Scott Thornbury’s latest dish of thin soup

Scott was recently asked by Dwight Atkinson of the University of Arizona to talk to his MA TESOL students about the theory-practice interface. I find his talk heart-breakingly disapponting. The man we look to for radical change, he who invented and promotes Dogme, who famously lampooned coursebooks with his talk of grammar McNuggets, and who adopts Nick Ellis’ emergentist view of SLA which emphasises the primacy of implicit learning, here serves up a dish of feeble, non-nourishing thin soup which does precisely nothing to further the fight for change.

Nowhere in this I’m-a-teacher-not-an-academic, laid-back chat does Scott properly consider the interface between theory and practice. His discussion of theories of SLA and their implications for ELT practice is vague and avoids arguing for any coherent view of language learning or for any approach to teaching. If you protest: “It’s only a 30 minute talk, for God’s sake!”, I reply that the theory part of the theory-practice interface can easily be done in ten minutes. There’s no complete, unified theory of SLA, but there’s complete consensus on this essential point: learning an additional language is different from learning other subjects like geography or biology, because procedural knowledge is the goal, and procedural knowledge is not gained by focusing on formal aspects of the language in the false hope that, with a bit of careful practice, declarative knowledge turns into procedural knowledge. Learning a language is essentially a process of learning by doing. That’s the theory. As for practice, the theory calls for the rejection of coursebook-driven ELT, of A1 to C2 labelling, of high stakes exams like IELTS, and of training programmes like CELTA, all of which Scott has, in his own carefully-hedged way, succintly criticised in his published work.

Scott’s presentation does nothing to promote the needed push-back against coursebook-driven ELT. It’s nothing more than comfortable, charming pap, likely to get warm murmurs of support from the tethered sheep everywhere. Where wolf?

Below is the recording, and after that some comments.


All teachers have theories about how people learn an L2, however inarticulate they may be.

Teachers’ views of L2 learning become slowly articulated. They develop through reflecting on their experience. Scott gives the example of teaching the present perfect when a student responded “meaningfully”, disregarding the form. “Were I and my student operating in different, parrallel universes?” he asked himself. He resolved “the dilemma” by reading Skehan.

Moral: teachers who bump into dilemmas like “teaching the present perfect didn’t go as my implicit theory of language learning led me to expect” can gain by looking at SLA research that explains interlanguage development. Scott says that reading about the early morpheme studies, which suggested that learners have their own in-built syllabus, solved his dilemma. He then gives a list of phenomena that SLA scholars examine:

As he goes through the list, Scott hums and haws about what they might mean to teachers, without (of course!) coming to any firm conclusions.

Teachers who want to read more are recommended to read books like these:

But, Scott warns, it’s important to keep abrest of developments in SLA. The original morpheme studies, for example, have been seriously questioned by further research. So heed Ur’s words of wisdom

Anyway, some reading and more experience will put teachers in a better position to reflect on their teaching. Scott provides a handy chart:

And thus, through a bit of critical reading and lots of reflection, helped by the handy “My reflection chart”, teachers develop from their original implicit theory of language learning to an informed theory and finally to an adaptive theory which takes their own particular circumstances into account,

If all goes well, teachers will be better able to answer these questions:

Finally, the takeaways:


The takeaways reflect the banality of the presentation – who could possibly argue with them!

Of course teachers have their own unarticulated views of language learning, and of course becoming familiar with SLA research will jolt that view. The important thing, however, is to encourage teachers to appreciate the implications of the research, because, if they do, they will recognise that current coursebook-driven ELT is inefficacious. All branches of science, and the teaching of most subjects on a modern school curriculum, have advanced thanks to due regard to research findings. ELT lags behind because it refuses to recognise the implications of robust findings about how people learn languages. Explicit teaching about the language must take a back seat and priority given to getting learners to use the L2 to perform communicative tasks that are relevant to their needs.

