Harold R. Keables

This website is for those doing a postgraduate course in Applied Linguistics and TESOL. It is completely independent, and has no support or connections with any university.

Check out the Resources Section, which offers:

* Links to articles on all aspects of the MA.
* A Video section offering lectures by Dörnyei, Crystal, Nunan, Larson-Freeman, Krashen, Scott Thornbury (who??) and many others.
* Suggested useful blogs and web pages.
* Presentations

Academics work in universities. Their job is to teach and to do research. Most academics prefer research to teaching and are not taught how to teach. So, if you study in any good university you’ll be taught by experts who haven’t been taught how to teach. Nevertheless, if you’re a good student, you’ll get an excellent education. This leads to the suggestion that in tertiary education, teaching methodology matters little: it’s the student who counts. The students who go to the best universities are carefully selected, and a key criterion in the selection process is the student’s ability to study without spoon-feeding. A good student does her own studying and knows how to draw on the resources offered. When you sign up for a post-graduate course know that you are in charge and that you, and you alone, will determine the outcome. Your tutor is an expert, not, usually, a teacher. Your job is to use your tutor’s expertise, which means asking the right questions. Don’t ask “What should I do?”, or “Please suggest a topic”. Ask for comments on your own drafts, ask for guidance on reading; ask for clarification. Get into a dialogue with your tutor; shoot the breeze; get familiar; build a relationship, but remember: your tutor is your mentor in the Greek sense of the word, not your teacher.

Summer Reading for MA Students (and Other Nutters)

sum read

The assignments have been submitted, and the new term begins in a month’s time. So here are a few suggestions for reading before you get back to more focused work.


1. Batstone, R. (1994) “Grammar.” OUP. http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780194371322.do# I liked this book when it came out, and I’ve gone back to it from time to time, not to consult it, but just to enjoy its very enjoyable overview of what can be a complex and rather dry subject. Rob gives what I think is a really entertaining treatment of English grammar, and I particularly like Section 1: Explanation – The Nature of grammar, where he looks at grammar as first product then process. There are LOTS of tasks, which you might want to skip.


Swan Thinking

2. Swan, M. (2012) “Thinking about Language Teaching.” OUP. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Meaningful-Action-Stevicks-Influence-Cambridge/dp/1107610435 A collection of the best articles by the great Michael Swan over 30 years or so: wonderfully-written, enormously stimulating and enjoyable. It begins with Swan’s side of the memorable exchange between Swan and Widdowson in 1985 about CLT. Most people thought at the time that Swan “won”, but, who cares, it’s marvellous reading. Lara Promnitz-Hayashi says in her review http://edition.tefl.net/reviews/esl-teaching/thinking-about-language-teaching/ “The first two articles, A Critical Look at the Communicative Language Approach (1) and (2) written and published in 1985, are my favourites as in many instances he questions the philosophy and techniques of CLT. He critically examines many researchers’ arguments including those of Widdowson, who actually wrote a riposte in response to Swan’s criticism. At the end of the two articles is a written exchange between Widdowson and Swan which is quite amusing as initially when the articles were written there was some animosity between the two yet they later went on to work together and respect each other’s views.”.



3. Arnold, J and Murphey, T. (eds.) (2013) “Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s Influence on Language Teaching.” CUP. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Meaningful-Action-Stevicks-Influence-Cambridge/dp/1107610435 A great collection of papers from 19 ELT authors and influential academics, specially commissioned to pay tribute to the master. If you don’t “get” Stevick, try this. It includes a very good chapter by Scott Thornbury.



4. Cook, V. and Singleton, D. (2014) “Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition.” MM Textbooks. http://www.multilingual-matters.com/display.asp?isb=9781783091799 Two excellent scholars have put together a very readable introduction to SLA which shouldn’t hurt your head much, but still give you a very good overview. This is, IMHO, the best introduction since Lightbown and Spada.



5. Bierce, A. “The Devil’s Dictionary.” Dozens of editions of this famous work are still available or you can go here: http://www.thedevilsdictionary.com/ I can think of 2 examples (from memory, so doubtlessly inaccurate): 1. Love: A temporary insanity, curable by marriage. 2. War: God’s way of teaching Americans geography. Great fun to dip into. Ambrose Bierce disappeared in 1913, aged 71 when he set out for Mexico to meet Pancho Villa. Some say he was executed by Mexican rebels, others say he never crossed the border.



6. Cryan, d. and Shatil, S. (2008) “Introducing Logic: A Graphic Guide.” Icon Books. http://www.iconbooks.com/blog/title/introducing-logic/ Very approachable, marvellous graphics, part of a great series by Icon. Take it slowly, and just flow with it. This is the most approachable introduction to logic I’ve seen.



