Bits and Pieces From the Blog Part 1

Looking through the posts, I’ve selected these bits and pieces. Many are comments. My own bits are indicated by GJ.

On Emergentism

Emergentist explanations of how you learn language remind me of the story of how Rockefeller became rich. One day as a young lad he found himself with a penny in his pocket. He walked down to the farmer’s market and bought an apple, walked to Wall Street and sold it for 2 cents. Then back to the market to buy 2 apples, back to Wall Street, and so on. At the end of a week he’d bought an old wheelbarrow, and after a month he’d earned enough to put down the first month’s rent on a small fruit shop. But then his uncle died and he inherited everything. (Kevin Gregg)

On Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis

It’s important to try to clarify what Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis says, and then to evaluate its claims because these days it’s being used to support all manner of explicit teaching practices. Whether it’s presenting the present perfect in a grammar box, or making the explicit teaching of lexical chunks the number one priority in teaching, or using a red pen to indicate errors in a composition, it’s all OK because the Noticing Hypothesis says that bringing things to learners’ attention is a good thing. Schmidt’s construct has been watered down so much that it now means no more that noticing in the everyday meaning of the word. (GJ)


According to Susanne Carroll’s Autonomous Induction Theory, learners do not attend to things in the input as such, they respond to speech-signals by attempting to parse the signals, and failures to do so trigger attention to parts of the signal. It is possible to have speech-signal processing without attention-as-noticing or attention-as-awareness. Carroll argues that learners may unconsciously and without awareness detect, encode and respond to linguistic sounds; that learners don’t always notice their own processing of segments and the internal organization of their own conceptual representations; that the processing of forms and meanings are often not noticed; and that attention is the result of processing not a prerequisite for processing. (GJ)


I’m so glad you’ve taken this subject up; I’ve always wanted to and never did. I’ve always had a problem trying to work out just what it is that the Noticing hypothesis claims. On the one hand, it should be uncontroversial that you have to receive input in order to act on it; you can’t be asleep, or in another part of town. On the other hand, you can’t notice what is not in the input; and rules, for instance, or functions, are not in the input. Dretske makes a distinction between noticing the toast burning and noticing that the toast is burning; your dog can do the former but not the latter. You can notice that the speaker said “I often eat eggs”; you can notice, in the second sense, that he didn’t say “I eat often eggs”, although I rather doubt that many L2 learners do. What you can’t do is notice the structure of an English verb phrase, which is what makes “I eat often eggs” impossible, and it is knowledge of the structure of an English verb phrase that the learner needs. Long, and Schmidt (to the best of my memory) talk about forms and ‘form-meaning relationships’, as if language acquisition were the acquisition of forms. Language acquisition is the acquisition of a grammar, which you can’t notice.  (Kevin  Gregg)

On language and teacher trainers

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. (Jim Scrivener)


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.(Jim, again.)

On coursebooks

ELT is now controlled by commercial teaching institutions, exam-boards and publishing companies. Between them they ensure the continuing dominance of coursebooks and exams which commodify language learning, de-skill teachers and fail students. The uncritical support that this coursebook-driven model of ELT gets from the establishment, and the depressing lack of initiative among teacher trainers who often have a vested interest in coursebooks means that attractive alternatives such as TBLT are starved of the oxygen they need to mount a challenge.

I think that the best hope we have of changing this lamentable state of affairs is for teachers to organise locally, in cooperatives, for example, in such a way that we get better informed, better qualified, and more able to offer teaching that pushes beyond the awful confines of coursebooks. Machine translation is coming fast; armed with the new technology and the knowledge of how people learn languages, we can use needs analysis and a task-based approach to offer tailor-made help to more carefully targeted learners. By organising our own development, by designing our own courses, by being properly prepared and locally organised, we can topple the 3-headed hydra and hurl it into the dustbin of history. We can use our skills to emancipate ourselves, earn decent money, and enjoy doing our job, scaffolding learners’ interlanguage development, without a coursebook in sight. (GJ)


The texts in coursebooks like Headway and Outcomes are “short, contrived, inauthentic, mundane, decontextualised, unappealing, uninteresting, dull”. The activities are “unchallenging, unimiginative, unstimulating, mechanical, superficial”. None of the coursebooks examined is likely to be effective in promoting long term acquistion. (Brian Tomlinson)


Courseboooks suck the life out of teaching. (J.B.)


