrained by perceptual saliency – it is easier to notice differences at the beginnings or the ends of sentences since these are more salient, according to the model, than the middle of sentences. As a result, elements at the initial and final positions may be moved around, while leaving the canonical order undisturbed. Stage X+2 also involves this strategy, but verb separation is considered more difficult than adverb fronting because the former requires not just movement to the end position but also disruption of a continuous constituent, the verb + particle, infinitive, or particle. Thus the strategy of continuity of elements within the same constituent must be shed before verb separation can be acquired. Stage X+3 is even more complex, since it involves both disruption and movement of an internal element to a non-salient position, and so requires the learner to abandon salience and recognise different grammatical categories.

    (iii) The Subordinate Clause Strategy. This is used in Stage X+4 and is held to require the most advanced processing skills because the learner has to produce a hierarchical structure, which involves identifying sub-strings within a string and moving elements out of those sub-strings into other positions. The prediction is that L2 learners will assume that German subordinate clauses have the same word order properties as main clauses until advanced stages of acquisition.

    These constraints on interlanguage development are argued to be universal; they include all developmental stages, not just word order, and they apply to all second languages, not just German.

    Apart from the developmental process, the ZISA model also proposed a variational dimension to SLA, and hence the name “Multidimensional”. While the developmental sequence of SLA is fixed by universal processing restraints, individual learners follow different routes in SLA, depending primarily on whether they adopt a predominantly “standard” orientation, favouring accuracy, or a predominantly “simplifying” one, favouring communicative effectiveness.

    Pienemann (1998) expands the Multidemensional model into a Processability Theory which predicts which grammatical structures an L2 learner can process at a given level of development.

    This capacity to predict which formal hypotheses are processable at which point in development provides the basis for a uniform explanatory framework which can account for a diverse range of phenomena related to language development. (Pienemann, 1998: xv)

    The theory sees SLA as “the acquisition of the skills needed for the processing of language”. (Pienemann, 1998:39), and attempts to demonstrate the same case that most cognitive perspectives state: what is easy to process is easy to acquire. Pienemann is concerned to account for the route described by the Multidimensional Model in the development of Interlanguage grammar, to determine the sequence in which procedural skills develop. His theory proposes that for linguistic hypotheses to transform into executable procedural knowledge the processor needs to have the capacity of processing those hypotheses. (Pienemann, 1998: 4)

    Pienemann, in other words, argues that there will be certain linguistic hypotheses that, at a particular stage of development, the L2 learner cannot access because he or she does not have the necessary processing resources available. Pienemann claims that his concern is to explain the production of, and access to, linguistic knowledge; he insists that he is not attempting to describe that knowledge or to explain its origins – like McLaughlin, Pienemann adopts “a modular approach to the theory of SLA in which a linguistic theory and processing theory take on complementary roles.” (Pienemann, 1998: 42)

    The processing resources that have to be acquired by the L2 learner will, according to Processability Theory, be acquired in the following sequence:

    1. lemma access,
    2. the category procedure,
    3. the phrasal procedure
    4. the S-procedure,
    5. the subordinate clause procedure – if applicable. (Pienemann, 1998: 7)

    The theory states that each procedure is a necessary prerequisite for the following procedure, and that

    the hierarchy will be cut off in the learner grammar at the point of the missing processing procedures and the rest of the hierarchy will be replaced by a direct mapping of conceptual structures onto surface form. (Pienemann, 1998: 7)

    The SLA process can therefore be seen as one in which the L2 learner entertains hypotheses about the L2 grammar and that this “hypothesis space” is determined by the processability hierarchy. As Braidi puts it:

    Each developmental stage represents a hypothesis space in which certain structural hypotheses are possible because they are processable. As a result, the hypothesis space defines which IL grammars are options but does not determine which ones will be chosen. Pienemann has thus incorporated the developmental focus of the Multidimensional Model and has extended the application of the earlier model to grammatical information exchange beyond word order phenomena. He has formulated the Processability Theory as a component in L2 acquisition that is complementary to a linguistic theory (such as Lexical Functional Grammar), which would in turn address the issues of the nature and origins of the learner’s IL grammatical rules. (Braidi, 1999: 126)

    For a discussion of Pienemann’s theory, see the peer commentaries in the first issue of the journal Biligualism: Language and Cognition (vol. 1, number 1, 1998), which is entirely devoted to Processibility Theory.

    Pienemann continues to refine his theory and other SLA scholars have extended its scope. I should make it clear that we don’t know enough about the order of acquisition in SLA to use it to plan a syllabus. Indeed, all the research indicates that interlanguage development is non-linear and can’t be explicitly taught in the way Jason Anderson recommends. The implication is that we should regard language holistically, not chop it up into bits, and give students the opportunities to develop their interlanguage for themselves, by offering them opportunities to engage in scaffolded, relevant communicative tasks and some explicit instruction prompted by difficulties they encounter in carrying out those tasks.

  4. In a series of tweets, Neil McMillan says that his “chief quibble” with Jason Anderson is “similar” to mine: namely that he took studies in favour of explicit instruction (EI) and used these as support for PPP. However, “PPP is not EI”.

