Russ Mayne on Experts and Brian Tomlinson

In his latest blog post, tooth fairy expertise, Russ Mayne reminds us to be wary against uncritically accepting what we’re told by so-called experts. This time his target is Brian Tomlinson, and the argument goes like this (quotes in italics):

Step 1: Being a tooth fairy expert means that you actually don’t have any expertise. (Wrong, but never mind.)

Step 2: Somebody on Twitter said that Brian Tomlinson thinks “PPP is the worst way to learn a language”. (Note that Mayne doesn’t verify that Tomlinson actually said such a thing.)

Step 3: Tomlinson claims to be, and is widely-accepted as, an expert on ELT materials development.

Step 4: Tomlinson believes in the false notion of left brained and right brained learners. He also  promotes writing materials which cater to students’ perceptual learning style. He also seems to accept the idea that the brain is somehow underused and we can unlock it’s full potential through good teaching.

Step 5: I can’t help but think we tend to listen to experts when they tell us things we want to hear. If we don’t like PPP then an expert saying it’s ‘the worst’ will sound very convincing to us. (Note this spurious “move” in the argument’s development.)

Now we get to the crunch. Mayne asks the pertinent question:

Step 6:  So is Tomlinson right that PPP is ‘the worst way to learn a language?’

But instead of answering it, he prefers to ask another question

Step 7: Is PPP worse than, say, Suggestopedia? (This clumsy attempt to dodge the question pinpoints the weakness of Mayne’s post.)

Step 8: Mayne cites 2 authors to show that Suggestopedia is so much hogwash.

Step 9: Conclusion: So according to Tomlinson PPP ‘booo’, quantum kinaesthetic left-brained teaching ‘hurrah!’ Forgive me if I’m skeptical. Jason Anderson has done some interesting work on PPP (Mayne gives links to 2 articles) and he doesn’t seem to think it’s the worst way to teach English. For all it’s flaws, I’d put my money on PPP producing better results than Suggestopedia. I’m no expert though.  


Mayne’s modest confession that he’s no expert ends this lamentable display of poor scholarship and bad argumentation. If Mayne wants to argue the case for PPP he should do so. If he wants to point out what he sees as weaknesses in Tomlinson’s understanding of second language learning, or weaknesses in Tomlinson’s criticisms of coursebooks like Headway and Outcomes, then likewise, he should do. But to argue that Tomlinson’s reputation as an expert is what makes us agree with his criticisms of PPP, and that what he says about Lazanov is evidence enough that his opinion can’t be trusted, is both lazy and intellectually dishonest.

Mayne quotes from page 20 of Tomlinson’s (2014) book on Materials design. The first chapter of the 2014 book gives a carefully-considered discussion of Tomlinson’s views, which Mayne makes absolutely no attempt to fairly summarise. There are, in my opinion, parts of Tomlinson’s view of SLA which rely on mistaken views of the psychological process of second language learning, but they deserve more scrupulous attention than Mayne seems capable of giving them. Tomlinson has spent 30 years fighting against what he sees as the suffocating effects of the PPP methodology which today’s General English coursebooks encourage teachers to adopt. For Mayne to pick over Tomlinson’s work in order to offer up this sorry mess is pathetic.

As for Mayne’s towering defence of PPP, he says: it’s probably not as bad as Suggestopedia! He adds links to two articles by Jason Anderson, both of which are almost as unscholarly and badly argued as this piece by Mayne. See here for my review of them.