7. Gardener, M. (991) “New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher.” http://www.amazon.co.uk/New-Age-Notes-Fringe-Watcher/dp/0879756446 Gardener has written dozens of books debunking pseudoscience, and this is a good introduction to his work. It consists of a selection of articles he wrote for various magazines and journals. Chomsky says “Martin Gardener’s contribution to contemporary intellectual culture is unique – in its range, its insight and its understanding of hard questions that matter.”



8. Dudeney, G ., Hockly, N., and Pegrum, M. (2013) “Digital Literacies.” Routledge. http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415660938/ Gavin and Nicky run the excellent Theconsultants-e service http://www.theconsultants-e.com/ and, with their co-author, here offer a thoughtful, very well-informed review, which as the blurb says “is the first methodology book to address not just why but also how to teach digital literacies in the English language classroom.” Required reading for those interested in what many MA programmes still refer to as CALL. OK, so it’s a bit too focused to be on the list; read it in November, then.

Right. Since I finished my MA long ago, I’m off to the pool to continue reading “The New Spain: A complete guide to contemporary Spanish wine” by John Radford. There’s an introduction by Miguel Torres of the great Torres family, who once did an English course at ESADE Idiomas and was unlucky enough to have me as his teacher. I remember it well. I grovelled to him throughout the course (“And which of the four holiday options here do YOU like, Miguel?”), hoping that he’d give me a case of Grans Muralles when the course finished. At the farewell dinner, Señor Torres said “I really enjoyed the course, Geoff, and I’ve got something for you.” “Here it comes!”, I thought “Maybe TWO cases!” “Oh, Miguel, you really shouldn’t have bothered. Why I was just…..” etc., etc.. He gave me a book on the history of Torres wine. Serve me right, what!

Happy Reading.

The Culture of ELT Blogs


Max Ernst’s disturbing image above is, I hope you agree, magnificent. My son calls it “awesome”, an adjective which, through overuse, has almost lost its force, but surely applies here. What I love about this print is its force: it demands attention. Max Ernst was part of the Dada movement whose aim was to shock society out of its complacency. I want to suggest just one thing here: ELT blogs are part of an online philistine culture where complacency is encouraged and robust critical discussion is frowned on.

Apart from what you might read here, it’s very rare indeed to come across articles in ELT blogs which criticise the arguments and opinions of leading writers and academics in the areas of ELT and applied linguistics. If you Google “Top ELT blogs” you’ll get lots of lists, and what’s striking is that, in the thousands of posts and pages that the Top Blogs contain, there is an almost total absence of critical content.

One noteable exception is Russ Mayne’s Evidence Based EFL blog , which has done much recently to effectively explode a few well-established myths. But it’s an exception to what seems to be an unspoken rule among ELT bloggers to avoid criticism. It’s as if everybody’s signed some protection charter which lays out strict, stifling rules of eitiquette designed to ensure that the sensibilities of the nervous, tethered sheep who are presumed to make up the readership of the blogs are not upset. There might also, I suppose, be some kind of pact among bloggers to the effect that “You don’t criticise me and I won’t criticise you”.

Whatever the explanation, there seems to be a fearful aversion to saying anything “bad” or “negative” about anyone in an ELT blog, and a general lack of appetite for, or engagement in, critical exchange. To the extent that this is the case, it surely indicates an underlying anti-intellectual, uninquisitive and undemanding culture which reflects badly on the ELT online community. I should make it clear that I’m not recommending the practice of insulting members of the ELT establishment, although, IMHO, most of them deserve more insults than they get. But a culture which eschews critical debate and fails to regularly and enthusiastically subject its own current beliefs and practices to critical evaluation, is, in my opinion, both weak and philistine. Russ Mayne quotes Wilton’s remark: “Anyone who has any experience debunking legends or pseudoscience knows that the task is often an unappreciated one. People do not like to have their beliefs questioned or to have good stories spoiled”. Quite so, but as both Russ and Wilton appreciate, this debunking activity is necessary if we’re the slightest bit interested in understanding what we do as language teachers.

Nobody knows how people learn a second language, and, partly as a result, nobody knows the best way to learn or to teach a second language. And yet it’s common for leading lights in the ELT community to talk as if they knew exactly how SLA happens and how ELT should be done. The fact that these know-alls often completely contradict what they said 10 years ago suggests that you shouldn’t take what they say at conferences too seriously or trust their books any further than you can throw them. Unless we adopt a critical stance to what we’re told, we are very unlikely to improve our understanding of second language learning and teaching.

