Thesis on Current ELT, Part Two


In part One, I suggested that coursebook-driven ELT is a prime example of the commodification of education. Here, in Part Two, I focus on the Common European Frame of Reference (CEFR) and high stakes tests. The global adoption of coursebook-driven ELT is illustrated by the increasing use of the CEFR, which informs not just coursebooks, but the high stakes tests which loom large in the background. I rely mostly on the work of Glenn Fulcher and on Jordan & Long (2022).  

18,1. As Fulcher (2010), argues, citing Bonnet (2007), the CEFR is increasingly being used to promote a move towards “a common educational policy in language learning, teaching and assessment, both at the EU level and beyond”. The rapid spread of the use of the CEFR across Europe and other parts of the world is due to the ease with which it can be used in standards-based assessment. As a policy tool for harmonization, the CEFR is manipulated by “juggernaut-like centralizing institutions”, which are using the CEFR to define required levels of achievement for school pupils as well as adult language learners worldwide.

The indiscriminate exportation of the CEFR for use in standards-based education and assessment in non-European contexts, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, shows that it is being increasingly used as an instrument of power ((Davies 2008: 438).

18.2. Fulcher (2008: 170) nails the problem of the CEFR. It requires a few seconds close reading, if you’ll forgive me, to appreciate its full import.

It is a short step for policy makers, from ‘the standard required for level X’ to ‘level X is the standard required for….’ (emphasis added).

Fulcher (ibid.) comments: “This illegitimate leap of reasoning is politically attractive, but hardly ever made explicit or supported by research. For this step to take place, a framework has to undergo a process of reification, a process defined as “the propensity to convert an abstract concept into a hard entity” (Gould 1996: 27)”.

18.3. The CEFR scale descriptors are based entirely on intuitive teacher judgments rather than on samples of performance. The scales have no empirical basis or any basis in theory, or in SLA research. They’re “Frankenstein scales”, as Fulcher calls them. We can’t reasonably expect the CEFR scale to relate to any specific communicative context, or even to provide a measure of any particular communicative language ability. To quote Fulcher (2010) again:

Most importantly, we cannot make the assumption that abilities do develop in the way implied by the hierarchical structure of the scales. The scaling methodology assumes that all descriptors define a statistically unidimensional scale, but it has long been known that the assumed linearity of such scales does not equate to how learners actually acquire language or communicative abilities (Fulcher 1996b, Hulstijn 2007, Meisel 1980). Statistical and psychological unidimensionality are not equivalent, as we have long been aware (Henning 1992). The pedagogic notion of “climbing the CEFR ladder” is therefore naïve in the extreme (Westhoff 2007: 678). Finally, post-hoc attempts to produce benchmark samples showing typical performance at levels inevitably fall prey to the same critique as similar ACTFL studies in the 1980s, that the system states purely analytic truths: “things are true by definition only” (Lantolf and Frawley 1985: 339), and these definitions are both circular and reductive (Fulcher 2008: 170-171). The reification of the CEFR is therefore not theoretically justified.

19.1. Current English language testing uses the CEFR scale in three types of test: first, placement tests, which assign students to a CEFR level, from A1 to C2, where an appropriate course of English, guided by an appropriate coursebook, awaits them; second, progress tests, which are used to decide if students are ready or not for their next course of English; and third, high-stakes-decision proficiency tests (a multi-billion-dollar commercial activity in its own right), which are used purportedly to determine students’ current proficiency level.

19.2. The key place of testing in the ELT industry is demonstrated not just by exam preparation materials which are a lucrative part of publishing companies’ business, but by the fact that most courses of English provided by schools and institutes at all three educational levels start and finish with a test.

Perhaps the best illustration of how language testing forms part of the ELT “hydra” is the Pearson Global Scale of English (GSE), which allows for much more finely grained measurement than that attempted in the CEFR. In the Pearson scale, there are 2,000 can-do descriptors called “Learning Objectives”; over 450 “Grammar Objectives”; 39,000 “Vocabulary items”; and 80,000 “Collocations”, all tagged to nine different levels of proficiency (Pearson, 2019).  Pearson’s GSE comprises four distinct parts, which together create what they proudly describe as “an overall English learning ecosystem” (Pearson, 2019, p.2.). The parts are: 

•           The scale itself – a granular, precise scale of proficiency aligned to the CEFR.

•           GSE Learning Objectives – over 1,800 “can-do” statements that provide context for teachers and learners across reading, writing, speaking and listening.

•           Course Materials – digital and printed materials, most importantly, series of General English coursebooks.

•           Assessments – Placement, Progress and Pearson Test of English Academic tests. 

As Jordan & Long (2022) comment:

Pearson say that while their GSE “reinforces” the CEFR as a tool for standards-based assessment, it goes much further, providing the definitive, all-inclusive package for learning English, including placement, progress and proficiency tests, syllabi and materials for each of the nine levels, and a complete range of teacher training and development materials. 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 is assumed that 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 is the marketing division’s dream, and it shows just how far the commodification of ELT has already come.

19.3. The power of high stakes tests is exemplified by the work of the Cambridge Assessment Group. It has three major exam boards: Cambridge Assessment English, Cambridge Assessment International Education, and Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations. (Note that all these companies are owned by the University of Cambridge and are registered as charities, exempt from taxes!) The group are responsible for the Cambridge B2 (formerly the First Certificate Exam) and Cambridge C1 (formerly the Cambridge Advanced Exam), and also, along with their partners, for the IELTS exams, used globally as a university entrance test (the Academic module), an entrance test to many professions and job opportunities, and as a test for those wishing to migrate to an English-speaking country (the General English module).

In 2018, the Cambridge Assessment Group designed and delivered assessments to more than 8 million learners in over 170 countries, employed nearly 3,000 people in more than 40 locations around the world and generated revenue of over £382 million (tax free). More than 25,000 organizations accept Cambridge English exams as proof of English language ability, including top US and Canadian institutions, all universities in Australia, New Zealand and in the UK, immigration authorities across the English-speaking world, and multinational companies including Adidas, BP, Ernst & Young, Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft. The Cambridge English exams can be taken at over 2,800 authorized exam centers, and there are 50,000 preparation centers worldwide where candidates can prepare for the exams. The impact of the Cambridge Assessment Group’s tests on millions of individual lives can be life-changing, and the scale of their activities means that they have global political, social, economic, and ethical consequences, suggesting to many that an independent body is needed to regulate them.

