Teacher Education, Teacher Development: Mushy Peas

My previous post “What is Teacher Development?” supposed that the terms “teacher training” and “teacher development” were more or less synonyms, used to describe the various things that teacher trainers / teacher developers do to equip people to teach English as a foreign or second language. It turns out that, for the IATEFL organisation, I was wrong.  Allow me to digress.

They’re doing a bad job, whatever you call them

My main argument was that those responsible for teacher training / teacher development were doing a bad job because they paid insufficient attention to what we know about language learning, concentrating instead on training / developing teachers to use coursebooks.  The problem here is that coursebooks implement a syllabus based on assumptions that contradict robust findings of SLA research. The result is that teacher trainers / developers are training / developing teachers to do the wrong thing. That’s the argument.

Coursebook-driven ELT is driven by commercial interests 

I go on to argue that coursebook-driven ELT is not only inefficacious, but also that its global dominance is no accident. Cousebook-driven ELT serves the commercial interests of a profit-driven hydra of publishing, teacher training, teacher certification, English proficiency examination, and English teaching companies who between them had a turnover of close to $200,000, 000,000 in 2016 (see the Pearson Report and the BC reports, 2016). It’s a massive, global business. These commercial interests are represented in the IATEFL annual conference Exhibition Hall – OUP, CUP, Pearson, National Geographic, Macmillan, Cambridge Exams, British Council, Trinity London, and on and on. All of them, without exception, promote cousebook-driven ELT, and they recruit academics and so-called expert teacher trainers to argue their case. Such is their commercial clout that they dominate the discourse on ELT and they suffocate open discussion of viable alternatives.

The result and some examples 

For the vast majority of teachers and support workers in the ELT industry, jobs are precarious (hundreds of thousands of teachers have zero hour contracts), badly paid, with few opportunities for advancement, and with little say in management decisions which affect them. Throughout the world, we see de-skilled, underpaid, poorly supported teachers delivering courses where most students fail to reach communicative competence in English. We hear about the success stories, but we ignore the global failure of ELT to give its teachers worthwhile, satisfying jobs, or to give students adequate teaching.

Now of course it would be quite wrong to blame teacher trainers / developers for this state of affairs; most of them are hardly better-paid or more in control of their jobs than the teachers. But it is surely right to ask those who actually design and implement teacher training courses like CELTA, DELTA, Trinity, etc., those who write the “How to Teach” books on the recommended reading lists, and those who travel around the world giving training and development courses, to respond to criticism.

The really powerful people in ELT are the men and women running publishing companies, training and exam bodies and the teaching outfits themselves, of course. They’re the top echelon of the ELT establishment, but they mostly avoid the limelight. So in today’s Society of the Spectacle, they need a public face, which is provided by the “top” course designers, materials writers and trainers. Witness the embarassingly lack-lustre annual ELTons event, which does its sorry best, tatty red carpet and all, to emmulate the Oscars. The stars of ELT parade themselves at the IATEFL conference, talking in the biggest rooms to the biggest audiences, gracing the smartest parties, even signing autographs these days. They are as close as we usually get to the power brokers, and it’s this group who must surely answer charges that they lack the knowledge and expertise which one would expect of them, that their positions are often compromised by their links to commercial interests, and that, for whatever reasons, they fail to challenge the reactionary policies of the ELT establishments. In brief, they don’t do enough to ensure that teachers get adequate training and development.

A few random examples:

  1. Scott Thornbury’s “Vicar of Bray” approach (CELTA here, Dogme there)
  2. Books on how to teach English by Jeremy Harmer, Leo Selivan, Hugh Dellar & Andrew Walkley, and Penny Ur.
  3. The CELTA course.
  4. Teacher training / development courses given by all those in (2) + Katherine Bilsborough
  5. Just about all conference plenaries
  7. ELT blogs: ESL.com, AzarGrammar.com, TEFL Org UK, Larry Ferlazzo English Education,

No excuse for ignorance 

Thanks to ongoing work by some excellent scholars over the last 60 years, we now have both a coherent, consensural view on fundamental questions about learning an L2, and clear implications for ELT. There’s no “right way”, but we at least know what’s mistaken, because it contradicts the evidence from research findings, and what’s more likely to be right, because it’s supported by evidence.  There are some good summaries of SLA research (avoid Rod Ellis or Saville Troike; try Lightbown & Spada, or Gass, or VanPatten and Williams) and some good reviews of articles from journals available on line. So there’s no excuse for those who are in charge of teacher training for not knowing about this stuff. How can you train teachers to teach English as an L2 if you don’t know how people learn languages? How can you recommend this or that teaching approach, this or that way of designing a syllabus, this or that activity, if it’s not based on sound foundations? In my opinion, the works of Dellar and Walkley, Ur, Harmer, Ferlazzo, Selivan, Roberts, and many other leading lights in ELT are based on very shaky foundations indeed.

Navel gazing?   

To the issue, then. I thought training and development were part of the same thing, but it turns out that in the IATEFL world, there’s a difference. There are two different SIGs: Teacher Education and Teacher Development. If you go the TD SIG web site you see this:

IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group provides a forum for us to develop our potential as teachers, to cultivate our abilities to navigate the challenges and successes of being a teacher, and to invigorate satisfaction in our ongoing work.

Our aims:

  • To enable and encourage all categories of teacher to take more responsibility for professional and personal evolution throughout their careers.
  • To promote individual and institutional awareness of the importance of teacher development.
  • To encourage the provision of facilities for teacher development which do not already exist.

Content-free blather! What do they actually do? Here’s the report on what they did at the 2018 IATEFL conference:

Our Pre-Conference Event on Monday 9 April was ‘Personalised Teacher Development: is it possible?’. An audience of over 90 ELT professionals gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities for fostering teacher development in and across institutions. 

We also put together a Showcase Day jam-packed with talks and workshops chosen to get conference delegates thinking about and reflecting on myriad issues relating to teacher development. The programme featured reports on research projects from the UK and Australia,…. tips and techniques for focusing on teaching experience and our identity as ELT professionals. We had a range of speakers from teachers at the chalkface to managers to former IATEFL plenary speakers. Much food for thought to be taken away.

