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.

Hugh Dellar and The Lexical Approach


Hugh Dellar is a blogger , a coursebook writer, a frequent conference speaker, a teacher trainer, and an EFL teacher. He’s perhaps best known for his promotion of the lexical approach. While I know how strongly he feels about the importance of lexis in ELT, I’ve become increasingly confused about what he thinks the lexical approach is and how he thinks it should be implemented. It all started on Sunday when I read a tweet from Hugh who was at the IATEFL Poland conference. He wrote:

“intensive & focused pure lexical syllabus can help break down the fossilisation that result from bringing L1 primings into L2”.

What I didn’t immediately realise was that he was in the audience at a presentation, tweeting bits as soon as they came out of the presenters’ mouths. So great is Hugh’s enthusiasm for the lexical approach, he just can’t wait to spread the good news! Anyway, I tweeted

What’s a “pure lexical syllabus”? What fossilisation results from “L1 priming”? Sit down and have a glass of water Hugh.

Hugh: don’t think it’s too controversial to dub a syllabus which features only lexis & no explicit grammar teaching “pure” myself.

Me: You can dub it anything you like. What it is – apart from “only lexis and no explicit grammar”?

Hugh: if you mean what goes in it, that’s obviously open to debate. It is what it is though whatever else you’d rather call it.

Me: Pure nonsense!

Hugh: says you. And not sure they’d the most helpful way of furthering the debate you were after.

That’s as far as I got in my attempt to find out what a pure lexical syllabus might be. As for fossilisation,

Hugh said: fossilisation can result from saying things in L2 using L1 primings, communicating meaning but not noticing the gap.

Me: You’ve used 4 constructs in that answer and all of them carry a lot of theoretical baggage. Result: highly-debateable assertion.

Hugh: most assertions are debatable aren’t they? We work in terrain not blessed with many concrete facts.

Apart from an equally unsuccessful attempt to find out how lexical priming fitted in to Hugh’s evolving view of language and ELT, that was that. So I went and had a look at Hugh’s blog. What, I wondered, was a “pure lexical syllabus” and how can it rectify the fossilisation that results from “saying things in L2 using L1 primings, communicating meaning but not noticing the gap”? Eventually, I found a presentation where Hugh had recorded himself talking about “Teaching Grammar Lexically”.


The presentation starts with Hugh telling us how, in his Celta course, he was taught to teach under the tyranny of “PPP – grammar teaching”. Hugh explains: “This was based on Chomsky and the whole idea of structuralist grammar…..I realise now that this is an outmoded and outdated way of thinking about grammar”. During the presentation Hugh makes references to “structuralist grammar”, “structural grammar”, “Chomsky and grammar”, “that sort of grammar”, …..

By “Structuralist grammar” I think Hugh means structuralism, a school of linguistics associated with Saussure and Bloomfield. Structuralists took a descriptive view of their job and limited themselves to the grand task of describing and classifying languages all over the worldin terms of well-defined linguistic units (although while Saussure remained faithful to this mission, Bloomfield allowed behaviourism to pervade American structuralism). Chomsky, of course, had a very different view of linguistics, and a very different view of grammar. Structuralism and Universal Grammar are thus not, pace Hugh, synonymous but rather diametrically opposed. Furthermore, UG represents a theory of language which provides an explanation of how we learn language, suggests that all natural languages share the same underlying properties, and has resulted in extraordinary scientific advances, especially in the area of developing artificial languages. It’s been the dominant paradigm in linguistics for the last 50 years, it has absolutely nothing to do with “the tyranny of PPP” or with any pedagogical grammar, and most linguists working today would beg to differ with the opinion that it’s an outmoded and outdated way of thinking about grammar.

