IATEFL 2023: What?


She woke up with a hangover in a bed so big that it needed a journey to get out of it. Throwing off the Egyptian cotton duvet, she tripped over the umpteen bottles of booze from the fridge she’d plundered hours ago and staggered to the bathroom where she fumbled with a bewildering number of taps and dispensers optimistically aimed at giving her the ultimate good morning showering experience. She went down to the restaurant and helped herself to a wider range of unhealthy food than she’d usually eat in a week. She walked a few hundred yards to the conference and went to the OUP stall to see how sales were going. Why were her books on the second shelf? She had fifty meaningless exchanges with fellow presenters before giving her own meaningless presentation. She went to lunch at Grafts with her editor and went back to her room for a nap. She returned to the conference and went to a talk by her chum Ciancia. In the evening, she went to a party organised by Pearson, on to dinner at Iomas, and took a taxi back to the hotel where Jaz, Pugh, Bula, Nool and lots of others were waiting for her in the bar. Much later, she was helped into the lift by Jaz – who else!   


She woke up with a hangover in a bed that was too narrow to contain her. Throwing off the slippery nylon sheet, she stumbled down the hall to the bathroom and had a cold shower. Once dressed and down the creaky wooden stairs, she stood in the rain, waiting for a bus to take her to the conference, wishing she’d worn her Doc Martins. She got to the conference, grabbed a free coffee and stale cheese butty, and rushed off to get a good seat at the first plenary. After that, she went to two more talks, met a couple of friends she hadn’t seen for ages, and they all went for lunch in a pub, where she met lots of other conference goers. A very good time was had by all. She returned a bit squiffy to the conference and went to three more talks, none of them much good. In the evening, she went to a party organised by Pearson where a weirdo whose face was somehow familiar asked her if she liked folk music. After that, she went with a few of the people she’d met at lunchtime to a Greek restaurant where they whooped it up. In between glasses of retsina and the random smashing of plates, they talked about the zero chances of promotion, corrective feedback, the problems of mixed level classes, whether gluing youself to a motorway was a good idea, and who the hell that weirdo at the Pearson party was. A bloke called Bob, from Sheffield, shared a taxi with her back to the B&B.              

Thoughts on Evan Frendo’s Plenary, “English for the Workplace” IATEFL, 2023


First, congratulations to Sandy Millin, who’s doing a really stellar job of reporting sessions at the 2023 IATEFL conference – she adds yet another well-tuned, high-definition string to her already impressive bow! Her summary of Frendo’s plenary is simply excellent.

Next, a grovelling admission that I got it completely wrong when I guessed in my previous post that Evan Frendo’s plenary would be one more commercial plug for “Business English”.  

And now, you really must watch this video of the plenary. Start at min. 14.


Frendo’s wonderfully subversive talk surgically dissects the unhealthy, bloated body of self-satisfied mainstream ELT practice. I imagine Frendo assembling his splendidly-crafted Trojan Horse at home, and then, once innocently welcomed by the President onto the stage, delivering his bombshell with all the lethal good humour of Luigi Galleani. Had Frendo’s talk been broadcast to the Exhibition Hall, the more sensitive among the sales staff would surely have immediately started dismounting their stalls, and anybody attuned to his message in the audience must surely have heard the death knolls of coursebook-driven ELT ringing like tinnitus in their heads.     

Let me highlight key points:

1) Doing English. In Frendo’s world of “English for the Workplace”, they focus on “doing things in English”. Getting high marks in tests like IELTS has no place here, and neither do coursebooks.

2) Standard English is replaced in practice by BELF: English as a business language Franca.

  • ‘Conformity with standard English is seen as a fairly irrelevant concept’
  • ‘I don’t actually care whether something is correct or incorrect. As long as the meaning is not distorted’
  • ‘BELF is perceived as an enabling resource to get the work done. Since it is highly context-bound and situation-specific, it is a moving target defying detailed linguistic description’ (p129, Kankaanranta, A., Louhiala-Salminen, L. And Karhunen, P.)

3) The current CEFR idea of proficiency is challenged.

As Sandy says: “Big standardised tests … don’t tell us whether they have the English they need to do that specific job.  As teachers, we might be able to judge somebody’s English, but we might not be able to judge whether somebody can do their job in English”.

In VTS communication, assessment is carried out by a team consisting of:

  • English teacher
  • Experienced VTS operator – say whether they’ve done the right thing
  • Legal expert- all conversations are recorded, but they can have legal implications

The test criterion is: Can the worker do the job? This chimes perfectly with what we, the advocates of TBLT, suggest.

4) Informal English In BELF research, Ehrenreich (2010) says ‘Learning…seems to happen most effectively in business ‘communities of practice’ rather than in traditional English training’.  M Takino (2019) looked at how people become users of English. Informal learning is what’s really happening …. you don’t necessarily need to pay a teacher for it. ‘Microlearning’ is a key feature of HR conferences now. 10 minutes of learning languages on the train, in a queue, etc. Bite-sized chunks, and it’s happening everywhere.

5) ‘Learning clusters ’ are used for teaching. Surround the learner with ‘meaningful learning assets’. It’s not just organising courses for people, it’s doing more.

6) Teachers and trainers need to work together with other people within the company. There is a huge system here, supported by different aspects of people in the company. ‘Almost all of our trainers are full-time employees. Our strengths are our well-developed learning ecosystem and corporate learning culture’ – people who are part of the company as in-house trainers. Content is developed based on in-house case studies.

7) Formal and informal learning should be retired as a distinction. People are moving away from formal learning, and moving towards learner experience.

8) There’s a shift to outcome indicators, and away from effort indicators.

9) So this is where we are:


I tip my hat to Evan Fredo. I’m going to suggest to Neil that this talk should be immediately included in the course SLB is currently running on TBLT.