Still no hint of what they actually talked about or what it led to. It’s really hard work to find ANY substance in this website, to find out about how they helping teachers grow professionally. If you click on “Development” ths is what you see:

  • The events calendar tells you what they’ve got planned for the coming months
  • The CFP is a call for proposals
  • The Web Carnival has details of a web event called Developing Development in late February
  • The bibliography has nothing – not one article – published this century.

Nit picking? 

Perhaps by trying to find out what the Teacher Training and Education SIG does, we can deduce what the TD gang does. Here’s what they say on their web site:

Our Mission:

The TTEd SIG serves the professional development and networking needs of English Language Teachers of Teachers around the world and contributes to the profession via publications, events and other initiatives aimed at fostering quality teacher education in English.

On the Events page, we find:

2012 was an active year for TTEd SIG. We were involved in several events in different parts of the world ( Beijing – China, Hyderabad- India) and we organized a symposium in Istanbul.

2013 was another active year for TTEd SIG. We were involved in several events in different parts of the world, and our PCE at Liverpool was a success. Our Newsletters reached our members, our Facebook account/ blog are very active.

Our Harrogate 2014 PCE was also a success with our celebrity speaker TESSA WOODWARD.

A bit further down, reporting on last year’s conference in Glasgow, we find that the Pre-Conference Event was around the topic

How to plan, deliver and evaluate Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programmes for teachers

Apart from the fact that the TTEd lot seem a bit sleepy, they also seem to be dabbling in teacher development, blurring the lines between the two. In any case, I could find little information about anything organised by this group that might count as a critical examination of existing ELT practice, no criticism of any of the teacher training courses leading to recognised teacher certification, no criticism of any of the books you see in the bibliographies of those courses, no criticism of any training course.


This quote from Thomas Pynchon’s novel V comes to mind:

“What is the tag end of an age, if not that tilt towards the more devious, the less forceful?”.

That IATEFL should see the need to mush up the peas by allowing these two separate SIGs, while refusing to allow Paul Walsh’s proposal for a Teachers As Workers SIG surely indicates this tilt towards the more devious. Look again in my previous post at the video of those in the TD SIG talking about TD. Look at all the stuff they’re going to do at the IATEFL conference. Look at the stuff the TTEd SIG is going to do. Just how forceful is all that? How does it face up to what teachers actually do in practice, day after day, wading thru this damn coursebook or the other? What will they do to raise standards of training and thus improve ELT practice?


What Is Teacher Development?

A recent discussion of teacher training / teacher development on Twitter started with Cecilia Nobre objecting to untrained teachers giving training courses. I chimed in with this:

Why don’t trainers start with how people learn an L2? Why train teachers to use a syllabus which contradicts research findings? Why not question coursebook-driven ELT? Why assume that explicit teaching of bits of grammar & lexis -> communicative competence?

I admit that this was a deliberate attempt to hijack the discussion and move it towards my own hobby horse, namely the refusal of those involved in teacher training and development to question the domination of coursebook-driven ELT. Few bit the bait, but David Deubelbeiss couldn’t resist (bless him!) and it led to the following exchange:

David: Let’s remember that most of what a teacher trainer does (or should do) is help skill up teachers in the “how” and art of teaching. Not teaching theory and / or curriculum design nor defending educational beliefs

Me: 1. You ignore the syllabus & what’s taught? Skilling up teachers in how to present and practice bits of grammar and lexis is OK, even tho SLA research findings show it’s ineffective? 2. TDs don’t discuss educational beliefs? Really?

David: There is a big difference between teacher education and teacher training.

Me: How are they different? Into which category do the CELTA course, Dellar’s course on teaching lexically, and the SLB course on TBLT fall? How can ANY educational programme focus on “how” and ignore ‘what’ and ‘why’ issues?

David: Of course you don’t ignore them but theory isn’t central to the job. In general education, a trainer is someone who works with teachers inservice. The problem with ELT is we have teachers without any formal teacher education. We should fix that.

Me: What counts as “formal teacher education”? Can inservice teacher training include advising changes & improvements? If so, what informs the advice? Is reference to holistic approaches; cognitive load; distributed practice; implicit learning; saliency; schema; priming; etc allowed?

That was as far as it went. I like David’s approach to ELT a lot; he’s one on a very short list of teacher trainers who I consider both well informed and progressive. But just look at what he’s saying. I find it depressing to see this view of training versus education so blatantly articulated. It’s just one more expression of the view that the focus of teacher training in ELT should be to equip teachers with the rudimentary skills needed to deliver a syllabus that is fundamentally flawed, ignoring the basic question of efficacy.

Surely, we MUST address the question of how efficacious it is to base ELT on a syllabus that’s based on false assumptions about how people learn an L2. Learning an L2 is not the same as learning geography, for example, because learning an L2 is about procedural not declarative knowledge. We know that learning an L2 is learning by doing, it’s practice, practice, practice as Amy says. We know that teachers using a coursebook to study bits of grammar and lexis is not efficacious and yet teacher trainers continue to tell their trainees to do it. They carry on with the pretence that presenting and practising bits of language in the way coursebooks force teachers to do will lead to communicative competence when all the evidence shows that it doesn’t work.

Why do teacher trainers persist in this mistaken approach to ELT? Because education has become another commodity, and cousebooks exemplify the commodification of ELT. Teacher trainers teach teachers to teach McNuggets. Assessment of proficiency is based on knowledge of these McNuggets. The CEFR levels are used to describe where students are in their accumulation of these McNuggets. Thus, this Frankenstein model of proficiency is reified – these levels are treated as if they were real, as if they reflected communicative competence. But they don’t. The whole edifice is built on commercial convenience. It ignores the reality of language learning and imposes an inefficacious way of teaching.