What Hugh demonstrates here is an ignorance of theories of language, which is worrying for someone proselytising one very specific theory of language. I think Hugh means to say that PPP (the presentation and practice of discrete points of grammar) is an outdated way of teaching EFL / ESL. Let’s proceed. Hugh realised that PPP was a tyranny when he did his DELTA course and read Michael Lewis’ book “The Lexical Approach”, a book which changed his life by introducing him to a new way of seeing language and of teaching EFL. The key to the lexical approach is that “Language is not lexicalised grammar, rather it’s grammaticalised lexis. First and foremost it’s lexis that carries more meaning and drives communication”. The “profound shift in perspective” afforded by reading Lewis’s book shaped Hugh’s career; he’s spent 20 years unpacking this “very dense and meaty book”, which “takes time to filter down into teaching practice”. It’s been a struggle because the tyranny of PPP is so deeply entrenched that it’s hard to shake teachers out of it, but still, you’ve got to try, right?

The rest of the presentation consists of assertions about language and language teaching which are as confidently made as they are lacking in either evidence or argument. Here are some of them:

• PPP gives the illusion of progress
• Murphy’s books, the Headway series, English File, they’re all based on a false view of language
• PPP doesn’t work because students learn to talk about English, not in English
• the system creates grammar fear and grammar dependency
• focusing on structures in isolation distorts the reality of usage
• the best way to teach English is to “Keep it real” – teach what people really say in English, stick to typical contexts, focus on institutionalised sentences
• conversations must be given priority
• don’t teach single words

and on and on. Lots of supplementary assertions are also made, including these:

• Despite Chomsky, there are only 10 to 12 verbs you use in the future perfect
• We use will to make promises, to make decisions at the time of speaking, to make threats, OK? You know, predictions. These definitions are useless unless they’re rooted in a store of commonly used sentences that students have acquired and are able to use. From this they start to develop a coherent understanding of the functions and underlying semantics of the grammar.
• What really gets you from intermediate to advanced isn’t grammar. It’s layer upon layer of lexis.



Questions that need answering

I suggest that in order to have credibility as a teacher trainer and presenter of the lexical approach Hugh needs to publicly address these questions:

1. What theory of language informs the lexical approach? If it’s Hoey’s theory of lexical priming, how can it be tested? What studies have been done to test it? What evidence from studies supports it?

2. How do children acquire the ability to speak their native language according to lexical priming? How does Hugh counter the poverty of the stimulus argument?

3. What theory of SLA informs the lexical approach? Does Hugh agree with Hoey that lexical priming theory gives 100% support to Krashen’s Monitor theory? If so, how does Hugh deal with the circularity of Krashen’s constructs, and the fact that Krashen’s theory gives no significant role to explicit learning?

4. How does Hugh respond to the thousands of studies in SLA which support the construct of interlanguage? The evidence from these studies supports the claim that SLA is a cognitive process involving the acquisition of grammatical competence along a relatively fixed route. Does Hugh dismiss this evidence?

5. How does Hugh use the construct of “noticing” in his lexical approach? Does he think that “lexical chunks” can simply be substituted for the areas of language Schmidt discusses? Schmidt, after all, went to a great deal of trouble to explain what his theoretical construct “noticing” is (and isn’t), and it’s important to appreciate that noticing is a construct used to support the argument for the need for explicit learning of aspects of grammar.

6. How does Hugh use the construct of “fossilisation”? Is he aware that many, including Larson-Freeman recently, challenge the idea of any end state, and that Hoey himself says we never stop learning?

Once Hugh has given some account of what he thinks language is and how he thinks second languages are learned, he needs to then address the question of classroom teaching. I have said elsewhere that in my opinion Lewis’ book The Lexical Approach cobbles together a confused jumble of half-digested ideas; fails to offer any coherent or cohesive ELT methodology; and offers no proper syllabus, or any principled way of teaching the “chunks” which he claims are the secret to the English language. No doubt Hugh disagrees, but he has yet to present his own lexical syllabus. To describe a language in a particular way is one thing; to work out the best way to teach it in a classroom is another. Which is simply to say that you can’t get prescriptions from descriptions, however much Hugh might think you can.