It’s not just MA students who should be encouraged to think critically and to question those who speak with “authority”. Everybody who is confronted with assertions, claims, arguments, theories, etc., should apply the two litmus tests of logic and evidence. Here they are:

1. Is this logically consistent?
2. Where’s the evidence?

This should be the default attitude of all those who like to think for themselves rather than allow others to think for them.

Of the many issues in the field of ELT and applied linguistics which deserve our attention these days, I suggest that these are among the most interesting:

• What is the current most widely-accepted explanation of SLA?
• Why are classroom materials not locally made rather than provided for by multinational companies?
• What is the current thinking about the role of lexis in describing English and in ELT?
• What is “English”? Is Jenkins right to argue that it’s a Lingua Franca? How would English as a Lingua Franca actually work? How would it be taught?
• What’s happened to Dogme? After the clever sequence of side-steps in reply to criticism made by its founder, what’s left?
• How can we pin down constructs like “motivation” and “aptitude” in sociolinguistics in order to better study them?
• What are the essential principles of Communicative Language Teaching?
• What is the role of extensive reading in ELT?
• Why is there so little action taken against the worldwide discrimination against “non-native speaker” teachers of English?
• In the multi-billion ELT industry, why do a tiny minority of people get rich while the vast majority of workers stay poor?

While all of these questions have been critically discussed in journals such as ELTJ, Modern English Teacher, Applied Linguistics, Forum, TESOL Quarterly, etc., I’ve seen very little critical discussion of them in blogs. Why so?

Why is robust criticism met with silence? What explains the uncritical culture of ELT blogs?

Rose Bard’s Blog: Teaching Journal


Rose Bard’s blog “Rose Bard: Teaching Journal” comments on English language teaching from the point of view of a dedicated, humanistic, and radical teacher. I say “radical” because, although there are no strident political statements in her posts, nor even any overt criticisms of the status quo in the ELT industry, her posts are, nevertheless, always informed by a political view of the context in which she works. Her blog heading includes Paul Freire’s famous evocation:

The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled.

There it is: to be radical is to attempt to understand reality, not in order to contemplate it, but to transform it. To understand reality, as Friere suggests, one must unveil it, and the motive for the unveiling is to bring about change. What needs unveiling is the stark truth that our social reality is mediated through economic relationships and through politics, whose institutions are, says Friere, following Marx, the poodle of the ruling economic class.

Capitalism, our preferred economic system (where those who own the means of production and control the exchange and distribution of commodities accumulate wealth through the efforts of wage labour) results in a world economy where most of the world’s population live miserable lives. Part of the misery is the absence of access to a decent education, and part of the struggle for change centres on promoting good education, not just among the poor but among the relatively well-off. This is a political struggle: an attempt to change political institutions so that they offer an effective challenge to the interests of the tiny ruling class. My personal view, as an anarchist, is that these institutions should be abolished, but I support radical attempts to change them.

In ELT, as everywhere, any attempts to radically change things are now speedily neutralised. Rather than throwing them into prison or on a bonfire, Significant Outspoken Critics are, in our more sophisticated world, now quickly lauded and invited into the fold of that elite class, who, wittingly or not, uphold the status quo. The profane shout ineffectually from without, gist to the mill, as it were. The ELT industry marches on, monitoring, adapting, slowly ceding here and there, nodding once in a while for the need for a change in window dressing, demonstrating its power and resilience, continuing to make the few rich and to keep the rest poor. Most people working in ELT earn a pittance and their awful wages and conditions of work are largely ignored by those who, from the comfort of their plush offices and luxurious homes, tell them what and how to teach.

But, to return to Rose Bard, here’s somebody among the profane who doesn’t shout insults and throw sour grapes as I do, but rather gets on and does stuff. She reminds me of Chesterton’s great poem, a bit of which is only slightly adapted here:

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of ELT that never have spoken yet.

Rose speaks; she’s found her voice, and a powerful voice it is. It’s powerful because it’s so sincere and so utterly devoid of bullshit or of any attempt at celebrity. It works quietly to unveil the reality of her teaching world and to change it.

Rose’s accounts of her classes (which include some of the best lesson plans I’ve ever seen) are marvellously focused on the effect that her teaching is having. Her descriptions and analysis are compellingly modest, honest, insightful, and always have the students’ interests at heart. She’s just so on the ball, so responsive and adaptable, and you feel she’s learning her craft as she goes. And what’s she trying to do? Why is she so eager to learn and to improve? Because she’s trying to change things. She’s not just talking about how to give a class using songs, she’s not even “just” showing us how to walk the talk of true learner-centred teaching and overcome limitations imposed by difficult circumstances, she’s talking about the liberating effect good education can have.