So much to think about, so much to encourage me – and others – to take more interest in the world of English in the workplace.   

IATEFL Conference 2023: Plus ça change ….


In a recent tweet, I remarked  

ELT conferences are upon us. Who will challenge coursebook-driven ELT? Or the grip of high stakes tests? Or the precarity, low pay, & bad conditions of teachers’ jobs? I bet real issues are ignored while everybody babbles on about translanguaging, teacher identity, bla bla bla

I added:

Questions for ELT conference goers: Who wins and who loses in the current $200 billion ELT industry? What say did you have in the programme? How do the plenary speakers address issues that directly affect you? Why is the Exhibition Hall the real hub of the conference?


Advice to ELT conference goers: there’s an inverse relationship between the value of a presentation and the size of the room it’s in.

I’ve just had a look at the IATEFL Conference 2023 programme, and I’m sorry but not surprised to say that there’s little on offer to challenge my cynical prediction.

IATEFL’s Big Mistake

The founder of IATEFL, Bill Lee (a real tyrant in many ways, as Rixon & Smith’s (2017) excellent A History of IATEFL makes clear) had very fixed views about what the conference was for, viz: to get leading figures in ELT together to talk to colleagues and engage in open discussion of the best ways to teach English as an L2, and he fought hard against interference from commercial concerns, insisting that they should be limited to a display on tables in the foyer of relevant books. The first time that presentations on behalf of publishers were admitted to the programme was in 1983. When Lee was finally ousted in 1984, the floodgates opened, so that nearly forty years later, in Harrogate next week, publishers and other commercial outfits rule the roost. They sponsor a significant proportion of all the presentations that take place in the big auditoria, and the Exhibition Hall is the hub of the whole damn show.

The ELT Hydra

The 2023 IATEFL conference is, yet again, a showcase for commercial interests. As I’ve argued many times, the $200 billion ELT industry is an inter-locking hydra composed of publishers, teacher trainers, course providers and examination boards.  All four heads of the ELT hydra focus on selling products, which has led to reification – mistakenly changing abstract ideas into something real that stands in their place. For example, proficiency is changed into the CEFR scale. The abstract idea of language learning is changed into products for sale.)

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.

All these products 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. But 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 have been taught about an L2 and who end up, after hundreds of hours of instruction, incapable of using it for any communicative purpose.

SLA scholars today agree that people learn English as an additional language through a process of interlanguage development and that this process depends fundamentally on unconscious, internal mental processes. Given the right opportunities – rich input and communicative exchanges – learners will work out for themselves how English (its grammar and lexis and pragmatics) works. Simply put: sixty years of research strongly suggest that learning an additional language is a matter of learning by doing, of using the language not treating it as an object of study. This suggests that current coursebook-driven ELT is inefficacious. Using a synthetic syllabus which treats the English language as an object of study and obliges teachers to spend most of classroom time talking about the language is fundamentally mistaken. Much more efficacious is to use an analytic syllabus, where the English language is treated more holistically and where students are given tasks which give them opportunities to communicate with their peers and their teacher, thereby acquiring the procedural knowledge required to “do” English, not just demonstrate their knowledge about it.  

The difference between a synthetic and an analytic syllabus is hugely important. It isn’t just a question of emphasis – a bit more or less time devoted to so-called communicative activities, too often in the form of Initiation-Response-Feedback routines often beginning with display questions. No, it’s a true paradigm shift: a radical rejection of one type of ELT in favour of another completely different type, and it depends on respecting rather than ignoring everything we know about how people learn an L2. Coursebooks use synthetic syllabuses which ignore robust research findings. Why? Because synthetic syllabuses are the perfect vehicle for packaging a course of English and selling it for the biggest profit. 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  today, current ELT is rightly seen as a pariah, an inefficacious disgrace to research-driven education.


Back to the IATEFL 2023 conference. What’s it about? Well, while there’s no over-arching “theme” in the title this year, the programme in general and the plenaries in particular suggest that the organisers have caught the zeitgeist – it’s all about you and your myriad identities, not forgetting  everybody else and their myriad identities. In trying to be the best “you” that you can possibly be, how do you resolve the fluid and contradictory, socially-constructed yet deeply individual ideas you have about your various identities, including that of teacher, while respecting the equally complex struggles everybody else has with similar problems? What is your story? What are their stories? Is there a narrative that makes sense of it all and is that narrative capable of impacting on teaching praxis, going forward? To take the most pressing problem: What are some of the more inclusive, multi-self-affirming uses of personal pronouns likely to be found in the 2024 edition of Headway Intermediate?

OK. So here comes a summary of what awaits the 5,000+ teachers who will attend the awful show.

The plenaries

*** Evan Frendo.  English for the workplace – looking for new answers.  

Adjust your identity to suit Big Business.

*** Divya Madhavan. Lean on me: stories of coaching, mentoring and teacher resilience.

Teachers need help with identity. How to be  a coach and mentor that fixes the problem.  

*** Lesley Painter-Farrell.  Sharing words and worlds: ESOL teachers as allies, advocates, and activists.

How to support teachers in navigating and addressing their learners’ linguistic, social, and emotional identities, sorry, needs.

*** Ofelia García. Translanguaging and teaching English as a foreign language.

How two EFL teachers have developed a “translanguaging juntos” stance. How the opening up of translanguaging spaces within EFL instruction enables students to act in English without giving up their identities.

*** Awad Ibrahim. Race, popular culture and ESL in a post-George Floyd moment

We must engage race and pop culture in our ESL classrooms.

That’s it. Note that none of this does anything to encourage teachers to challenge the fundamental ways in which they do their jobs (i.e., the syllabuses and materials and assessment procedures they work with), or to demand better contracts, pay and conditions.    

