Anybody seen a pineapple?

Usage-based (UB) theories see language as a structured inventory of conventionalized form-meaning mappings, called  constructions, Thus, the first thing one needs to get a handle on is Construction Grammar, which is summarised in Wuff & Ellis (2018). I’ve just been reading Smiskova-Gustafsson’s (2013) doctoral thesis and her brief summary of Nick Ellis’ UB theory reminded me of why I find it so wierd.  Acording to N. Ellis, detecting patterns from frequency of forms in input is the way people learn language: when exposed to language input, learners notice frequencies and discover language patterns. Those advocating Construction Grammar insist that the regularities that learners observe in the input emerge from complex interactions of a multitude of variables over time, and that, therefore, the regularities in language we call grammar are not rule-based; rather, they emerge as patterns from the repeated use of symbolic form-meaning mappings by speakers of the language. “Therefore, grammar is not a set of creative rules but a set of regularities that emerge from usage” (Hopper, 1998, cited in Smiskova-Gustafsson, 2013). Emergent structures are nested; consequently, any utterance consists of a number of overlapping constructions (Ellis & Cadierno, 2009, cited in Smiskova-Gustafsson, 2013). Linguistic categories are also emergent, – they emerge bottom-up and thus not all linguistic structures fall easily into prescribed categories. In other words, some linguistic structures are prototypical, while others fit their category less well.

Examining some of the abstract constructions developed by UB scholars, Smiskova-Gustafsson’s (2013) notes that frequency of forms interacts with psycholinguistic factors, most importantly, prototypicality of meaning. She gives the example of the verb-argument construction “V Obj Oblpath/loc”, or VOL, an abstract construction that enables syntactic creativity by abstracting common patterns from lexically specific exemplars such as put it on the table:

The exemplar itself is a highly frequent instantiation of the VOL construction, and the verb put that it contains is prototypical in meaning. This means that put is the verb most characteristic of the VOL construction and so the one most frequently used. Other verbs in VOL are used less; the type/token distribution of all verbs used in the VOL construction is Zipfian (i.e., the verb put is the one most frequently used, about twice as frequently as the next verb). Such prototypes are crucial in establishing the initial form/meaning mapping – in this case, the phrase put it on the table, meaning caused motion (X causes Y to move to a location). Repeated exposure to other instantiations of the VOL construction will gradually lead to generalization and the establishment of the abstract productive construction (Smiskova-Gustafsson (2013, p. 18).

Got it? If you find that taster a rather abstract and obtuse way to try to explain how input can of itself contain all the information learners need to learn English as an L2 (for example), then try reading Wuff & Elllis (2018), or the Approaches book in the graphic above. But what about chunks? From a UB perspective, chunks are “conventionalized formmeaning mappings, the result of repeated use of certain linguistic units, which then give rise to emergent patterns in language at all levels of organization and specificity” (Smiskova-Gustafsson, 2013, p. 21). Chunks go from word sequences that are semantically opaque (spill the beans) or structurally irregular (by and large) to everyday usage such as in my opinion, or nice to see you.  And here’s the rub: as Smiskova-Gustafsson (2013, p. 21) points out, “if we take a usage-based perspective, where all units of language are conventionalized, identifying chunks would become pointless, since we could say that all language is in fact a chunk”. The natural, seamless flow of native-like language use can thus be seen as “formulaicity all the way down” (Wray, 2012 p. 245, cited in Smiskova-Gustafsson, 2013, p. 22): language consists of almost endless overlapping and nesting of chunks, as in this example:

In winter Hammerfest is a thirty-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering.

thirty hour ride by bus from

[thirty hour [[ride][ by bus]] from]]

chunks: thirty hour ride, ride by bus, by bus, by bus from, etc.

though why anyone would want to go there

[though [why] anyone would] [want to] go] there]

chunks: though why, why anyone would, why anyone would want to, want to go, etc. ( Smiskova-Gustafsson, 2013, p. 11).

Since learners of English as an L2 tend to use English in terms of grammar and individual words, and often combine words in awkward ways, their lack of the ability to produce “natural, seamless flows of native-like language use” must be because they don’t have the necessary procedural knowledge of the Construction Grammar which underpins the  “conventionalized English ways” of expressing any particular concept.

The question is, of course, Is this a good way to see language and language learning? If it is, then how do teachers of English as an L2 help their students develop proficiency? How do they teach students English, if it amounts to no more – and no less! – than procedural knowledge of Construction Grammar, the pre-requisite for the proficient use of tens of thousands of overlapping and nested chunks? To be thorough, if teachers accepted the UB approach, then instead of following the confused and contradictory advice offered by Dellar & Walkley or by Selivan, they would first have to understand Construction Grammar, then understand UB theories of language learning, and then articulate methodological principles and pedagogical practices for implementing a principled lexical approach.  Were teachers to attempt this, I suggest that they’d find Construction Grammar more difficult and less useful than the grammar described in Swan’s Practical English Usage; Ellis’ UB theory more difficult and less useful than the theories described in Mitchell & Myles (2019) Second Language Learning Theories; and accounts of methodological principles and pedagogical practices found in Teaching Lexically or Lexical Grammar less convincing than the account of them found in Chapter 3 of Long’s (2015) SLA & TBLT.