Given Hugh’s conviction that Lewis is right to say that language is not lexicalised grammar but rather, grammaticalised lexis, the question remains: How do you teach it to a class? Apart from saying “give them lots of real language”; “don’t teach single words”; “you MUST use conversation”; etc., and reeling off dozens of authentic utterances like I’ll see you later; I’ll see what I can do; This won’t hurt at all; That’ll do; I’ll be back in a minute; I’ll pay you back tomorrow; ..., how do you organise a 100 hour course based on a lexical approach? What’s needed is a syllabus.

Breen suggests that a syllabus can be organised in response to these questions:

1. What knowledge does it focus on?
2. What capabilities does it focus on?
3. On what basis does it select and subdivide?
4. How does it sequence what is to be learned?
5. What is its rationale?

The first question is important because I, like many, don’t think that knowledge of attested behaviour (which is what we get from looking at corpora of what people say) is the same as our knowledge of language. Hoey goes to great lengths to explain what’s involved in knowing a word (sic), but he restricts himself to what’s performed and ignores the possible. Despite Hoey (and Hugh’s simplistic paraphrase “don’t teach the possible, teach the probable”), most modern linguists find it important to address the questions of “externalised and internalised” language and of valency. Furthermore, most linguists, both pure and applied, agree that language is a cognitive, inventive process, and that when we speak of competence in a language, we refer to something close to Bachman’s model, a cluster of competences not best explained by any theory of lexical priming.

The other questions involve setting out not just the “what” but the “how” of classroom-based teaching. I presume that Hugh doesn’t want to substitute the PPP of discrete points of grammar for the PPP of lexical chunks. So what happens? How are the classes which make up the syllabus conducted? What are the roles of the teachers and learners? As many will know, Breen suggests that syllabuses can be divided into 2 types: product and process syllabuses, and he argues that process syllabuses are better. I look forward to Hugh telling us what his lexical syllabus looks like, and whether he thinks it represents a product or process syllabus, or something else entirely.

I understand that Hugh is soon to launch “LexLab”, which will be place where all those interested in a lexical approach can share their ideas. I suggest that Hugh can hardly launch such an ambitious project without giving a clear account of the lexical approach which addresses questions about the nature of language; L1 acquisition; SLA; the various competencies involved in communicative language ability; the role of noticing, fossilisation, and the lexical syllabus.

Four Funerals and a Wedding

The postman’s just delivered the 3rd edition of Richards and Rogers “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching”, first published in 1986. I’m surprised to see that Multiple Intelligences is in the “Current approaches and methods” chapter, and that the chapter on all those crazy 1970s methods is still there, after all these years. I think it’s time we said goodbye to them all, so allow me a few nostalgic words before we commit them all to the worms or flames.

Funeral 1: The Silent Way

Have a look at this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85P7dmPHtso

Pretty spooky, eh? Galeb Gattegno invented this method in the late 70s. I heard about it in 1982 when I went to a Silent Way demo in Barcelona. The teacher taught us a bit of Polish, and what I remember most about the session is that we, the students, were utterly exhausted after 20 minutes. It’s an incredibly demanding method! The three vaunted tenets of the approach are: 1. Learners must discover (rather than remember or repeat); 2. Learning is aided by physical objects; 3. Learning is problem-solving. Well, maybe, but the crux is this: the teacher stays as silent as possible throughout the class.

Language is taught by working with sentences which are sequenced grammatically from easy to difficult. Materials consist of special phonetic charts, a pointer used with the charts, and Cuisenaire rods (small coloured blocks of varying sizes). Each new item of the language is introduced by the teacher who clearly models it once (and once only!) and learners are then guided in using the new item and incorporating it into their existing stock of language. For example, the teacher says “Give me the blue rod” pointing to each phoneme on the charts as she says the sentence. Then, pointing to the phonemes again, she gets everybody to practice the sentence. Then she indicates to a student to say the sentence to her. The student says the sentence and the teacher gives him the blue rod. Then students can practice among themselves, pushing out to incorporate other pronouns, other colours, make the negative and interogative, make Wh questions etc. After I don’t know how long, you get to practice the present perfect (“I’ve given Jim the blue rod.”) as they were doing in the YouTube clip.