Scott deals with his list of the phenomena studied by SLA scholars as if he’s picking over a few enigmatic, quasi-philosophical conjectures. “Ooo, Aghhh” he goes, “Look at this: second language learning is variable in its outcomes. Now there’s a thing! Well, well. Maybe if we reflect on this, it could have some influence – don’t ask me what, precisely – on our teaching.” He does absolutely nothing to properly organise the phenomena in question, or to join up the dots, or highlight the importance of the second one on his list: “2. A good deal of SLA happens incidentally”. He should have said “Most of SLA happens implicitly”, and he should have linked it to “9. There are limits on the efects of instruction on SLA”, but anyway, he sails past this “phenomenon”, ignoring the fact that it is the key to the whole damn problem of current inefficacious ELT.

There is absolutely no point in discussing the theory-practice interface in the way Scott does. He follows the awful fashion of encouraging “teacher reflection”. Well how the hell are teachers supposed to reflect if they’re not in possession of the information they need to move their reflections beyond folk lore? Scott suggests three books they might read, and you can bet your hat that most teachers won’t read them. They rely, quite understandably, on teacher educators who are supposed to read this stuff and keep them informed about it. But teacher educators fail miserably in their duty to tell teachers about how people learn languages in their initial training, or to keep teachers informed about new findings in SLA in CPD programmes. Why? Because ELT is a commercial multi-million dollar business, built on selling coursebooks, high stakes exams like IELTS, and training programmes like CELTA.

The truth about how people learn languages is deliberately misrepresented, but the truth will out, and ELT will change – with or without Scott’s help or hinderance.

The Recuperation of Communicative Language Teaching

“Recuperation” was the term the Situationist International coined in the 1960s to characterise the move from capitalist control of the means of production to advanced capitalist control of the means of consumption. This was surely the Sits most notable contribution to political theory. Recuperation describes the process by which radical ideas and images are defused, incorporated, annexed and commodified in order for their threat to be neutralised. It changes the meaning of radical ideas and appropriates them into the dominant discourse of the status quo.

  • Mick Jagger starts out as an outrageous drug-taking rebel and ends up as a multi-millionaire appearing on a BBC arts programme discussing culture with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • The fashion industry re-invents punk, selling ripped jeans and dog collars to the masses.
  • Tattoos are recuperated from their original cultural representation and become a universal “must have”.
  • Banksy’s street art is sold at Sotheby’s for millions.
  • Environmental warriors see the language of transitions to sustainability being recuperated by those seeking to delay and deflect the transition.
  • Bastani writes of the “recuperation of the internet by capital”, describing how billion dollar corporate media quickly recuperate the internet so that it now reinforces  and promotes the interests of the status quo.

Recuperation offers an explanation for what happened to Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) in English language teaching (ELT).

CLT began as a protest, a rebellion, whose proponents were signaling their dissatisfaction with the then dominant approaches to ELT. To quote from Jordan & Long (2022)

They wanted to replace teaching the structural aspects of language with “doing” language, with helping students to express themselves in the L2. This was truly revolutionary; they argued that the typical classroom routine:

•             Teacher: “I am leaving the room”. (Walks towards the door.) “What am I doing?” 

•             Students: “You are leaving the room”

Should be replaced with 

•             Teacher: “I am leaving the room”. (Walks towards the door.)

•             Students: “Hurray!”, or “Wait for us!”

Or, to paraphrase Hymes and Halliday, they thought their job should focus on helping students to appreciate the communicative value of utterances, the functional, as well as the structural, aspects of language. “For, after all, there is rarely a direct equivalent between form and function: the illocutionary force (i.e., the speaker’s intention) of “I’m leaving the room” can be “I feel ill”; “I’ve had enough”; “It’s dangerous to stay”; and many other things besides. As Hymes (1971) put it, “There are rules of use without which rules of grammar would be useless.”