UB theories are increasingly fashionable, but I’m still not impressed with Construction Grammar, or with the claim that language learning can be explained by appeal to noticing regularities in the input. As to the latter, I recommend Gregg’s (2003) article; seventeen years later, I’ve still not read a convincing reply to it. Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that there’s no consensus among SLA scholars on the question of whether language learning is done on the basis of input exposure and experience or by the help of innate knowledge of learners, and it’s still not clear whether grammatical learning is usage-based or universal grammar-based.

Meanwhile, it seems sensible for teachers to continue to regard English as a language with grammar rules that can help students make well-formed (often novel) utterances, and to help their students by giving them maximum opportunities to use English for their own relevant, communicative purposes, while encouraging inductive learning of chunks. Likewise, it seems foolish to accept the counsel of teacher trainers who misrepresent the complexities of a UB approach and who recommend teachers to focus on the impossible task of explicitly teaching lexical chunks.


Dellar, H. and Walkley, A. (2016) Teaching Lexically. Delta.

Gregg, K. R. (2003) The State of Emergentism in SLA. Second Language Research, 19,2, 95-128.

Selivan, L. (2018) Lexical Grammar. CUP.

Smiskova-Gustafsson, H. (2013). Chunks in L2 development: a usage-based perspective. Groningen: s.n.

Wuff. S. and Ellis, N.  (2018) Usage-based approaches  to second language acquisition. Downloadable here:


Alternative Proposal for IATEFL Global Get-Together 2020

IATEFL’s proposal for a global get-together is a disappointing, lack-lustre programme that perfectly reflects its status as the stuck-in-the-mud, unimaginative voice of current, commercially-driven ELT practice. The perfect example of this lamentable state of affairs is that Catherine Walters, one of the most reactionary voices in ELT over the last four decades and President of IATEFL in 1993, is asked to address the most crucial issue currently facing us, namely, how to adapt classroom teaching to distance learning. The blurb for her presentation Losing Our Bells and Whistles: Will asynchronous teacher education return? suggests that she’ll do nothing more than warn teachers of the perils of cutting edge innovation. “Keep it simple!”, she’ll say. “Don’t try any clever synchronous stuff – it always goes wrong!”. That’s it: that’s IATEFL for you.

As for the rest of the programme, what can we find that might possibly drag us away from Netflix? The President’s address? Tell me a President’s address that you remember anything about! Will poor David Crystal, dragged out yet again, this time to promote the new edition of his Big Book do more than entertain? I doubt it. How about somebody selling a commercial Business English test? Definitely not. And advice on how to be mindful, or eulogies to young learners as global citizens? Useless pap is my guess. The only things that might be interesting are the local reports, but they’re not properly situated or focused.

Here’s my suggestion.

Re-examining Principles of ELT

All sessions last 2 hours. They’re round table discussions with a Moderator. Each speaker has 10 minutes. Questions are sent in to the organisers

Session 1: How do people learn an L2? : S. Gass, N. Ellis, M. Pienemann, S. Carroll, K. Gregg

The main debate these days is between emergentists (we learn from input from the environment) and nativists (we learn with help from innate hard wiring). Where are we now? What principles can we agree on which will underline our work as teachers?

Session 2: Teaching implications of SLA Findings: L. Ortega, A. Benati, M. Long, H. Marsden, H. ZhaoHong, H. Nassaji

Recent research findings have challenged previously accepted meta-analyses. Where are we now? Most importantly: can we agree on the relative importance of explicit and implicit teaching?

Session 3:  Syllabus design:  R. Ellis, M. Swan, M.Long, S Thornbury, C. Doughty

The big debate today is between synthetic syllabuses, as implemented in General English Coursebooks, and analytic syllabuses, like Long’s TBLT and Thornbury & Meddings Dogme.  This is probably the second most important question of them all. We need to clarify all the “false” alternatives and agree on principles for syllabus design and materials production.

Session 4: Distance Learning: G.Mottram, G. Dudney, C. Chapelle.

Tech experts present their platforms and respond to questions sent in by participants prior to the conference. .

Session 5: ELT as a profession: TEFL Workers Union, N. McMilan, S. Millin, S. Brown, R. Bard.

The most important question of them all. How do we improve our lot? How do we organise?  Ideally, we should produce a Manifesto.

Session 6: Hope For the Future: T. Hampson, M. Griffin, J. Mackay, K. Linkova, L. Havaran

This is my own, very personal choice of teachers, new and old, whose voices need to be heard.

A 2-day programme, properly organised, would allow the invited speakers to briefly state their cases and for discussion to ensue. I think the success of the event would depend on careful monitoring and follow up. The organisers would have to edit the material and then get back to contributors to help compile really solid take away stuff. Ideally, we’d have Summary Statements on each of the 6 issues and the beginnings of a network.

I’m confident that I could organise such an event if

  1. Neil McMillan did it with me (I haven’t even mentioned this to him yet!)
  2. We had a small group of helpers, and
  3. we had some cash.

I invite comments.

Words from the Wise

Here are some quotes from ELT experts who currently inform teachers. Who said them?

  • J. Harmer
  • A. Holliday
  • A. Maley
  • P. Ur
  • D. Larsen-Freeman
  • S. Carroll
  • L. Selivan
  • J. Anderson
  • S. Richardson
  • H. Dellar

(Note: There’s one “rogue statement” in there which I profoundly agree with.) 