In her post “My Story: The Story of Thousands”, Rose actually addresses the political issues head on, but she does so with her usual grace. She says:

Historically, education has been marked by inequality and discrimination. Aranha in his book History of Education (História da Educação) explains that there is a duality in the concept of schooling. For the elite, it is to form to higher and more intellectual levels of education while for the labor people all it is necessary is to learn to be able to read and write to a basic level of skills. That is, enough for them to be able to perform a job.

Paulo Freire knew that well. He fought for change. He suffered not in his body inasmuch as in his soul. He hoped for education to become democratic and society not to be divided anymore in a social cast. A place where there is no more oppression, but as he had stated in work, the oppressors won’t ever want to let the oppressed be set free. And we all can understand why, can’t we?


In another post, “Nothing special about teaching profession… Huh?” Rose comments on observing students at the Bairro da Juventude School in Brazil. Related to her well-expressed and well-judged observations, Rose comments on the views of Mitra. She says “Apart from not finding anything new or innovative in Mr. Mitra’s work, I find his assertion on the future of learning confusing, minimalist and innacurate as far as education development goes and that is what bugs me”. She goes on not to call him a self-serving chancer as I would have done, but to state her case with winning restraint.


The influence of that great educator John Faneslow is evident in all Rose’s posts. John’s a radical, and, like Rose, I suspect, steers clear of any alignment with political groups, or even political “doctrine”. John observes and reports on classroom behaviour better than anybody else I’ve ever read by a country mile, and I include the great Earl Stevick. (I should add that I’ve had the good luck to be a teacher trainee in many of John’s courses, as has Rose.) John is such a master because he sees what most of us when we’re in the classroom don’t. John sees the effects the teacher is having, he sees the details of the teacher’s and the students’ behaviour, and he sees the wood over the trees. His secret is that he makes a huge effort to be non-judgemental, and that he focuses on outcomes. For John, like Rose, outcomes are what those involved have learned; not just a better understanding of the present perfect or of some new vocabulary, or of how to get what you want to say out, but of who you are and of your social situation. John, like Rose, wants to change things. That’s his guiding light. That’s why he tells teachers to change what they usually do, and that’s why, like Rose, he hates elitism and toeing the line. It’s also why I put him in the same camp as Rose: a true radical who speaks with a clear, independent, truthful voice and who rises way above the silly fights that I pick.

Rose Bard’s blog deserves to be read by millions and her approach to ELT should inspire us all.

Starting an MA in TESOL / Applied Linguistics



A new term is starting at universities offering Masters in TESOL or AL,  so I’ve moved this (edited) post to the front.

One of the most important aims of this website is to offer Distance Learning students support, by giving them clear, practical advice about how to manage their studies and how to make maximum use of their tutors and of the on-line facilities, especially the forums and the access provided to their university’s library facilities.  The menus at the top (in the black header) and at the side (on the right in red) have a “Doing an MA in TESOL” section, and I hope you’ll take a look at these pages.

My experience working with students on MA Applied Linguistics courses tells me that the biggest problems students face are: too much information;  choosing appropriate topics; getting the hang of academic writing. Let’s briefly look at these 3 points.

1. Too much Information.

An MA TESOL curriculum looks daunting, the reading lists look daunting, and the books themselves often look daunting. Many students spend far too long reading and taking notes in a non-focused way: they waste time by not thinking right from the start about the topics that they will eventually choose to base their assignments on.  Just about the first thing you should do when you start each module is think about what assignments you’ll do.  Having got a quick overview of the content of the module, make a tentative decision about what parts of it to concentrate on and about your assignment topics.  This will help you to choose reading material, and will give focus to studies.

Similarly, you have to learn what to read, and how to read. First, when you start each module, read the course material and don’t go out and buy a load of books.  The pages list on the right includes this one: * Xtra: Suggested Reading and References where I’ve tried to limit the number of books, and I hope you’ll find it useful. But even that list is too long! My advice is don’t buy anything until you’ve decided on your topic, and don’t read in any depth until then either.  And keep in mind that you can download at least 50% of the material you need from library and other web sites, and that more and more books can now be bought in digital format.

To sum up: to do well in this MA, you have to learn to read selectively.  Don’t just read. Read for a purpose: read with a particular topic (better still, with a well-formulated question) in mind. Don’t buy any books before you’re abslutely sure you’ll make good use of them .

2. Choosing an appropriate topic.

The trick here is to narrow down the topic so that it becomes possible to discuss it in detail, while still remaining central to the general area of study. So, for example, if you are asked to do a paper on language learning, “How do people learn a second language?” is not a good topic: it’s far too general. “What role does instrumental motivation play in SLA?” is a much better topic.