It’s not a question of doing things right, but doing the right thing. (Mark Walker)

On the implications of  SLA research on ELT

If I am teaching someone to drive, I might be more concerned with how the learner-driver manages routine manoeuvres and copes in unpredictable conditions rather than on the inner workings of the internal combustion engine – however fascinating. Likewise, a person who writes books about teaching (such as the unjustly maligned Penny Ur) may find it more apposite to engage with questions of classroom management, teacher-student, and student-student, interaction, the selection and evaluation of materials, the planning of lessons, the relation between classroom learning and the social context, and so on, than in the way individual learners internalize isolated grammar items in laboratory conditions (which is the focus of the bulk of SLA research). Oh, yes, that is interesting – but ancillary.  (Scott Thornbury)


Surely this analogy would be more apt if the instructor took to telling learners that modern theories of combustion were unproven, at best, false, at worst? Or if students were instructed to, say, rub their seatbelt to reduce fuel consumption (reflecting the countless pages of grammar mcNugget teaching philosophy espoused by Ur et al)?  (Robert Taylor)


Penny Ur argues for an approach to ELT which you yourself abhor. She does so by sometimes misrepresenting research findings; by more frequently omitting any mention of research which seriously questions the assumptions on which her “experientially-grounded” approach is based; and by constantly inventing straw man arguments like the one you’ve just come up with here. You use a collection of non-sequiturs to suggest on the one hand that Ur is an irreproachable scholar, and that on the other hand there’s little point in teachers taking any notice of fifty years work by real scholars who attempt to explain how people learn English as a second language. (GJ)


Scott Thornbury, Penny Ur, and others demand lots of evidence that TBLT “works”, while providing none that traditional grammar-based PPP does. And if some of the evidence is from laboratory studies, they dismiss it as ivory tower, etc., etc., etc.

Here’s the abstract from a forthcoming statistical meta-analysis of 52 evaluations of program-level implementations of TBLT in real classroom settings*, including parts of the Middle-East and East Asia, where arm-chair pundits have decided it could never work for “cultural” reasons, and “three-hours-a-week” primary and secondary foreign language settings, where they have also decided it could never work:

Findings based on a sample of 52 studies revealed an overall positive and strong effect (d = 0.93) for TBLT implementation on a variety of learning outcomes. … Additionally, synthesizing across both quantitative and qualitative data, results also showed positive stakeholder perceptions towards TBLT programs.

Of course, it’s only 52 studies, some with methodological weaknesses, no doubt, and Scott and Penny probably have 53 in favor of PPP up their sleeve . .  (Mike Long)

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


Task-Based Language Teaching: From Theory to Practice. SLB’s Online Course for Teachers

Fed up with teaching with coursebooks? Looking for something more satisfying? Then why not try TBLT? Below some Q & As, which I hope will convince you that it’s worth the effort.

Q: What’s wrong with coursebooks, anyway?

A: They cut the language up into artificial bits; they concentrate on talking about the language rather than getting students to talk in the language; and they don’t respect SLA research findings about how people learn an L2.

Units 1 and 2 of the course deal with the limitations of coursebooks and with how people learn an L2. .

Q: What is TBLT?

TBLT is based on the principle of learning by doing. Rather than spend most of classroom time talking about the language, TBLT scaffolds students’ efforts to talk IN the language about things that they actually have to do with the L2 in the real world.   While there are “task-supported” versions of TBLT, like those proposed by Nunan (2004); Willis and Willis (2007), and R. Ellis (2003), the only version that really escapes from the clutches of the PPP approach and fully embraces the principle of learning by doing is Mike Long’s version, where a needs analysis identifies real life tasks which the students for whom the course is aimed will have to carry out. Once we’ve identified the “target tasks”, we break them down into a series of pedagogic tasks and find appropriate material to accompany them.

Units 3 and 4 of the course cover these issues.

Q: It sounds too difficult!

A: But it isn’t. It’s simple: instead of presenting and practicing a sequence of grammar structures and vocabulary lists, you lead students through a sequence of tasks and give them help as and when they need it. Examples of such tasks are: giving a sales presentation; taking part in an undergraduate seminar; having a meal in a restaurant; getting and following street instructions; analysing a scientific report; dealing with a police stop in a car; viewing a property for rent; advising a client on an investment package.

OK, but there’s too much work involved!

A: There’s no denying that the needs analysis, materials production, and pedagogic task design involves some front-end heavy lifting, but it pays huge dividends, and this work doesn’t have to be re-done every time a course is offered. In most contexts, including academic, work, and travel contexts, for example – work done this year will be usable next year. As you and your colleagues gain experience of TBLT, your needs analysis process becomes more streamlined, Task Types are more easily identified, and the materials bank grows so as to make the production of Pedagogic tasks much quicker.

This is really the heart of the matter, and we devote 4 units to it. We’ll deal with needs analysis, deriving pedagogic tasks from target tasks, making materials for pedagogic tasks, and putting together the syllabus. We’re very aware of the limited time and resources teachers have, and of cultural restraints too; so we’ll devote a lot of attention to making certain compromises in order to respond realistically to local contexts.

Units 5 to 9 of the course cover all these issues. Prof. Mike Long and Prof. Roger Gilabert will be personally involved, giving tutorials, answering questions and supervising the final assessed task.

Q: How does it work in practice?

