Notes on Thornbury’s Performance Approach to Language Learning

Scott Thornbury recently gave a talk called “Towards a performance-based approach to language learning”, which was skillfully summarised by Jessica Mackay. I base my notes on her summary and I recommend that you click on this link to see Jessica’s summary.

Performance as usage

Thornbury suggests that Chomsky’s focus on linguistic competence should be replaced by a focus on language performance.

Note 1.

This is well-trodden ground for Thornbury, but in this talk he doesn’t go over the ground in any detail. He makes do with the bulldog, bulldog bullldog .. example to stress how locked up in an ivory tower Chomsky is, and contrasts it with examples of what people actually say. This appeal to common sense and to how common people speak doesn’t last long – by the time Thornbury gets to the end of his talk he’s visited a succession of obscurantist works, starting with Malinowski’s special take on functionalism, through Goffman’s symbolic-interaction perspective, or dramaturgical analysis, Judith Bulter’s gender performativity and geneological feminism, Deborah Cameron’s neoliberal feminism, ending up in la la land with Lapaire, Holmes, and research into embodied cognition.

Getting off to a brisk start, Thornbury once again dodges the question of how children’s demonstrated knowledge of language can be explained by those like him who adopt a usage based, emergentist view of language learning. Recall that, years ago, in his discussion of Chomsky in P is for Poverty of the Stimulus , Thornbury answered the question thus:

The child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input. A little stimulus goes a long way, especially when the child is so feverishly in need of both communicating and becoming socialized. General learning processes explain the rest.

If Thornbury wants to follow Nick Ellis in adopting an associative learning model and an empiricist epistemology, he needs to pay more serious attention to these questions:

  • How can general conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate?
  • How come children know which form-function pairings are possible in human-language grammars and which are not, regardless of exposure?
  • How can emergentists deal with cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure (i.e., a frequency of zero) including knowledge of what is not possible ? (Eubank and Gregg, 2002: 2).

And yet, he never has given any coherent answer to these questions, nor has he presented  his own usage-based theory of language learning. To read my comments on Thornbury’s attempts to explain his view of language learning, please see the post The Works of Scott Thornbury: Part 1 


Next, Thornbury invokes Halliday’s (1978: 38) suggestion that

‘Instead of rejecting what is messy, we accept the mess and build it into the theory’.

And follows with Hopper’s (1998: 166-167) observations that

language is akin to a collage, improvised from a collection of ready-made elements, and the skill of speaking depends more on remembering procedures than on following rules.

Note 2

Thornbury doesn’t discuss the theory that Halliday built from studying messy performance data, or do more than repeat Hopper’s suggestion that language is akin to a collage. While Halliday’s systemic functional grammar certainly looks at the performance data, I doubt that Halliday would sign up to the the view which Thornbury’s trying to articulate in this talk.

As for the Hopper quote, accepting the assertion that the skill of speaking depends more on remembering procedures than on following rules depends on accepting a usage-based theory of language learning. Instead of arguing the case for such a theory, Thornbury gives a quote as if it argues his case for him.

Next, Thornbury recommends seeing language as “accumulated by the process of repeated performance”. As an example, Scott showed the incomplete phrase:

“You must be ……….ing!”

While most expert users of English would give the complete sentence as “You must be joking”, a search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals that the most frequent verb appearing in this structure is doing.

Note 3

What does it mean to say that language should be seen as “accumulated by the process of repeated performance?” Supposing that it makes sense, what reasons are there to suppport it? Is the example supposed to serve as evidence supporting this view?  Surely “You must be doing!” isn’t as frequently found in the COCA corpus as “You must be joking!”, is it? And anyway, how does this support Thornbury’s assertion that language is accumulated by the process of repeated performance? If the instinct of native speakers is to expect the missing word to be “joking”, and it turns out that we’re all wrong, what follows?

Finally, we get to the nitty gritty: Thornbury makes the big statement: humans are primed to look for and identify patterns in the mess of language performance data which they’re exposed to, and therefore, learning grammar involves abstracting regularities from the stock of known lexical sequences” (N. Ellis, 1997).