CLT stressed that language should be treated not just as a collection of grammatical and structural features, but also as a system of categories of functional and communicative meaning which are used to construct discourse. … CLT’s emergence in the 1980s coincided with important developments in the study of second language learning, and thus it also stressed the importance of teaching in a way that respected SLA research findings. Perhaps the most important assumption here is that learners learn a language through using it to communicate. Following on from this, CLT adopted a humanistic theory of learning and insisted, therefore, that learning can often be promoted by getting students to work together, often in small groups, on activities which involve them in using the target language in meaningful communication so as to complete relevant tasks.

CLT flowered in the late 1970s and early 1980s; see Earl Stevick’s A Way and Ways for descriptions of some of its more outlandish expressions.

The tremendous potential of CLT was snuffed out by the arrival of the modern ELT coursebook, which recuperated CLT and turned it into a harmless component of the new, almost perfectly commodified version of ELT we have today.

To be clear: modern coursebook series, with all their add-on components, recuperated CLT, commodifiied ELT and returned it to exactly the type of teaching (a focus on learning about the language rather than on learning by doing) that the pioneers of CLT were rebelling against. Coursebooks pay lip service to CLT, but the syllabuses and classroom practices which flow from them contradict the principles and the spirit of CLT. Promotional materials for these coursebook series claim to be promoting CLT in the same way that politicians today in the UK and elsewhere claim that they’re promoting “levelling up”. They talk it up, they misrepresent it, and they betray it. They’re bullshitters blinded by their own bullshit. Karl Marx, George Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Erich Fromm, Jurgen Habermas, and dear old Paulo Freire (probably the sufferer of the most severe recuperation in ELT literature!) described aspects of alienation that are all too evident in the stuff you read by coursebook publishers and in the stuff teachers hear at conferences and workshops delivered by their well-paid representatives.  

In the ELT establishment today we have a plethora of now very rich individuals who took part in the initial push towards CLT and who were “neutralised”. Richards & Rogers and David Nunan are the most spectacular (sic) examples: three radical pioneers of CLT who are now multi-millionaire apologists for today’s inefficacious ELT practices. Less academic, more popular figures such as Alan Maley perfectly represent recuperation: long ago they encouraged rebellion, today, they’re respected, well-heeled members of the establishment, supporting coursebook-driven ELT and voicing their skepticism of Dogme and strong versions of TBLT.  

More evidence of recuperation is found in the work of today’s ELT influencers. They come in two categories. First are those who claim to be radicals with no credentials or credibility. A good example is the work of Hugh Dellar, Leo Sellivan and others who peddle a “Lexical Approach”. They claim to offer a radical alternative to established ELT practice, while turning the work of pioneers like Pauly & Syder into dross: they write coursebook series and books aimed at “teacher educators” which nullify the radical content of their sources. Another example is the work of Tyson Seburn, who promotes himself as a radical champion of the rights of LGBTQ+ people without for a moment considering, let alone challeging, the commodification of ELT.

Then there are those who simply ignore what’s really going on. Badly-informed gurus like Jeremy Harmer and Penny Ur continue to tour the conference circuit, nodding at CLT without the slightest commitment to its core principles or its real value, while promoting their own, best-selling, truly appalling books on how to teach.

And then there’s the curious case of Scott Thornbury, one of our best ELT educators, who seems to actively participate in the recuperation of his own work. Scott is the proponent of Dogme, the prime supporter of the “Hands Up” project, the man who invented the now famous “teaching grammar McNuggets” meme, the leader in many ways of today’s gathering push back against coursebook-driven ELT. Yet Scott refuses to outrightly reject courses based on grammar teaching in particular or coursebook-driven ELT in general. “There’s no perfect method”, he says, as if anybody suggested that there were. He tells his huge following that if teaching grammar is the basis of their teaching, if they use coursebooks as the syllabus, then who is he to say they’re wrong.