The presentations

Here are a few of the presentations that will take place in the biggest room in the conference: the Auditorium of the Convention Centre, 550 audience. I list enough to give evidence for my claim that commercial interests pervade and that there’s little that challenges current ELT practice.

Herbert Puchta, promoted by Cambridge University Press, talks about assessment and promotes his book Think.  

A promotional spiel. His book’s called “Think”? Really?

Rod Bolitho and Alan Maley talk about the personal qualities of great teachers.

Two old timers shoot the breeze. This is a session I’d happily attend. Alan used to be quite radical, now he’s an IATEFL treasure. Hey ho. .    

Steve Copeland,  funded by British Council, presents the findings of a research project which aims to identify key trends that will define the role of English as a global language in the future.

Why sit there? Just read the report. It’s out next week and deserves careful reading. The BC is a snobbish, right-wing, profit-crazy outfit with a very uncertain future.   

Penny Ur (Retired) reviews recent research. One of the advantages of being retired, Ur says, is that one has more time to browse through recent books and journals in search of interesting research studies. In this session, she’ll share some of them and discuss “the possible implications for practice”.

In previous posts on this blog I’ve made my view clear: Ur is a bad intermediator, a poor conduit, between teachers and researchers. Among the things that Ur has told teachers are these gems:

  • “There is no evidence that TBLT works.”
  • “Pienemann’s teachability hypothesis has only very doubtful implications for teaching.”
  • “Researchers have very limited or nonexistent teaching experience so their ideas on the pedagogical implications of their results may not be very practical and need to be treated with caution”.
  • It’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever”.

 There’s a long list of researchers, including Doughty, Long, Pienemann, Nunan, Richards, Rogers, Skehan, Foster, Cook, Crookes, Alright, Schmidt, Robinson, Reves, Medgyes, Prodromou, Norris, O’Neil, Mackey, Munoz, Lewis, Li, Jenkins, … the list goes on, who have ample teaching experience. Furthermore, there’s an obvious non-sequitur involved. Even if Pienemann had never set foot in a classroom, his Learnability Hypothesis, and the derived Teachability Hypothesis should be evaluated by appeal to rational argument and evidence, not by appeal to worn-out clichés about the nontranferability of good old, down home teacher experience. The teachability hypothesis has screamingly obvious implications for teaching (the clue’s in the name, as they say), and it’s typical of Ur that she should so airily dismiss them.        

 Nowhere in any of her published work has Ur attempted to describe and evaluate arguments and evidence from academics whose work challenges her own traditional approach to ELT, and nowhere does she encourage teachers to engage in any serious criticism of current coursebook-driven ELT practice. I have seen nothing published by her that addresses any of the major issues currently being discussed by sociolinguist or psychlinguists in the field of SLA. Her best-selling book “A Course in English Language Teaching” is devoid of even the most rudimentary discussion of SLA research. That Ur should be chosen to review research (again!- I seem to remember that she gave a hopeless review of research in a plenary at a previous IATEFL conference many years ago) is an indication of how little regard the IATEFL organisers give to the academic credibility of their favorite speakers.   

Samuel John Williams, promoted by Black Cat Cideb, explores how to use social media videos as a valuable lesson resource with Black Cat readers.

Pure promotion. I bet it’s slick.   

Nathaniel Owen and Colin Finnerty, promoted by OUP, report their experience in using the new Handbook for Aligning Language Education with the CEFR (2022).

It’s not surprising that it takes two clever chaps from OUP to help the average Joe to make sense of a Handbook that attempts the impossible.

Hugh Dellar, representing his company Lexical Lab, takes us “Beyond the native-speaker paradigm”. He’ll suggest that ideas such as ‘British’ or ‘American’ English are “simply constructs” and that the reality is both more complicated and more liberating. The classroom implications will be explored.

The view that native speakers of English are the best source of information about how English is used is not a paradigm. And the claim that British and American English are “simply constructs” suggests that Dellar doesn’t know what a construct is either. In this, his latest opportunity to finally get the better of his notes on the big stage, Dellar will surely delve, yet again, into his already well-plundered treasure trove of lexical chunks to showcase twenty or so more of them. At least he can be sure that everybody in the audience is likely to be equally baffled, regardless of their L1, dialect, sociolect or idiolect.

*** Jeremy Harmer and Jane Revell talk about “Silence and noise: modes of being in the classroom.” They promise to explore the advantages and disadvantages of both, using examples from the second edition of Revell’s coursebook  American Jetstream.

As with Penny Ur, I’ve done a number of posts on this blog about the work of Jeremy Harmer, who is, in my opinion, in a class of his own when it comes to making a career out of what in yiddish is called “chutzpah”, and what in cockney is called “front” (as in “Ronnie had more front than Harrods”). He’s the Boss of Bluff and Baloney, the High Priest of Hogwash. Surely the award for the worst presentation ever made at an IATEFL conference must go to Harmer for his 2015 talk “An uncertain and approximate business? Why teachers should love testing”. Click here to watch the video. A Spanish colleague of mine told me that he felt such “vergüenza ajena” (embarrassment for another) watching Harmer perform in a video that he crawled under the bed. After another car crash of a presentation in Armenia in 2017 (he looks like he was in a car crash an hour before he walked on stage), I thought we’d seen the last of him, but he’s back, and, of course, he’s in the biggest capacity room of the conference.