1. It’s time to shift metaphors. Let’s sanitise the language. Join with me; make a pledge never to use “input” and “output” again.

2. Instead of the big top down grammar, which we just drop words into as Chomsky suggested, it’s thinking about the individual words that drive our communication and the grammatical patterns which often attach themselves to those particular words.

3. Teaching may be a visceral art, but unless it is informed by ideas it is considerably less than it might be.

4. It’s essentially racist to imagine a group here and a group there who are essentially different to each other.

5. Chunks …. are stored in the brain as single units. .. However, this does not completely negate the role of generative grammar. Knowledge of grammar rules is still important to fine-tune chunks so that they fit new contexts.

6. We have no evidence that PPP is less effective than other approaches.

7. We should not expect research to have any necessary or close link with the activity of teaching.

8. There is no evidence that TBLT works.

9. You can’t notice grammar. ..  the stuff of acquisition (phonemes, syllables, morphemes, nouns, verbs, cases, etc.) consists of mental constructs that exist in the mind and not in the environment at all. If not present in the external environment, there is no possibility of noticing them.

10. Most SLA researchers assume that native speakers make the best teachers.. and view the L1 as “an obstacle”.










1. Larsen-Freeman; 2. H. Dellar; 3. J. Harmer; 4. A. Holliday; 5. L.Selivan; 6. J. Anderson; 7. A. Maley; 8. P. Ur; 9. S. Carroll; 10. S. Richardson

A Reply to Dellar on the difference between his “Lexical Approach” and TBLT

Dellar has a new video on YouTube explaining the difference between his “Lexical Approach” and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).

Dellar’s Lexical Approach is distinguished by its special “approach to language”. While most ELT approaches wrongly see language as “grammar and single words”, his approach sees language as more “patterned and formulaic” than is commonly assumed, where collocations, chunks, “fixed and semi-fixed expressions, discoursal patterns that are predictable and repeatable” should be the focus of teaching. That’s it – that’s the special approach which Dellar claims teachers need training in, so as to think about language in “a more sophisticated, nuanced way”.

On the other hand, CLT is “primarily to do with classroom methodology” – “interaction is both the means and the ultimate goal of study (sic)”.  Dellar has no objections to communicative activities, but he thinks teachers can do them better by adopting his more sophisticated approach to language, because it better equips them to provide students with “the actual language that they need in order to carry out communicative tasks”. Thus, TBLT and Dogme could be improved by doing what he does – “predict the language students need to perform these tasks”.

On Language

Dellar fails here, as he does elsewhere, to give any coherent description of this special view of the English language. I’ve discussed Dellar’s view of language in a separate post, so suffice it to say here that Dellar & Walkley’s Teaching Lexically gives one of the most absurd misreprentations of pedagogical grammars (“grammar plus words”) ever published, and follow it with an incoherent account of the important role that collocations and lexical chunks play in understanding the English language. Dellar’s various attempts to describe his special approach to the English language  – in this video, in Teaching Lexically, in his podcasts, videos and conference presentations (note particularly his contorted versions of a “bottom-up” grammar) – are an unscholarly sham.

On Teaching 

Dellar, as we’ve seen, says that teachers following TBLT and Dogme syllabuses would benefit if they shared his more sophisticated, more nuanced understanding of English, because this would allow them to predict the language which students need to perform tasks. But how would it do that? What guidance does Dellar give teachers to inform their “predictions”? Given his focus on lexical chunks, and given that proficient English speakers know tens of thousands of lexical chunks, how does Dellar suppose that teachers, once trained in his approach to language, will select the chunks that their students need? What criteria  will they use to narrow down the many thousands of candidate chunks to a managable number? Dellar has never offered any coherent criteria or principles for making such a selection, nor has he shown any critical acumen in assessing the enormous problems involved in selecting and teaching lexical chunks. For example, what principles or criteria inform the selection of chunks to be found in Dellar’s One Minute videos? A recent aticle in Applied Research on Language Learning, lists the most frequent idioms used in contemporary American English, in the academic, fiction, spoken, newspaper, & magazine genres. Not one of Dellar’s over 200 selected chunks (which include the gems “It does my head in”, and “budge up”) is mentioned in the lists. So if teachers ever make the mad decision to base their teaching on presenting and practicing chunks, how will they “predict the language their students need”? Throw darts at a board full of “Hugh’s Favorite Chunks”? No, of course not – all they have to do is leave it Hugh, and use the Outcomes series of coursebooks.

I wonder if “Help! Get me out of here!” appears in any of them.

Arguing about mansplaining on Twitter

This Tweet appeared recently. You can see my comment below it, and the 21st comment after that, which got over 200 “Likes”. 















The Reaction

Dozens of tweets followed my “What nonsense!” tweet. Some, from men, were crass and insulting (You’re shit. Shut the fuck up moron), while women preferred joshing and taking the mickey. Just about everybody agreed I was mansplaining. For example, A tweeter called M commented:

This really is quite meta: a historical reference to mansplaining met by the the most peak of mansplainers ever imaginable.

While Raw posted this

I wrote more than 30 replies in 3 hours; a few were angry; many were ill considered; and many had mistakes (in one, I referred to Eleanor Marx as Karl Marx’s sister, for example); so I’m not pretending that I put my case coherently and cohesively and I’m not complaining about the reactions, either. I just want to state my case calmly here and make a couple of comments.