Note 4

I’ve commented on Thornbury’s attempts to use usage based language learning theories in other posts (see The Works of Scott Thornbury cited above, or What good is relativism? for example), but since here he endorses Nick Ellis’ view of grammar learning, we might pause to look at other things he’s said on the matter. His “Slow release grammar” piece might be seen as an attempt to follow Ellis. He says:

If we generalize the findings beyond the single word level to constructions and then generalize from constructions to grammar, then hey presto, the grammar emerges on the back of the frequent constructions.

Elaborating on this, Thornbury explains that lexical chunks – memorised initially as unanalysed wholes – slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Thus, language emerges as “grammar for free”.

How does this square with some of Thornbury’s other publications? Look at his CELTA books, or Grammar Practice Activities, for example, where a much more traditional view seems to be adopted. Then there’s his book Natural Grammar, which is in a class of its own. Does Thornbury’s increasing commitment to alternative views of grammar imply a further turn? Given that language is accumulated by the process of repeated performance, will he now recommend Hoey’s view (there’s no such thing as grammar), or some version of Construction Grammar, or perhaps Dellar’s view of “Bottom-up grammar”?

Back to the talk. Thornbury concludes the section with this:

What does it mean? Is it meaningful? Is it a legitimate inference? How can we decide if the state of affairs described in the antecedent (language is learned for worldly use) is a sufficient condition on the circumstance described in the consequent (the learning process must be use-based)? What are the constraints on “worldy use”? How can we test whether language is learned for wordly use? What might an unworldly use look like?

This is, of course, the kind of language that those trying to develop a sociocognitive view, or a sociocultural approach, or a complexity theory approach, or an identity approach, or a language socialization approach, or an embodied cognition approach, like to use. It’s not exactly a good example of the messy stuff of “performance language”, the sort of thing normal folk walk around saying to each other, now is it? Which raises the question of its existential, embodied status. What if it fails to make it into the COCA corpus? Does the fact that Thornbury’s said it once, and that there’s every chance he’ll say it again, improve its chances? Will it finally become a pattern that our children will be primed for?

Next time:

1. The Malinowski challenge

Thornbury introduces his Performance as embodiment section with the following quote from Malinowski:

“Ultimately all the meaning of all words is derived from bodily experience.”

  • Can you think of a word that might challenge this assertion? “Bollocks” obviously won’t do, but how about “tree” or “cat”?
  • For Malinowski all meaning is “occasional meaning”. Can you see any problems with that view? Does it, perhaps ignore the fact that occasional meaning can only be understood within the limits defined by the usual meaning of a word?
  • Do you agree with Malinowsky’s peculiar functionalist view of language? Is there any problem with equating language  with function? If the same result can be got from different verbal utterances that don’t mean the same thing; and the same expression with a single meaning can produce different results, might Malinowsky have taken things just a bit too far?

2. The Lapaire Tapes

What support from research into embodied cognition do you think Lapaire gets from this quote from Holme (2009: 53):

The body can be rethought as the expressive instrument of the language that must be taught.?

Does the quote help you to understand what Lapaire is doing in the video clip? Do you think you can use a similar approach in your teaching?


Why teach grammar?


Implicit language learning is learning by doing, learning how the language works by engaging in relevant communicative tasks. The learners’ focus is on meaning, with occasional, short, teacher-instigated focuses on form. SLA research findings make it clear that implicit learning is more basic, more important and superior to explicit learning. Implicit learning is the result of deeper processing, and thus is more durable. It results in automatic, fast access to interlanguage knowledge, and it underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency.

That’s why those of us involved in the SLB TBLT course are against explicit grammar teaching of the sort found in coursebooks. Such explicit grammar teaching takes up a lot of time; it crowds out the real communicative practice needed to achieve communicative competence, it slows up implicit learning. It’s a question of efficacy, especially in teaching environments where opportunities for practice outside the classroom are limited. You can help students reach their goals more efficiently and effectively by finding out what they need to do in the L2 and by then giving them tasks to do which help them reach their objectives. The needs analysis is not difficult, and apart from a bit of heavy lifting at the start, TBLT courses are no more demanding than coursebook-driven ones, but they’re certainly more efficacious, as Bryfonski & McKay’s 2017 review shows.

It’s not that grammar teaching is completely useless. But since using a coursebook to teach grammar fails to respect the restraints imposed by interlanguage development, students often fail to learn what they’re taught. And anyway, since it’s been demonstrated that with the right kind of input and scaffolding, students can work the grammar out for themselves in their own way, why bother?