Maybe, as usual, Scott is ahead of the game. Maybe he’s a pioneer in the next stage of post-post-modernism, the inevitable successor of those described by the Situationists. Maybe Scott deliberately contradicts himself. Maybe he’s the new version of Wittgenstein’s beautifully enigmatic volte-face: if you’ve followed me so far, you’ll know I’m talking nonsense. “Don’t do as I say, just kind of soak it up in your own way. It’s all bad, but if it’s good for you, who am I to disagree, as the song goes”. Scott acts out the mismatch between theory and practice like a jester: he’s a radical at heart, wearing a conventional suit betrayed by a swiveling bow tie. Actually, now I think about it, forget Wittgenstein, the real reference is Hegel. Scott goes beyond thesis and antithesis, marching on towards true, dialectically resolved synthesis. I’m joking.              

Fakers and Pretenders

The vast majority of the “influencers” in the huge, multi-billion dollar industry of English language teaching (ELT) are fakers and pretenders.

An influencer is someone with sway.

ELT Influencers do the conference circuit, giving plenaries at the international IATEFL and TESOL conventions and at as many other of the hundreds of ELT conferences around the world that they can. They write best selling “How to Teach” books. They write coursebooks. They design teacher training courses and they contribute to high stakes tests. They have a big presence on social media.

Most ELT influencers fake knowledge about language learning and pretend to know how to teach. They know next to nothing about how people learn an additional language and, as a result, they base teaching practice on unquestioned false assumptions about language learning.

As in all walks of life, ELT influencers give the impression that they’ve convinced themselves that the bullshit they spout isn’t bullshit. Are they sincere? Does their absence of pretence, deceit, or hypocrisy shine through?

Most ELT influencers are in the pay of the business people who run ELT for profit. Ergo, most ELT Influencers are reactionary.

A few ELT influencers are progressive and challenge the status quo. Most of them will be recuperated, bribed back into compliance.

Beware ELT Influencers.

VanPatten’s Processing Instruction


A recent thread on Twitter prompts me to discuss VanPatten’s “Processing Instruction”. The thread was quite lively and interesting, but I thought VanPatten’s model was being misrepresented, and also that the influence of Schmidt’s Noticing construct was being ignored. So here’s my view. I lean mostly on the book VanPatten edited in 2004: Processing Instruction: Theory, Research and Commentary.

I should begin by saying that I share many of VanPatten’s views on SLA and their teaching implications. In a short essay outlining his view of SLA (VanPatten, 2010), VanPatten claims there are two distinct aspects of acquisition. “One involves the acquisition of an abstract and implicit mental representation, …. the other is skill —the ability to use language fluently (measured by speed and accuracy) in both production and comprehension”. Without getting involved in a discussion about this, we may simply note that VanPatten (2010) argues

neither language as mental representation nor language as skill can be directly taught. Teachers and materials cannot directly intervene in the development of either.

I understand VanPatten to be saying that he sees little value in ELT courses that rely on the explicit teaching of any of the formal features of language – syntax, phonology, lexicon-morphology and the semantics that relate to structure – or on the explicit teaching of speaking, listening, reading or writing. The problem is that this view is not clearly implemented in his discussions of Processing Instruction.

Input Processing and Processing Instruction

There are two parts to VanPatten’s approach: Input Processing (IP) and Processing Instruction (PI).

The IP model describes how learners of additional languages (henceforth “learners”) process input and argues that learners’ attempts to understand spoken and written input are hampered by faulty processing.

This lays the foundation for PI, which consists of a number of pedagogic procedures aimed at dealing with the problem of faulty processing.

Regarding IP, VanPatten proposes various principles that constrain the way learners process input, especially in early and intermediate stages. Two key principles are now summarised.

1. The Primacy of Meaning Principle

Learners process input for meaning before they process it for form: they look for content words in the input before anything else. This “push to get meaning” combined with limited resources for processing input, means that “certain elements of form will not get processed for acquisitional purposes”. The principle is broken down into a number of sub-principles including the Lexical Preference Principle (“If grammatical forms express a meaning that can also be encoded lexically (i.e., that grammatical marker is redundant), then learners will not initially process those grammatical forms until they have lexical forms to which they can match them”), and the Sentence Location Principle (“Learners tend to process items in sentence initial position before those in final position and those in medial position”.)