Coursebook-driven ELT has led to our losing sight of good, wholesome ELT practice, based on learning by doing, on helping students work the L2 code out for themselves by involvement in meaningful tasks, on scaffolding their learning and giving them the help they need to do it. We go further and further away from good educational principles; we give in to commercial pressure and teach what we’re told to teach by teacher trainers who turn a blind eye to the mountain of evidence which highlights the inadequacy of coursebook-driven ELT.

Meanwhile, those who make a living from teacher training and development ignore the elephant in the room – the fundamental question about the efficacy of coursebook-driven ELT – and take cousebooks as the given starting point. They design courses like CELTA which simply accept that coursebooks will be used, and they tour the world giving courses devoted to how to do coursebook-driven ELT better. TD groups in IATEFL and TESOL give scant regard to questioning coursebook-driven ELT, preferring to agonise about teacher identity, dealing with stress and burn-out, and all that other modern floss which has replaced any robust interrogation of what they’re actually doing in the classroom. And before these modern TTs accuse me of making fun of serious issues, let me make it clear that I’m talking about priorities.

Here’s  what you’ll find on the IATEFL TD website:


Blather, blather and more blather. TD is interaction; it’s like growing plants; it’s moving forward; it’s about being in this life and moving forward; it’s empowerment; it’s being more aware; it’s reflection, it’s bla bla bla.

Look at the TD plan for the 2019 IATEFL convention. Serious issues are tackled, but where’s the critical analysis and reflection of ELT teacher training practice? Where does the TD address questions like “What are we training teachers to teach?” “What do we tell trainees about how people learn an L2?” “How can we assess the efficaciousness of our teaching?”

ELT is a huge business with a global turnover of hundreds of billions of dollars – see the Pearson 2017 report and the British Council 2016 report for details. Cousebook-driven ELT is the result of commercial pressure, not the result of any regard for research findings on instructed SLA, all of which suggests that coursebook-driven ELT is not efficacious. ELT teacher trainers are responsible for how hundreds of thousands of teachers approach their work. In my opinion, most of them are doing a bad job.


The IATEFL 2019 Conference: Some questions to ask

To any IATEFL Official:

  • If IATEFL supports women and NNS teachers in their fights for justice, why doesn’t it support teachers who are fighting for decent pay and working conditions?
  • In the Jobs Fair, employers pay nearly £2,000 for a small space, a rickety table and 3 naff chairs, plastic badges, and access to a Help Line which plays “All you need is love” on a loop. Is this fair?
  • There’s something a bit commercial about all this, don’t you think?

To any of the many men who write best selling books on ELT, tour the world spouting on about things they know shamefully little about and are generally regarded as leading figures in ELT:

  • Is there anything you’d like to say about the way you treated women in the past?

To anybody on the CUP stand:

  • How much does CUP pay Scott Thornbury per hour (to the nearest £100,000) ?
  • Regarding your recent publications on the teaching of lexical chunks, is it the FCE or the CAE exam which expects students to know the idiomatic expression “He/she doesn’t know his/her arse from his/her elbow”?
  • Why is access to the St. John’s choir practice sessions restricted to those with a double-barrelled surname?

To anybody working for the British Council:

  • How do you justfy the fact that the British Council is a charity, yet it makes huge profits on its global English language teaching and teacher training activities?
  • Does the fact that the BC holds a one-third share in the International English Language Testing System not conflict with the Council’s charter?
  • The British Council’s not-for-profit status means it is exempt from corporation tax in many countries. This gives it an unfair edge on its competitors, doesn’t it?
  • Why is there no pension plan for ordinary teachers, only for the upper echelons of British Council staff?
  • Why are you all so stuffy?

To anybody on the OUP stand:

  • Which do you think does a better job of presenting and practising third conditionals: English File Lower Intermediate Additional Materials Pack 12, or Headway Advanced Brexit Video Pack?
  • Why does Henry Widdowson look down on suggestions for a third way?
  • Why is access to the Kings College badminton practice sessions restricted to those with a double-barrelled surname?
  • Why don’t you just concentrate on selling the best book you’ve ever done: the Oxford Concise Dictionary?

To anybody working for Pearsons:

  • What theory of language learning informs the Global Scale of English (GSE)?
  • The nearly 2,000 “can do” statements that form the backbone of the GSE are based entirely on the intuitions of teachers: no empirical data have been gathered from learners’ experiences. How do you justify this?
  • How do you respond to the criticism that the GSE is an example of what Glenn Fulcher calls “Frankenstein scales”, which don’t relate to any specific communicative context, or give a good description of any particular communicative language ability?
  • Do you think global warming will affect the company’s ambitions for global domination?

To anybody in the Teacher Development SIG Committee

  • When was the last time you matched your advice to teachers against the findings of SLA research?
  • That’s a nice bow tie. Did you buy it on Amazon?

To anybody working for National Geographic

  • What brings you here?
  • Does the sophisticated communication system that elephants use to warn each other about the approach of ill informed, myopic preditors support the view that language is grammaticalised lexis?

Bits and Pieces From the Blog Part 1

Looking through the posts, I’ve selected these bits and pieces. Many are comments. My own bits are indicated by GJ.