I spent 30 years teaching English as an L2, and I’ve spent almost that long reading the SLA literature, talking to SLA scholars, teaching in an MA programme, and trying to make my own sense of how people learn an L2 and the implications for teaching. But while it all seems fairly clear to me, I’m aware that it doesn’t seem at all clear to most people currently working in ELT, a fact which  was brought home to me recently when I got involved in a thread on Twitter. Matthew Ellman kicked off:

Coursebook authors! Changing active sentences into the passive voice and vice versa is a complete waste of time and doesn’t teach learners anything.

Most people who joined in the discussion agreed with this opinion, and suggested various other bits of English which might or might not benefit from explicit teaching. There was general agreement that explicit grammar teaching was a good thing. I suggested that it wasn’t a good thing, which led Steve Smith to give a link to this article by Catherine Walter, published in 2012 in The Guardian, a UK newspaper:

Walter confidently claims that, while grammar teaching has been under attack for years,

evidence trumps argument, and the evidence is now in. Rigorously conducted meta-analyses of a wide range of studies have shown that, within a generally communicative approach, explicit teaching of grammar rules leads to better learning and to unconscious knowledge, and this knowledge lasts over time.

She goes on:

Teaching grammar explicitly is more effective than not teaching it, or than teaching it implicitly; that is now clear. What this implies is that the grammar in a course should be planned, to ensure coverage of the structures learners will need. Teachers cannot depend on a range of texts or a range of topics or a range of tasks to yield all the grammar in a course. Taking each class as it comes is not an option. A grammar syllabus is needed, along with the other syllabuses and word lists that structure a course.

I replied to Steve, saying that Walter’s piece was “a disgraceful misrepresentation of the evidence”, that no meta-analysis ever published made such claims, and that there were severe reservations about pre 2015 meta-analyses which looked at studies on teaching very simple forms and testing by gap filling & multiple choice questions soon after the teaching had been done. I also referred to newer studies and to the meta-analysis by Kang et al in 2018. Steve Smith replied that he’d read it, adding:

My reading of the article is that it confirms the well-known Norris and Ortega study, with a particular advantage for instruction for beginners.

Wrong!, I yelled. The article did no such thing – see Kang et al 2018, p. 13:

 “implicit instruction (g = 1.76) appeared to have a significantly longer lasting impact on learning … than explicit instruction (g = 0.77). This finding, consistent with Goo et al. (2015), was a major reversal of that of Norris and Ortega (2000).

By this time I’d realised, once again, how deeply entrenched explicit grammar teaching had become. Leading teacher trainers must take some of the credit or blame for this state of affairs, because they encourage teachers to use coursebooks and to see themselves as teachers of the code; teachers who must first tell their students about the language, bit by bit; then get them to practice the bits by doing lots of focused exercises; and then, finally do short bits of “freer” practice. Where did this view come from? We have to go back a while to get the answer.

Back to the bad old, good old days 

We’re back in the 1960s, 1966 to be precise, when John Carroll wrote:

“Once the student has a proper degree of cognitive control over the structure of a language, facility will develop automatically with the use of the language in meaningful situations.”

What he meant was: once you’ve taught the student the grammar of a language, the rest will follow through language use. That was how US teachers did it in the massive foreign language training programmes in the 1960s, and that was how they did it in the UK through the Situational Approach. But the results were very disappointing, even if they were slightly better than the disastrous results of grammar-translation courses and secondary school courses in foreign languages, where after 5 years teaching, students couldn’t hold the most rudimentary conversation in the target language. But they weren’t much better. The problem was that all they had was explcit knowledge of the language; they knew about it, so they could answer questions about it in tests, but their knowledge didn’t enable them to use the language in spontaneous communicative situations. It was these poor results which led to the emergence of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).

What happened?

In 1967, Pit Corder proposed that we acquire the rules of language in a predictable way (some rules tending to come early and others late) and that the order is independent of the order in which rules are taught in language classes. In 1975 Krashen and Selinger published “The Essential Contributions of Formal Instruction in Adult Second Language Learning”. In 1976, Wilkins made the important distinction between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, and in 1977, Krashen published “The monitor model of adult second language performance”, which made the distinction between acquisition and learning, that is, between implicit and explicit learning. All these advances in the study of SLA were used as steps to build CLT, which rejected the “Teach the grammar first” precept, and adopted the view that students could work the grammar of the target language out for themselves if they were provided with the right input and enough opportunities to engage in scaffolded, meaningful communicative practice, where the teacher organised classroom activities and gave help with the problems they encountered along the way.