The few teachers I met who actually practiced the Silent Way were rather like people I’ve met who practice Scientology: weird, hyped-up fanatics. Despite having a few grains of truth mixed up in its mad methodology, the basic flaw in the Silent Way is the silent bit. Any ELT method based on the assumption that a teacher is capable of remaining largely silent when in charge of a class is obviously doomed to failure; it’s as naive as assuming that politicians will remain largely honest when given power. The method also assumes that learners are willing to suffer prolonged mental and emotional stress; that learning a language doesn’t need any real communication to take place in the classroom; and that utterances such as “If I knew it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have come” can be acquired via an approach which doesn’t seem equipped to go beyond the basics of the language.

Caleb Gattengo’s funeral was in 1988, and I reckon his method passed away at about the same time. RIP.



Funeral 2: Suggestopedia.

Suggestopedia is, without doubt, the weirdest approach ever. The trouble is, very few people have any first-hand knowledge of it; so, like the Ordo Templi Orientis, or Wittgenstein’s book club, we, the profane, have little to go on. In Spain, rumours about Suggestopedia were swirling around at about the same time as the Silent Way zealots were poking learners eyes out with their pointers. The version I heard was that a crazy Bulgarian educator called Georgi Lozanov was attracting nine hundred people every Saturday afternoon to Theatre 199 in Sofia, where he hypnotised them and they staggered out onto Rakovski Street 5 hours later speaking perfect English. Slightly more reliable information was available in the mid eighties when somebody close to the grand wizard managed to dodge the secret police, the searchlights and the snarling dogs, escape from Bulgaria, and set up a Suggestopedia Center in New York. The claim then was that Suggestopedia made it possible to learn English as a foreign language in 50 hours, compared to the 600 class contact hours the British Council claimed were needed to get to FCE level.

The approach is based on the idea that positive suggestion makes you more receptive and also stimulates learning. In order to achieve the relaxed, focused, optimum state for learning, Lozanov created an environment where the music, the chairs, the lighting, the colour of the wallpaper, everything contributes. So, when everyone is sitting comfortably, the lights dim, and in walks the grand maestro. When he’s centre stage, the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto ring out. Lozanov starts to read a long dialogue, taking both parts himself, allowing the music to be the protagonist, his voice acting as a counterpoint. He reads so that the rhythm and intonation of the text fits in with the rhythm of the music. After this first “concert reading”, a second, less formal reading is done, this time using a piece of Baroque music, Handel’s Water Music, for example. Next, Lozanov uses the text for more “normal” teaching purposes (don’t ask me what) and (don’t ask me how) everybody in the room memorises large chunks of the dialogues and “internalizes” them in such a way that they can use them to communicative ends. Go figure, as they say.

It’s surprising that Richards and Rogers include Suggestopedia in their historical review, given that nobody anywhere today is doing anything like the sessions Lozanov did, and there’s been no interesting fall-out either. There’s a looney bunch still working in New York (see Pearls World of Learning http://www.pearls-of-learning.com/suggest1_e.htm) who seem like a typical example of the “accelerated learning” programmes on offer, but these snake oil hustlers owe nothing to Lozanov’s reported sessions, and are certainly not based on his written work, most of which was confiscated by the communist thugs who ruled Bulgaria back then, and never released. Lozanaov was, by all accounts, a very singular man. He died in 2012 aged 86. RIP.



Funeral 3: Community Language Learning (CLL)

The guru of this method was Charles Curran, an American Jesuit priest, whose work in Counselling Learning was applied to ELT. Like the Silent Way, CLL had a band of devotees here in Spain who regarded their leader with something approaching religious awe.