On Emergentism

Emergentist explanations of how you learn language remind me of the story of how Rockefeller became rich. One day as a young lad he found himself with a penny in his pocket. He walked down to the farmer’s market and bought an apple, walked to Wall Street and sold it for 2 cents. Then back to the market to buy 2 apples, back to Wall Street, and so on. At the end of a week he’d bought an old wheelbarrow, and after a month he’d earned enough to put down the first month’s rent on a small fruit shop. But then his uncle died and he inherited everything. (Kevin Gregg)

On Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis

It’s important to try to clarify what Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis says, and then to evaluate its claims because these days it’s being used to support all manner of explicit teaching practices. Whether it’s presenting the present perfect in a grammar box, or making the explicit teaching of lexical chunks the number one priority in teaching, or using a red pen to indicate errors in a composition, it’s all OK because the Noticing Hypothesis says that bringing things to learners’ attention is a good thing. Schmidt’s construct has been watered down so much that it now means no more that noticing in the everyday meaning of the word. (GJ)


According to Susanne Carroll’s Autonomous Induction Theory, learners do not attend to things in the input as such, they respond to speech-signals by attempting to parse the signals, and failures to do so trigger attention to parts of the signal. It is possible to have speech-signal processing without attention-as-noticing or attention-as-awareness. Carroll argues that learners may unconsciously and without awareness detect, encode and respond to linguistic sounds; that learners don’t always notice their own processing of segments and the internal organization of their own conceptual representations; that the processing of forms and meanings are often not noticed; and that attention is the result of processing not a prerequisite for processing. (GJ)


I’m so glad you’ve taken this subject up; I’ve always wanted to and never did. I’ve always had a problem trying to work out just what it is that the Noticing hypothesis claims. On the one hand, it should be uncontroversial that you have to receive input in order to act on it; you can’t be asleep, or in another part of town. On the other hand, you can’t notice what is not in the input; and rules, for instance, or functions, are not in the input. Dretske makes a distinction between noticing the toast burning and noticing that the toast is burning; your dog can do the former but not the latter. You can notice that the speaker said “I often eat eggs”; you can notice, in the second sense, that he didn’t say “I eat often eggs”, although I rather doubt that many L2 learners do. What you can’t do is notice the structure of an English verb phrase, which is what makes “I eat often eggs” impossible, and it is knowledge of the structure of an English verb phrase that the learner needs. Long, and Schmidt (to the best of my memory) talk about forms and ‘form-meaning relationships’, as if language acquisition were the acquisition of forms. Language acquisition is the acquisition of a grammar, which you can’t notice.  (Kevin  Gregg)

On language and teacher trainers

At the heart and foundation of everything – I do think that grammar has a special role. I still (unfashionably) see it as the necessary motherboard that the rest of the components organise themselves onto and from which the software makes the message. (Jim Scrivener)


The problem is not your lesson. The problem is not the methodology. The problem is not the coursebook. The problem is the training that told these teachers how a lesson should be.(Jim, again.)

On coursebooks

ELT is now controlled by commercial teaching institutions, exam-boards and publishing companies. Between them they ensure the continuing dominance of coursebooks and exams which commodify language learning, de-skill teachers and fail students. The uncritical support that this coursebook-driven model of ELT gets from the establishment, and the depressing lack of initiative among teacher trainers who often have a vested interest in coursebooks means that attractive alternatives such as TBLT are starved of the oxygen they need to mount a challenge.

I think that the best hope we have of changing this lamentable state of affairs is for teachers to organise locally, in cooperatives, for example, in such a way that we get better informed, better qualified, and more able to offer teaching that pushes beyond the awful confines of coursebooks. Machine translation is coming fast; armed with the new technology and the knowledge of how people learn languages, we can use needs analysis and a task-based approach to offer tailor-made help to more carefully targeted learners. By organising our own development, by designing our own courses, by being properly prepared and locally organised, we can topple the 3-headed hydra and hurl it into the dustbin of history. We can use our skills to emancipate ourselves, earn decent money, and enjoy doing our job, scaffolding learners’ interlanguage development, without a coursebook in sight. (GJ)


The texts in coursebooks like Headway and Outcomes are “short, contrived, inauthentic, mundane, decontextualised, unappealing, uninteresting, dull”. The activities are “unchallenging, unimiginative, unstimulating, mechanical, superficial”. None of the coursebooks examined is likely to be effective in promoting long term acquistion. (Brian Tomlinson)


Courseboooks suck the life out of teaching. (J.B.)


It’s not a question of doing things right, but doing the right thing. (Mark Walker)

On the implications of  SLA research on ELT

If I am teaching someone to drive, I might be more concerned with how the learner-driver manages routine manoeuvres and copes in unpredictable conditions rather than on the inner workings of the internal combustion engine – however fascinating. Likewise, a person who writes books about teaching (such as the unjustly maligned Penny Ur) may find it more apposite to engage with questions of classroom management, teacher-student, and student-student, interaction, the selection and evaluation of materials, the planning of lessons, the relation between classroom learning and the social context, and so on, than in the way individual learners internalize isolated grammar items in laboratory conditions (which is the focus of the bulk of SLA research). Oh, yes, that is interesting – but ancillary.  (Scott Thornbury)


Surely this analogy would be more apt if the instructor took to telling learners that modern theories of combustion were unproven, at best, false, at worst? Or if students were instructed to, say, rub their seatbelt to reduce fuel consumption (reflecting the countless pages of grammar mcNugget teaching philosophy espoused by Ur et al)?  (Robert Taylor)


Penny Ur argues for an approach to ELT which you yourself abhor. She does so by sometimes misrepresenting research findings; by more frequently omitting any mention of research which seriously questions the assumptions on which her “experientially-grounded” approach is based; and by constantly inventing straw man arguments like the one you’ve just come up with here. You use a collection of non-sequiturs to suggest on the one hand that Ur is an irreproachable scholar, and that on the other hand there’s little point in teachers taking any notice of fifty years work by real scholars who attempt to explain how people learn English as a second language. (GJ)


Scott Thornbury, Penny Ur, and others demand lots of evidence that TBLT “works”, while providing none that traditional grammar-based PPP does. And if some of the evidence is from laboratory studies, they dismiss it as ivory tower, etc., etc., etc.

Here’s the abstract from a forthcoming statistical meta-analysis of 52 evaluations of program-level implementations of TBLT in real classroom settings*, including parts of the Middle-East and East Asia, where arm-chair pundits have decided it could never work for “cultural” reasons, and “three-hours-a-week” primary and secondary foreign language settings, where they have also decided it could never work:

Findings based on a sample of 52 studies revealed an overall positive and strong effect (d = 0.93) for TBLT implementation on a variety of learning outcomes. … Additionally, synthesizing across both quantitative and qualitative data, results also showed positive stakeholder perceptions towards TBLT programs.