Real Change

Teachers were encouraged to stop teaching grammar, to stop telling students about the language, and, instead, to devote classroom time to orgnising activities where students could learn by doing, by practicing using the language. Teachers used written and spoken texts where the language was treated holistically; they organised activities that were task-oriented not exercise-centred and that involved integrating skills not isolating them. Priority was given to student interaction, so the classroom layout changed and students spent time working in pairs and small groups.

More and more research in SLA supported the CLT movement. Most important were the studies of interlanguage development, given a framework by Selinker’s (1972) paper which argues that L2 learners develop their own autonomous mental grammar (interlanguage (IL) grammar) with its own internal organising principles. More work on the acquisition of English morphemes, and then studies of developmental stages of negation in English, developmental stages of word order and questions in English, and then Pienemann’s studies of learning German as an L2 where all learners adhered to a five-stage developmental sequence (see Ortega, 2009, for a review) put together an increasingly clear picture of interlanguage development.

Putting all the research together, it was clear, even by the mid 1980s, that 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 interlanguage 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, and explicit instruction about the L2 is constrained by the learners’ interlanguage development.

Now you see it, now you don’t 

And yet, just as it was really taking off, along came coursebooks, which, by 1995 had succeeded in throwing CLT into the dustbin of history. The myth lingers that we’re still in the era of CLT, but we’re not, we’re in the era of coursebook-driven ELT, and we’ve been here for decades. OUP celebrated the 40th birthday of the Headway series in 2017, now in its 4th edition. A cursory look at any of the most popular General English coursebooks will reveal the demise of CLT: there’s little to distinguish these coursebooks from the Kernel English series which used a no-nonsense Situational Approach 40 years ago.

On we go, then 

The reason why so many teachers associate their jobs with grammar teaching is because that’s what they’ve been trained to do and because they’ve been given little encouragement to critically evaluate the syllabuses and the methodology imposed by using coursebooks which enshrine explicit grammar teaching. The argument that this is an inefficacious way of going about ELT, and that there are viable, better ways, hardly gets heard. So on we go, stumbling on, putting too much faith in teacher trainers, most of whom refuse to give serious consideration to the weaknesses of coursebook-driven ELT or to alternatives.

Meanwhile, some of us, a merry, motley crew, are breaking away, sailing the good ship TBLT out into open seas. No coursebooks, no grammar teaching, just a commitment to the principles of learning by doing and learner-centred teaching. Everybody welcome!


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

Corder, S. P. (1967) The significance of learners’ errors.International Review of Applied Linguistics 5, 161-9.

Eun Yung Kang, Sarah Sok, Zhao Hong (2018) Thirty-five years of ISLA research on form-focused instruction: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research

Krashen, S. (1977) The monitor model of adult second language performance. In Burt, M., Dulay, H. and Finocchiaro, M. (eds.) Viewpoints on English as a second language. New York: Regents, 152-61.

Ortega, L. (2009) Sequences and Processes in Language Learning. In Long, M. and Doughty, C. Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley

Seliger, H. (1979) On the nature and function of language rules in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly 13, 359-369.

Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 209-231.

Wilkins, D. A. (1976) Notional syllabuses. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Teacher Education, Teacher Development: Mushy Peas

My previous post “What is Teacher Development?” supposed that the terms “teacher training” and “teacher development” were more or less synonyms, used to describe the various things that teacher trainers / teacher developers do to equip people to teach English as a foreign or second language. It turns out that, for the IATEFL organisation, I was wrong.  Allow me to digress.

They’re doing a bad job, whatever you call them

My main argument was that those responsible for teacher training / teacher development were doing a bad job because they paid insufficient attention to what we know about language learning, concentrating instead on training / developing teachers to use coursebooks.  The problem here is that coursebooks implement a syllabus based on assumptions that contradict robust findings of SLA research. The result is that teacher trainers / developers are training / developing teachers to do the wrong thing. That’s the argument.