Louise Raw’s view 

From the tweet, I judge Raw’s view to rest on the special status of Eleanor Marx. She was a Marxist scholar; she’d spent years working with Marx; she was chosen by Marx to carry on his work; and Marx entrusted her with the job of publishing the English version of Capital. In a famous quote (Florence, 1975) Karl Marx said “Tussy [Eleanor] is me”. Thus, it is extremely unlikely that the man who stood up at the end of her lecture and told her what Marx really meant knew better than she did what Marx meant. So the man is guilty  of mansplaining.   

My View

Mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending or patronising way. If the man explained what Marx meant to to Eleanor in a condescending or patronising way, then he was mansplaining. But if the man offered an interpretation of some aspect of Marx’s work which contradicted Eleanor’s account, without stooping to condescension or patronisation, then he wasn’t mansplaining. The fact that he was talking to Eleanor Marx doesn’t mean that his remarks were necessarily condescending or patronising – or even wrong. Louise Raw gives no information about the man’s intervention, and without a reliable acount of what the man said and the way he said it, we can’t be sure he was mansplaining. Saying that the man “told her what Marx had really meant” could be seen as implying that he was being patronising & condescending, but Raw’s a historian – she should have supported her assertion of historical mansplaining with a reliable account of the man’s words and actions at the 1893 lecture given by Eleanor Marx in Aberdeen.   

The False Claim: You say that the man knew better than Eleanor what Marx meant. Ergo: you’re anti-feminist.  

Over 50 tweets had the same theme: I was called a “sexist”, “misongynist”, “old white man”, “woman hater” who “despised feminists”. The tweet from Audrey shown above says this: 

So random man knew better what Karl meant than Karl’s own daughter who worked with him…. Were you related to that man by any chance? 

Audrey puts words in my mouth and attributes completely false views to me. In no tweet did I say, or imply, that the man (now “random man” and perhaps my relative) knew better than Eleanor Marx what Marx meant, or question Eleanor’s expert status. But, never mind; the twisting of my words became an established “fact” from then on. Dozens of tweets supposed that I had indeed said that random man knew better, and, on that basis, accused me of bias and sexism.  Today, this was posted:  

That quote is not what I said; I don’t know where bb davey got it from; but there it is again: the false assumption that I had suggested that “random man” knew better.  

A bit later Audrey says:  

Yeah… How dare we thinking that a woman who is also his daughter would know better the subject she was working on?? We’re so silly Louise…. Aren’t we?

I didn’t criticise anybody for thinking that Eleanor knew more than “random man”, but again, never mind; it sounds good and was the cue for merry “I’m in the kitchen, where Geoff thinks I belong” exchanges among some women tweeters, which, stupidly, rattled me enough to call them “dummies”.

Ad Hominens or Gratuitous Insults? 

Louise Raw’s tweets contained these remarks: 

  • (Geoff) is an heroic leftie whose politics are beyond question. As we know, loathing feminists & insulting women is no bar to this. 
  • (Geoff) doesn’t realise Eleanor Marx was one of the feminists he despises.
  • (Geoff) sees no irony in getting furious with having HIS knowledge challenged whilst saying it was fine for a random dude to challenge ELEANOR’S
  • (Eleanor) was absolutely Marx’s literary collaborator, as everyone acknowledges- apart from Geoff!
  •  (Geoff) came to us, calling us dummies and idiotic feminists, but is The Real Victim Here? 
  • Geoff likes to insult women whilst accusing US of ad hominems.

The Appeal to authority 

Louise Raw says this:  Karl Marx: ‘Eleanor IS ME’. He meant politically. So the mansplainer was doing the closest thing he could, after Karl’s death, to correct Marx himself on Marxism.

The actual quotation is ‘”Jenny is most like me, but Tussy (Eleanor) is me” (Florence, 1975, p. 57). I think it’s fair to say he meant politically, but to suggest that Eleanor Marx was the voice of Marx himself is surely taking things too far. Marx trusted his daughter to faithfully interpret hiis work, but that doesn’t mean she always did so. Marx died in 1883, and in 1884 Eleanor, along with other members of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), including William Morris and Ernest Bax left the SDF and formed the Socialist League. It’s a mute point what Karl Marx might have advised. And it’s not sure whether father and daughter were entirely in agreement about sexual politics and the wrongs of the bourgeois family. In any case, while it’s perfectly reasonable to claim that Eleanor was a reliable source of information about Marx’s work – especially the later work, including Capital – that doesn’t mean she had – or should have had- the final word on all the myriad controversies and disagreements that raged in the 1890s about what Marx really meant, or that in her lecture that day she didn’t say anything that might be seen as offending the Marxist canon. 

Critical Thinking

Here’s a tweet from Bygone (sic) Jim:  

The pompous adage in the first sentence is followed by a completely unsupported criticism in the second. But my argument during the exchange, and now, more calmly here, is based on the first principle of critical thinking: Question everything: examine the logic of any assertion and ask for evidence; don’t believe what you’re told. In a polite exchange with Sue Lyon-Jones, she agrees that mansplaining is when a man tells a woman something she already knows in a way that is patronising and dismissive, and she thinks that Louise Raw’s tweet demonstrates that the man was guilty of it. Where’s the evidence? I ask. She replies: 

That is how I read it. As a woman, it rings a fairly loud bell for me.
I replied, a bit hysterically
But you don’t know what he said! …..  WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!  
And there’s the rub. I don’t think we should take Louise Raw’s word for it that the man was “obviously” mansplaining and I think she failed as a historian to give the evidence that would have allowed us to judge for ourselves. Either Raw doesn’t have the evidence, in which case she shouldn’t have made the accusation, or she has it, and for some reason decided not to give it in a follow up to her original tweet. 