19.4. As indicated above, “proficiency” in the high scale tests is an epiphenomenon – a secondary effect or by-product of the thing itself. Overall “proficiency” is divided into levels on a proficiency rating scale, determined by groups of people who write proficiency level descriptors, and decide that there are X levels on the particular scale they develop. In fact. only zero and near-native proficiency levels are truly measurable. We know this from the results from countless empirical SLA studies that have tried to identify the advanced learner, which has required the ability to distinguish near-native speakers from true native speakers. Results of these studies consistently show such distinctions are possible provided measures are sufficiently sensitive (Hyltenstam, 2016), and they demonstrate that any other distinctions along proficiency scales are unreliable.

19.5. Beyond the proficiency scale descriptors, there are numerous problems in the tests that elicit language samples on which scores and ratings are based. For example, proficiency tests typically employ speaking prompts and reading texts which purport to have been “leveled,” i.e., judged to aim at the level concerned. This is nonsense. Apart from highly specialized material, all prompts and all texts can be responded to or read at some level; the amount of information conveyed or understood will simply vary as function of language ability. Moreover, proficiency scales offer little in the way of diagnostic information which could indicate to teachers and learners what they would need to do to improve their scores and ratings.

19.6. There is little evidence that proficiency ratings are predictive of success in any language use domain. Even if a test taker can succeed in the testing context, there is no way to tell whether this means the person will succeed outside that context, for example in using language for professional purposes.

19.7. The administration and management of high stakes tests raises the issue of discrimination based on economic inequality. The test fees are high and vary significantly – in the IELTS tests, fees vary from the equivalent of approximately US$150 in Egypt to double that in China, a difference explained more by Chinese students’ desire to study abroad than by any international differences in administration or management costs. Such are the expenses involved in taking these tests that they evidently discriminate against those with lower economic means and make it impossible for some people to take the test multiple times in order to achieve the required score. W.S. Pearson (2019) also points out that the owners of IELTS produce and promote commercial IELTS preparation content, which takes the form of printed and on-line materials and teacher-led courses. These make further financial demands on the test-takers, and while some free online preparation materials are made available on the IELTS website, full access to the materials costs approximately US$52, and is free only for candidates who do the test or a preparation course with the British Council. Likewise, details of the criteria used to assess the IELTS writing test are only freely available to British Council candidates; all other candidates are charged approximately US$55 for this important information. Finally, it should be noted that it is common, for those who can afford it, to take the IELTS multiple times in an attempt to improve their scores, and that the score obtained in an IELTS test is only valid for two years.   

19.8. The simplicity and efficiency with which high stake test scores can be processed strengthens the perception that the scores are used blindly by the gatekeepers of university entrance,. If an overseas student does not achieve the required score, their application for admission to the university is normally turned down. Even more questionable is the use of the test by employers to assess prospective employees’ ability to function in the workplace, despite the fact that, in most cases, none of the test tasks closely corresponds with what an employee is expected to do in the job. Worst of all, band scores in the test are used by some national governments as benchmarks for migration: It is quite simply immoral to use a score on these tests to deny a person’s application for immigration. 

Those who seek to study at universities abroad or to work for a number of large multinational companies, or to migrate, are forced to engage with these tests on the terms set by the test owners, conferring on the owners considerable global power and influence; and they suffer dire consequences if they fail to achieve the required mark in tests which, in a great many cases, are not fit for purpose.

I’ll give a full list of references at the end of the thesis.

2022: A Personal View of The Ups and Downs in ELT


It’s been another bad year for ELT. You win some, you lose some, and if you’re fighting the hydra of the ELT establishment, you generally lose. A quick look at the money made by the owners and main stakeholders of a 200 billion dollar industry is enough to appreciate the power that vested interests have to ensure that coursebook-driven ELT keeps on going, despite its abysmal failure to deliver the promised goods. What chance have those who promote radical alternatives like Dogme or TBLT got?

After all, those of us fighting for change in ELT share the obstacles facing any group that fights for radical change – we fight against a well-entrenched establishment that defends and promotes the interests of a ruling class bent on accruing wealth. And today, the hopes of success are surely worse than they’ve ever been – David has never been so puny, Goliath never so colossal. Our enemy is truly imperial. Above our bosses – those who run the ELT industry (stuffing their own pockets while pushing their employees towards, or further into, poverty) – are their bosses: a ruling class of plutocrats.  

Piketty’s acclaimed “Capital in the 21st Century”, for all its analytical shortcomings, provides some good, quantifiable descriptors of 21st century wealth and describes how, after a short dip in the mid 20th century, wealth is increasingly concentrated in ever-fewer hands. The Squeeze goes on, the gap between rich and poor widens, the middle classes collapse, the lives of the uber-wealthy serve as vulgar, unobtainable goals for the rest, who become spectators, as the Situationists called them in the sixties, of the fake accounts of the lives of celebrities. Neoliberal Capitalism strides on. It drives not just coursebook-driven ELT, but also the commodification of education and the commodification of everyday life. As a necessary consequence, it also drives the destruction of the planet. Homo sapiens (“the wise human”!) has so lost its way that it has now turned its back on wisdom, on living a good life, on its own survival. We’re on our way to such catastrophic climate change that talking about the state of ELT – like talking about anything other than what’s happening to the planet – seems absurd. Hey Ho. The band strikes up Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side” and onward thru the fog we go.


1. The Book

For me, the highlight of the year was the publication of the book Mike Long and I had worked on for two years. A huge cloud hung over its publication because Mike Long wasn’t here to see it; but, thanks to Cathy Doughty’s efforts, it’s finally out there. Even with Mike’s clout behind it, we couldn’t find a big publisher willing to take it on, so we ended up with a publisher that has aimed the book exclusively at university libraries. If you haven’t got access to it, and you’d like to read it, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a pdf. copy.