His co-presenter is Jane Revell, who tells us that she is “a very well-known and highly-respected international trainer and consultant”, and also a “Master Practitioner in NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming)”. Twenty years ago, NLP was quite popular in some ELT circles. Revell, with co-author Susan Norman, wrote several articles and two books, the first called “In Your Hands: NLP and ELT” (1998), and the second called “Handing Over: NLP Activities for language learning” (1999). Thanks particularly to Russell Mayne, who gave a very well-received and influential presentation in a small room at the 2014 IATEFL conference, NLP has now been thoroughly discredited, condemned as useless and even dangerous for ELT, and thrown into the dustbin of history, where it belongs. It is classic pseudoscience. “It masquerades as a legitimate form of psychotherapy, makes unsubstantiated claims about how humans think and behave, purports to encourage research in a vain attempt to gain credibility, yet fails to provide evidence that it actually works. ((Roderique-Davis, 2009, cited in Mayne, 2017, p.47). Subsequent editions of  Richards and Rodgers’, Scrivener’s, and Harmer’s best-selling “How to teach” books all quietly dropped any mention of this bogus nonsense.

 So the Harmer and Revell session should be a real treat, if you’re into the theatre of the absurd and have a ghoulish sense of humour.


I hope these examples are enough to persuade you that whatever delights are on offer at the IATEFL 2023 conference, a serious challenge to coursebook-driven ELT is not among them. At least, not if you follow the crowds. Recall my tweet alerting conference goers to the inverse relationship between the value of a presentation and the size of the room it’s in. On the final day of the conference, at half past one when everybody’s having lunch, in Queen’s Suite 6 of Harrogate Convention Centre which can hold 43 people, Steve Brown will talk on “The profit motive: time to problematise capitalism in ELT?”  His blurb says “While the merits of capitalism as a system of global governance face increasing scrutiny, capitalist principles remain highly prevalent in ELT, with profit-orientated organisations heavily influencing our teaching practice, materials content and assessment. This talk questions the role of the profit motive in ELT, explores its negative impact, and calls for a re-assessment of priorities within our profession.” Steve is a great speaker, has more to say than all the speakers I’ve mentioned above put together, and I’m sure that everybody who attends his talk will get lots from it, not least a feeling of shared solidarity. A detailed search through all the talks going on in similarly small rooms at awkward times might well turn up enough good talks to make the trip worthwhile.

Just How Incompatible are the CELTA Course and Dogme?

On Friday, 3rd Febrary, Scott published the Tweet, above. I replied

Scott replied:

And I replied:

Finally, Scott:

The exchange between Scott and me went on for a bit longer, and there were quite a few comments from others. We all, I’m pleased to say, kept it courteous and I think most of those who followed the discussion agreed with Scott’s point of view  – no surprises there.

In this post, I’d like to make to my case more fully. I’ll restrict it to ELT, but it applies also to teaching other additional languages.  

I want to start by saying (again!) how much I respect Scott, and how much I value much of his work. We agree about a lot, but we disagree about quite a lot, too. I hope that airing our disagreements will help promote constructive discussion and change.   

Scott, Peter Watkins and Sandy Millin have just published a second edition of Scott and Peter’s best-selling books on The CELTA course. As is evident from Scott’s reply to my initial Tweet, the 2nd edition attempts to address many of the criticisms made about CELTA, but I suggest that it remains a woefully inadequate pre-service course.

The CELTA website (Cambridge Assessment English, 2019) states that “tens of thousands” take the course every year at more than 2,800 centers in 130 countries around the world. A full-time course typically involves about 120 hours of work (homework apart) and lasts between four and five weeks.

The CELTA Syllabus consists of five modules:

  • Topic 1 – Learners and teachers, and the teaching and learning context
  • Topic 2 – Language analysis and awareness
  • Topic 3 – Language skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing
  • Topic 4 – Planning and resources for different teaching contexts
  • Topic 5 – Developing teaching skills and professionalism.

Assessment is a combination of marked written assignments, and continuous assessment of participation in tutorials classes and teaching practice, which is a vital part of the course, with trainees being required to teach students at two different levels.

The only attention given to learning a second language is in the first written assignment, but even here there is no requirement for trainees to investigate the process of second language learning or to discuss teaching implications.

Some general weaknesses of the course are:

  • It is far too short in duration.
  • While there is no requirement in the CELTA course that coursebooks be adopted, coursebooks are, in fact, widely used in the tutorials, class discussions and teaching practice.
  • The CELTA course descriptions make no mention of the distinction between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, or of the need to engage in any critical evaluation of the methodological principles which might inform pedagogical procedures.
  • The teaching practice fails to give trainees any real opportunities to learn how to teach
  • The course makes isolated practice of the four language skills a major part of the syllabus and a crucial influence on materials design. Skill separation makes little sense and is in fact, a remnant of the audiolingual era with little empirical or theoretical justification. All SLA research points to the need to integrate language skills for effective language teaching.
  • Brandt (2006) reports a number of problems with the teaching practice. Most trainees feel that success in teaching practice involves being seen to adequately use key techniques, such as transformation drills, marker sentences, counselling responses, concept questions, elicitation, and Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) routines. But since  different tutors have different, often contradictory, views about teaching techniques, trainees’ success or failure depends on keeping in tune with the particular preferences of whichever tutor is observing them.
  • Brandt also found that trainees felt they were not free to experiment and make mistakes without being judged; that they were given few opportunities to reflect on their performance; and that they perceived the purpose of their short teaching practice sessions (lasting from 40 to 60 minutes) as being to show what they could do, rather than to help the students to learn. This feeling among trainees that the teaching practice was something of a sham, that they behaved more like performing monkeys than genuine teachers, was echoed by responses from tutors who complained about experiencing “a dual, conflicting, role: that of guide (to the practising, developing teacher) and that of assessor (of the trainee’s performance)” (Brandt, 2006, p. 256).
  •  Brandt concludes that the CELTA framework fails to recognize the diversity and opportunities of each language learning classroom, and also fails to take into account the distinct contexts in which the course is offered around the world. The course encourages a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, restricting trainees’ opportunities to adequately prepare for the challenges they will face in their local environment, and promoting a view of teachers as “contextually-isolated technicians” (Brandt, 2006, p. 262). Furthermore, the teaching practice tends to treat language learners as ‘tools’ and ‘guinea pigs’, expecting them to jump through a set of hoops for the teachers’ convenience, and the lessons given by the trainees are thus a means of assessment, rather than opportunities for genuine practice.   