The best way to find a topic is to frame your topic as a question. Well-formulated questions are the key to all good research, and they are one of the keys to success in doing an MA. A few examples of well-formulated questions for an MA TESL are these:

• What’s the difference between the present perfect and the simple past tense? • Why is “stress” so important to English pronunciation? • How can I motivate my students to do extensive reading? • When’s the best time to offer correction in class? • What are the roles of “input” and “output” in SLA? • How does the feeling of “belonging” influence motivation? • What are the limitations of a Task-Based Syllabus? • What is the wash-back effect of the Cambridge FCE exam? • What is politeness? • How are blogs being used in EFL teaching?

To sum up: Choose a manageable topic for each written assignment. Narrow down the topic so that it becomes possible to discuss it in detail. Frame your topic as a well-defined question that your paper will address.

3. Academic Writing.

Writing a paper at Masters level demands a good understanding of all the various elements of academic writing. First, there’s the question of genre. In academic writing, you must express yourself as clearly and succinctly as possible: in academic writing “Less is more”! Examiners mark down “waffle”, “padding”, and generally loose expression of ideas. I can’t remember who, but somebody famous once said at the end of a letter: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to write a short one”. There is, of course, scope for you to express yourself in your own way (indeed, examiners look for signs of enthusiasm and real engagement with the topic under discussion) and one of the things you have to do, like any writer, is to find your own, distinctive voice. But you have to stay faithful to the academic style.

While the content of your paper is, of course, the most important thing, the way you write, and the way you present the paper have a big impact on your final grade. Just for example, many examiners, when marking an MA paper, go straight to the Reference section and check if it’s properly formatted and contains all and only the references mentioned in the text. The way you present your paper (double-spaced, proper indentations, and all that stuff); the way you write it (so as to make it coherent); the way you organise it (so as to make it cohesive); the way you give in-text citations; the way you give references; the way you organise appendices; are all crucial.


Making the Course Manageable

1. Essential steps in working through a module.

Focus: that’s the key. Here are the key steps:

Step 1: Ask yourself: What is this module about? Just as important: What is it NOT about? The point is to quickly identify the core content of the module. Read the Course Notes and the Course Handbook, and DON’T READ ANYTHING ELSE, YET.

Step 2: Identify the components of the module. If, for example, the module is concerned with grammar, then clearly identify the various parts that you’re expected to study. Again, don’t get lost in detail: you’re still just trying to get the overall picture. See the chapters on each module below for more help with this.

Step 3: Do the small assignments that are required. If these do not count towards your formal assessment , then do them in order to prepare yourself for the assignments that do count, and don’t spend too much time on them.  Study the requirements of the MA TESL programme closely to identify which parts of your writing assignments count towards your formal assessment and which do not. • Some small assignments are required (you MUST submit them), but they do not influence your mark or grade. Don’t spend too mch time on these, unless they help you prepare for the main asignments.

Step 4: Identify the topic that you will choose for the written assignment that will determine your grade. THIS IS THE CRUCIAL STEP! Reach this point as fast as you can in each module: the sooner you decide what you’re going to focus on, the better your reading, studying, writing and results will be. Once you have identified your topic, then you can start reading for a purpose, and start marshalling your ideas. Again, we will look at each module below, to help you find good, well-defined, manageable topics for your main written assignments.

Step 5: Write an Outline of your paper. The outline is for your tutor, and should give a brief outline of your paper. You should make sure that your tutor reviews your outline and gives it approval.

Step 6: Write the First Draft of the paper. Write this draft as if it were the final version: don’t say “I’ll deal with the details (references, appendices, formatting) later”. Make it as good as you can.

Step 7: If you are allowed to do so, submit the first draft to your Tutor. Some universities don’t approve of this, so check with your tutor. If your tutor allows such a step, try to get detailed feedback on it. Don’t be content with any general “Well that look’s OK” stuff. Ask “How can I improve it?” and get the fullest feedback possible. Take note of ALL suggestions, and make sure you incorporate ALL of them in the final version.

Step 8: Write the final version of the paper.

Step 9: Carefully proof read the final version. Use a spell-checker. Check all the details of formatting, citations, Reference section, Appendices. Ask a friend or colleage to check it. If allowed, ask your tutor to check it.

Step 10: Submit the paper: you’re done!

3. Using Resources

Your first resource is your tutor. You’ve paid lots of money for this MA, so make sure you get all the support you need from him or her! Most importantly: don’t be afraid to ask help whenever you need it. Ask any question you like (while it’s obviously not quite true that “There’s no such thing as a stupid question”, don’t feel intimidated or afraid to ask very basic questions) , and as many as you like. Ask your tutor for suggstions on reading, on suitable topics for the written assignments, on where to find materials, on anything at all that you have doubts about. Never submit any written work for assessment until your tutor has said it’s the best you can do. If you think your tutor is not doing a good job, say so, and if necessary, ask for a change.