2. The First-Noun Principle

 “Learners tend to process the first noun or pronoun they encounter in a sentence as the subject”. The principle predicts, for example, that learners will incorrectly process passives such as ‘John was fired by Mary’ (taking John to be the one having done the firing).

The result of such principles is that learners sometimes end up with “incorrect data” or with data in which “crucial elements are simply not processed”. VanPatten argues that “less than optimal input processing” is one of the major inhibitors of acquisition.

Processing Instruction

PI provides activities that “push learners away from less than optimal processing” and towards processing along a better path so as to enable intake for acquisition. The essence of PI is structured input, which helps input become intake. In its original formulation, and in many subsequent studies, PI is a four-step process:

Step 1: Identify the problem in the processing.

Step 2: Provide a metalinguistic explanation

Step 3: Lead learners through a number of Structured Input Processing activities

Step 4: Provide feedback.

Note that in many of his discussions of PI, VanPatten makes scant, if any, mention of Steps 2 and 4. In VanPatten (2018), for example, a  “typical IP treatment” is described, and it consists only of “referential activities” followed by “affective activities”, both parts of Step 3: structured input processing. If the problem involves the first-noun principle, learners are asked to listen to and read a mixture of sentences (in English, a mixture of actives and passives) and then asked to indicate who did what to whom (via picture selection, logical sentence follow-up, translation, and other means). This pushes learners to abandon the first-noun principle and find other cues that lead to correct interpretation. These referential activities are followed by affective activities, where learners indicate what is true for them, using information about themselves and the world they live in. “These activities reinforce the appropriate processing that has begun with the referential activities”. 

In the 2004 book, VanPatten gives the example of a teacher who concludes that learners need help with yes/no questions. Again, no mention is made of metalinguistic explanation, or feedback.  

The problem from a processing perspective is the processing of do. Because do is a dummy verb and basically meaningless, if learners cannot attach meaning or function to it during comprehension, it may be skipped or processed incorrectly, perhaps something like the Japanese particle ka for making yes/no questions. What PI might do, prior to class, is provide structured input activities that force learners to process do for tense and person, as in the following:

A. Listen to each sentence and then select the time frame that best goes with the sentence.

1. a. at this moment b. yesterday in class c. in the next class

2. a. right now b. last night at home c. next week

3. a. every summer b. last summer c. next year

4. a. every summer b. last summer c. next year

and so on

Script: 1. Did the teacher hear the student correctly? 2. Does the student understand

the material? 3. Do the teachers at your school take vacation? 4. Did the

teachers take vacation? and so on

B. Listen to each sentence and select the next most logical sentence to follow.

1. a. Yes, at least once a month. b. No, they never visited.

2. a. Yes. I went to China. b. No. I am at home.

and so on.

Script: 1. Does your family visit you? 2. Did you take a vacation? and so on.

Presumably, there would be a series of four to five activities of this type, each with about 10 items. The purpose is to get students to begin processing do for its tense and person features, which would then allow its properties in the lexicon to be made available for participation in yes/no question formation. Class time would consist of interactional activities in which yes/no questions are used to get information related to some theme or topic. For example, the topic of the class might be “Can you live with your classmate? Are you compatible?” One activity might be something like this.

C. Step 1. Answer the following questions for yourself. Yes No

1. Do you usually clean up the dishes right away after eating?

2. Did you clean up the dishes right away after eating last night?

3. Do you usually make your bed in the morning?

4. Did you make your bed this morning?

5. Do you usually leave your clothes on the floor when you take them off?

6. Did you leave your clothes on the floor yesterday?

Step 2. Now, interview a classmate and ask him or her the questions from Step 1. Write down their responses next to yours.

Step 3. Using the information from Steps 1 and 2, rate yourself and your classmate on the scale of neatness below. Be prepared to share information with the class.

Very neat – 5  Kind of messy – 1.      Me 5 4 3 2          1    My classmate 5 4 3 2 1

Follow-up to in-class work might include online listening activities in which someone is interviewed about his or her neatness (video would be best) in which yes/no questions are used by the interviewer. After listening, the student might draw conclusions about the person interviewed, the nature of the questions asked (e.g., what other questions could you ask?), and so on.