Of course, it’s only 52 studies, some with methodological weaknesses, no doubt, and Scott and Penny probably have 53 in favor of PPP up their sleeve . .  (Mike Long)

*Bryfonski, L., & McKay, T. H. (2017). TBLT implementation and evaluation: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research.

Task-Based Language Teaching: From Theory to Practice. SLB’s Online Course for Teachers

Fed up with teaching with coursebooks? Looking for something more satisfying? Then why not try TBLT? Below some Q & As, which I hope will convince you that it’s worth the effort.

Q: What’s wrong with coursebooks, anyway?

A: They cut the language up into artificial bits; they concentrate on talking about the language rather than getting students to talk in the language; and they don’t respect SLA research findings about how people learn an L2.

Units 1 and 2 of the course deal with the limitations of coursebooks and with how people learn an L2. .

Q: What is TBLT?

TBLT is based on the principle of learning by doing. Rather than spend most of classroom time talking about the language, TBLT scaffolds students’ efforts to talk IN the language about things that they actually have to do with the L2 in the real world.   While there are “task-supported” versions of TBLT, like those proposed by Nunan (2004); Willis and Willis (2007), and R. Ellis (2003), the only version that really escapes from the clutches of the PPP approach and fully embraces the principle of learning by doing is Mike Long’s version, where a needs analysis identifies real life tasks which the students for whom the course is aimed will have to carry out. Once we’ve identified the “target tasks”, we break them down into a series of pedagogic tasks and find appropriate material to accompany them.

Units 3 and 4 of the course cover these issues.

Q: It sounds too difficult!

A: But it isn’t. It’s simple: instead of presenting and practicing a sequence of grammar structures and vocabulary lists, you lead students through a sequence of tasks and give them help as and when they need it. Examples of such tasks are: giving a sales presentation; taking part in an undergraduate seminar; having a meal in a restaurant; getting and following street instructions; analysing a scientific report; dealing with a police stop in a car; viewing a property for rent; advising a client on an investment package.

OK, but there’s too much work involved!

A: There’s no denying that the needs analysis, materials production, and pedagogic task design involves some front-end heavy lifting, but it pays huge dividends, and this work doesn’t have to be re-done every time a course is offered. In most contexts, including academic, work, and travel contexts, for example – work done this year will be usable next year. As you and your colleagues gain experience of TBLT, your needs analysis process becomes more streamlined, Task Types are more easily identified, and the materials bank grows so as to make the production of Pedagogic tasks much quicker.

This is really the heart of the matter, and we devote 4 units to it. We’ll deal with needs analysis, deriving pedagogic tasks from target tasks, making materials for pedagogic tasks, and putting together the syllabus. We’re very aware of the limited time and resources teachers have, and of cultural restraints too; so we’ll devote a lot of attention to making certain compromises in order to respond realistically to local contexts.

Units 5 to 9 of the course cover all these issues. Prof. Mike Long and Prof. Roger Gilabert will be personally involved, giving tutorials, answering questions and supervising the final assessed task.

Q: How does it work in practice?

The principles include “Provide Rich Input”; “Encourage inductive “chunk” learning”; “Focus on Form”; “Provide negative feedback”; “Promote cooperative collaborative learning”.  The procedures depend on the local context and on each different day of class, so they rely on teachers’ experience and “feeling”.  The principle “Provide negative feedback”, for example, still has to be put into practice. Obviously, responses to errors will vary enormously; one error can be let go, while another might warrant a brief interruption in the group work to bring it to the attention of the whole class.

Unit 10 of the course is devoted to methodological principles and pedagogic procedures.

In fact, we think “Focus on Form” and “Provide negative feedback” are so important that we devote Unit 11 to them. We look at the question of explicit grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary teaching and at error correction, and stress their importance.

Q: What about assessment?

A: Assessment in these TBLT courses is done by task-based, criterion-referenced performance tests.

Unit 12 of thecourse deals with this, and we’re very lucky to count on Prof. Glenn Fulcher’s collaboration. He has helped us with the presentation and materials, and he will give the tutorials, answer questions and supervise the final assessed task.

Hurry, hurry! 

Convinced? Want to know more? Well hurry hurry hurry, click this link and get over to the SLB website now!



Ellis, R. (2003) Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford, OUP.

Nunan, D. (2004) Task-based language teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

Willis, D. and Willis, J. (2007) Doing task-based teaching. Oxford, OUP

Christmas is coming

Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, Please put a penny in the old man’s hat

The “goose” in ELT refers to the multi-headed hydra composed of publishers, examination boards, teacher training outfits and course providers who between them, according to Pearson’s Global Review (2016), generate a staggering $194 billion annual turnover.

The “old man” refers to the teachers, whose generally miserable pay and conditions can only be glimpsed from various sources, such as teachers’ own accounts in blogs, and outfits like ELT Advocacy Ireland, Teachers as Workers, and EL Gazette. (I should say that while I often disagree with opinions expressed in its pages, EL Gazette consistently fights for teachers’ rights and exposes abuses and malpractice. It is, without doubt, a progressive force in ELT. )

Any honest appraisal of current ELT will conclude that it’s run for profit, that commercial considerations outweigh educational principles, that the bosses are giving their workers a very bad deal, and that the consumers are often hoodwinked and mostly disappointed. Furthermore, teacher trainers and teachers organisations such as IATEFL and TESOL support the ELT establishment, defend coursebook-driven ELT, and do little to support teachers’ fight for better pay and conditions. In short, current ELT practice reflects the general trend towards the commodification of education, where the profit motive brutally stamps out educational principles, substitutes market values, and relies on an underpaid workforce to deliver its carefully packaged products.

