This blog is mostly about the failure of teacher educators (TEs) in ELT to do their job well.
I here summarise three findings from psycholinguistic SLA research which have implications for ELT, and then review how some of today’s leading teacher educators have failed to deal with these findings.
Part 1: Implications for ELT of SLA research
By the mid-1980s, research had made it clear that learning an L2 is a process whereby learners slowly develop their own autonomous mental grammar with its own internal organising principles. Today, after hundreds more studies, it is well established that acquisition of grammatical structures, and also of pronunciation features and many lexical features such as pre-fabricated lexical chunks, collocation and colligation, is typically gradual, incremental and slow. 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. The acquisition sequences displayed in IL development have been shown to be impervious to explicit instruction, and the conclusion is that students don’t learn when and how a teacher decrees that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so.
2. The roles of explicit and implicit knowledge and learning
Two types of knowledge are said to be involved in SLA, and the main difference between them is conscious awareness. Explicit L2 knowledge is knowledge which learners are aware of and which they can retrieve consciously from memory. It’s knowledge about language. In contrast, implicit L2 knowledge is knowledge of how to use language and it’s unconscious – learners don’t know that they know it, and they usually can’t verbalize it. (Note: the terms Declarative and Procedural knowledge are often used. While there are subtle differences, here I take them to mean the same as explicit and implicit knowledge of the L2.)
In terms of cognitive processing, learners need to use attentional resources to retrieve explicit knowledge from memory, which makes using explicit knowledge effortful and slow: the time taken to access explicit knowledge is such that it doesn’t allow for quick and uninterrupted language production. In contrast, learners can access implicit knowledge quickly and unconsciously, allowing it to be used for unplanned language production.
Three Interface Hypotheses
While it’s now generally accepted that declarative and procedural knowledge are learned in different ways, stored separately and retrieved differently, disagreement among SLA scholars continues about this question: Can the explicit knowledge students get from classroom instruction be converted, through practice, into implicit knowledge? Those who hold the “No Interface” position answer “No”. Others take the “Weak Interface” position which argues that there is a relationship between the two types of knowledge and that they work together during L2 production. Still others take the “Strong Interface” position, based on the assumption that explicit knowledge can and does become implicit, and that explicit explanation of the L2 should generally precede practice. In this view, procedural knowledge can be the result of declarative knowledge becoming automatic through practice.
The main theoretical support for the No Interface position is Krashen’s Monitor theory, which has few adherents these days, despite the reappraisal discussed in my previous post. The Strong Interface case gets its theoretical expression from Skill Acquisition Theory, which describes the process of declarative knowledge becoming proceduralised and is most notably championed by DeKeyser. This general learning theory clashes with evidence from L1 acquisition and with interlanguage findings discussed above. The Weak Interface position is adopted by most SLA scholars, including those who support the emergentist theory of SLA championed by Nick Ellis. Ellis agues that adult learners of English as an L2 are affected by their L1 in such a way that they don’t implicitly learn certain features of the L2 which clash with their L1 (see the section on maturational restraints below). Consequently, in this view, explicit instruction of a certain sort can draw attention to these features and thereby “re-set the dial”, allowing for the usual implicit learning of further instances of these features to re-enforce procedural knowledge.
Whatever their differences, there is today a consensus among scholars that implicit learning is the “default” mechanism of SLA. Wong, Gil & Marsden (2014) conclude that implicit knowledge is in fact ‘better’ than explicit knowledge; it is automatic, fast – the basic components of fluency – and more lasting because it’s the result of the deeper entrenchment which comes from repeated activation. Doughty (2003) concludes:In sum, the findings of a pervasive implicit mode of learning, and the limited role of explicit learning …, point to a default mode for SLA that is fundamentally implicit, and to the need to avoid declarative knowledge when designing L2 pedagogical procedures.
Neither Wong et.al., nor Doughty challenge the important role that explicit knowledge plays in SLA. However, what they firmly reject, as do most of their colleagues, is the view that declarative knowledge is a necessary first step in the SLA process.