Here’s how it works in ELT (adapted from One Stop English’s page on CLL). Students (12 maximum) sit in a circle. There is a tape recorder inside the circle. The teacher (the ‘Knower’ ) stands outside the circle. When a student has something they want to say in English (e.g. “Well, it’s Friday. What’s everybody doing tonight?”) they call the Knower over and whisper what they want to say, in their mother tongue. The teacher, also in a whisper, then offers the equivalent utterance in English. The student attempts to repeat the utterance, with encouragement and shaping from the Knower, with the rest of the group eavesdropping. When the Knower is satisfied, the utterance is recorded by the student. A student who wants to reply (e.g. “I’m going to the pub” or “Oh God! Do we have to talk about this?”) then calls the knower over and repeats the process, till there is a kind of dialogue recorded. The Knower then replays the recording, and transcribes it on the board. This is followed by analysis, and questions from students. In a subsequent session, the Knower may suggest activities springing from the dialogue. As the account in One Stop English puts it “Gradually, the students spin a web of language.”

The rationale for CLL is that it’s learner-centred and learner-controlled. Learners move from a stage of total dependence on the Knower to a stage of independent autonomy at the end, passing through 5 developmental stages along the way. The Knower provides a supportive and secure environment for learners, and encourages a whole-person approach to the learning.

The first time I saw a demo of CLL in 1983, I was very pleasantly surprised. A group of 8 adult business people at pre-intermediate level had an interesting, dynamic exchange of views about being a parent for about 45 minutes and the transcription of their conversation, once written up on the whiteboard, was exploited by the students and the teacher very well indeed. What was impressive (30 years ago!) was that there was no attempt to simplify the language and no attempt by the teacher to carry out any lesson plan: the students really were in charge, even when it came to analysing the transcript. I was so impressed that I decided to do a CLL class myself; inevitably, it was a disaster. The students felt silly and didn’t see the point; the tape recorder didn’t work properly; my Spanish wasn’t good enough to give a good translation; no real “topic” emerged; and when one of the students mentioned that she was divorced the whole thing collapsed into short and embarrassing exchanges in Spanish about what pigs men were. In the coffee break I had no defence against the students’ unanimous view that I’d let them down.

My own experience highlights a few of the problems involved in the CLL method. The teacher (Knower) not only has to be proficient in the language of the students, he/she also really needs counselling training. Generally speaking, if you wanted to be a CLL teacher, you had to be highly-trained, which unfortunately required a level of commitment (not to say faith) which most teachers, including me, were not prepared to give. Other problems with CLL are that It can only be done with small numbers of students; the students have to share a single mother tongue; it’s only suitable for adult learners, and, like the other methods discussed here, it focuses on the early stages of learning the new language.

Curran himself died in 1978, but from what I remember, CLL hit its high point in the early 90s when it was the buzz word at TESOL and IATEFL conferences; I could be wrong about that. In any case, it’s all over now, and I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to know that I’ve just held a quick funeral service for it in the garden, attended by 4 bemused dogs who happened to be nearby. RIP.



Funeral 4: Multiple Intelligences

Richards and Rogers discuss Total Physical Response as the fourth looney tune from the seventies, but I prefer to at least try to bury Multiple Intelligences (MI) which, (shame on you lads!) appears as a “current” approach in their book. We have Russ Mayne and his modest but hugely-influential talk at this year’s IATEFL conference, A guide to pseudo-science in English language teaching, to thank for highlighting the need to bury this nonsense once and for all. Actually, Russ didn’t have time to say how MI and the related NLP and learner style theories are used in ELT, but what he did do very well was say what’s wrong with them: there is no evidence to support them, they use poorly-defined pseudo-scientific jargon, and their claims are impervious to empirical tests. He also named and shamed the big shots who promote or at least condone MI and NLP and suggested that teachers take a more critical view of so-called expert opinion.