Our book starts from the premise that ELT practice should be informed by what we know about how people learn an L2. The first six chapters outline a view of SLA based on 60 years of SLA research. It goes on to describe how current ELT largely ignores that view, and thus leads to inefficacious ELT practices: synthetic syllabuses, teacher training, classroom practice and high stakes exams all focus on the English language as an object of study, rather than as something that is learned by doing. We argue that, driven by commercial interests which insist on packaging ELT into commodities for sale, ELT today betrays educational principles in general, and the special characteristics of learning an L2 in particular. We conclude with a chapter that describes and discusses promising alternatives. See here for a review.

It was an honour to collaborate with Mike on this book; it represents the most enjoyable and rewarding work in my professional life.

2. Lunch with Scott Thornbury

After forty years of reading Scott’s stuff, bumping into him at conferences, tangling with him on social media – his blog, mine, Twitter – we finally met for a lunch in Barcelona. I was so looking forward to our meeting that I drank too much wine too quickly (the story of my life, right there!), but anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Scott hurried into the restaurant looking fit, vibrant, handsome, and then sat down in a way that all of us over 70 years old do: you take in the height of the chair, you poise yourself, you let go in an act of faith, and you let out a sigh of relief as your bum mercifully hits the middle of the chair: “Aghhh Umphhhh!”. Warm handshakes, “It’s been too long…”, all that, and off we went.

We went down memory lane and talked about our initiation into ELT. We both did International House courses in London. While I remember that course as one of the worst “educational” experiences of my life – to me, it felt like brain-washing  –  Scott remembers it as informative and inspiring. Well there you go. On then to our encounters with leading figures in ELT history. Chris Candlin (abrasive, radical, a dauntingly assertive pioneer); Henry Widdowson (a beautifully articulate, incisively critical conservative); Earl Stevick (the maestro, a truly lovely human being. We agreed that he was the most influential voice for humanistic teaching that we’d ever met); Jack Richards (multi-millionaire who paid a six-figure sum for a tiny bit of Ming pottery while shopping in Barcelona); David Nunan (charming, well-informed, workaholic, almost as rich and ambitious as Richards); Dick Schmidt (frighteningly brilliant; a bit like Mike Long: if you weren’t at your best, he’d shoot you down in flames); John Fanselow (another lovely human being, the very best, much neglected expert on class observation and, IMHO (with Scott a close second), the best plenary speaker in the history of international IATEFL and TESOL conferences); Mike Long (despite his reputation, enormously witty and fun to be with); and many others. What had we learnt? Me: respect for scientific enquiry and humanistic pedagogy are the recipes for good ELT practice. Scott: learn from the past, take gems from everywhere, be realistic and tolerant, base ELT on doing things in the L2.      

Then, as the pudding was served (flan de la casa, of course), we waded into the present malaise of current ELT. There were few things we disagreed about. Scott, after all, is the one who has most often and most eloquently skewered coursebook-driven ELT. He famously described current ELT as serving up “grammar McNuggets”, and he is, with co-author Luke Meddings, the driving force behind “Dogme”, a radical alternative to current ELT practices. While he’s pessimistic about any big changes in ELT happening soon, he works for change. Scott supports the “Hands Up” project, he engages with radicals, he’s a force for change.    

As we left the restaurant, my “unsteady gait” led Scott to gently express concern. “Are you OK?”, he asked. “Don’t worry”, I told him cheerfully, as I waved vaguely at passing taxis, “I’ll make it”. Slumped in a taxi, I reflected on Scott. What a man! He walks the tightrope between the establishment and its dissidents with remarkable grace and aplomb. He so often wobbles perilously up there on the high wire, his theoretically-opposed left and right arms outstretched, flapping precariously up and down, seeking balance, dangerously aware of contradictions. Will he fall? No he won’t! He’ll stay up there, charming us all, doing much more good than harm to the cause of efficacious ELT. Like so many, I’m a devoted fan of Scott Thornbury, and I remember my lunch with him very fondly.

3. Employment

Late this year, I took on a new job as supervisor for Ph.D. students at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. I was afraid that my age (78 years old) would disqualify me, but I’m very pleased to say that it didn’t. I get paid significantly more than Leicester University pays me and I will work with students who are engaged in what I regard as the only real challenge left in today’s higher education certificates.

Doing a Ph.D. involves intellectual curiosity, digging (by copious reading), intellectual discipline to cope with the digging, stamina and motivation. Supervising Ph.D. students involves appreciating the task they’ve taken on, a real engagement with their topic, helping with the formulation and execution of their study, helping with the organization and presentation of the thesis, and giving them encouragement throughout. This is the kind of teaching I enjoy the most.

I got my love of studying (the necessary quality of an academic) from my school days. Aged 16, in the “Sixth Form”, I chose three A-Level subjects (economics, philosophy and European history), exam results in which would decide if I went to university. The way I was taught suddenly changed: teaching went from working through a coursebook to asking students to explore for themselves. We were given a topic (e.g., “Causes of the First World War”), a list of books, and we were required to produce an essay which was improved by successive drafts, helped by peer and teacher feedback. I took to this new way of learning like the proverbial duck takes to water.

At university, the same kind of teaching continued, but far less guidance was given. My tutor in my first year as an undergraduate at the LSE was Prof. De Smith, an expert in International Law who wrote constitutions for African countries recently freed from British rule. His efforts – hundreds of pages of closely-argued guidance on how to run a country – were usually tossed in the bin soon after the new governments got power. I made several unsuccessful attempts to see my tutor before I learned from conversations with post-grads in the Three Tuns bar that Prof. De Smith never talked to undergraduates. His room was on the top floor of the East Wing building, and whenever he heard a knock on his door, he scooted up a ladder and sat on the roof till he was sure the would-be intruder had gone away. In the entire year, I never spoke to Prof. De Smith, or heard from him, so I got on with my work without his help. At the end of the year, I got a letter from the uni. telling me I’d passed all my exams. In the same envelope was a letter from the great man himself. He congratulated me on my results and concluded “You have been a model tutee. If ever you need a reference, do not hesitate to contact me.”

That’s a radical version of learner-centred education, but it’s one I’ve always tilted towards. Teachers should get out of the way of their students’ learning trajectory, and nowhere is that imperative more true than in ELT.



