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.


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