Your second resource is your fellow students. When I did my MA, I learned a lot in the students’ bar! Whatever means you have of talking to your fellow-students, use them to the full. Ask them what they’re reading, what they’re having trouble with, and share not only your thoughts but your feelings about the course with them.

Your third resource is the library. It is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to teach yourself, if you don’t already know, how to use a university library. Again, don’t be afraid to ask for help: most library staff are wonderful: the unsung heroes of the academic world. At Leicester University where I work as an associate tutor on the Distance Learning MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL course, the library staff exemplify good library practice. They can be contacted by phone, and by email, and they have always, without fail, solved the problems I’ve asked them for help with. Whatever university you are studying at, the library staff are probably your most important resource, so be nice to them, and use them to the max. If you’re doing a presential course, the most important thing is to learn how the journals and books that the library holds are organised. Since most of you have aleady studied at university, I suppose you’ve got a good handle on this, but if you haven’t, well do something! Just as important as the physical library at your university are the internet resources offered by it. This is so important that I have dedicated Chapter 10 to it.

Your fourth resource is the internet. Apart from the resources offered by the university library, there is an enormous amount of valuable material available on the internet. See the “RESCOURCES” section of this website for a collection of Videos and other stuff.

I can’t resist mentioning David Crystal’s Encyclopedia of The English Language as a constant resource. A friend of mine claimed that she got through her MA TESL by using this book most of the time, and, while I only bought it recently, I wish I’d had it to refer to when I was doing my MA. Lexis, grammar, pronunciation, discourse, learning English – it’s all there.

Please use this website to ask questions and to discuss any issues related to your course. You might like to subscribe to it: see the box on the right.

Good luck!

Serious Questions


After the fun of the Eleven Questions, here are my suggestion for serious ones.

1. Does a theory of SLA need a property theory?

In other words: In order to give a full explanation of  SLA, must we provide a theory of the properties acquired?  Kevin Gregg insists that we do,  and after many years fighting him, I think he’s right.  The trouble is, the only theory to address the question is Chomsky’s, and I really don’t think it’s of much use.  So here’s our first serious question: how do we name the properties of the “L” in SLA?

2. What is “motivation”?

Dörnyei and his collaborators (particularly Ushioda) have taken us into new territory, but what can  we make of the key construct “motivation”?  All Dörnyei’s work seemed until very recently to respect a rationalist ontology and epistemology; everything he did seemed rigorous. But  in the last few years we’ve been invited to subscribe to a theory of motivation which is mumbo jumbo. What’s all this pseudo-existential new crap about identity and different selves about?  The big question remains: How can we pin down constructs like “motivation” and “aptitude” in sociolinguistics in order to better study them?

3. What is “English”? 

Jenkins leads the way, Crystal remains constant in his catholic approach, but lots of questions remain.  How would English as a Lingua Franca actually work? How would it be taught?

4. How should EFL/ESL be taught?

CLT just doesn’t do as a reply, now does it!  There’s Dogme, of course, but, good as it’s been to provoke discussion, it’s thin soup.  It tends to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which is the worst mistake innovators make. Since the original manifesto, Scott’s done a clever sequence of side-steps in reply to criticism, but the original impact has been lost and all that remains is the rather bland appeal to a return to the obvious principles of humanistic teaching. The answer to this essential question needs, I think, a fresh approach based on individual learning.

5. What are the essential principles of CLT?

Well this is just a sub-section of Q4, and it’s preceded by my opinion that the model of classes of language students is mistaken.

But anyway: go on: name them. That students talk a lot? That the teacher’s role is coordinator?  That task-based activities form the core syllabus?  It’s such a fuzzy area and it all needs clarifying. We have some good texts (though I can’t think of any written in the last 4 years or any better than Breen, 1984) but, if we are to continue with classes, we need to pin these essential principles down so that they can be shoved in the face of government officials and the local toads who carry out their orders. We need to say “THIS is CLT and here’s the curriculum (including assessment procedures) which embodies it”. Don’t tell me about the double-speak which passes for such guidelines in South East Asia, particularly in mainland China and Japan; I’m talking about essential principles which can be used to guide us and also as evidence against those schools and governments who pay lip-service to CLT but yet flout its implementation. It would make a good Ph.D. thesis, and I’d be happy to help anybody brave enough to take it on.