Most of the “downs” of 2022 relate to the increased precarity of teachers’ jobs. In all sectors of education – private & public, primary, secondary, tertiary – we’ve seen the erosion of decent contracts, pay and pension plans. The ELT section of education is worse than most. It’s such a big profit-maker that it’s particularly riddled with government corruption, cronyism, and disgraceful exploitation of workers in unregulated private schools all over the world. IATEFL’s non-engagement in the fight for teachers’ rights is a disgrace. Despite attempts by Paul Walsh and others, IATEFL refuses to change its constitution, refuses to allow these matters to be discussed in plenaries at their conferences, refuses to devote time or funds to fighting the most blatant examples of worker exploitation. Shame on the organization, and shame particularly on those who lead it and its Special Interest groups.  

2. Raciolinguistics and Translanguaging

This year has seen the continued promotion of raciolinguistics and translanguaging in ELT circles, perhaps influenced by the increasing number of articles on these topics appearing in academic journals. However much the discussion of these topics might help those involved in ELT think more carefully about racism and about the English language as a purveyor of imperialist ideologies, I suggest that

  1. they’re both blighted by their reliance on relativist epistemologies, and
  2. neither offers any clear progressive alternative to how ELT should be carried out.       

As to the first point, relativists argue that there’s no such thing as objective knowledge – everything we “know” is socially constructed; there’s no reliable way we can judge between rival explanations of certain phenomena. Anybody who takes this view seriously, or adopts it as an intellectual posture (“trying it on” as Auden said) is beyond the realm of critical, rational discourse. Note that one thing is to discuss epistemology in a philosophical way, and another is to simply adopt a relativist stance because it suits you. I like reading Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and others. I confess that they often lose me, there’s stuff I just don’t get, and much that I think is rubbish. But I don’t think it’s bullshit, which, in my opinion, is what people like Shawer, Guba and Lincoln write. They adopt relativism because it suits them, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. (Bullshit involves talking about things that you don’t know much about as if you knew a lot more. Critical thinking (one more commodity these days) involves logical thinking, but after that, it’s largely about developing the ability to recognise bullshit.) Guba & Lincoln’s bullshit has led to millions of gullible people with Masters degrees in TESOL completely misunderstanding scientific method. By extension, it’s led to the flimsy support offered for a lot of sociolinguistic research in the last 30 years.  

Talking of bullshit, the worst example of it in 2022 is surely Gerald’s attempt to apply raciolinguistics to ELT in his frantically self-promoted book Antisocial Language Teaching. I’ve reviewed the book already, so let me here focus on its contribution to ELT practice. It’s pathetic. My on-line thesaurus suggests feeble, paltry, miserable, puny, useless as synonyms and I think they all apply. Gerald is one of those native speaker chancers who taught EFL for a few years abroad (S. Korea) and then came home (New York) to do a Ph.D. and join the crowded ranks of social media bullshitters. There’s no indication in anything that he’s published to suggest that Gerald has even the most elementary grasp of SLA, or of the development of ELT methodology, or syllabus design, or language assessment, or any damn thing related to the principles or practice of ELT. Gerald’s suggestions for improving things indicate a flimsy, superficial understanding of what ELT involves. More than that, they indicate that, really, he doesn’t give a flying fuck about ELT.    

Let’s go from the gutter to the dizzy realms of academia. Up here, where the air is thin, translanguaging is trending. Garcia, Flores, Rosa and Li Wei are the translanguaging crusaders whose obscurantist prose is a give-away for the fact that they have nothing interesting to offer ELT practice (or anything else for that matter). During 2022 I’ve written several posts on their stuff, so here, it’s enough to say that seeing language as “a fluid, embodied social construct” contributes little to the task of bringing about new, innovative English language education. None of the Fantastic Four has come anywhere near to presenting a clear outline of how translaguaging – a fashionable, incoherent theoretical construct, handy these days to gain quick promotion up there in acamedia – can encourage the radical change in ELT which is so urgently needed.

Onward thru the fog, then, and best wishes for 2023.             

SLB: Task-Based Language Teaching Course No. 4

Roll Up! Roll Up! Limited Places! Hury! Hurry! Hurry!

The fourth run of our online TBLT course starts on January 23rd 2023 and subscription is now open. It’s a 100-hour, online tutored course aimed at 

  • classroom teachers
  • course designers,
  • teacher-trainers, 
  • directors of studies and 
  • materials writers.

The growing popularity of TBLT as an approach to language teaching is surely explained by increasing dissatisfaction among EFL professionals with current ELT practice. As convenient as coursebook-driven courses might be, they’re tedious, based on false assumptions about how people learn an L2, and they frequently fail to deliver the improvement that students hope for. In contrast, TBLT focuses on meaning-making and engagement with real-world language needs; they give experienced teachers fresh opportunities to re-engage with their practice, they offer new teachers a more challenging, much more rewarding framework for their work, and they allow students to learn through scaffolded use of the language (learning by doing), which, as we know from evidence from research, is the best way to learn an L2.

The vibrancy of TBLT is evidenced by animated discussions on social media, by increasing presentations at conferences (including the biennial International Conference on TBLT), by the recently-formed International Association of TBLT (IATBLT), and by the wave of new publications, including thousands of journal articles, special issues in prominent journals, and the new journal specifically dedicated to the topic, TASK: Journal on Task-Based Language Teaching and Learning, the first volume of which appeared in 2021. Books which followed Long’s seminal (2015) SLA and TBLT include

  • Ahmadian & García Mayo, M. (2017) Task-Based Language Teaching: Issues, Research and Practice,
  • Ellis, R., Skehan, P., Li, S., Shintani, N., & Lambert, C. (2019) Task-Based Language Teaching: Theory and Practice. and
  • Ahmadian, M. & Long, M. (2021) Cambridge Handbook of Task-Based Language Teaching. 

All of these will be dealt with in the course.

The Course

Our SLB course tries to “walk the talk” by working through a series of tasks relating to key aspects of TBLT, from needs analysis through syllabus and material design to classroom delivery and assessment. While we are influenced by Long’s particular version of TBLT, we also explore lighter, more feasible versions of TBLT which can be adopted by smaller schools or individual teachers working with groups with specific needs.