    Since Anderson wrongly conflates Focus on FormS with PPP, “after much reflection”, Neil concludes that he doesn’t believe Anderson has made a case for PPP.

    Neil’s “quibble” is not “similar” to my argument, it’s exactly the same.

    Despite arriving at the same conclusion as me, Neil somehow manages to retain his doubts about who is right in the argument between Anderson and me. Let me spell out the arguments again:

    Argument 1

    1. There is wide acceptance among SLA scholars of the findings of research regarding the development of an interlanguage. (I’ve explained these findings in several posts on this blog.)
    2. Implementing a synthetic syllabus through PPP is antithetical to interlanguage development.
    3. Therefore PPP is unlikely to be efficacious.

    Argument 2

    1. Explicit instruction (EA) is not the same as PPP.
    2. Therefore evidence supporting the efficacy for EA is not evidence supporting the efficacy of PPP.

    As they say, I hope this helps.

  5. Geoff, as I pointed out on Twitter, you misread what was admittedly a clumsy expression of mine. I was really referring to you and Jason Anderson talking past each other. So let’s not fall out over an agreement, eh?

    Incidentally I had commented on Jason’s post before you did. In my view he didn’t respond to my main criticism, which you later also took up. Then this was all revisited on Twitter. That all got very fractious and muddled IMO so I just wanted to pull it back to something that was clear for me.

    Bon cap de setmana …

  6. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for this. Of course we won’t fall out over such a thing.

    I wasn’t talking past Anderson, I replied to each of his increasingly tortured bits of baloney and faux academic posturings with patient use of facts and logic. But I would say that, wouldn’t I.

    Have a good weekend.

  7. OK, so it’s specifically related to Pienemann. I have a basically superficial knowledge of his work, having read a couple of his earlier (more accessible, in my opinion) papers.

    It seems to me that the phrase ‘developmentally ready’ is overused. As you say, ‘we don’t know enough about the order of acquisition in SLA to use it to plan a syllabus’, so when a writer says a learner can’t acquire something until they’re developmentally ready, it seems to me they’re no saying much at all. Here are some of my doubts (and I express these not to try and score points or nitpick but because they’re genuine doubts). How could you answer them?

    1 Even if we procede without a pre-planned syllabus, we do still, as teachers, have to decide whether to teach something or not (even if that decision is made in the middle of a lesson, as a response to something that happens in class). But how can we do that if we don’t actually know what it means to be ‘developmentally ready’ beyond in a very broad sense? What, for example, does a teacher of L2 German do if a learner asks, or comments, or seems confused, about inversion after adverbs before they’ve started to produce verb separation? Should the teacher tell them they’re not ready to learn about that yet?

    2 Has Pienemann (or anyone else) actually produced a similar sequence for English? I know the model has been applied to English but I haven’t seen an overt sequence like he provided for German. (If not, why not?)

    3 English used to have inversion after adverbials, like German, but over time this has been lost except from after (semantically) negative adverb phrases like ‘only then’, ‘no way’ etc. It’s pretty infrequent so I don’t suppose it’s acquired till late on (either in L1 or L2) contexts. If this is the case, how can the later stages be achieved in English before inversion is mastered? Or would inversion come later in the sequence in English, compared to German? (If so, why? The phenomenon is supposed to be universal.)

    4 What about Swan’s objections in his 2005 paper on TBL in Applied Linguistics? Specifically, “Suppose I tell you that Japanese questions are made by adding the particle ‘ka’ to the corresponding statements, and suppose that a year later you start learning Japanese and remember what I told you. Are you really not able to ask questions until the rule has been acquired naturalistically in the prescribed way?” I don’t speak much German – never got to the stage of studying inversion – but I’m pretty sure if I started learning German now, I would be pretty hot on inversion purely as a result of reading Pienemann’s work. Should this be possible, according to Pienemann’s model? Is some kind of priming effect possible?

    Thanks in advance if you’re able to comment. I find the basic ideas quite convincing and appealing, but there do seem to be these possible practical objections/contradictions.

  8. Hi Alison,

    Thanks for your continued interest and questions.

    I should say that I’m uncomfortable with the use of this phrase “developmentally ready” myself, and I think I’ll avoid it from now on. It gives the wrong impression – we don’t know enough about the “natural order”, and it’s much more important to stress that interlanguage development is non-linear.

    The implication of research findings about interlanguage development is that teaching a pre-determined sequence of chopped up bits of grammar and vocabulary is not efficacious. Analytic syllabuses which treat language more holistically and focus on providing scaffolded opportunities for using the L2 to perform relevant tasks are more likely to work.

    I think we can use a pre-planned syllabus if that syllabus is based on a needs analysis of what the students need to do in the L2 and on giving them relevant input and practice.

    Explicit attention to formal aspects of the language is more likely to work if it is done in response to questions from students, or in response to errors, and to problems the students confront in their attempts to carry out tasks.