David Nunan, that rich man who never sleeps, that hugely influential figure in ELT, takes the view that in S.E. Asia local cultures must be respected, that we can’t rush things, that the teacher’s role needs to be slowly changed, and all that political bullshit. Amazon proudly announces: “Nunan’s textbook series “Go For It!” is the largest selling textbook series in the world with sales exceeding 2.5 billion copies”.  Look at them. They represent the best that money can manufacture; they rival some cheap cookbook in their banality; they offend the discerning teacher; they offend critical acumen. And they make their publisher and author millions, of course. Surely all materials would be better if they were locally produced. It can be done.

6. What’s the role of lexical chunks in explaining SLA and teaching EFL/ESL?

Hugh Dellar does some good work here, but he overdoes it. First, he overvalues Michael Lewis’ contribution to this area, which is, in my opinion, appalling. When Lewis worked with Jimmy, they wrote one of the best books ever on English grammar.  Left to his own devices, Lewis, with a chip on his shoulder bigger than a vulture (the result of being rightly ignored by publishers and academics alike), pursues in his book The Lexical Approach an oversimplified case with cherry-picked “evidence” and a general polemic which is a disgrace to academic norms and an absurdly over-reaching classroom methodology. It’s bollocks. Michael Hoey and lots of others (notably those involved in the COBUILD project) have good things to say. The real masters at thinking about this issue were, of course, Nattinger and Carrico. It’s like when I say that Breen (1984) has the best argument ever put forward for syllabus design; in terms of lexical chunks, Nattinger and Carrico nailed it, way back then. Essentially, Nattinger and Carrico introduce us to formulaic language and the search for it’s implications goes on.

7.  What’s the role of  reading in ELT?

Still the most underestimated area of ELT. From all the research I’ve read, extensive reading is VERY important. Teachers should, IMHO, insist that all their students read massively (TAVI) and, through class plans and syllabus design, make sure it happens.

8. What is the role of Discourse Studies in post-graduate studies of TESOL?

Why are students subjected to this inflated, pseudo-scientific nonsense? What good has ever come of such studies – what has ever been learned?

9. Why are non-native English speakers discriminated against all over the damn world, and why does the British Council not condemn this practice?

10. Why are teachers in the ELT community not protected against exploitation?

11. What can we do to put a stop to discrimination and exploitation in our profession? 

Two days ago I wrote a post answering this question which I quickly deleted because it was sentimental rubbish.  Today, let me just say this: organise at the local level and please  tell me what you’re doing.

Final Comment

I think we’re at a time when individualised learning of a second language by adults can take over from the work now done by language schools. I won’t elaborate here, but I’d appreciate responses.

A Few Of My Favorite Things on YouTube


1. Dr. Tuzi has a series of lectures about various aspects of the wide area which makes up an MA in applied linguistics, including curriculum design, testing, teacher development, and teaching reading and writing, just to give a few random examples.

Tuzi starts by asking what makes a good theory of SLA here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1_UZ84cCJM. He follows this with a long list of lectures, all easy to follow, instructive and informed by what is, IMHO, an excellent critical rationalist epistemology.

2. TESOL and Applied Linguistics. This is a great series and you can start here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Boj8VYzDAy8&list=PL9B60D9A3ADBD9F60 which is a session with the always entertaining David Crystal where he talks and answers questions about the impact of new media in a session called “Texts and Tweets”. Very interesting discussion of abbreviations. Look on the right, and you’ll see more sessions by Adrian Underhill, Scott Thornbury (who??), Rod Ellis, Noam Chomsky and others. I like these because they’re “light” but still informative and thought-provoking.

3. Our own (I refer to those of us who live in Spain) Lourdes Ortega is rightly considered to be a leading scholar in SLA. She’s done some really impressive work and this lecture is just one example of her excellent work. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbIkQzDuPcI Lourdes explores various aspects of work currently going on in SLA and does so with marvellous scholarship and critical accumen. Not terribly accessable, not in any way “tuned” for a wide audience, this is, nevertheless, an absolute “must” for anybody seriously interested in studying SLA in their MA.

4. Peter Robinson gives a lecture which is divided into 3 parts called “The Cognition Hypothesis, task sequencing and instructed language learning”. You can find the first part of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1MEMnH10hk , after which, it’s easy to find Parts 2 and 3. It starts very badly, in that the sound is all screwed up, but after 3 minutes, all is resolved and Peter gives a really great lecture. I think Peter is one of the very best academics currently working in the field of applied linguistics.

5. Finally, there’s a new John Serle lecture available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VddLlnOZIfY . It’s marvellous. Here’s a really very important figure of 20th century philosophy giving an entertaining, provoking presentation of his long-held views. I personally have argued strenuously against Serle’s views (mostly when I was doing work with Popper at the LSE in the 1960s), but I highly recommend this lecture.