Coursebook-driven ELT is driven by commercial interests 

I go on to argue that coursebook-driven ELT is not only inefficacious, but also that its global dominance is no accident. Cousebook-driven ELT serves the commercial interests of a profit-driven hydra of publishing, teacher training, teacher certification, English proficiency examination, and English teaching companies who between them had a turnover of close to $200,000, 000,000 in 2016 (see the Pearson Report and the BC reports, 2016). It’s a massive, global business. These commercial interests are represented in the IATEFL annual conference Exhibition Hall – OUP, CUP, Pearson, National Geographic, Macmillan, Cambridge Exams, British Council, Trinity London, and on and on. All of them, without exception, promote cousebook-driven ELT, and they recruit academics and so-called expert teacher trainers to argue their case. Such is their commercial clout that they dominate the discourse on ELT and they suffocate open discussion of viable alternatives.

The result and some examples 

For the vast majority of teachers and support workers in the ELT industry, jobs are precarious (hundreds of thousands of teachers have zero hour contracts), badly paid, with few opportunities for advancement, and with little say in management decisions which affect them. Throughout the world, we see de-skilled, underpaid, poorly supported teachers delivering courses where most students fail to reach communicative competence in English. We hear about the success stories, but we ignore the global failure of ELT to give its teachers worthwhile, satisfying jobs, or to give students adequate teaching.

Now of course it would be quite wrong to blame teacher trainers / developers for this state of affairs; most of them are hardly better-paid or more in control of their jobs than the teachers. But it is surely right to ask those who actually design and implement teacher training courses like CELTA, DELTA, Trinity, etc., those who write the “How to Teach” books on the recommended reading lists, and those who travel around the world giving training and development courses, to respond to criticism.

The really powerful people in ELT are the men and women running publishing companies, training and exam bodies and the teaching outfits themselves, of course. They’re the top echelon of the ELT establishment, but they mostly avoid the limelight. So in today’s Society of the Spectacle, they need a public face, which is provided by the “top” course designers, materials writers and trainers. Witness the embarassingly lack-lustre annual ELTons event, which does its sorry best, tatty red carpet and all, to emmulate the Oscars. The stars of ELT parade themselves at the IATEFL conference, talking in the biggest rooms to the biggest audiences, gracing the smartest parties, even signing autographs these days. They are as close as we usually get to the power brokers, and it’s this group who must surely answer charges that they lack the knowledge and expertise which one would expect of them, that their positions are often compromised by their links to commercial interests, and that, for whatever reasons, they fail to challenge the reactionary policies of the ELT establishments. In brief, they don’t do enough to ensure that teachers get adequate training and development.

A few random examples:

  1. Scott Thornbury’s “Vicar of Bray” approach (CELTA here, Dogme there)
  2. Books on how to teach English by Jeremy Harmer, Leo Selivan, Hugh Dellar & Andrew Walkley, and Penny Ur.
  3. The CELTA course.
  4. Teacher training / development courses given by all those in (2) + Katherine Bilsborough
  5. Just about all conference plenaries
  7. ELT blogs:,, TEFL Org UK, Larry Ferlazzo English Education,

No excuse for ignorance 

Thanks to ongoing work by some excellent scholars over the last 60 years, we now have both a coherent, consensural view on fundamental questions about learning an L2, and clear implications for ELT. There’s no “right way”, but we at least know what’s mistaken, because it contradicts the evidence from research findings, and what’s more likely to be right, because it’s supported by evidence.  There are some good summaries of SLA research (avoid Rod Ellis or Saville Troike; try Lightbown & Spada, or Gass, or VanPatten and Williams) and some good reviews of articles from journals available on line. So there’s no excuse for those who are in charge of teacher training for not knowing about this stuff. How can you train teachers to teach English as an L2 if you don’t know how people learn languages? How can you recommend this or that teaching approach, this or that way of designing a syllabus, this or that activity, if it’s not based on sound foundations? In my opinion, the works of Dellar and Walkley, Ur, Harmer, Ferlazzo, Selivan, Roberts, and many other leading lights in ELT are based on very shaky foundations indeed.

Navel gazing?   

To the issue, then. I thought training and development were part of the same thing, but it turns out that in the IATEFL world, there’s a difference. There are two different SIGs: Teacher Education and Teacher Development. If you go the TD SIG web site you see this:

IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group provides a forum for us to develop our potential as teachers, to cultivate our abilities to navigate the challenges and successes of being a teacher, and to invigorate satisfaction in our ongoing work.