Gardner’s MI theory, which has undergone quite a few revisions, says there are various distinct intelligences, including linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal sense of self, naturalistic intelligence, and, most recently, “mental searchlight intelligence” and “laser intelligence”. The point of this is that most teaching, including ELT, is said to concentrate exclusively on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, thereby ignoring the need for teachers to expand their repertoire of techniques, tools, and strategies. Gardner defines a skilled teacher as “a person who can open a number of different windows on the same concept”. This has proved influential on its own, but has also played a part in the development of theories of learner styles and NLP. It’s extraordinary to see Richards and Rogers not saying unequivocally that MI has no support whatsoever from research findings, and maybe not surprising, but still depressing, to see the British Council website making no critical comment whatsoever on its website page devoted to NLP, to see Mario Rinvolucri of Pilgrims offering teacher training courses in MI and learner styles, and on and on. Just to be clear: there have been no published studies that offer any evidence of the validity of the MI, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe a word Gardner or anybody else says about the efficacy of aiming one’s teaching at learners’ bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Lynn Waterhouse gives a good review of MI in her article “Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review Published online: 08 Jun 2010. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4104_1

Of course, in order to have a funeral service for MI, we need to nail it in its coffin. Russ has whacked a few nails in, and I hope this will help, but I’m not very confident when I say RIP this time.



The Wedding

They haven’t actually named the day yet, but everything indicates that the Process Syllabus (Prosylla) is finally going to hitch up with The Task-Based approach (Tasba). They’ve flirted with each other for over twenty years now, but Prosylla always had a tough time making friends, while Tasba never lacked for partners. But Tasba’s been reading Paulo Freire, Peter McLaren, Shirley Steinberg, Alexander Neill, Rose Bard, Michael Breen, and also, curiously enough Richards and Rogers. It comes to him, like an epiphany, that if there’s one thing we can learn from all these 1970s methods which have passed away, its that there’s something undeniably right about learner-centred classroom teaching. It’s much more demanding, it’s much easier to make a mess of, but, in the end, it’s the only way to go. Ever since her dad, the great Michael Breen, presented her to the public in 1984, Prosylla’s been insisting that learners should call the tune, while the billion dollar coursebook industry has made sure that everybody who wants to go to the ELT ball dances to the robot product beat, and Prosylla’s effectively sidelined. She’s been waiting for a really strong partner to take her to the ball and now Tasba’s had this flash, he’s fed up with bossy partners leading him through the same old predictable, lock-step shuffles, so he’s tweeted that he’s ready to ditch teachers and tie the knot with Prosylla. The prenuptials make it clear that Tasba will hand over the choice and sequencing of his tasks to Prosylla, ensuring that the learners, not the teachers will own their classrooms. I feel a song coming on. “There may be trouble ahead, But while there’s moonlight and music, And love and romance, Let’s face the music and dance.

Sociocultural and Sociocognitive Approaches to Second Language Learning and Teaching: Why Bother?


My last post, “Bridging the Gap”, summarised an article which addressed the question of how to bridge the gap between two different styles of research into second language learning and teaching. On one side are those researching linguistic-cognitive issues, using quantitative research methods and statistical analysis, and on the other side are researchers working on the basis of sociocultural or sociocognitive views, using qualitative research methods including case studies and ethnography. Despite the dramatic claim that the whole community is in danger of disintegrating, no post on this blog has ever aroused as little interest as this one: just about nobody read it, nobody “liked” it, and only Mark left a comment. So rather than comment on the differences between two different styles of research, I’d like to comment on differences between the achievements of the two sides.

First, cognitive research in SLA. Learning English as a second language is usually seen as involving the acquisition of two kinds of knowledge: declarative knowledge, which involves knowing that something is the case – that Paris is the capital of France, for example – and procedural knowledge, which involves knowing how to do something – how to swim, for example. A similar distinction is made between explicit and implicit learning. A “traditional” information-processing model of SLA suggests that first you learn declarative knowledge (the past of “go” is “went”; “see you later” means “goodbye”) through attention-demanding controlled processes, and then, through practice, you transform it into implicit (procedural) knowledge. The teaching implication of this model is presentation and practice. A more recent view of SLA sees it as a process involving the development and restructuring of learners’ mental representation of the target language: their interlanguage. The construct “interlanguage” is used in a theory which sees explicit and implicit learning differently, and answers the question “Why don’t learners learn what teachers teach?” The answer is that interlanguage development involves the acquisition of the L2 in a more or less fixed order, which is impervious to instruction. Many would say that the shift from presentation and practice to a more task-based approach to ELT represents progress, and that it’s the result of a better understanding of SLA.