I quote from http://www.ted.com/speakers/john_searle.html “John Serle has made countless contributions to contemporary thinking about consciousness, language, artificial intelligence and rationality itself. In his early work, he focused on the nature of language and what we are conveying when we speak and how the intention behind what we intend to say can the meaning of words from context to context.

He is best known for his “Chinese Room” thought experiment, which challenges the notion of a truly intelligent artificial intelligence. In it, he imagines a room containing an individual, who speaks only English, working with a set of English instructions to write a series of Chinese characters in order to anonymous communicate with a Chinese speaker outside the room. If that individual follows the instructions carefully, she can effectively fool the Chinese speaker into thinking he’s talking to someone who understands his language. Serle argues that, at the very least, the metaphor raises deep complications as to whether or not one can truly describe convincing simulations of intelligence as intelligent.

He remains a firm believer that subjective experiences are real — even if they don’t always describe things are they really are — and are worth thinking about in objective terms because of it”.

I’ll be more than happy to enter into discussions on any of these videos.

Flip Flop


Feeling a bit confused? It’s behind you, just out of view like a bee behind your neck. It’s intellectual curiosity and it’s buzzing in your ear. Wherever you go, you’re thinking about unusual stuff. You no longer walk along minding your own business; you’re being subtly followed and nagged at. Your thoughts are no longer your own, they belong to that which stalks you: the MA you embarked on and now wish you never had. You’re thinking too much and to little purpose. You’re altered; messed up, all at sea. Say goodbye to peace of mind; say hello to worry, bother, doubt. There you were, doing OK, and now, suddenly, here you are drenched in doubt, saturated by unread texts, drowning in references. What happened to that quiet life, that well-trod path you ambled along? Why are you now messing with all this doubtful, difficult stuff?


Is there anything more intellectually satisfying than reading a text which illuminates your thinking? When you first heard Krashen’s theory, mangled through the Chinese whispers as it might have been, didn’t you think “Yes, that’s right!”? When you first read Vygotsky, didn’t you think he was saying something very important? When you first read Quirk nail the uses of the present perfect didn’t you clap your hands? When you first read whoever it was articulate what you long since thought, didn’t you feel enormous satisfaction? Those of us who enjoy intellectual activity take on successive challenges and we do it because we like thinking. We like reading stuff critically. We’re not particularly interested in Trivial Pursuits, not interested in capital cities or the dates of battles or the number of bones in the foot. We’re interested in the dance of ideas. We see the MA not as gathering facts but exploring ideas.


Doing an MA in Applied Linguistics is nothing more than a frustrating, worrying chore. It hurts the brain for no good purpose. You do it because you can’t get a job without it, and you think you’ll just plod through it till they give you the certificate. There is very little wisdom to be got and it doesn’t match the effort. Nobody knows how people learn a second language, and nobody knows the best way to teach it. The rules of grammar are easily assimilated; pronunciation is largely irrelevant; discourse analysis is academic wankery; testing is a matter of statistics; ESP is gilding the lilly. All you get from doing this MA is a pain which is difficult to describe. The pain comes from trying to guess what’s demanded of you; from jumping through hoops; from reading huge amounts of texts of dubious worth; from three or more years of sacrifice; from the constant pressure of keeping up to date; and from having the damn thing as a constant backdrop to one’s life.


Those of us who enjoy academic work like confronting an intellectual challenge: we find it stimulating, challenging, and, at times very rewarding. We recognise that an MA is in many ways the most demanding, least rewarding course of them all, because it’s too extensive and too shallow. But we like it anyway, because it makes us think. We like the challenge of reading what seems like an impossible load of texts and we like making sense of it all. We like being critical: finding the weaknesses and strengths of the views expounded and coming to our conclusions. We like getting better; we like feeling that we know more than we previously did and that we have a better understanding of the issues involved.

In short, we like reading academic texts, thinking about them, and writing well-composed papers. We try to think rationally about well-defined issues and we don’t mind that we don’t know the answers to our questions. We like the dance of ideas.


If you’re doing an MA, enjoy the buzz. An MA in applied linguistics is a brief tour of as yet very poorly-defined territory. Don’t feel overwhelmed: focus. Don’t feel oppressed, feel stimulated. Don’t set sail on a huge ocean, paddle in a pond of your own well-defined choosing. Don’t try to gather information, flex your intellectual muscles. Don’t read for the sake of it, read for a purpose. Don’t try to demonstrate knowledge, show critical acumen. Don’t worry, enjoy the ride.