Our aims:

  • To enable and encourage all categories of teacher to take more responsibility for professional and personal evolution throughout their careers.
  • To promote individual and institutional awareness of the importance of teacher development.
  • To encourage the provision of facilities for teacher development which do not already exist.

Content-free blather! What do they actually do? Here’s the report on what they did at the 2018 IATEFL conference:

Our Pre-Conference Event on Monday 9 April was ‘Personalised Teacher Development: is it possible?’. An audience of over 90 ELT professionals gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities for fostering teacher development in and across institutions. 

We also put together a Showcase Day jam-packed with talks and workshops chosen to get conference delegates thinking about and reflecting on myriad issues relating to teacher development. The programme featured reports on research projects from the UK and Australia,…. tips and techniques for focusing on teaching experience and our identity as ELT professionals. We had a range of speakers from teachers at the chalkface to managers to former IATEFL plenary speakers. Much food for thought to be taken away.

Still no hint of what they actually talked about or what it led to. It’s really hard work to find ANY substance in this website, to find out about how they helping teachers grow professionally. If you click on “Development” ths is what you see:

  • The events calendar tells you what they’ve got planned for the coming months
  • The CFP is a call for proposals
  • The Web Carnival has details of a web event called Developing Development in late February
  • The bibliography has nothing – not one article – published this century.

Nit picking? 

Perhaps by trying to find out what the Teacher Training and Education SIG does, we can deduce what the TD gang does. Here’s what they say on their web site:

Our Mission:

The TTEd SIG serves the professional development and networking needs of English Language Teachers of Teachers around the world and contributes to the profession via publications, events and other initiatives aimed at fostering quality teacher education in English.

On the Events page, we find:

2012 was an active year for TTEd SIG. We were involved in several events in different parts of the world ( Beijing – China, Hyderabad- India) and we organized a symposium in Istanbul.

2013 was another active year for TTEd SIG. We were involved in several events in different parts of the world, and our PCE at Liverpool was a success. Our Newsletters reached our members, our Facebook account/ blog are very active.

Our Harrogate 2014 PCE was also a success with our celebrity speaker TESSA WOODWARD.

A bit further down, reporting on last year’s conference in Glasgow, we find that the Pre-Conference Event was around the topic

How to plan, deliver and evaluate Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programmes for teachers

Apart from the fact that the TTEd lot seem a bit sleepy, they also seem to be dabbling in teacher development, blurring the lines between the two. In any case, I could find little information about anything organised by this group that might count as a critical examination of existing ELT practice, no criticism of any of the teacher training courses leading to recognised teacher certification, no criticism of any of the books you see in the bibliographies of those courses, no criticism of any training course.


This quote from Thomas Pynchon’s novel V comes to mind:

“What is the tag end of an age, if not that tilt towards the more devious, the less forceful?”.

That IATEFL should see the need to mush up the peas by allowing these two separate SIGs, while refusing to allow Paul Walsh’s proposal for a Teachers As Workers SIG surely indicates this tilt towards the more devious. Look again in my previous post at the video of those in the TD SIG talking about TD. Look at all the stuff they’re going to do at the IATEFL conference. Look at the stuff the TTEd SIG is going to do. Just how forceful is all that? How does it face up to what teachers actually do in practice, day after day, wading thru this damn coursebook or the other? What will they do to raise standards of training and thus improve ELT practice?

What Is Teacher Development?

A recent discussion of teacher training / teacher development on Twitter started with Cecilia Nobre objecting to untrained teachers giving training courses. I chimed in with this:

Why don’t trainers start with how people learn an L2? Why train teachers to use a syllabus which contradicts research findings? Why not question coursebook-driven ELT? Why assume that explicit teaching of bits of grammar & lexis -> communicative competence?

I admit that this was a deliberate attempt to hijack the discussion and move it towards my own hobby horse, namely the refusal of those involved in teacher training and development to question the domination of coursebook-driven ELT. Few bit the bait, but David Deubelbeiss couldn’t resist (bless him!) and it led to the following exchange:

David: Let’s remember that most of what a teacher trainer does (or should do) is help skill up teachers in the “how” and art of teaching. Not teaching theory and / or curriculum design nor defending educational beliefs

Me: 1. You ignore the syllabus & what’s taught? Skilling up teachers in how to present and practice bits of grammar and lexis is OK, even tho SLA research findings show it’s ineffective? 2. TDs don’t discuss educational beliefs? Really?