 Neil McMillan (president of SLF) and Geoff Jordan (both experienced teachers with Ph.Ds) do most of the tutoring, but we are priveleged to be assisted by the following experts:

Roger GilabertAn expert on TBLT, Roger worked with Mike Long on several projects and has developed a TBLT course for Catalan journalists. His contributions to our three previous courses have been extremely highly rated by participants.

Marta González-Lloret: Marta did her PhD with Mike Long at the University of Hawai’i, is currently book series co-editor of Task-Based Language Teaching. Issues, Research and Practice, Benjamins, and is espcially interested in using technology-mediated tasks.

Glenn FulcherGlenn is a renowned testing & assessment scholar. His (2015) Re-examining Language Testing. A Philosophical and Social Inquiry was winner of the 2016 SAGE/ILTA Book Award, jointly with Fulcher and Davidson (2012) The Routledge Handbook of Language Testing.  He’ll help us with our discussion of task-based, criterion-referenced performance tests.

Peter Skehan Peter is one of the most influential scholars in SLA, with a particular interest in TBLT. Peter was the inaugural recipient, along with Mike Long, of the IATBLT’s Distinguished Achievement Award, made in 2017 at the Barcelona conference. We will use recordings we made of discussions with Peter, where he helps us get to grips with a key part of TBLT: designing and sequencing pedagogic tasks. We hope Peter will also join us for a video-conference session during the course.

Ljiljana Havran Ljiljana is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer who works in Belgrade. Her blog is one of the most read and respected in the ELT community. Ljiljana will share her experiences of designing and implementing a TBLT course for pilots and air traffic controllers.

Rose Bard Rose Bard works in Brazil and, like Ljiljana, has a blog which enjoys a wide audience. In this course, Rose is going to tell us how she uses Minecraft in her TBLT courses aimed at young learners.

Mike LongThe course will also include exclusive recordings of Mike Long, who inspired Neil and me to design the course, and who contributed to our first three versions of the course.

1. Modules

Now you can choose individual modules or the whole course. The whole course takes 100 hours and consists of five modules (see below). If you choose to do one or two individual modules, you’ll have the chance to do further modules in later courses to achieve complete certification.

2. TBLT & Technology

We will give more attention to the increasingly important influence of new technologies on the TBLT field. As the tasks people need to perform are increasingly mediated by technologies, so is TBLT itself, with consequences for how TBLT courses are designed and run.

3. More Flexible approach to TBLT

Thanks to the truly impressive work of the participants in the three previous courses, we’ve learned a lot about the problems of implementing a full version of Long’s TBLT, and we now better appreciate the need for a flexible case-by-case approach to the design and implementation of any TBLT project.

In the third course, we were very pleased to see how each participant slowly developed their own TBLT agenda, working on identifying their own target tasks, breaking these down into relevant pedagogic tasks, finding suitable materials, and bringing all this together using the most appropriate pedagogic procedures.

Another gratifying aspect of all the courses has been the way participants have learned from each other; most of the individual participant’s TBLT models contain common elements which have been forged from the forum discussions.

So in this course, we’ll make even more effort to ensure that each participant works in accord with their own teaching context, and at the same time contributes to the pooled knowledge and expertese of the group.

2. There are 5 modules:

  • Presenting TBLT
  • Designing a TBLT Needs Analysis
  • Designing a task-based pedagogic unit
  • Task-Based Materials:
  •  Facilitating and evaluating tasks

3. Each Module contains:

  • Background reading.
  • A video presentation from the session tutor and/or guest tutors.
  • Interactive exercises to explore key concepts. 
  • An on-going forum discussion with the tutors, guest turors and fellow course participants.
  • An extensive group videoconference session with the tutors and/or guest tutors. 
  • An assessed task (e.g. short essay, presentation, task analysis etc.). 

Sneak Preview

To get more information about the course, and try out a “taster” CLICK HERE

Materials for ELT – and Noticing

Further to discussions on Twitter with Matt Bury and Peter Fenton, here’s a summary of Mike Long’s view of elaborated and modified elaborated input, with some comments about noticing that just sort of happened. The main text is Long (2020), but I also refer to Long (2015) and to Jordan & Long (2022).  

Spoken and written input for language learning traditionally focus on the relative merits of authentic and linguistically simplified spoken and written texts. Long argues that elaborated input and, in particular, modified elaborated input, are better options, especially when the input texts are part of tasks.

Genuine (authentic) input

Authentic texts are spoken or written records of real-world communication among native or non-native speakers, i.e. texts not spoken or written in conformity with any particular linguistic guidelines or vocabulary list.

Widdowson (1976) rightly problematized ‘authentic’, pointing out that a text may be genuine in the sense of not originally having been produced for language teaching, but its use in a coursebook or classroom lesson may not be authentic. If a teacher records and transcribes segments of a radio news broadcast or undergraduate economics lecture, and then, with key information bits deleted, presents written excerpts to students, whose job it is to fill in the missing words or phrases as they listen to the recording, then the classroom activities based upon them are not authentic.

An obvious problem with genuine texts for language teaching is that most are produced for native speakers. Parts will be linguistically too simple, and (more often) other parts too complex to be processed. Teachers waste a lot of limited classroom time in an effort to make institutionally mandated, inappropriately complex (simplified or genuine) dialogs or reading passages comprehensible for students who were  simply not ready for them. The devices to which teachers resort to increase comprehensibility (schema building, vocabulary pre-teaching, visual aids, translation, grammatical explanations, vocabulary glossing, etc.) are precisely those that make classroom use of genuine (or any other) texts inauthentic.

Simplified input

Simplified texts typically take the form of graded readers and the dialogs and reading passages found in coursebooks. In many cases, simplified texts are themselves originals, written that way from the get-go, so strictly speaking, linguistically simple, not simplified. In either case, they are created using only those linguistic forms, verb tenses, grammatical structures, lexical items, and collocations thought appropriate for learners of a given L2 ‘proficiency level’. Learners are presented with examples of what Widdowson (1972) called target language usage (What am I wearing? Youre wearing a sweater), not use. The aim is to show the inner workings of the code, not how the language is used for communication.