3. Maturational constraints on adult SLA
The limited ability of adults to learn a second language implicitly as children do brings us to “Critical Period” research. Long (2007) in an extensive review of the literature, concludes that there are indeed critical periods for SLA, or “sensitive periods”, as they’re now called. For most L2 learners, the sensitive period for native-like phonology closes between age 4 to 6; for the lexicon (particularly lexical chunks, collocation and colligation) between 6 and 10; and for morphology and syntax by the mid-teens. While this remains a controversial area, there’s general consensus that adults are partially “disabled” language learners who can’t learn in the same way children do. And that’s where explicit learning comes in. As suggested above, the right kind of explicit teaching can help adult students learn bits of the language that they are unlikely to learn implicitly. Long calls these bits “fragile” features of the L2 – features that are of low perceptual saliency (because they’re infrequent / irregular / semantically empty / communicatively redundant / involving complex form-meaning mappings), and he says these are likely to be late, or never, learned without explicit learning.
From all this research, a picture of ELT emerges where teachers help students to develop their interlanguages by giving them scaffolded opportunities to use the L2 in communicative activities where the focus is on meaning. The Dogme approach does this, so do some types of immersion and CLIL courses, and so do strong versions of Task-based Language Teaching. During the performance of tasks, modified, enhanced, multi-modal written and spoken texts give the rich input required, and teachers give students help with aspects of the language that they’re having problems with by brief switches to what Long calls “focus on form” – reactive attention to formal aspects of the L2 that the students indicate, through their production, are impeding their progress. In most forms of TBLT, tasks are divided into 3-stages: pre-task -> task -> post task, and as a general rule, we can say that the more explicit instruction is given priority, the weaker the TBLT version is.
From the research discussed, it follows that a relatively inefficacious way of organising ELT courses is to use a General English coursebook. Here, the English language is broken down into constituent parts or “items” which are then contextualized, explained, and practiced sequentially, following the scale laid down in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which is based not on empirical research into interlanguage development, but rather on teachers’ intuitive ideas of an easy-to-difficult progression in L2 learning. The teacher’s main concern is with explaining and practicing bits of grammar, pronunciation and lexis by reading and listening to short texts, studying boxes which summarise grammar points, doing follow-up exercises, talking about bits of the language, giving summaries, engaging in IRE (Initiation-Response-Feedback) exchanges with students, and then monitoring students’ activities which are supposed to practice what has been taught. Typically, in such courses, teachers talk for 70%+ of the time, and students’ speaking turns last for less than a minute.
For example, if we look at Unit 2 from Outcomes Intermediate, we see this:
- Vocab. (feelings) →
- Grammar (be, feel, look, seem, sound + adj.) →
- Listening (How do they feel?) →
- Developing Conversations (Response expressions) →
- Speaking (Talking about problems) →
- Pronunciation (Rising &falling stress) →
- Conversation Practice (Good / bad news) →
- Speaking (Physical greetings) →
- Reading (The man who hugged) →
- Vocabulary (Adj. Collocations) →
- Grammar (ing and ed adjs.) →
- Speaking (based on reading text) →
- Grammar (Present tenses) →
- Listening (Shopping) →
- Grammar (Present cont.) →
- Developing conversations (Excuses) →
- Speaking (Ideas of heaven and hell).
(Note that “Developing Conversations” are not oral activities.) Given that teachers must cover this unit in approx.10 hours, and given the amount of work students are expected to do studying the language, how much opportunity will students get to use the language for themselves in spontaneous communicative exchanges which push their interlanguage development? Like most General English coursebooks, Outcomes Intermediate focuses on explicit teaching, based on the false assumption that students will learn what they’re taught in this way. The most usual defense of coursebooks (apart from their convenience) is that they are “adapted” in a myriad of ingenious ways by teachers. Mishan (2021) cites Bolster’s (2014, 2015) study of teachers using an English for academic purposes coursebook, which showed that there was a spread of “25% to 100% of changes made to the published material, with an average percentage of adaptation of 64.5’ (p. 20). If only 35% of the coursebook’s content are used, one wonders just how convenient they are! Teachers are to be congratulated for the way they ameliorate the deficiencies of coursebooks, but it remains the case that they are forced to follow the synthetic syllabus laid down in the coursebook they use, which means they are making impossible demands of students and spending far too much time on explicit teaching.