Pearson leads the way

Pearson PLC exemplifies this trend. It’s the largest education company and the largest book publisher in the world. It generates total revenues of $10 billion. It’s a key player in the ELT world and is currently implementing its Global Scale of English (GSE). The GSE comprises four distinct parts to create “an overall English learning ecosystem”:

  • The scale itself – a granular, precise scale of proficiency aligned to the Common European Framework of Reference.
  • GSE Learning Objectives – over 1,800 “can-do” statements that provide context for teachers and learners across reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  • Course Materials – both digital and printed materials, aligned to the selection of learning objectives relevant for a course/level.
  • Assessments – Placement, Progress and Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) tests, which are placement, formative/ summative assessments and high stakes tests aligned to the GSE.

Pearson explain that the global ELT industry will be a much better place once everybody in it is using their Global Scale of English ecosystem. The GSE reinforces the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) as a tool for standards-based assessment, and is the world’s first truly global English language standard, allowing educators, employers and learners to measure progress accurately, easily, and in context.


In this way the language learning process is finally and definitively reified: the abstract concepts of  “granular descriptors” are converted into real entities, and it’s then assumed that these entities represent language learning and the communicative competence that results from it. The complex, dynamic process of SLA is flattened out, granularised and turned into a guided process of accumulating a stock of measurable entities. In this reified vision of SLA, learners move unidimensionally along a line from 10 to 90, making steady, linear progress along a list of can-do statements laid out in an easy-to-difficult sequence, leading inexorably, triumphantly, to the ability to use the L2 successfully for whatever communicative purpose you care to mention. It’s the marketing division’s dream, but it’s contradicted by 60 years of SLA research, and it’s every liberal, free thinking  teacher’s nightmare.

Fighting back

The only way we teachers will get any real say in how we teach, and get better pay and conditions, is for us to first recognise what’s going on, and then to organise. We must free ourselves from the crap we’re told by teacher trainers who have a vested interest in coursebooks, and reaffirm our commitment to the principles of learning by doing, and to our roles as mentors who scaffold learners’ own development towards communicative competence. At the same time, we should form local cooperatives where we work together to  educate ourselves and to establish minimum pay and conditions. These local organisations need to be coordinated at national and international levels. This, of course, smacks of anarcho-syndicalism, which is the political view that I ascribe to, and that I recommend to you all.

Happy Christmas.


Pearson. (2016) GSE Global Report. Retrieved from  https://www.english.com/blog/global-framework-raising-standards

A Review of Leo Selivan’s (2018) “Lexical Grammar”

In the Introduction to his book Lexical Grammar, Selivan explains what lexical chunks are, why they’re so important, and how they should be used in ELT. I will argue that the explanation is confused and simplistic; that the works by scholars advocating a usage-based theory of language learning are misrepresented and misinterpreted; that Selivan fails to give any coherent account of how chunks are stored, or what part they play in learning an L2; and that he fails to make the case for using chunks “to drive grammar acquisition”.

What is a chunk? 

Selivan says “A chunk is a group of words customarily found together”. He gives these examples:

  • fixed expressions, e.g., as a matter of fact,
  • combinations of words that allow variation, such as see you later/soon/tomorrow,
  • collocations, such as pursue a career; a scenic route; a chance encounter,
  • stems that can be used to build various sentences in English, such as If I were you; It’s been a while since; It took me a long time to
  • full sentences, such as It’s none of your business; There’s no doubt about it; What are you gonna do?

 Given the wide spread covered by chunks, Selivan asks:

Is everything chunks, then? He answers:   

Yes, to a large extent. Evidence suggests that our mental lexicon does not consist of individual words but chunks. Chunks …. are stored in the brain as single units. Research shows that about 50–80% of native-speaker discourse consists of recurring multi- word combinations (Altenberg, 1987; Erman and Warren, 2000).

We may quickly note that everything is not chunks, and the claim made for the research on recurring multi- word combinations is exaggerated. Selivan goes on to say that chunks “blur the boundary between vocabulary and grammar” because of “the tendency of certain words to occur with certain grammatical structures and vice versa”. True enough.

In the next section, Selivan asks “Is there more to knowing a language than just reproducing chunks we have encountered?”, and replies by giving a summary of Hoey’s “new theory of language acquisition”.

Hoey’s Lexical Priming

Here is Selivan’s summary:

Hoey (2005) argues that as we acquire new words we take a subconscious note of words that occur alongside (collocation) and of any associated grammatical patterns (colligation). Through multiple encounters with a new word, we become primed to associate it with these recurring elements.  According to Hoey’s theory, our brain is like a giant corpus where each word is accompanied by mental usage notes. Language production is not a matter of simply combining words and rules but rather a retrieval of the language we are primed for, i.e. the patterns and combinations we have previously seen or heard. …. The theory explains why, when producing language, our first port of call is our mental store of pre-fabricated chunks. 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. Because we are only primed to repeat language we have encountered in particular contexts, if we find ourselves in a new communicative situation, we might not have any ready-made language to draw on. This is when grammar knowledge can help us produce completely new sentences.

This is actually a very poor account of Hoey’s theory, and there are several things wrong with it, but let’s focus on storing chunks. According to Selivan, Hoey says that our brain is like a giant corpus where each word is accompanied by mental usage notes. But how does that fit with the claim that our brain stores chunks as whole single units? As Tremblay, Derwing and Libben (2007) point out, ‘stored’ could mean one of two things. The words making up the chunk could be seen as individual items which are linked together through knowing that they go together. So the chunk in the middle of  would be [in -> the -> middle-> of]. On the other hand, ‘stored’ could mean that the chunk had no internal structure and would look something like [inthemiddleof]. Selliven repeatedly says that chunks are stored as single holistic units, but if so, then these units are indivisible chunks with no internal parts – they’re not linked together through knowing that they go together – and therefore they can’t be “teased apart”, or used as templates, or used to drive the process of grammar acquisition .We’ll return to this is a minute.

The confusion mounts when Selivan goes on to talk about “the role of generative grammar” (sic) in allowing learners to “fine-tune chunks so that they fit new contexts”. Selivan suggests that we are only primed to repeat language which we have encountered in particular contexts, and that consequently “if we find ourselves in a new communicative situation, we might not have any ready-made language to draw on”. He goes on: “this is when grammar knowledge can help us produce completely new sentences”. Not only does this show a complete failure to understand Hoey’s theory, it also paints an unlikely picture of L2 learners’ dichomotomous behaviour, suggesting that when they’re in “familiar contexts” they repeat language they’ve already encountered, whereas when they’re confronted with “new communicative situations”, they must resort to grammar knowledge in order to produce completely new sentences.