David: There is a big difference between teacher education and teacher training.

Me: How are they different? Into which category do the CELTA course, Dellar’s course on teaching lexically, and the SLB course on TBLT fall? How can ANY educational programme focus on “how” and ignore ‘what’ and ‘why’ issues?

David: Of course you don’t ignore them but theory isn’t central to the job. In general education, a trainer is someone who works with teachers inservice. The problem with ELT is we have teachers without any formal teacher education. We should fix that.

Me: What counts as “formal teacher education”? Can inservice teacher training include advising changes & improvements? If so, what informs the advice? Is reference to holistic approaches; cognitive load; distributed practice; implicit learning; saliency; schema; priming; etc allowed?

That was as far as it went. I like David’s approach to ELT a lot; he’s one on a very short list of teacher trainers who I consider both well informed and progressive. But just look at what he’s saying. I find it depressing to see this view of training versus education so blatantly articulated. It’s just one more expression of the view that the focus of teacher training in ELT should be to equip teachers with the rudimentary skills needed to deliver a syllabus that is fundamentally flawed, ignoring the basic question of efficacy.

Surely, we MUST address the question of how efficacious it is to base ELT on a syllabus that’s based on false assumptions about how people learn an L2. Learning an L2 is not the same as learning geography, for example, because learning an L2 is about procedural not declarative knowledge. We know that learning an L2 is learning by doing, it’s practice, practice, practice as Amy says. We know that teachers using a coursebook to study bits of grammar and lexis is not efficacious and yet teacher trainers continue to tell their trainees to do it. They carry on with the pretence that presenting and practising bits of language in the way coursebooks force teachers to do will lead to communicative competence when all the evidence shows that it doesn’t work.

Why do teacher trainers persist in this mistaken approach to ELT? Because education has become another commodity, and cousebooks exemplify the commodification of ELT. Teacher trainers teach teachers to teach McNuggets. Assessment of proficiency is based on knowledge of these McNuggets. The CEFR levels are used to describe where students are in their accumulation of these McNuggets. Thus, this Frankenstein model of proficiency is reified – these levels are treated as if they were real, as if they reflected communicative competence. But they don’t. The whole edifice is built on commercial convenience. It ignores the reality of language learning and imposes an inefficacious way of teaching.

Coursebook-driven ELT has led to our losing sight of good, wholesome ELT practice, based on learning by doing, on helping students work the L2 code out for themselves by involvement in meaningful tasks, on scaffolding their learning and giving them the help they need to do it. We go further and further away from good educational principles; we give in to commercial pressure and teach what we’re told to teach by teacher trainers who turn a blind eye to the mountain of evidence which highlights the inadequacy of coursebook-driven ELT.

Meanwhile, those who make a living from teacher training and development ignore the elephant in the room – the fundamental question about the efficacy of coursebook-driven ELT – and take cousebooks as the given starting point. They design courses like CELTA which simply accept that coursebooks will be used, and they tour the world giving courses devoted to how to do coursebook-driven ELT better. TD groups in IATEFL and TESOL give scant regard to questioning coursebook-driven ELT, preferring to agonise about teacher identity, dealing with stress and burn-out, and all that other modern floss which has replaced any robust interrogation of what they’re actually doing in the classroom. And before these modern TTs accuse me of making fun of serious issues, let me make it clear that I’m talking about priorities.

Here’s  what you’ll find on the IATEFL TD website:


Blather, blather and more blather. TD is interaction; it’s like growing plants; it’s moving forward; it’s about being in this life and moving forward; it’s empowerment; it’s being more aware; it’s reflection, it’s bla bla bla.

Look at the TD plan for the 2019 IATEFL convention. Serious issues are tackled, but where’s the critical analysis and reflection of ELT teacher training practice? Where does the TD address questions like “What are we training teachers to teach?” “What do we tell trainees about how people learn an L2?” “How can we assess the efficaciousness of our teaching?”

ELT is a huge business with a global turnover of hundreds of billions of dollars – see the Pearson 2017 report and the British Council 2016 report for details. Cousebook-driven ELT is the result of commercial pressure, not the result of any regard for research findings on instructed SLA, all of which suggests that coursebook-driven ELT is not efficacious. ELT teacher trainers are responsible for how hundreds of thousands of teachers approach their work. In my opinion, most of them are doing a bad job.