In brief, research suggests that L2 learning is mostly a process of the unconscious development of interlanguages which is best helped by giving students opportunities to use the language in such a way that they work out how the L2 works for themselves. Teachers can best help this development by following a syllabus which supplies rich input, interesting, relevant tasks, and which counts on timely feedback and support from the teacher. The implication is that, when it comes to ELT, using an analytical syllabus will be more efficacious than using the synthetic syllabuses implemented in General English coursebooks. (For more on synthetic versus analytic syllabus types, see the 2 posts ‘Synthetic and Analytic Syllabuses 1′ and ‘Synthetic and Analytic Syllabuses Part 2′ Se also the post ‘Why Teach Grammar’.
Compare these two views. Caroll (1966: 96) articulated the “old” view:
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.
Hatch (1978: 404) was one of the first scholars to articulate the current view:
Language learning evolves out of learning how to carry on conversations. One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed.
Hatch’s work in SLA research was influential in promoting the communicative language teaching approach, an exciting new flame which burned brightly for a few years in the 1980s, only to be snuffed out by the arrival of modern coursebooks in the early 1990s.
Part 2: The Contribution of Teacher Educators
Teacher educators teach the teachers: they’re the purveyors of today’s lamentable Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE) programmes. They give “pre-service courses” for those wanting to start a teaching career, and “in-service courses” for those already teaching. Given the British Council’s (2015) conservative estimate of 12 million teachers working in ELT, training them is obviously a multi-billion dollar industry. The most popular pre-service courses in many parts of the world are CELTA and Trinity College’s Cert TESOL. Neither of these courses gives any serious attention to how people learn an L2 – the SLA research findings outlined above are largely ignored. Both courses concentrate on the practical job of preparing teachers, as best they can in the limited time provided, to implement the synthetic syllabuses used in the vast majority of schools and institutions offering courses of English as an L2. While the teacher educators who run these courses are not obliged to recommend using a coursebook, in practice, most of them do, and they use coursebooks for the teaching practice modules. In brief, both courses give almost no attention to how people learn an L2. And both are based on the unquestioned, but demonstrably false assumption that explicit teaching of the formal elements of the L2 is the key to efficacious teaching.
In the USA, China and other countries, teachers need to have a university degree, and then do a post graduate pre-service course. Some do a Masters in TEFL or TESOL, while others do a post-graduate Certificate or Diploma. In these programmes, more attention is paid to second language learning, but there is enormous variety among the programmes, making it difficult to generalise. Certainly in the USA, the pre-service courses seem more likely to have a positive affect on teaching practice than CELTA or the Cert TSOL. In China and other countries training non-native speaker (NNS) teachers, it seems that once they start their jobs, teachers often ignore what they were told about the importance of implicit learning, and the value of a communicative language teaching approach. Two explantions are suggested. First, there is a strong tendency among teachers to teach the way that they themselves were taught. Second, most NNS teachers admit to having difficulties expressing themselves accurately and fluently in English. Ironically, their difficulties mainly spring from the way they were taught, but still, the combination of bias and insecurity push teachers to adopt a “teacher tells the class about the language” approach where most of the time is dedicated to using a coursebook to instill declarative knowledge about English grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary.
As to in-service training, often referred to as Continuous Professional Development (CPD), there are literally thousands of private commercial concerns offering courses in every aspect of ELT, making this another multi-billion dollar part of the ELT industry.
Who are the teacher educators (TEs)? Right at the top, we have figures such as David Nunan and Jack Richards, both successful academics who have, over the past 40+ years, given hundreds of university courses and hundreds of plenaries at international conferences. They have worked as consultants for national governments, written more than 20 books each covering various aspects of learning and teaching an L2, and they have also both written more than a dozen series of General English coursebooks, some aimed specifically at the huge, expanding Chinese market. Both are multi-millionaires. Richards was always conservative, while Nunan only slowly grew to be so. In the 1980s at least, Nunan was an articulate, innovative scholar, as can be appreciated in some of articles in his Learner-Centered English Language Education collection. Nunan also supervised the PhD dissertations of many who went on to make innovative advances to theories of SLA and to ELT practices. I attended courses given by Nunan which pushed me towards a TBLT approach and I was impressed with his scholarship and his unfailing willingness to shot the breeze with his students.