I think this bit of Long (2020) is worth quoting:

Whereas real conversations are marked by open-endedness, implicitness, and intertextuality, there is a tendency for textbook writers to produce stand-alone dialogs (and reading passages) with a beginning, a middle, and an end, containing all the information needed for the inevitable comprehension questions, and no more. Did David take the pills? How many pills did he take? When did he take them? Did David exercise? And so on. (For detailed examples and discussion, see Long, 2015, pp. 169–204.) Little or nothing is left unstated, and allusions are rare. The Blands of Potters Bar greet one another, say something banal that includes several models of the “structure du jour”, and take their leave. Even in the hands of  the most skillful materials writers, the end-product can be painful, and the resulting classroom inter- action reminiscent of Becket on a bad day (Dinsmore, 1985). The artificiality is increased by the fact that materials writers’ intuitions are the basis for the texts they write, and every study that has looked at the issue (e.g., Cathcart,1989; Williams,1988; Bartlett, 2005; Granena, 2008) has found materials written that way differ markedly from real speech, a problem exacerbated when unfamiliar specialist discourse domains are involved.

Constantly recycling the same grammatical patterns and limited set of vocabulary items results in impoverished input, which is counter-productive from an acquisition perspective. Acquisition potential is sacrificed for comprehensibility thus excluding many new opportunities for learning. Comprehensibility is needed, but language acquisition from the input should not be sacrificed.

Below, Tables 1.1 and 12 juxtapose genuine and simplified versions of the same short text. Regarding the simplified text, Long comments

 in the simplified version, the series of short, choppy sentences creates an irritating, breathless, staccato effect, and can make processing for meaning harder. The intra-sentential linker, so, has been lost, and with it, the explicit marking (an example of redundancy) of the causal relationship between the driver fleeing the scene  and the woman’s inability to provide the police with anything more than a rough description. This, too, can make comprehension harder, as the causality is now left to inference on the  reader’s part.  There is unnatural repetition of full noun phrases (driver driver, woman woman) instead of target-like pronominalization and anaphoric reference (driver he, woman she). Examples of genuine NS language use (catch a glimpse, fled the scene, provide a rough description, bolded in Table 1.1 to make tracking them easier) are lost, replaced by higher frequency, less informative, unnatural-sounding items with  less precise meanings (saw for only a moment, immediately drove away fast, tell (the police) a little about him). Comprehensibility has been improved, no doubt, but of a text that has been bled  of semantic detail and realistic models of target  language  use.  Fortunately,  genuine  and  simplified  texts are not the only options.

Elaborated input

Long’s research into how native speakers (NS) modified the way they talked to non-native speakers (NNS) – so-called foreigner talk discourse  –  found that while NSs made some quantitative changes to the language they used, e.g., by employing shorter utterances and favoring yes/no or or-choice over wh questions, modifications of the Interactional Structure of Conversation were more pervasive and more important. In other words, comprehensibility was achieved not so much by simplifying the input as by changing the ways communicative talk was accomplished. Long says:

When NSs converse with NNS, they use a wide variety of devices for the purpose of input elaboration, including slower speech rate, relinquishing topic control, making new topics salient, preference for a here-and-now over a there-and-then orientation, decomposing complex topics into their component parts, eight types of repetition (exact and semantic, partial and complete, self and other), one-beat pauses before and/or after key information-bearing words, clarification requests, com- prehension checks, confirmation checks, lexical switches, synonyms, antonyms, and informal definitions.

Table 1.1 Traffic accident sentences

Genuine The only witness just caught a glimpse of the driver as he fled the scene, so she could only provide the police with a rough description.
SimplifiedA woman was the only person who saw the accident. She saw the driver for only a moment. The driver did not stop. He immediately drove away fast. The woman could only tell the police a little about him.
ElaboratedThe only person who saw the accident, the only witness, was a woman. She only caught a glimpse of the driver, just saw him for a moment, because he fled the scene, driving away fast without stopping, so she could only provide the police with a rough description of him, not an accurate one.
Modified elaboratedThe only person who saw the accident, the only witness, was a woman. She only caught a glimpse of the driver, just saw him for a moment, because he fled the scene, driving away fast without stopping. As a result, she could only provide the police with a rough description of him, not an accurate one.

Table 1.2 Descriptive statistics for the traffic accident sentences

Modified elaborated56318.672.3

*MVs, main verbs and modals.

Genuine: The only witness just caught a glimpse of the driver as he fled the scene, so she could only provide the police with a rough description.

Elaborated: The only person who saw the accident, the only witness, was a woman. She only  caught  a glimpse of the driver, just saw him  for a  moment,  because  he  fled  the  scene,  driving  away fast without stopping, so she could only  provide  the  police with  a rough  description  of him,  not an accurate one.

The total word count is twice that for the genuine version, and the syntactic complexity over twice that of the simplified version. The increase in word count is a direct result of various kinds of input redundancy, which, by definition, result from elaboration. For example, informal definitions have been added to facilitate understanding of the (bolded) unknown lexical items and collocations. The bolded items were  lost in the simplified version, but now retained. Help with the meaning of ‘rough’ in a rough description is offered by the added contrast, not an accurate one. NNSs in most research comparing the comprehensibility of spoken and written texts have been found to understand elaborated versions almost as well as simplified versions, and both significantly better than genuine versions.

The Yano et al. (1994), Oh (2001) and O’Donnell (2009) studies showed that elaborative modifications were as successful in improving comprehension as simplification, and did so without sacrificing unknown lexical items. The finding suggests that whereas simplified input tends to bleed semantic content, elaborated input does not. The findings are positive from an acquisition perspective, too, as they mean that NS models of target language use need not be sacrificed on the altar of comprehensible input.

Modified elaborated input

Despite its overall advantages, input elaboration also has some undesirable side-effects, in particular, excessive utterance or sentence length When designing pedagogic materials, it is easy to provide teachers and learners with the advantages of elaborated input while eliminating the readability problem. In most cases, all that is required is to split unwieldy utterances or sentences into shorter ones, and where needed,  add intra- or inter-sentential  linking expressions to strengthen any vulnerable semantic relationships among the resulting parts:

The only person who saw the accident, the only witness, was a woman. She only  caught  a glimpse of the driver, just saw him  for a  moment,  because  he  fled  the  scene,  driving  away fast without stopping. As a result, she  could  only provide  the police with a rough  description    of him, not an accurate one.