Regardless of all the efforts the authors of the 2nd edition of The CELTA Course  books have made to address these weaknesses and those highlighted by Scott in 2017 – the widespread assumption that a grammar-based, structural syllabus as laid out in coursebooks provides the framework for ELT; the predominance of IRF exchanges and display questions; the superficial treatment of texts, the high activity turnover and the prioritising of ‘fun’; etc., – the CELTA course remains an almost insultingly short preparation for the job of teaching English as an L2.

We arrive at the question: Just how incompatible are the CELTA Course and Dogme?  

I suggest the answer is: completely! Most importantly, perhaps, is Dogme’s underlying view of language learning. Scott, following Larson-Freeman, Nick Ellis and others, adopts an emergentist view of SLA which, pace  Krashen and a great many other prominent SLA scholars, claims that languages are not “acquired” but rather, language “emerges” through use. Without going into details here, the implication is that the kind of pedagogic grammar you find in coursebooks is a fiction, and that using a grammar-based syllabus as a framework for teaching English as an L2 contradicts the way emergentists understand language learning.

Scott is famous for lampooning the way teachers serve up innutritious “grammar McNuggets” to students and he applauds Long’s description of teachers haplessly throwing students bits of grammar as if they were zoo-keepers throwing fish to seals at the lunchtime show. Cutting up the target language into items and then presenting and practicing them in a pre-determined linear sequence on the assumption that this will lead to communicative competence is anathema to emergentists like Scott, who believe that language emerges when learners engage in communicative interaction.

The learner talks; others respond. It is the scaffolding and recasting, along with the subsequent review, of these learner-initiated episodes that drives acquisition, argue proponents of task-based instruction, with which Dogme ELT is, of course, aligned. ‘In other words, the emphasis shifts from the traditional interventionist, proactive, modelling behaviour of synthetic approaches to a more reactive mode for teachers – students lead, the teacher follows’ (Long, 2015, p. 70). Or, as Michael Breen (1985) so memorably put it: ‘The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process’ (Thornbury, 2017).

It follows that teachers should not follow an externally-imposed syllabus; rather, they should scaffold student engagement in communicative activities and allow the syllabus to emerge as the course progresses.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the difference between the Dogme approach and the CELTA approach to ELT: they comprehensibly contradict each other! I know that Sandy Millin takes a different view, and I suspect Peter Watkins does, too. I assume that they are both sympathetic to organizing a course of English around a synthetic syllabus, to using a coursebook, to the use of drills, to explicit grammar teaching, to separate skills development, and so on. But Scott is not. Scott is the original creator of Dogme which, on the basis of an alternative, well-articulated understanding of language learning, urges teachers to free the classroom of published materials and coursebooks and to adopt a learner-centred approach where the L2 is treated more holistically, and where the learners and teacher co-construct an emergent knowledge of the L2 and how to use it.  

Scott says that he can live with the contradiction between the CELTA approach and the Dogme approach because “I’m confident that experience has taught me what is needed and feasible on preservice courses”. This is nonsense (sic). What is needed and feasible on preservice courses is an understanding of how languages are learned, an understanding of how to organize a course (i.e. syllabus design) and an understanding, gained partly thru guided practice, of classroom management. The CELTA course imparts no adequate understanding of any of this. It encourages participants to study English morphology, grammar and pronunciation in order to teach an English course which involves the teacher treating the language as an object of study, talking for most of the time, explaining the language, and organising the students to do some whole class / group /pair activities to “practice”. And let’s be crystal clear about one thing: despite everything Dogme has to say, the vast majority of CELTA courses worldwide use coursebooks in the teaching practice component of the course, and assure that when they’ve graduated, teachers will go on to use coursebooks in their jobs.  

There is, IMO, no rational way that Scott can reconcile writing this new edition of The CELTA Course while simultaneously writing books and doing courses which promote Dogme. To claim that CELTA gives a good foundation, while Dogme can help experienced teachers to improve their teaching is no justification for encouraging teachers to do a course whose methodological principles and pedagogic procedures flatly contradict those of Dogme. Dogme is a brave alternative, a rejection of the status quo in ELT, a call for radical reform which offers a bright, vibrant, efficacious learning experience. CELTA is an important pillar of established ELT practice which commodifies language education, fails students, and leads to de-skilled teachers doing precarious, badly-paid jobs.

CELTA makes an important contribution to current ELT practice. More than 90% of those currently teaching English as an additional language are non-native English speakers (British Council, 2015). Most of these teachers have done pre-training courses which echo CELTA’s reliance on the use of courseboks which implement a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus, and it’s shocking how many of them fall down in their ability to communicate fluently in English. The fault lies with the way they themselves were taught. Various studies cited in Jordan and Long (2022) give support to the view that, despite being told of the value of CLT in helping students use English for communicative purposes, and despite stating in their answers to researchers’ questions that they firmly believed in the value of spending classroom time on communicative activities, when the teachers’ classes were observed, it became obvious that their lessons were teacher-fronted, and that the vast majority of the time was spent using a coursebook to instill knowledge about English grammar and vocabulary. When asked to explain the mismatch, the teachers explained that they lacked confidence in their command of English.