 Florence, R. (1975) Marx’s Daughters. Dial Press,    

Synthetic and Analytic Syllabuses

In on-going discussions about the weaknesses of coursebook-driven ELT, references are made to two types of syllabuses: synthetic and analytic. The distinction was first made by Wilkins (1974), and ammended by Long and Crookes (1992). There seems to be some confusion about them, so here’s a summary of what Long (2015) says. My apologies to Mike for the awful liberties I’ve taken with his much more carefully written text.

‘Synthetic’ and ‘analytic’ refer to the learner’s role in the learning process.

A synthetic approach focuses on the language to be taught (the L2). The L2 is divided into units: words, collocations, grammar rules, sentence patterns, notions and functions. These units, or items, are then sequenced according to criteria (normally intuitively defined ‘difficulty’) and presented one by one.

Synthetic syllabuses assume a central role for explicit instruction and explicit learning, followed by proceduralization of declarative knowledge, and automatization of procedural knowledge. Language teaching is seen “as a process of filling the learner’s linguistic quiver one shiny new arrow at a time” (Long, 2015).

Students are exposed to “simplified” dialogues and reading passages “seeded” with the structure(s) of the day. Practice of the structure(s) is followed by “freer practice”. The approach relies on a battery of exercises, and linguistically focused tasks for intensive practice during the proceduralization and automatization phases.

Analytic Syllabus 

An analytic approach does the reverse. It starts with the learner and learning processes. Students are exposed to samples of the L2, and engaged in meaningful target language production. The learner’s job is to analyze the input, and thereby to induce rules of grammar and use. There is no overt or covert linguistic syllabus. More attention is paid to message and pedagogy than to language. The idea is that, much in the way children learn their L1, adults can best learn a L2 incidentally, through using it.

Analytic syllabuses are implemented using spoken and written activities and texts, modified for L2 learners, chosen for their content, interest value, and comprehensibility. Classroom language use is predominant. Grammar rules, drills, and error correction are seldom, if ever, employed.


Synthetic syllabuses view L2 learning as a process of skill building. Declarative knowledge (conscious knowledge that) is implanted first. It’s gradually converted into procedural knowledge (unconscious knowledge how). Reflecting the power law of practice, performance moves from controlled to automatic processing, with increasingly faster access to, and more fluent control over, new structures achieved through intensive linguistically focused rehearsal.

Skill-building models contradict research findings on interlanguage (IL) development. IL development of individual structures has very rarely been found to be linear. Accuracy in a given grammatical domain typically progresses in a zigzag fashion, with backsliding, occasional U-shaped behavior, over-suppliance and under-suppliance of target forms, flooding and bleeding of a grammatical domain (Huebner 1983), and considerable synchronic variation, volatility  (Long 2003a), and diachronic variation.

The assumption of synthetic syllabuses, that learners can move from zero knowledge to mastery of formal parts of the L2  one at a time and move on to the next item on a list is a fantasy.

Explicit instruction in a particular structure can produce measurable learning. However, studies that have shown this have usually devoted far more extensive periods of time to intensive practice of the targeted feature than is available in a typical course. Also, the few studies that have followed students who receive such instruction over time (e.g., Lightbown 1983) have found that once the pedagogic focus shifts to new linguistic targets, learners revert to an earlier stage on the normal path to acquisition of the structure they had supposedly mastered in isolation and “ahead of schedule.”

IL development is regulated by common cognitive processes and what Corder (1967) referred to as the internal “learner syllabus,” not the external linguistic syllabus embodied in synthetic teaching materials. Students do not – in fact, cannot – learn (as opposed to learn about) target forms and structures on demand, when and how a teacher or a textbook decree that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so.

In instructed SLA contexts, research (see, for example, Sok et. al., 2019; Kang,, 2019) increasingly shows that following a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus is not as efficacious as using an analytic syllabus such as that recommended by Long (2015), which treats the L2 holistically and leads students through a series of scaffolded tasks where the focus is on meaning, and where focus on form is used to deal with problems which arise when the students indicate a need for it.


Kang, E. Y., Sok, S., & Han, Z. (2019). Thirty-five years of ISLA on form-focused instruction: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research23, 4, 428–453.

Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. Oxford, Wiley.

Long, M., and Crookes, G. (1992). Three Approaches to Task-Based Syllabus Design. TESOL Quarterly, v26 n1 p27-56 Spr 1992.

Sok, S. Kang, E. Han, S. (2019). Thirty-five years of ISLA on form-focused instruction: A methodological synthesis. Language Teaching Research 23, 4, 403-427).

Wilkins, D. (1974). Notional syllabuses and the concept of a minimum adequate grammar. In S.P. Corder, & E. Roulet (Eds.). Linguistic Insights in Applied Linguistics. AIMAV/Didier.