Input Proccessing       

Let’s look first at VanPatten’s model of IP. In his introductory chapter to the 2004 book, VanPatten starts with definitions:  

Processing, as VanPatten uses it, refers to making a connection between form and meaning.

A learner notes a form and at the same time determines its meaning (or function). The connection to meaning may be partial or it may be complete (for example, given the complexity of verb endings in Spanish, a learner may “realize” that a form denotes pastness but has not grasped the aspectual meaning also encoded in the inflection).

Perception of a form. A “form” is

the acoustic signal registration that happens to all auditory stimuli. This occurs prior to assignment of meaning and in a number of cases something perceived may get deleted before assignment of meaning to a sentence (see, for example, the discussion in Wolvin & Coakley, 1985).


… any conscious registration of a form, but not necessarily with any meaning attached to it (Schmidt, 1990).”  Terrell (1991), for example, very clearly illustrates his ability to notice a form in the input but an inability to assign any meaning (or function to it).

VanPatten summarises:

Thus, processing implies that perception and noticing have occurred, but the latter two do not necessarily imply that a form has been processed (linked with meaning and/or function).

A few pages later, he says:

I take as a point of departure the following claims: that during interaction in the L2 (1) learners are focused primarily on the extraction of meaning from the input (e.g., Faerch & Kasper, 1986; Krashen, 1982), (2) that learners must somehow “notice” things in the input for acquisition to happen (Schmidt, 1990 and elsewhere), and that (3) noticing is constrained by working memory limitations regarding the amount of information they can hold and process during on line (or real time) computation of sentences during comprehension (e.g., Just & Carpenter, 1992).

This is all rather puzzling. When VanPatten says he takes Schmidt’s Noticing hypothesis as “a point of departure”, does he mean he accepts it? If not, what does he mean? And why does he make his own peculiar distinctions between perception, noticing and processing, especially since processing can be “partial” or “complete”? What motivates this description? The model consists of constraining principles, but no coherent explanation of them is given.

Input Processing

In her contribution to the (2004) book Processing Instruction, Susanne Carroll points out that the IP Model is not a model of input perception, parsing, or sentence interpretation, but rather a model of constraints on processing. The problem here is that defining constraints on processing pre-supposes that one knows what processing involves, and VanPatten doesn’t tell us. The IP model needs a theory of perception and parsing, without which it is difficult to interpret and evaluate.

Carroll goes on to say that if input processing involves connecting forms with meaning, then we need to know how forms come to be mentally represented, i.e., how forms emerge from stimuli that have been noticed. Otherwise, the Primacy of Meaning Principle is a tautology. Note that Carroll sees the Noticing Hypothesis as “critical” to Processing Instruction, since its aim is to help learners to notice how the occurrence of particular forms in the input mean certain things. Thus, “If the Noticing Hypothesis is inadequate in some respects, it will seriously limit the applicability of the Processing Instruction Theory”.

And, of course, Carroll has consistently argued that the Noticing Hypothesis is inadequate in many respects. Schmidt acknowledged that the claim in his original version of the Noticing Hypothesis (that there can be no acquisition without noticing) is simply wrong. First, it is, by definition, simply not possible to consciously “notice” parts of grammar from input because such abstract formal aspects of language aren’t part of input from the environment. You can’t notice things that aren’t there. This led Schmidt to revise his hythosesis to the much weaker claim that learners must pay attention to “surface elements”. As Doughty (2007, see below) says, while Schmidt fails to say what precisely these surface elements are, he states that “the objects of attention and noticing are elements of the surface structure of utterances in the input -instances of language—rather than any abstract rules or principles of which such instances may be exemplars (Schmidt, 2001, p. 5)”.

Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence to support the claim that many aspects of the speech signal are detected well below the threshold of awareness in the processing of language and good reason to suggest that much of our syntactic and semantic acquisition is similarly not consistent with the Noticing Hypothesis. Carroll concludes:

Attention and attentional control are usually discussed in the context of the regulation of our behavior. It is unclear to what extent input processing can be characterized in these terms. Input processing may be better characterized as something that happens to us rather than something we do.

In brief, VanPatten’s Input Processing model consists of principles which

1) use confusing terms;

2) imply that noticing is required, and

3) lack a theoretical explanation.

As it stands, I don’t think the model provides a satisfactory underpinning for the PI approach. Clarification and explanation are needed, if the intention is to demonstrate the implicit nature of L2 learning and to provide the justification for pedagogic structured processing activities which rely on implicit learning.

Processing Instruction

Turning now to PI, I suggest that here too there are signs of confusion. Despite VanPatten’s statement, quoted above, that “neither language as mental representation nor language as skill can be directly taught”, accounts of PI include

1 talk of metalinguistic explanation (involving noticing and/or explicit grammar teaching),

2 feedback (ditto), and

3  referential activities which sometimes involve noticing and affective activities which sometimes involve focus on forms.   

Much of this is dealt with by Cathy Doughty later on in the same book. In Chapter 13, Doughty argues that

PI often comprises more elements than are necessary for inducing the noticing of forms while processing meaning, and hence is either inefficient or, at times, may be counterproductive.

First, note that Doughty, like Carroll, interprets PI as designed to induce the noticing of forms. Next, Doughty is surely right about there being too many elements, and right to identify the explicit instruction component as an unnecessary element of PI.

The explicit instruction evident in PI should be recognized for what it is—metalinguistic explanation that is known to lead to declarative knowledge about language rather than deployable language ability. A number of studies in the PI paradigm have now shown that, as was to be expected, the metalinguistic explanation that precedes structured processing activities is not a necessary component of PI.

Commenting on the design of the three studies reported in the book which are intended to lend support to claims for PI, Doughty says:

On close examination of the structured processing activities employed in all three, it becomes evident that they often depart considerably from some SI activities used in earlier studies. …. The activities are much more like language manipulation and metalinguistic activities (e.g., fill in the blank, label the sentence) than are many of the referential and affective processing activities in earlier studies.

Doughty concludes that only the structured input activities that facilitate focus on form are likely to emerge as a psycholinguistically valid operationalization of PI, because “only they remain true to the original insight from input processing theory that when learners misanalyze the input, their input processing strategy must be altered”. In contrast, the metalinguistic components of PI implemented either in the phase prior to SI activities (the EI) or in the feedback are not necessary.

Doughty also argues that the PI studies reported in the book and elsewhere claim that IP receives support from the data, but they do so by relying on outcome measures which are not valid for testing whether the learners’ underlying interlanguage system has been changed in any way. Doughty is surely right to say that if PI claims to help learners to process input so that it becomes intake for acquisition, then the test of its effectiveness must include a valid measure of how input processing changes have led to L2 restructuring.


VanPatten’s work is, in my opinion, of great importance and value both to the study of SLA and to the practice of ELT. The Input Processing model needs some clarification and expansion, but it is well-motivated and in the last twenty years has provoked enormous interest, not just among scholars of SLA, but also among teachers and teacher educators. I personally welcome the challenge it represents to the increasingly well-established emergentist paradigm. The increasing number of published studies aimed at evaluating the efficacy of different structured processing activities make interesting and thought-provoking reading. Despite the limitations of their outcome measures, they represent a real challenge to coursebook-driven ELT, and that, for me, is the main thing. VanPatten is a force for change. He speaks directly to teachers and, while I wish he would make his message a bit clearer, it is, I think, clear to everybody that he would like to see radical reform in the way that additional languages are taught. 


VanPatten, B. (2004). Processing Instruction: Theory, Research and Commentary. Routledge.    

VanPatten, B. (2010). The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill. International Journal of English Studies10(1), 1–18.

VanPatten, B. (2018) Processing Instruction. In The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching.Wiley.