A 1994 study by Reves & Medgyes (cited in Braine, 2005) asked 216 native speaker and non-native speaker English teachers from 10 countries (Brazil, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Sweden, former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe) about their experiences as teachers. The overwhelming majority of participants were non-native speakers of English, and in their responses, 84% of the non-native speaker subjects said that they had various difficulties using English and that their teaching was adversely affected by these difficulties. Difficulties with vocabulary and fluency were most frequently mentioned, followed by speaking, pronunciation, and listening comprehension. 

Unless we reform ELT practice, by taking Dogme, TBLT and other alternative approaches more seriously, this vicious circle will continue. Scott needs to appreciate that he can’t have his cake and eat it without damaging his own credibility and the hopes of a brighter future for ELT.  

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.


Five Minute Quiz for Cunning Linguists

1. What’s the square root of 69?

2. Who claimed that language is a systematic resource for expressing meaning in context?

3. Who said “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”?

4. Who said “He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own”?

5. Who said “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”?

6. Chomsky’s UG theory describes principles and …..   What?

7. The 5 most popular romance languages are French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and….  What’s the fifth?

8. “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” is an example of a ….. what?

A couple of extras about two of my favorite novels:

9. What novel starts: “A screaming comes across the sky.”?

10. And this one: “Call me Ishmael.”?

How did you do? I know my pal Neil will get 9 and 10, so here’s a special extra one for him – and all of us:

What novel finishes with these lines:

“We can get jobs”. said William, “save enough to go out where you were, – “

“Marry me and go out where you were,” said Doc.

“The Stars are so close you won’t need a Telescope.”

“The Fish jump into your Arms. The Indians know Magick.”

“We’ll go there. We’ll live there.”

“We’ll fish there. And you too.”


Thesis on ELT, Part Three

20. There are more than twelve million English teachers active in the world today  (British Council, 2015), so second language teacher education (SLTE) is, like materials production and exams (discussed in Parts 1 & 2), another billion dollar business.

In most of the world, pre-service courses consist of a Masters or a post-grad. TEFL certificate, but in Europe, no degree is required, and a short, month-long course suffices.

21.1. The most popular certificate course is CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), while Trinity College, London, offers the rival Cert TESOL.  

More than 2,800 centers in 130 countries around the world offer the CELTA course, which involves about 120 hours of work (homework apart) and lasts between four and five weeks. The CELTA Syllabus consists of five modules:

  • Topic 1 – Learners and teachers, and the teaching and learning context
  • Topic 2 – Language analysis and awareness
  • Topic 3 – Language skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing
  • Topic 4 – Planning and resources for different teaching contexts
  • Topic 5 – Developing teaching skills and professionalism.

There are two assessment components:

Teaching Practice:participants teach for a total of six hours, working with classes at two levels of ability. Assessment is based on overall performance at the end of the six hours.

Written Assignments: Four written assignments count towards assessment: one focusing on adult learning; one on the language system of English; one on language skills; and one on classroom teaching (Cambridge Assessment English, 2019).

21.2. CELTA is the most widely recognized English teaching qualification in the world. It is the qualification most often requested by employers: three out of four English language teaching jobs require a CELTA qualification (Cambridge Assessment English, 2019). It is recognized by the British Council and by a large number of employers and governments worldwide, and it is endorsed by almost all of the most widely published teacher trainers and educators in the UK, with the notable exception of Scott Thornbury (see below).

CELTA’s widespread recognition and endorsement is not surprising; its curriculum reflects the interests of corporate ELT, i.e, the very commercial publishers, examination boards, teacher education bodies and course providers who persuade the public that proficiency in English as an L2 is best accomplished by doing a succession of courses from A1 to C3, using their syllabuses, their coursebooks and their exams, taught by teachers who have done their SLTE courses.

21.3. The CELTA course pays almost no attention to how people learn languages. The only mention of learning a second language is in the first written assignment, but even here, there is no requirement for trainees to investigate the process of second language learning or to discuss teaching implications.

The course simply assumes that ELT consists of teachers working through a synthetic syllabus presenting and then practicing pre-determined items of English and developing the four skills. Inauthentic spoken and written texts, mostly taken from coursebooks, are used as vehicles for skills and language work. Most of the course is devoted to how to present and practice grammatical forms or to carry out isolated skills-focused activities. ELT is seen as consisting of a systematic, item by item study of the language, followed by relatively controlled practice.

21.4. While there is no requirement in the official CELTA course outline that General English coursebooks are used, these coursebooks are, in fact, widely used in the tutorials, class discussions and teaching practice. No mention is made in CELTA course descriptions of the distinction between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, or of the need to engage in any critical evaluation of the methodological principles which might inform pedagogical procedures.

21.5. In CELTA, isolated practice of the four language skills is a major part of the syllabus. As Kumaravadivelu (1994, p. 31) argues, the principle of skills practice in ELT is adopted “more for logistical than for logical reasons”, since skill separation makes little sense and is in fact, “a remnant of the audiolingual era with little empirical or theoretical justification”. As we saw in Part 1, communicative use of an L2 involves the interrelated and mutually reinforcing use of skills, and teaching is therefore likely to be far more efficacious when students are given the chance to learn and use language holistically. No matter how much teachers are advised by CELTA tutors to use ‘skill-building’ activities to help their students ‘automatiize’ what they learn in the presentation stage of the lesson, research shows that learners will, nevertheless, use language skills in different combinations. and not learn the L2 to automatized native speaker levels one structure at a time. Kumaravadivelu concludes that “all available empirical, theoretical, and pedagogical information points to the need to integrate language skills for effective language teaching” (p. 35).