Chunks in Language Acquisition

According to Selivan, chunks allow learners to produce language such as I haven’t seen you for ages “when their own grammatical competence doesn’t yet allow them to generate new sentences in the present perfect”. But they do more – much more – than that:  memorised chunks also “drive the process of grammar acquisition”. The argument is (and I’m re-arranging the original text a bit) that children acquiring their L1 start out by recording pieces of language encountered during their day-to-day interaction and then repeating words (e.g. dog) or multi-word phrases (e.g. Let me do it, Where’s the ball?). They then slightly modify the encountered language to suit various communicative needs:

  • Where’s the ball?
  • Where’s the dog?
  • Where’s Daddy?

Only later, says Selivan, do abstract categories and schemas, such as the subject–verb–object word order or inversion in interrogatives, begin to form “from these specific instances of language use”.

But this is not how children learn their first language. O’Grady (2005) explains how children use a collection of abilities to learn language. They begin by distinguishing speech sounds from other types of sounds and from each other. They then use the ability to produce speech sounds in an intelligible manner, stringing them together to form words and sentences. For words, there is first of all the ability to pick the building blocks of language out of the speech stream by noticing recurring stress patterns (like the strong–weak pattern of English) and which combinations of consonants are most likely to occur at word boundaries. For meaning, they have the ability to “fast map” – to learn the meaning of a word on the basis of a single exposure to its use, using linguistic clues to infer (for instance) that a zav must be a thing, but that Zav has to be a person. For sentences, there’s the ability to note patterns of particular types (subject–verb–object constructions, passives, negatives, relative clauses), to see how they are built, and to figure out what they are used for.

Most relvant to Selivan’s central claim for chunks is O’Grady’s account of the beginning of an infant’s language learning. Right at the start, children pick what they can out of the stream of speech that flows past their ears. They often pick out single words, but sometimes they get larger bites of speech – like what’s that? (pronounced whadat) or give me (pronounced gimme). O’Grady says there’s a simple test to decide whether a particular utterance should be thought of as a multi-word sentence or an indivisible chunk with no internal parts: if there are multiple words and the child knows it, they should show up elsewhere in his speech – either on their own or in other combinations. That’s what happens in adult speech, where the three words in What’s that? can each be used in other sentences as well.

But in child language, what’s that is almost certainly an indivisible chunk. There’s no indication that the different parts of an utterance have an independent existence of their own, and there’s no evidence that they get “slightly modified to suit various communicative needs” in the way Selivan suggests.

O’Grady suggests that children have two different styles of language learning.

1. The analytic style breaks speech down into its smallest component parts, and short, clearly articulated, one-word utterances characterise the early stages of language learning. They like to name people (Daddy, Mummy) and objects (Kitty, car) and they use simple words like up, hot, hungry to describe how they feel and what they want.

2. Other children take a different approach. They memorize and produce relatively large chunks of speech (often poorly articulated) that correspond to entire sequences of words in the adult language. Whasdat?, dunno, donwanna, gimmedat, lookadat. This is called the gestalt style of language learning.

No child employs a completely analytic strategy or a purely gestalt style. Rather, children exhibit tendencies in one direction or the other. Whatever direction they tend towards, all children eventually become competent language users, and to suggest, as Selivan does, that this process can be described – and even explained – by saying that they unpack chunks that are stored as holistic units in the brain is not just absurdly simplistic, it’s also so confused as to be preposterous.

L2 Learning 

Selivan argues that the SLA process is very similar to L1 learning: L2 learners use memorized chunks to drive “the process of grammar acquisition” by “extrapolating grammar rules” from them. Selliven cites SLA studies which show that new grammatical structures are often learned initially as unanalysed wholes and later on broken down for analysis. For example, learners may learn the going to future form as a chunk, such as I am going to write about for writing essays (Bardovi-Harlig, 2002), before adapting the structure to include other verbs: I am going to take/try/make, etc. Holistically stored chunks gradually evolve into more productive patterns as learners tease them apart and use them as templates to create new sentences:

  • I haven’t seen you for ages.
  • I haven’t seen her for ages.
  • I haven’t seen him since high school
  • I haven’t heard from her for ages.

 Here we go again! Holistically stored chunks by definition can’t gradually evolve into more productive patterns. While there’s every reason to think that L2 learners unpack chunks, Selivan fails to cite the relevant literature, and fails to situate the process of unpacking, analysing and re-packing certain types of chunks in any coherent theory of SLA.

Things get worse. Selivan continues his discussion by raising the question:

Why is it that while children effortlessly acquire their mother tongue from examples using their pattern-finding ability, the process of L2 acquisition is often so laborious, with many learners never reaching native-like performance?”

One of the main reasons, says Selivan, is lack of exposure – L1 proficiency is the result of thousands of hours of exposure to rich language input, while the exposure L2 learners receive is often not suficient to enable them to identify patterns from specific examples. But even when there is plenty of input, Selivan admits that there are additional factors which may hinder the process of L2 acquisition. He focuses on salience, the lack of which, he says, may explain why certain grammatical forms are notoriously difficult for learners to acquire. Selivan points out that many grammatical cues in English (for example tense marking, the third person singular -s and articles) are not salient. And grammatical words tend to be unstressed in English, making them more difficult to perceive aurally. We stress know in I don’t know, not don’t, which results in something sounding like I dunno in spoken English. We stress taken in You should have taken an umbrella, which is reduced to You should’ve taken an umbrella, or even You shoulda taken an umbrella.