End of Year ELT Quiz

PART A: Who said

1.  I’m very aware that I fly far too much.  

  1. Sylvia Richardson
  2. Sandy Millin
  3. Donald Trump

2.  Things are getting better and better.

  1. Stephen Pinker
  2. David Nunan’s accountants
  3. Buckingham Palace

3. Language is the toolset of intelligent life.

  1. Nim Chimsky
  2. Jim Scrivener
  3. The Pope

4.  It’s essentially racist to imagine a group here and a group there who are essentially different to each other.

  1. J. Thribb (age 17)
  2. Christopher Columbus
  3. Adrian Holliday

5.  We should not expect research to have any necessary or close link with the activity of teaching.

  1. Boris Johnson
  2. Alan Maley
  3. Anthony Joshua

6.  General English Coursebooks are bland, unappealing, unchallenging, unimiginative, unstimulating, mechanical, superficial and dull. None of them is likely to to be effective in facilitating long-term acquisition.

  1. Brian Tomlinson
  2. John Soars
  3. Pearson Help line

PART B. Numbers

1.  How many levels are there in

  • the CEFR scale
  • the ALTE scale
  • the Pearson Global Scale

2.  How many empirical studies of language use were consulted in order to establish these scales?

  1. 50
  2. 100
  3. 1,000
  4. None

3. For each scale, which does this statement belong to: Can write letters or make notes on familiar or predictable matters

  1. A1
  2. A2
  3. B1
  4. B2
  5. C1
  6. C2
  7. I don’t understand the question

4. Which scholar has not criticised these scales

  1. Alderson
  2. Bachman
  3. Fulcher
  4. Long
  5. J. Thribb (age 17)?

5. How many lexical chunks do proficient users of English as an L2 need to know?

  1. 1,000 +
  2. 2,000+
  3. The ones Hugh Dellar picks

C  Grammar

1.  How many tenses are there in English?

  1. 4
  2. 3
  3. 2
  4. 1
  5. 0
  6. Other

2.  What is CxG?

  1. Z squared
  2. Jenkins’ Grammar for Construction Workers
  3. A folorn attempt to build grammar from putative learned pairings of linguistic forms with functions or meanings

3.  Is this a well-formed sentence: There are many different ways to teach English and places where it is taught. (J. Harmer, 2015).

  1. No
  2. If Harmer wrote it, it must be.
  3. The conjunction ‘also’ is missing.

D. Vocabulary

Readers are invited to add to this list of definitions from the BBC Radio 4 show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:

Chairs – toast by the Queen

Childhood – young gangster

Delight – make things go darker

Extemporary – permanent

Fondue – affectionate sheep

Inhabit – dressed as a monk

Khaki – device for starting car

Laminated – pregnant sheep

Microbe – tiny dressing gown

Minimal – small shopping centre

Mucus – feline swear word

Negligent – Male lingerie

Overrate – nine

Paradox – two medics

Parasites – view from Eiffel Tower

Posterity – inherited botom size

Property – decent cuppa

Ramshackle – male chastity belt

Scandal – footwear to be ashamed of

Xenophobia – fear of Buddhists

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.


Part A

  1. Sandy Millin
  2. Stephen Plunker
  3. Jim the Man
  4. A. Halliday
  5. Alan Maley
  6. Brian Tomlinson

Part B

  1. 7; 7; 10 to 90
  2. None
  3. B2
  4. Thribb
  5. 2,000+

Part C

  1. 2
  2. 3
  3. You decide!


Against Intellectual Sloth, Part 2.

In Part 1, I looked at the first part of Dellar’s post Five things I’ve Learned from running-the “English Questions Answered” group, so as to comment on his claims about NNESTs. In this second part, I’ll look at the post as a whole.

The first thing Dellar learned was Language awareness is not something you’re born with. This invites the questions: What does “language awareness” refer to?; and: What’s the point of saying that it isn’t something you’re born with? Neither question is answered in the text.

The second thing he learned was Difference in meaning is inseparable from different usage. Again, we may ask: What does this mean? Following Widdowson (1979), a distinction is usually made between rules of usage (the rules for making language, i.e. syntax) and rules of use, which consider the communicative meaning of language. I presume Dellar just picked the wrong word, and is, in fact, referring to different uses. If he is, then the point seems to be that when trying to tease out the differences between closely-related words, it’s a good idea to not just look at dictionaries, but to “give examples of what the words are used to do – and to show the other words that often go with them”. I quite agree, and I’m sure you do too.

And I agree with points 3,4 and 5, too. Notions of correctness are more complicated that we may realise; some things are more worth worrying about than others; and tensions between descriptivists and prescriptivists remain high. Dellar’s remarks on all three points are reasonable enough, but his approach to the issues remains vague. In the case of notions of correctness, for example, Dellar says “we need to recognise and accept diversity and the fact that it’s often far easier to say what’s most normal than what’s ‘correct’”. OK, but how are teachers to decide the correctness or “acceptability” of particular sentences, or collocations, or pronunciation patterns? For example, when students ask “How do you pronounce the word ‘grass’?”, what should teachers say? Hugh says [gra:s] and Andrew says [græ: s]. Should teachers teach both? Or teach how they themselves pronounce it? Or use Jenkins’ ELF guide? Or assume that their students want to be taught British English RP / American Standard English? Similarly, Dellar chides “prescriptivist” teachers, but does little to address the frustration he admits they might feel when they’re told to be more “descriptive”. To say that “most of the old rules and generalisations remain”, but that we must consider emerging  “new norms” is not very helpful. What are the old rules and generalisations that teachers can continue to use, and how do teachers decide which new norms to incorporate?