All the important examples of native language use (witness, catch a glimpse, flee the scene, rough description, etc.), lost in the simplified version, are again retained, and the causal relationship between the driver fleeing and the witness only being able to provide a rough description is marked explicitly by addition of the inter-sentential connector as a result.  Modified elaborated input exposes learners to nativelike L2 use, increases comprehensibility by retaining the  redundancy and other features typical  of elaboration, and restores normal sentence length and reasonable syntactic complexity. Just as training wheels are removed from bicycles as children learn to balance, or crutches replaced by a walking cane as an athlete recovers from a broken leg, the cane subsequently discarded, so the devices  employed to achieve elaboration are gradually removed as learners’ proficiency increases, eventually giving way to genuine texts for advanced students.

The crucial requirement is that the focus be on communication through the L2, not on the L2 code itself. The easiest way to create that condition, and thereby ensure that modified elaborated input is produced, is for materials writers and classroom teachers to recognize a variety of relevant sources  of input. Those include teacher speech, input from classmates, and language use surrounding the performance of dynamic tasks. Then, just as caretakers effortlessly and instinctively modify the way they talk to infant children, so, after some simple training, materials writers and classroom teachers can produce appropriate modified elaborated input for L2 learners, including students learning subject matter or to perform tasks in the L2.

The Kicker

For most learners of an L2, a functional command of the L2 is more important than knowing about the L2 grammar. Learners depend primarily on their implicit knowledge – L2 knowledge they have but do not know they have. Implicit knowledge is the result of incidental L2 learning – picking up parts of a language without intending to, as a by-product of doing something else, such as reading a newspaper, watching TV, living overseas in an immersion setting, or working in the L2 on a problem-solving task.

Long recognizes that while it is important to increase classroom opportunities for incidental learning, there is insufficient time, and usually, insufficient input for classroom language learning by older children and adults to be accomplished purely implicitly, and far too many items for them all to be learned explicitly, either, of course.

Simply exposing learners to comprehensible input and relying on inductive learning to do the rest is to assume, wrongly, that the power of incidental learning, especially instance learning, remains as strong in older learners as it is in young children.

Long has argued for decades that a “Focus on Form” approach (deal with adult learners’ deficiencies by focusing on formal aspects of the language reactively, as they occur, thru negative feedback) is better than a grammar-based diet of “Focus on Forms” (i.e., lessons in which the primary focus is on language as object). He now asks: “Can the same results be achieved through even less intrusive means, specifically through enhanced incidental learning?”

Enhanced incidental learning refers to an internal process in the mind of the learner. It differs from input enhancement, which relies on a third party adding things like bolding, underlining, or italicizing words in written input, or stress, pauses, and increased volume in speech. While input enhancement attempts to promote conscious “noticing” of the target items, enhanced incidental learning is intended to increase unconscious detection, and thereby, the efficiency of the incidental learning process, without necessarily raising learning to the level of conscious awareness at all.

Conscious noticing, says Long, may be optimal for non-salient linguistic targets, but “can perception at the level of unconscious detection work with adults for vocabulary and collocations, at least, and possibly for perceptually salient grammatical issues, like negation or adverb placement?”

For me, this is a crucial question, almost hidden in the text. I don’t agree that conscious noticing is “optimal” for learning anything about language, but here, Long is entertaining an idea that he and I often argued about till I fell off my bar chair, my final words usually being something to the effect that noticing is probably the worst construct ever in SLA.   

Long asks if it’s necessary, or just facilitative, for teachers

to help learners notice a new form and establish a first representation in long-term memory – not to teach it in the traditional understanding of the term, but so that the representation thereafter serves  as a selective cue that primes the learner to attend to and perceive subsequent instances in the input during implicit processing?”

There’s a marvelous doubt percolating there – is “noticing” as a theoretical construct of any use at all?!  I was arguing amicably with Mike Long about this right up to when cancer so quickly snatched him from us. Noticing, Schmidt’s twice amended, much battered theoretical construct, is generally used, quite inappropriately and crassly in its dictionary sense, to justify explicit grammar teaching. The theoretical construct of noticing is more carefully used by those who suggest that SLA is a process involving “disabled” adult learners, who, while they learn an L2 pretty well in the normal implicit way, have trouble overcoming the influences of their L1. Nick Ellis says that adults learning English don’t “notice” non-salient, low frequency, etc., items of the L2, and they therefore resort to the norms of their L1, which leads to L1-enduced “errors” in their use of the L2. What’s needed to overcome these errors, says Nick Ellis, is for learners of English as an L2 to “re-set the dial” (i.e., the dial set by their L1). Re-setting the dial is best done, says Nick Ellis, by Long’s “focus on form” – quick interventions during meaning-focused communication which focus on form in such a way that a first representation of the recalcitrant form is placed in long-term memory, after which, the default implicit learning mechanism takes over again. To quote Nick Ellis: “The general principle of explicit learning in SLA is that changing the cues that learners focus on in their language processing changes what their implicit learning processes tune” (2005, p. 327). Mike Long, to my dismay, agreed with Nick Ellis. To borrow from Groucho Marx, I may be wonderful, but I think they’re wrong. I don’t think language learning is usage-based, I don’t think noticing is a useful construct, and I don’t think re-setting the dial is a good principle that usefully informs teaching.

Bimodal Input

Well, never mind. Whatever doubts I have about Long’s final views on SLA, he made a huge contribution to developing our knowledge of the field, and his suggestions for designing courses of English as an L2 remain among the best-informed, best-described and best-motivated of them all. Long insists that language learning is learning by doing and that therefore syllabuses should be analytic, not the awful synthetic bits of crap served up by coursebooks.