Whatever their academic records, both Richards and Nunan made significant contributions to the new generation of coursebooks in the late 1990s, when publishers responded to new conditions with a multi-million-pound revamp that ushered in the ‘global coursebook’ – a new, glossier, multi-component package aimed at the global market, but often carefully tweaked for more local teaching contexts. This “advance” effectively put an end to any version of CLT worth the name. To my knowledge, in the last 20 years neither Richards nor Nunan has given any courses on, or made any serious attempts to promote an interest in, the mounting evidence from SLA which I outlined above. As a result, I think they are partly responsible for the reactionary, commercially-driven character of current SLTE.
The majority of today’s most successful TEs are, like Richards and Nunan, coursebook writers. Alas, they have to content themselves with six figure incomes – the money coming from their coursebook series is no longer enough to make them millionaires. This is thanks to publishers’ new business plans, where an overseeing editor designs the coursebook series and its components, and then farms out the work to the lucky winners who are chosen to do the real work for scraps. In exactly the same way as most employers in our neoliberal world treat their employees, the editor commissions “independent collaborators” to write various bits of the coursebooks following strict editorial guidelines for a set fee, and that’s all they see of the pie. While Richards and Nunan, like Mr. and Mrs. Sears of Headway fame, have already banked millions of dollars from sales of their coursebooks, and the royalties still roll in, more recent TE coursebook writers are less fortunate. They make a small fraction of the money that used to be made from a best-selling coursebook series, and they now have to fight in a much more competitive market than their predecessors when trying to boost their incomes by writing supplementary materials and “How to Teach” books. Like their predecessors, they get further monies from fees paid to them for a wide range of CPD offerings, ranging from conference plenaries to giving presentations, workshops and short courses on “How to improve your teaching” all over the planet, sold to the highest bidder.
Two examples of today’s TEs are Jeremy Harmer and Hugh Dellar. Harmer has published more than 30 books on ELT, and made a few rather unsuccesful attempts to get into the coursebooks market. He is often referred to as “El Maestro”. His seminal work, The Practice of English Language Teaching is now in its 5th edition, has sold millions, and is required reading for teachers doing not just CELTA but also DELTA courses. The book is also listed in the bibliographies of most Masters courses in TESOL / TEFL offered by universities around the world. The book is 550 pages long, yet just one small chapter is devoted to language learning – another chapter devoted to classroom seating arrangements is longer! The chapter on language learning misrepresents the work of most of the leading scholars of SLA, including Krashen, Pienemann, Gass, Long and N. Ellis. Suffice it to say, in summary, that Harmer has done very little to inform teachers about the matters discussed in Part 1 of this essay.
Dellar is the co-author of the Outcomes and Innovations series of coursebooks, and also of one of the books in the Roadmap series. His Teaching Lexically book, co-written with Walkley, offers by far the worst summary of how people learn an L2 that I’ve ever read. I’ve written a post that reviews the book, so let me just say here that the “explanation” of L2 learning it gives is ridiculous. It paves the way for an approach to ELT that is remarkable for its emphasis on teaching students about the language, No other teacher educator today insists as much as Dellar does on the importance of explicit learning.
Let’s look briefly at a few more prominent teacher educators
The “MARS-EARS” framework for L2 teaching attempts to justify an “Explain-first-and-practice later” approach to teaching L2s. Conti has built himself into a brand. He spends enormous effort on promoting the brand and he tours the world promoting himself and his method. Conti and Smith are co-authors of of a book on memory which badly misreprents research findings and blatantly promotes the “MARS-EARS” framework. See my post on the book Memory and Teaching and my post on Conti’s approach, Genius for a fuller discussion.
I’ve discussed Anderson’s work in a few posts – put “Anderson” in the Search box on the right. Common to all Anderson’s work is a defense of coursebook-driven ELT. Anderson’s work relies on cherry-picking SLA research findings and has little depth or critical acumen.
Roberts is a quintessential example of a TE. She now concentrates on wellness training, but she has a history of teaching teachers that spans decades. She has never, in her long career – described by the British Council as “illustrious” – given the slightest importance to SLA research. Examine her work and search in vain for any serious attention to how people learn an L2.
Seburn was until recently the coordinator of the IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group. In my opinion, he’s a good example of all that’s wrong with the way teacher educators see their jobs. Like Roberts, Seburn has never shown any interest in SLA research or in its implications for ELT. For Seburn, teacher development is primarily about identity, about “how I came to be who I am”, “how to be the best person I can be”, and all that stuff.