Dellar’s reflections on the 2019 postings among his teachers’ group show his on-going confusion about language, and about language learning. The inability to distinguish between Hoey’s and N. Ellis’ use of the key constructs of priming and noticing is again in evidence, as is the habitual vagueness. In ELT, there’s no doubt that familiarity with formulaic language of all kinds, collocations included, is essential, but the vital question of how best to facilitate learning different kinds of formulaic language remains deeply problematic, as scholars including N. Ellis (2017), Long (2015), and, perhaps above all, Boers (e.g., Boers & Webb, 2018), all agree. Most importantly, they agree that trying to explicitly teach the thousands of “chunks” that learners need for a proficient use of English is quite simply out of the question; yet Dellar continues to extol teachers to do precisely that. He gives only the vaguest answers to questions such as: “What principles guide the choice of the chunks that we should teach? How can enough of these notoriously difficult-to-learn chunks be learned by students? What balance between explicit and implicit teaching and learning is required?” In this latest post, Dellar seems to prefer to muddy the water some more, rather than make the effort needed to address the issues.


Boers, F., & Webb, S. (2018) Teaching and learning collocation in adult second and foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 51, 77-89.

Ellis, N. C. (2017) Chunking. In Hundt, M., Mollin, S, and Pfenninger, S. (Eds.) The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives (pp. 113-147), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Long. M. (2015) Second Language Acquision and Task-Based Language Teaching. Malden, MA. Wiley.

Widdowson, H.G. (1979) Explorations in Applied Linguistics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Against Intellectual Sloth

Dellar’s latest post: Five things I’ve learned from running the ‘English questions answered’ group has been lauded without any attempt at a critical examination of its contents. Five points are made, and here, I’ll discuss the first one.

1. Language awareness is not something you’re born with.

Dellar begins:

In this day and age, it should hardly need stating that traditional notions about the relative merits of so-called ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers are ridiculously outdated. It is impossible to tell from the language used by many of the most regular contributors whether English is their mother tongue or not. It’s also, of course, irrelevant.

I agree with the first sentence.

The second sentence carefully refers only to “many of the most regular contributors”, thus ignoring the fact that in other cases it is possible to tell from the language used by contributors whether English is their mother tongue or not. Here’s the sloth, the lazy generalisation that needs comment. And it isn’t mere nit picking. While, of course we should defend non-native English speaker teachers (NNESTs) against wrongful discrimination, we should do so with respect for the evidence. There are tens of thousands of NNESTs whose command of English is demonstrably excellent; and the arguments about the added qualifications which they bring to the job, including bilingualism, knowledge of local contexts, and often superior knowledge of English and of teaching methods compared to that of native speaker teachers are persuasive.

But these teachers are not completely representitive. More than 90% of those currently teaching English as a foreign language are non-native English speakers (British Council, 2015). Most of these NNESTs teach in their own countries, and the evidence suggests that many – probably a majority – of these teachers today don’t have the command of English required to teach the English courses set out in the national curricula, which increasingly focus on communicative language teaching (CLT). To take the example of China, studies by Zhang (2012), Chen and Goh (2011), and Yan (2012) highlight the teachers’ lack of proficiency in oral communication in English as one of the key factors impeding the successful implemenation of a CLT curriculum.

Similar results have been found in studies carried out in other countries. 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 Czechoslovalua, Hungary, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Sweden, former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe) about their experiences as teachers. The overwhelming majority of the 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.

No good comes from ignoring these facts. To skate so carelessly over the evidence surely harms more than it helps the cause of NNESTs , and it clouds more than it clarifies the complicated arguments involved in moving towards a better, more pluralistic view of the English language and of what should, and, should not, be taught in ELT.


Braine, G. (2005) A History of Research on Non-Native Speaker English Teachers. In: Llurda E. (eds) Non-Native Language Teachers. Educational Linguistics, vol 5. Springer, Boston, MA.

Chen, Z. and Goh, C. (2011)  Teaching oral English in higher education: Challenges to EFL teachers Teaching in Higher Education, 16(3), 333 – 345.

Yan, C. (2012) ‘We can only change in a small way’: A study of secondary English teachers’ implementation of curriculum reform in China. Journal of Educational Change, 13, 431 – 447.

Zhang, D. (2012). Chinese Primary School English Curriculum Reform. In Ruan, J. and  Leung, C. Perspectives on Teaching and Learning English Literacy in China. NY Springer

Atkinson’s Beyond the brain Essay

It is widely assumed that the cognitivist era is over in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) studies.

So begins the abstract of Dwight Atkinson’s (2019) article Beyond the Brain: Intercorporeality and Co-Operative Action for SLA Studies. Atkinson’s argument is that the cognitivist view of SLA is wrong, and that an examination of two books can help “point toward a noncognitive future for the field”. The first book is by Meyer, Streeck, and Jordan (2017), which “explores the consequences of being a body in a world of other such bodies, versus the cognitivist vision of disembodied mind/brain”. The second book is by Goodwin (2018), which “ develops and empirically illustrates a theory of social action wherein heterogeneous, multimodal cultural tools and practices including language combine, accumulate, and transform in moment-to-moment use”. Both books “view human existence and action as fundamentally “ecosocial”—embodied, affective, and adaptive to human and nonhuman environments”.