The principles include “Provide Rich Input”; “Encourage inductive “chunk” learning”; “Focus on Form”; “Provide negative feedback”; “Promote cooperative collaborative learning”.  The procedures depend on the local context and on each different day of class, so they rely on teachers’ experience and “feeling”.  The principle “Provide negative feedback”, for example, still has to be put into practice. Obviously, responses to errors will vary enormously; one error can be let go, while another might warrant a brief interruption in the group work to bring it to the attention of the whole class.

Unit 10 of the course is devoted to methodological principles and pedagogic procedures.

In fact, we think “Focus on Form” and “Provide negative feedback” are so important that we devote Unit 11 to them. We look at the question of explicit grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary teaching and at error correction, and stress their importance.

Q: What about assessment?

A: Assessment in these TBLT courses is done by task-based, criterion-referenced performance tests.

Unit 12 of thecourse deals with this, and we’re very lucky to count on Prof. Glenn Fulcher’s collaboration. He has helped us with the presentation and materials, and he will give the tutorials, answer questions and supervise the final assessed task.

Hurry, hurry! 

Convinced? Want to know more? Well hurry hurry hurry, click this link and get over to the SLB website now!



Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford, OUP.

Nunan, D. (2004) Task-based language teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

Willis, D. and Willis, J. (2007) Doing task-based teaching. Oxford, OUP

Christmas is coming

Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, Please put a penny in the old man’s hat

The “goose” in ELT refers to the multi-headed hydra composed of publishers, examination boards, teacher training outfits and course providers who between them, according to Pearson’s Global Review (2016), generate a staggering $194 billion annual turnover.

The “old man” refers to the teachers, whose generally miserable pay and conditions can only be glimpsed from various sources, such as teachers’ own accounts in blogs, and outfits like ELT Advocacy Ireland, Teachers as Workers, and EL Gazette. (I should say that while I often disagree with opinions expressed in its pages, EL Gazette consistently fights for teachers’ rights and exposes abuses and malpractice. It is, without doubt, a progressive force in ELT. )

Any honest appraisal of current ELT will conclude that it’s run for profit, that commercial considerations outweigh educational principles, that the bosses are giving their workers a very bad deal, and that the consumers are often hoodwinked and mostly disappointed. Furthermore, teacher trainers and teachers organisations such as IATEFL and TESOL support the ELT establishment, defend coursebook-driven ELT, and do little to support teachers’ fight for better pay and conditions. In short, current ELT practice reflects the general trend towards the commodification of education, where the profit motive brutally stamps out educational principles, substitutes market values, and relies on an underpaid workforce to deliver its carefully packaged products.

Pearson leads the way

Pearson PLC exemplifies this trend. It’s the largest education company and the largest book publisher in the world. It generates total revenues of $10 billion. It’s a key player in the ELT world and is currently implementing its Global Scale of English (GSE). The GSE comprises four distinct parts to create “an overall English learning ecosystem”:

  • The scale itself – a granular, precise scale of proficiency aligned to the Common European Framework of Reference.
  • GSE Learning Objectives – over 1,800 “can-do” statements that provide context for teachers and learners across reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  • Course Materials – both digital and printed materials, aligned to the selection of learning objectives relevant for a course/level.
  • Assessments – Placement, Progress and Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) tests, which are placement, formative/ summative assessments and high stakes tests aligned to the GSE.

Pearson explain that the global ELT industry will be a much better place once everybody in it is using their Global Scale of English ecosystem. The GSE reinforces the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) as a tool for standards-based assessment, and is the world’s first truly global English language standard, allowing educators, employers and learners to measure progress accurately, easily, and in context.


In this way the language learning process is finally and definitively reified: the abstract concepts of  “granular descriptors” are converted into real entities, and it’s then assumed that these entities represent language learning and the communicative competence that results from it. The complex, dynamic process of SLA is flattened out, granularised and turned into a guided process of accumulating a stock of measurable entities. In this reified vision of SLA, learners move unidimensionally along a line from 10 to 90, making steady, linear progress along a list of can-do statements laid out in an easy-to-difficult sequence, leading inexorably, triumphantly, to the ability to use the L2 successfully for whatever communicative purpose you care to mention. It’s the marketing division’s dream, but it’s contradicted by 60 years of SLA research, and it’s every liberal, free thinking  teacher’s nightmare.

Fighting back

The only way we teachers will get any real say in how we teach, and get better pay and conditions, is for us to first recognise what’s going on, and then to organise. We must free ourselves from the crap we’re told by teacher trainers who have a vested interest in coursebooks, and reaffirm our commitment to the principles of learning by doing, and to our roles as mentors who scaffold learners’ own development towards communicative competence. At the same time, we should form local cooperatives where we work together to  educate ourselves and to establish minimum pay and conditions. These local organisations need to be coordinated at national and international levels. This, of course, smacks of anarcho-syndicalism, which is the political view that I ascribe to, and that I recommend to you all.

Happy Christmas.


Pearson. (2016) GSE Global Report. Retrieved from