21.6. In her study of CELTA, Brandt (2008) reports a number of problems with the teaching practice part of CELTA. Brandt first draws attention to the large number of trainees who felt that their limited teaching time put great pressure on them to teach according to the different tutors’ expectations and preferences. Teaching practice on the CELTA is evaluated by the tutors, and success involves being seen to adequately use key techniques, such as transformation drills, marker sentences, counselling responses, concept questions, elicitation, and Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) routines, to name just a few. But, as Brandt points out, the problem is that different tutors have different, often contradictory, views about teaching techniques – some love drills while others frown on them – and it is thus vital to trainees’ success or failure to discover and keep in tune with the particular preferences of whichever tutor is observing them.

Other issues highlighted by Brandt were that trainees felt they were not free to experiment and make mistakes without being judged; that they were given few opportunities to reflect on their performance; and that they perceived the purpose of their short teaching practice sessions (lasting from 40 to 60 minutes) as being to show what they could do, rather than to help the students to learn. This feeling among trainees that the teaching practice was something of a sham, that they behaved more like performing monkeys than genuine teachers, was echoed by responses from tutors who complained about experiencing “a dual, conflicting, role: that of guide (to the practising, developing teacher) and that of assessor (of the trainee’s performance)” (Brandt, 2008, p. 256).

Brandt concludes that the CELTA course amounts to learning a set of techniques so that the trainees’ use of these techniques might then be judged. Such a framework fails to recognize the diversity and opportunities of each language learning classroom, and also fails to take into account the distinct contexts in which the course is offered around the world. The course encourages a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, restricting trainees’ opportunities to adequately prepare for the challenges they will face in their local environment, and promoting a view of teachers as “contextually-isolated technicians” (Brandt, 2006, p. 262). Furthermore, as suggested above, the teaching practice tends to treat language learners as ‘tools’ and ‘guinea pigs’, expecting them to jump through a set of hoops for the teachers’ convenience, and the lessons given by the trainees are thus a means of assessment, rather than opportunities for genuine practice.

21.7. Finally, here is the view of Scott Thornbury, co-author of best-selling books for student teachers and tutors of CELTA (Thornbury and Watkins, 2007a; Thornbury Watkins, 2007b). In his blog The A to Z of ELT, in a reply to comments on his post P is for Pre-training, Thornbury (2017) confirms that the “vast majority” of CELTA courses are “coursebook centerd (i.e., teaching practice is based on coursebook lessons, and example materials are taken from coursebooks)”. Further characteristics of the CELTA courses pointed out by Thornbury are as follows: 

  1. The general assumption made by tutors is that a grammar-based, structural syllabus (i.e., the syllabus laid out in the coursebook) will be used.
  2. Tutors encourage the use of a “direct method methodology” which proscribes the use of the L1.
  3. Initiation-Response-Feedback exchanges and display questions are the predominant style of teacher talk.
  4. The demonstration classes given by the teacher trainers are characterized by a superficial treatment of texts, a high activity turnover and the prioritising of ‘fun’.
  5. The courses are ‘hermetically-sealed’, “i.e., there is little or no reference to, or integration of, local context”.

In short, the CELTA course has severe limitations in its preparation of teachers. Today, it is likely to produce teachers who lack any proper understanding of how people learn languages, and who adopt a coursebook-driven approach to ELT, largely unaware of the evidence-based arguments against it.

22.1. In the last twenty years, SLTE has taken a socio-cultural turn, where the constructs of ‘teacher cognition’, ‘teacher thinking’ and ‘teacher-learning’ are ubiquitous. An early and influential contribution to the socio-cultural view is Freeman and Johnson’s (1998) article, which argues that SLTE should focus on understanding how teachers’ professional lives evolve, by focusing on their cognitive worlds and personal teaching practices. Johnson (2009), Freeman (2016), Borg (2015), Norton (2013), Richards (2012) and Barkhuizen (2017) have developed the argument that SLTE must reject the traditional “transmission of knowledge” approach to teacher education, in favour of a concern with ‘teacher learning’ and ‘practitioner knowledge’ which help teachers to understand and articulate their own beliefs, assumptions, and knowledge about subject matter and pedagogical practices.

22.2. Woods’ (1996) influential book on teacher cognition is the first to make teachers’ ‘beliefs, assumptions, and knowledge’ an acronym – BAKs. The three components of a teacher’s BAKs together are said to make up teacher cognition, which crucially affects how teachers translate information on teaching into classroom practice – they explain the mismatch between what teachers are told to do and what they actually do, and also between what they say they do and what they actually do in the classroom. Thus, the socio-cultural perspective on SLTE concludes that awareness of teachers’ BAKS must be the starting point in reflections and play a key role in teacher education programmes.

Richards (2008, p. 162) puts the case as follows:

“Teacher-learning is not viewed as translating knowledge and theories into practice but as constructing new knowledge and theory through participating in specific social contexts and engaging in particular types of activities and processes. This latter type of knowledge, sometimes called “practitioner knowledge”, is the source of teachers’ practices and understandings.”

He suggests that SLTE should be based on the “theorization of practice……, making visible the nature of practitioner knowledge”. Learning, says Richards, emerges through social interaction within a community of practice, and participants in SLTE courses should be seen as a community of learners engaged in “the collaborative construction of meanings” (p. 163).

22.3. While paying attention to student-teachers’ BAKs may well be recommended, and while the research into teacher cognition and decision making has produced some interesting findings, there is surely a problem in putting so much emphasis on teacher cognition. There is also the prior problem of deciphering the peculiar style of socio-cultural postmodernist discourse, of working out what it all means, and what the point of it is. What, for example, is Richards getting at when he urges us to see student-teachers as a community of learners engaged in the collaborative construction of meanings? How do people collaborate in constructing meanings? What do these constructed meanings look like? What ‘postmodern frame’ is Freeman referring to? What does he mean by “the storied character of teachers’ knowledge”? What point is he making?