This quick post is limited to a single argument: Atkinson misrepresents the cognitivist view adapted by scholars in SLA and fails to appreciate their motivation. In the field of SLA, psycholinguistic research treats learning an L2 as an individual process going on in the mind of the learner. By limiting the domain in this way, scientific research is enabled. No researcher in this limited domain denies that other research – into the social domain of L2 learning, for example – has merit, or that novelists, artists and teachers, for example, might have a brighter light to shine on the still incomplete understanding we have of SLA. What the researchers believe, however, is that their scientific approach gets the best results.

Atkinson (2019, p. 725) starts by defining cognitive science.

The foundational assumption of cognitive science, according to Dawson (2013), is that “cognition is information processing (p. 4).

He goes on

More recently, three major developments— connectionism, cognitive neuroscience, and so- called 4E cognition—have enriched and complexified cognitive science. They have done so, I suggest here, without threatening its cognitivist core.

He then looks at the cognitivist “tradition” in SLA. He says:

When SLA studies ties itself directly to cognitive science or cognitive psychology (e.g., Ellis, 2019; Long, 2010; Suzuki, Nakata, & DeKeyser, 2019), when input, output, processing, and competence comprise default terminology in the field, or when a hard line is drawn between cognitive and social, cognitivist traditions endure.

But what justifies this tradition?  He asks:

(a) Biologically speaking, do our minds/brains not exist primarily to keep our bodies alive in dynamic environments—that is, for adaptive eco-logical action?

(b) Are human environments not furthermore pervasively social—that is, does our embodied adaptive action not depend  crucially  on social action and cooperation with others? and

(c) Is such social action/cooperation ultimately not what language and language learning are for?

And he concludes:

If these questions can be answered affirmatively, then cognition must be reconceived within dynamic ecosocial relations and action rather than as the ultimate source and outcome of human behavior, including language learning.

Expressed more rhetorically, to exorcise the cognitivist “ghost in the machine” (Ryle, 2009, p. 5) in SLA studies, should we not start putting “mind, body, and world back together again” (Clark, 1997, subtitle)?     

Atkinson thinks all three questions can indeed be answered affirmatively and, using the two books mentioned above, he offers “intercorporeality and co-operative action” as “theoretical alternatives to cognitivism”. He then suggests how SLA studies, still blighted by the cognitivist ‘ghost in the machine’ can be replaced by a view informed by “embodiment, affect, multimodality, adaptivity, and ecosocial action”.

Here’s a rough summary of the conclusions Atkinson reaches:

  • Giving affect-as-meaning deserves serious consideration when theorizing language learning and teaching.
  • Computers/ information processors are poor models for the active, ‘hyperprosocial’ (Marean, 2015), fundamentally affect-driven organisms that human learners are.
  • Learning is a product of affect, affiliation, identity, and shared meaning-making at least as much as it is of input frequency and/or conscious behavior. Thus, affect-loaded expressions—taboo words being paradigm examples—can be acquired on one or a few exposures, while plural-marking morphemes, article systems, and other formal grammatical machinery may never be.


All these conclusions can easily be accepted. They do almost nothing to challenge the work done by those working on a cognitivist theory of SLA – not even the second one. And if we look at the three questions Atkinson asks – “Do our minds/brains not exist primarily to keep our bodies alive in dynamic environments—that is, for adaptive eco-logical action”, etc., we can safely answer affirmatively without the slightest qualm.

Atkinson’s essay talks about cognitivism as a “tradition”, because his work is soaked in sociology. His appeal to the history of philosophy, for example, is socially informed and fails to appreciate the substance of the thought of those he cites. For example, nobody, but nobody, today, in the field of philosophy – and more particularly in the philosophy of science – gives any credence to a mind-body dualism: Atkinson’s use of other people’s use of Plato and Descartes is outdated nonsense. How long do we have to put up with those who challenge a scientific approach to SLA using this Ladybird summary of western philosophy, for pity’s sake.

Atkinson fails to address the use that a certain group of SLA scholars makes of cognitive science. The group, as he rightly says, includes those who fundamentally disagree about an explanation of SLA. Nativists of various hues, interactionists,  and emergentists, for example, can’t all be right, and they might well all be wrong, but their theories, which are all based on a psycholinguistic, cognitivist approach, need to be criticised properly, rather than dismissed because they don’t take the right stance towards the environment. Reconceiving cognition within dynamic ecosocial relations and action might produce interesting results, and good luck to those who want to try it, but it’s wrong to suggest that those involved in developing  a cognitivist theory of SLA see cognitive science as “the ultimate source and outcome of human behavior, including language learning”.  They don’t.

As Gregg (2010) says, cognitive science sees the mind as the object of empirical scientific inquiry. Cognitive scientists ‘carve nature at its joints’, in order to categorize the domain in terms of natural categories.  Cognition is located within the individual mind and cognitive science looks for natural categories, setting aside individual  differences that might accidentally differentiate members of the same category. That’s what cognitive science does, and it’s results are impressive and on-going.


Atkinson, D. (2019)  Beyond the Brain: Intercorporeality and Co‐Operative Action for SLA Studies. Modern Language Journal, 4, 724-738.

Gregg, K.R., (2006) Taking a social turn for the worse: The language socialization paradigm for second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 22, 4, pp 413-442.