Long finishes his 2020 article by asking how incidental learning can be sped up and generally made more efficient. (See – in his heart, he really believes that we must leave behind all forms of instruction-based ELT!) He recommends the use of “bimodal input” – a growing and enormously important development in ELT materials. Input can be presented  in oral and written form simultaneously, as when a learner reads a story while listening to a recording of it being read aloud by someone else, e.g., in an audiobook. Other options include a combination of oral and visual, as when someone watches a video, written and visual, e.g., a silent movie with sub- titles, and (tri-modally) oral, written and visual, e.g., a movie with sound and sub-titles. Bimodal presentation doesn’t require all the work involved in making elaborated texts – recordings can simply use slow pace, with salience added to specific vocabulary items or collocations, through stress and one-beat pauses before and/or after key information-bearing items, with or without corresponding changes to the written version (italics, bolding, capitalization, color, etc.).

There remains the question of the content of the texts used. Use your own common sense, your own experience, your own judgement, your own political and cultural values, and your knowledge of the local context, to guide you. For additional help, talk to Tyson Seburn.   


Jordan, G & Long, M. ELT now and How it Could Be. Cambridge Scholars.

Long, M. (2020) Optimal input for language learning: Genuine, simplified, elaborated, or modified elaborated? Language Teaching, 53, 169–182

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquistion and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley, Blackwell.

Thesis on Current ELT Part One

1. Currently, over a billion people do courses in English as an L2. Most of them fail to reach their objectives.

2. They fail because ELT is a multi-billion dollar commercial enterprise, where the aim is to maximise profits, rather than help people to use English for their own purposes / needs.  

3. The ELT industry is an inter-locking hydra composed of publishers, teacher trainers, course providers and examination boards.  

4. All four heads of the ELT hydra focus on selling products: coursebooks and related materials, teacher training courses, courses of English, and exams.

5. Selling ELT products involves the reification of language learning. (Reification is changing abstract ideas into something real. For example, proficiency is changed into the CEFR scale. The abstract idea of language learning is changed into products for sale.)

6. The products of ELT are:

  • coursebooks and related materials;
  • training courses like CELTA and DELTA, and CPD courses offered by a host of teacher educators
  • EFL/ ESL courses like those offered by private outfits (International House, the British Council, Berlitz, etc.) and public schools across the world
  • Exams such as the IELTS, the Cambridge suite and TOEFL.

7. All these products suffer from the same weakness: they ignore the fact that learning an additional language (L2) is not the same as learning other subjects like geography or biology. They wrongly assume that knowing things about the L2 (e.g., in English, to form the 3rd person singular of the present tense of verbs, add an “s” to the infinitive) leads to the ability to use this knowledge for practical purposes.

8. Language is far too complex to be described by pedagogic grammars. As VanPatten says, what the textbook says about the present perfect is not a good description of what’s in the head of any learner.

9. Chomsky’s work is one attempt to describe linguistic knowledge (competence), Nick Ellis is working on another usage-based description. Both Chomsky’s and Nick Ellis’ attempts to describe linguistic knowledge indicate that it’s practically impossible to reduce it to something that can be taught to non-specialist linguists. Linguistics is a very specialized academic discipline that has almost nothing in common with ELT. English language teachers should appreciate that they’re not teaching linguistics – their job is to help their students use the L2. They are enabling agents, not content specialists.

10. Teaching students about the L2 doesn’t lead to an ability to use the L2, as shown by the experiences of the billions (sic) of students who, in the past hundred years, have been taught about an L2 and who ended up, after hundreds of hours of instruction, incapable of using it for any communicative purpose. Our knowledge about the languages we use is overwhelmingly unconscious: it is completely different to our knowledge of, for example, geography.

11. We learn an L2 by processing input. We get language input from the environment, from people who talk to us and those we listen to or read. We make sense of the input in our heads – in our brains, or minds, if the latter theoretical construct is allowed. All the processing that goes on in our brain / mind results in the development of what is referred to as “interlanguage” – a dynamic, non-linear representation of the L2 that gets increasingly closer to the way native speakers use it.

12. Regardless of their theoretical orientation (UG or usage-based), SLA scholars agree that interlanguage development goes through certain stages that are impervious to instruction. This leads to Pienemann’s teachability hypothesis, which says that you can’t teach students things about the language that they’re not ready to learn. Let me “up the anti”, as we poker players say, by suggesting that you can’t teach students anything worthwhile about how the L2 works through explicit instruction. I’m increasingly drawn to the view that teachers who dedicate classroom time to “transmitting” explicit knowledge about the L2 are wasting that time, which would be  better spent by giving students opportunities to use the L2 for themselves. VanPatten says that  most teachers’ explicit knowledge of English (or Spanish, or any other L2) isn’t worth trying to teach (i.e. pedagogic grammars are crap) and I take his point. We might see this as a recommendation that there be no – zero! – explicit teaching about the L2 in ELT syllabuses, and I confess that I incline to such a view. Mike Long and I had lots of discussions about this, and I think he was close to agreeing. It doesn’t rule out negative feedback, of course.    

13. Regardless of their theoretical orientation (UG or usage-based), SLA scholars agree that the development of learners’ interlanguages depends on unconscious, internal mental processes. Given the right opportunities – rich input and communicative exchanges – learners will work out for themselves how the L2 (its grammar and lexis and pragmatics) work. Simply put: learning an L2 is best done by “doing it”. Give students tasks where they learn by doing.

14. Learning by doing is the best, most efficacious way of organizing a course in English as an L2.  

15. ELT teacher trainers and educators have a duty to inform teachers about what we know about how people learn an L2. With a few notable exceptions, they fail miserably in that duty. They are part of the problem, they resist any attempt to rescue ELT from its current reliance on coursebooks and its benchmarks of proficiency. That’s hardly surprising because they’re embedded members of the status quo: they write coursebooks and materials, they design and teach courses for teachers, and they design and act as examiners for the high stake proficiency English exams.       

16. Coursebook-driven ELT commodifies language learning. It pushes relentlessly towards the packaging and sale of products like coursebooks, teacher development courses, English courses, and exams which are judged by commercial, not educational, standards. It  rides roughshod over what we know about language learning. Even judged by the declining standards of education in general, ELT is rightly seen as a pariah, an inefficacious disgrace to research-driven education.