    If teachers decide to teach something in the middle of a lesson as a response to something that happens in class, they can’t know that the students are ‘developmentally ready’, but the fact that they respond to something the students are trying to understand or express makes it more likely that they are respecting the students’ interlanguage trajectory than if they teach something because it’s in Unit 3 of the coursebook. This isn’t a science: what teachers actually do in response to a particular incident depends on so many local factors that it’s impossible to prescribe what’s the best thing to do. Teachers have a feel for what’s appropriate and they should go with their experience and judgement. The main thing is to appreciate that teachers talking about the language should take second place to letting the students talk in the language about relevant issues.

    Stages of development of an interlanguage system in English have looked at the following areas:
    • morphemes,
    • negation,
    • questions,
    • word order,
    • embedded clauses.
    • pronouns.
    • references to the past.

    Tarone’s article (2006) gives a summary. You can download it free at this address: I’ve also written a post about evidence for IL here:

    There’s a lot of work on acquisition of questions, but I’m not sure I get the rest of the question.

    As to Swan’s question “Are you really not able to ask questions until the rule has been acquired naturalistically in the prescribed way?”, the answer is that just being told something about the language will not affect the natural order, and remembering what you were told won’t lead to fluent use. Perhaps if you started learning German now you’d be “pretty hot on inversion” and certainly some kind of priming effect is possible, but if reliable data show that you learned German in a different order to the one Pienemann predicts, then that counts as a strong challenge to his theory.

    Please don’t hesitate to get back to me on any of this and thanks again for your interest.

  9. Thanks, Geoff. I don’t seem to be able to reply to your latest reply – I hope this appears in the right place.

    I’m glad to hear you’re not comfortable with the phrase ‘developmentally ready’ either. I’m sure Ellis has used it, and I think Long does too in his book on TBLT.

    I know there’s been a lot of work done on acquisition of questions in English, but I was talking about inversion after adverbials in English (e.g. Only then *did I* understand …, No way *am I* going to do that … etc.). My point is that we have this same syntax in English as in German, but only in certain contexts (after negative adverbials). Since it’s infrequent, we can be pretty sure that it’s acquired much later in English than in German. But if Pienemann’s findings are really universal, then this should cause problems. In English, we shouldn’t be able to perform a large number of syntactical movements until inversion after adverbials is acquired, but that seems unlikely.

    As for some kind of priming effect, I think – purely a supposition of course – it probably does exist. But that for me wouldn’t necessarily challenge the theory, if the theory allows for there to be more than one route to being able to produce inversion in German. So yes, maybe I could get there through exposure and without ever needing to have explicit knowledge of the rule. But I agree with Swan that it’s counterintuitive to suggest that I have to acquire the rule implicitly in order to be able to produce that structure. I can get there with the explicit route, too, maybe way before the model would predict I’m ready to do so. Now, it might not be efficient to do that with every aspect of language, but I don’t think it’s impossible. It could maybe even be said that I wouldn’t really have ‘acquired’ the inversion rule if I’m told about it explicitly and have to consciously think about it to a certain extent in order to apply it, but even in that case I can still produce the damn thing, and that might be enough for me. Can’t both sides be right? Can’t we imagine language learning and teaching with plenty of input so that a lot of the work can be done with natural acquisition processes, but also a health dash of explicit teaching to speed things along, even if in doing so we’re not respecting the natural order? Rather like medicine working in symbiosis with how our body can heal itself naturally?

  10. Hi again, Alison,

    I confirm my reticence to use the term “developmentally ready”. I’m much less persauded of its usefulness than Rod Ellis, and I think Mike Long would agree that it’s easily misconstrued. I think we should limit ourselves to saying that learners’ interlanguage development is non-linear and dynamic, and that L2s can’t be learned in the way coursebooks assume they can.

    Pienemann doesn’t suggest that all languages share the same acquisition order, rather that the processing constraints on interlanguage development are universal. I can’t even imagine research that looks at when inversion after adverbials are acquired in English as an L2. As I said, if you or anyone else can find evidence of people learning German in a different order to those 5 stages Pienemann suggests, that’s strong evidence against his theory. I don’t see it as a model, but rather as a theory of processing, which suggests more about the limitations of instructions than anything else. I prefer Nick Ellis’ and Mike Long’s (among others) view that there are certain “fragile features” of L2s – features that are redundant, non-salient, etc., – that adult learners will either not acquire or acquire late unless these features are given explicit attention.

    And of course you can learn stuff explicitly by lots of repetition; it seems to me to be daft to suppose otherwise. The thing is, there’s evidence that you need really a LOT of repetition, and that it often doesn’t stick. But you’re right – even if we say that declarative knowledge doesn’t actually get proceduralised (and there are those like Dekeyser who disagree), consciously thinking about some formal aspect of the L2 can certainly help produce the damn thing quite successfully. So yes, I think both sides can be right, or maybe better to say that both sides have elements of the truth. This is often referred to as “the interface debate” and I think just about everybody now agrees that there’s an important place for conscious learning. A healthy dash of explicit teaching to speed things along is exactly what I’d recommend.

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