There are a number of problems with this account. First, it relies on a usage-based theory of language acquisition, which is not accepted by the majority of scholars working in the field of SLA. Selivan should at least respond to crtiics of his preferred theory, which is still in its infancy, does not accurately describe langauge learning, and does not explain how children acquire linguistic competence. I’ll just mention a few points from Gregg’s 2003 article on emergentism:

  • Usage-based theories don’t tell us anything about children’s linguistic knowledge which comes about in the absence of exposure (i.e., a frequency of zero), including knowledge of what is not possible.
  • While N. Ellis aptly points to infants’ ability to do statistical analyses of syllable frequency, he fails to acknowledge that those infants didn’t learn that ability. How do young children uniformly manage this task: why do they focus on syllable frequency (instead of some other information available in exposure), and how do they know what a syllable is in the first place, given crosslinguistic variation?
  • How does usage-based theory account for studies showing early grammatical knowledge, in cases where input frequency could not possibly be appealed to?
  • Regarding infant L1 learning, claims by Ellis and others that “learners need to have processed sufficient exemplars…” are either outright false, or else true only vacuously (if “sufficient” is taken to range from as low a figure as 1).
  • “It is precisely because grammar rules have a deductive structure that one can have instantaneous learning, without the trial and error involved in connectionist learning. With the English past tense rule, one can instantly determine the past tense form of “zoop” without any prior experience of that verb, let alone of “zooped”…. If all we know is that John zoops wugs, then we know instantaneously that John zoops, that he might have zooped yesterday and may zoop tomorrow, that he is a wug-zooper who engages in wug-zooping, that whereas John zoops, two wug-zoopers zoop, that if he’s a Canadian wug-zooper he’s either a Canadian or a zooper of Canadian wugs (or both), etc.  We know all this without learning it, without even knowing what “wug” and “zoop” mean.” (Gregg, 2003, p. 111).

Second, as already stated, Selivan doesn’t explain how “holistically stored chunks” can “evolve into more productive patterns as learners tease them apart and use them as templates to create new sentences”. In order to be used in this way, the chunks need to be better defined, and the way in which they’re stored and retrieved has to be properly explained.

Third, Selivan fails to grasp what usage-based theory has to say about associative learning or about differences between L1 and L2 learning. His discussion of salience is completely out of place in a simplistic model which sees language learning as a process where you start by memorising chunks, then, when the occasion demands, tease them apart and use them as templates to create new sentences, and thus learn grammatical rules. Such an account doesn’t accurately describe any usage-based theory of learning, and it doesn’t explain why salience is a problem for L2 learners of English but not for infant L1 learners of English.

In brief, Selivan misrepresents and misinterprets Hoey, Tomasello, and Ellis; he makes no attempt to address the criticisms made of usage-based theories; he fails to explain the enormous disparities between the results of L1 and L2 learning; and he fails to give any coherent account of what chunks are, or what part they play in learning an L2. There is little to recommend it as an explanation of how people learn an L2.

Chunks in Language Teaching

In the final section, Selivan looks at chunks in language teaching.  He argues that “the learning of new structures” should start off as gradual exposure to and accumulation of chunks containing the target structures. As the number of stored chunks grows, chunks exhibiting the same pattern will gradually feed into the grammar system. This is when grammatical competence with a particular structure begins to emerge. To speed up the process of chunk accumulation and pattern detection, chunks need to be taught explicitly. Here are some bits of the advice offered:

  • Learners’ attention should be drawn to chunks containing certain grammatical structures. They can practise and learn the chunks lexically before moving on to any kind of grammar explanation, i.e. they should be encouraged to memorize before they analyse.
  • Many classroom activities should focus on highlighting chunks in reading and listening input. Such receptive, awareness-raising activities can be gradually combined with more productive ones, where learners manipulate the chunks to fit different communicative situations and scenarios.
  • Learners should be eased into new grammar areas through chunks. For example, Have you ever been to can be presented in the context of travel or holidays, without delving into a grammatical analysis of the present perfect. Similarly, Have you seen can be presented when discussing films in class. Start by getting learners to practise and memorize chunks containing a new grammatical structure, resisting the temptation to move too quickly into any grammar explanation.
  • Getting learners to produce new language is an essential pedagogical activity. Using new grammatical structures, however partially or provisionally understood, promotes fluency and acquisition of these structures. It also allows learners to produce language which is structurally beyond their present level of competence. It is, therefore, the teacher’s role to encourage learners to incorporate new structures in their output and ‘push’ them beyond their comfort zone.

Let’s just pause here and look at that last one. Selivan suggests that teachers should get learners to produce new language which is structurally beyond their present level of competence by using new grammatical structures which they only partially understand. Does producing memorised chunks that have been stored in the brain as single units count as producing new language? If not, how are teachers to get learners to do it?

Rather than examine Selivan’s methodology in any detail, it’s enough to note that he thinks teachers of English as an L2 should

  • continue to use coursebooks,
  • continue to use a PPP methodology to present and then practice a sequence of formal elements of the language,


  • get students to memorise chunks and then use those chunks as a way of easing into grammar teaching.

His version of ELT is thus subject to the same criticisms made of other types of synthetic syllabuses which are implemented using a PPP methodology. Still, there’s one particular problem that has to be faced, and that is, of course: Which chunks should be presented for memorisation and further work, and in what order? Given the impossibility of getting students to memorise the tens of thousands of chunks needed for fluent communication, how do you select and sequence the necessarily small fraction of chunks that will drive any particular course of ELT?  Selivan doesn’t answer the question, which is hardly surprising, because there is no answer. If you select some chunks and then teach them in the way Selivan suggests, even if students actually learn them all, you won’t cover enough to get anywhere near the number known by competent English users. Now doesn’t that suggest that there’s some fatal flaw in the whole project, and that there are better ways of helping students to develop communicative competence?


Gregg, K. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 19, 2.

Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. London: Routledge.

O’Grady, W. (2008) How Children Learn Language. Cambridge, CUP.

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

Tremblay, Derwing and Libben (2007) Are lexical bundles stored and processed as single units? Proceedings of 23rd Linguistics Conference, Victoria, BC, Canada.