22.4. Freeman’s claim that “different people will know the same things differently” reveals the relativist epistemology of the socio-cultural approach. Those adopting a scientific approach to research adopt a realist epistemology, which assumes that an external world exists independently of our perceptions of it, and that it is possible to study different phenomena in this world, to make meaningful statements about them, and to improve our knowledge of them. The main way in which phenomena are studied is by testing hypotheses (tentative explanations of the phenomena) using logic and an appeal to empirical evidence. So, for example, we notice that all our L2 learners seem to learn certain parts of the target language in a common order, regardless of their L1. We decide to do a study of the phenomenon of what we suspect might be staged development among L2 learners, and we find that the participants in the study do indeed go through a series of “transitional stages” towards the L2 target language (see Part 1). Now, if we accept a realist epistemology, we assume that the external world will remain stable enough for different observers who carry out the same study in similar conditions with similar participants to observe the same things. Thus, replication studies, if done carefully, can test the robustness of our study’s findings, by providing evidence that either supports or challenges the results of the first study.

22.5. Those adopting a sociocultural perspective reject this realist epistemology, which they refer to as the “positivist” epistemology of scientists, whose research methods, epistemological assumptions, and authority they roundly reject. Early on in her book extolling the virtues of a sociocultural perspective on SLTE, Johnson (2009, p. 7) explains the need for a “shift” in teacher education towards an “interpretative epistemological perspective”, which involves “overcoming” the “positivist epistemological perspective”. Johnson urges us to adopt the view that there is no one fixed, immutable reality, but rather, a multiplicity of realities, all of which are social constructs. Since the construction of reality is a social process, it follows that there are simply different ways of looking at, seeing, and talking about things, each with its own perspective, each with its own set of explicit or implicit rules which members of the social group construct for themselves. From this new perspective, it follows that the ‘knowledge base’ which Johnson, Richards, Freeman and others refer to has no common, objective base at all: what one teacher ‘knows’ at the end of a teacher education course about interlanguage development or criterion performance tests, for example, will differ from what another teacher will ‘know’. Every teacher has their own ‘knowledge bases’ and sees the same ‘knowledge’ differently.

22.6. One can hardly dispute the need to appreciate what pre-service teachers’ prior experience and set of beliefs bring to any learning task, and to take into account the many contextual factors which affect the implementation of any particular SLTE program in any particular context. Equally, it’s certainly the case that different teachers will learn different things from the same SLTE programme, and that every teacher’s practical classroom work will be crucially affected by the local context in which it takes place. But none of this warrants the view that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, or that there can be no rational assessment of rival theories of language learning and language teaching, or that SLTE should focus only on reflecting on teachers’ subjective feelings, beliefs and experiences. After all, what is the actual content of teachers’ BAKs? How do we evaluate that content?

Imagine a seminar on language learning. The question of ‘learning styles’ comes up, a student teacher says it makes a lot of sense, and the teacher trainer goes to some lengths to explain that there is not one shred of evidence to support the ‘neuro-linguistic programming’ (NLP) view that all language learners have a predominant learning style (visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic). The teacher trainer explains how the NLP theory first appeared, its popularity, its demise, and encourages the student teachers to talk about their own beliefs and experiences of NLP, how they were taught, how their bosses and colleagues and students might react to NLP, and so on. In the end, there is general agreement that NLP is baloney and that ELT should not be influenced by its so-called principles.

Now, according to the epistemological perspective adopted by Richards, Freeman, Johnson and others, the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support NLP counts for little, so what sense does it make for the teacher trainer to focus on getting the student-teachers to articulate their beliefs about NLP?  What is the point of everybody becoming more aware and able to articulate what they think about NLP? It would only have a point if their reflections led them to change their beliefs, but why should they? On what authority can we say that neuro-linguistic programming is mistaken, or not worthy of belief?  In general, how do Johnson, Freeman, Richards and others decide on the content of any SLTE course, on recommendations, on what they want the participants to learn? Trapped in the Humpty Dumpty relativist world, how do they escape the culture of navel-gazing?

22.7. In education, as elsewhere, we need to improve our understanding of things in order to get things done and to make progress. Assuming a realist epistemology and recognizing the usefulness of the scientific method has led to enormous progress, and seems like a more promising way of going about designing and assessing SLTE than shifting towards the ‘interpretative epistemological perspective’ adopted by Johnson and others. Let us accept that many of the SLTE courses currently being implemented do not meet the needs of its participants, and that Tarone and Allwright (2005, p. 12) are right when they say “differences between the academic course content in language teacher preparation programs and the real conditions that novice language teachers are faced with in the language classroom appear to set up a gap that cannot be bridged by beginning teacher learners”.  The conclusion to be drawn is surely that the SLTE courses must change in such a way that the gap is bridged. We must critically evaluate courses, recognize their shortcomings, and listen carefully to suggestions that ensure that teachers are better prepared to meet the challenges of their jobs. Engaging teachers in reflective practices, uncovering their assumptions and beliefs, improving collaboration and feedback channels, introducing more and better-organized teaching practice and peer observation, all these are welcome suggestions. But they do not comprise a persuasive argument for making teacher reflection on learning to teach the main focus of SLTE.

23. Jordan & Long (2022) argue that a teacher’s competence is made up of a range of knowledge, skills, behaviors, attitudes and values which can be discussed and evaluated by appeal to empirical evidence and rational thinking. Thus, SLTE should begin with the critical examination of theories which attempt to explain the phenomena of second language acquisition and in particular of instructed second language acquisition. These theories can be evaluated in terms of their coherence, cohesion, logical consistency and clarity, and their empirical content.  From the basis of an understanding of the reliable findings about (instructed) second language acquisition which emerge, we may then examine various approaches to ELT in terms of their methodological principles, pedagogic procedures, syllabus, materials and assessment procedures. How such content is best delivered in SLTE courses, will be discussed in Part 4.