Here’s the exception, the star who shines in the dull, lack-luster TA firmament. I’ve done a few posts criticising Thornbury’s work – his Natural Grammar, his ill-informed criticisms of Chomsky, his wild attempts to describe and promote emergentist theories – but he remains a splendid beacon, shining through the fog, demanding change. He knows his stuff (mostly!) about SLA, and he’s a brilliant speaker, the best performer on the big conference stage since the wonderful John Fanselow. Thornbury has never published a coursebook series, indeed, he’s a leading critic of them, the one who coined the term “Grammar McNuggets” which so acutely captures the way that coursebooks chop up, sanitise and process the life out of the English language.
Thornbury, along with his co-author Meddings, is the man behind Dogme, an approach to ELT that rejects the use of synthetic syllabuses and adopts an approach that gives full recognition to the research findings outlined in Pat 1 above. Thornbury gets it, he understands what research tells us about how people learn an L2, he recognizes that we learn by doing, and he strives to implement a radical alternative to ELT. He sponsors the Heads Up project, he goes wherever he’s invited to talk to teachers about Dogme and he somehow makes few enemies among those who work so hard to maintain the status quo. He’s my hero, as he is for tens of thousands of forward-looking teachers.
The Three Neils
Neil McMillan is the founder of the SLB cooperative. There’s an important political dimension to his work – involvement in the local community, social change, teachers’ rights – but when it comes to teaching, he walks the talk about a strong version of TBLT. I’m proud to have worked with him on courses for teachers interested in TBLT, and I’m looking forward to further projects with him, where we further explore how ELT can respond to local needs.
Neil Anderson and Neil McCutcheon are the co-authors of Activities for Task-based Learning. They start from a well-considered appreciation of SLA findings. They show a sensitive appreciation for the contexts in which teachers have to work, and they propose a variety of practical ways in which teachers can move towards a new, better way of doing their jobs. They’re pragmatists, realists you could say, but there’s an undeniably progressive tone to their work, and I’m sure that we’ll hear more from them soon. They’re inspiring, they give me hope.
ELT is a huge, multi-billion dollar industry. It’s not surprising that commercial interests shape the way it’s done. But it’s inefficacious: most students of English as an L2 fail to achieve communicative competence. To be clear: most students of English as an L2 leave the courses they’ve done without the ability to use English well enough to easily cope with the demands they meet when they try to use English in the real world. They’ve been cheated. They’ve been led though a succession of courses where they’ve been taught about the language and denied sufficient opportunities to use the language in ways that help them develop communicative competence.
Leading teacher trainers have a vested interest in protecting the inefficacious model of coursebook-driven ELT – they write coursebooks, after all. The way towards a more efficacious model of ELT, depends on the dismantling of the current established paradigm for ELT which is based on the CEFR scale of language proficiency. Learning English as a second language has very little to do with the imagined progression from A1 to C2 enshrined in the CEFR, and thus, very little to do with the coursebook series which adopt the same daft idea of l2 learning.
ELT must change. It must recognize that learning English as an L2 is mostly done by using it, not by being told about it. Teacher trainers today, with a few exceptions, stand in the way of change.
Anderson, N. & McCutcheon, N. (2021) Activities For Task-Based Learning. Delta.
Carroll, J. B. (1966). ‘The contribution of psychological theory and educational research to the teaching of
foreign languages’ in A. Valdman (ed.). Trends in Language Teaching. McGraw-Hill, 93–106.
Doughty, C. J. 2003. ‘Instructed SLA: Constraints, compensation, and enhancement’ in C. J. Doughty,
and M. H. Long (eds.),The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Blackwell, 256–310.
Dellar, H. & Walkley, A. (2017). Teaching Lexically: Principles and practice. Delta.
Harmer, J. (2015) The Practice of English Language Teaching. McMillan.
Hatch, E. (ed.). (1978). Second Language Acquisition: A Book of Readings. Newbury House.
Long, M. (2007). Problems in SLA. Lawrence Erlbaum.
Meddings, L. and S. Thornbury. (2009). Teaching Unplugged. Delta.
Mishan, F. (2021). The Global ELT coursebook: A case of Cinderella’s slipper? Language Teaching, 1-16.
Whong, M., Gil, K. H., & Marsden, H. (2014). Beyond paradigm: The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of classroom research. Second Language Research, 30(4), 551-568.