Regardless of what methodology they adopt, or what epistemological views they hold, how have researchers working on the basis of sociocultural or sociocognitive views contributed to improving our understanding of second language learning and teaching?

The first candidate is “the ethnography of communication”, which studies “the social roles of languages, in structuring the identities of individuals and the culture of entire communities and societies.” (Mitchell and Myles (1998: 164). Examples of studies of speech events are phone conversations, shopping, and job interviews, and themes dealt with include “gatekeeping and power relations in L2 communication”, and “speakers’ social identity, face and self-esteem”. I know of nothing in this area which has helped explain SLA, or helped teachers. Nothing.

How about variable competence models? These take a sociolinguistic approach to SLA, abandoning Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance and viewing competence as variable, not homogenous. I won’t bother to outline these theories here; it’s enough to note that they both make use of the construct of interlanguage without providing any explanation of the acquisition of linguistic knowledge. By erasing the distinction between competence and performance, “the variabilist is committed to the unprincipled collection of an uncontrolled mass of data” (Gregg 1990: 378). What’s interesting here (in light of the “Bridging the Gap” article) is that Tarone (1990), in reply to Gregg, labels Gregg’s approach “rationalist”, and complains that “such scholars, perhaps motivated by “physics envy”, are trying to turn the study of language into an exact science” (Tarone, 1990: 395).

Just as bad, IMHO is Schumann’s (1978) Acculturalisation/Pidginisation approach, which claims that SLA is “just one aspect of acculturation” and that the more a learner acculturates to the target language group, the better he will acquire the second language”. The two essential problems of this approach are the use of ill-defined key constructs (social and psychological distance), and the unwarranted, and unsupported assumption that L2 users make use of a “simplified grammar”. It has led nowhere.

Finally, attempts to explain “incompleteness” in SLA investigate, among other things, aptitude and motivation. Sawyer and Ranta (2001) suggest that “the clearest fact about SLA that we currently have” is that L2 learners “differ dramatically in their rates of acquisition and in their ultimate attainment” (Sawyer and Ranta, 2001: 319). Unfortunately, as Sawyer and Ranta admit, despite its importance, L2 research into the sources of individual differences has lagged far behind research in other areas. The problem is partly due, as Sawyer and Ranta say, to the reliance on correlational research designs, and partly to the inherent difficulty of finding reliable and valid measures of the traits examined. Saywer and Ranta (2001) have attempted to revitalise Carroll’s work (1974) on aptitude, and Dörnyei and Ushioda (2009) have done something to rectify the problems with Gardner’s work (1985) on motivation, but, yet again, I suggest that progress is very slow.

What some contributors to the Bridging the Gap argued was that the two sides should get together, but it’s a tall order. DeKeyser says that the combination of longitudinal research and mixed-methods research “is largely unheard of” and most acknowledge a fair degree of incomensurability. So why bother? I’m being deliberately provocative; I can see the value of case studies and of small-scale studies (like those done by MA students) using qualitative methods to help validity through so-called triangulation, but I honestly can’t see the value of most of the work done by those in the sociocultural or sociocognitive camp. I suggest that those researchers working in the area of psycholinguistics who take what Hulstijn and I, following Popper, refer to as a critical rationalist approach really don’t need to work with those trying to articulate how members of “a thought collective” are affected by different “thought styles”.

Just in case I’ve given the impression that those taking a cognitive-linguistic approach are all working nicely together, I should quickly say that there is, of course, an awful lot of disagreement within the camp. While most accept that teaching can affect rate but not route, some say that explicit learning plays a major role while others say it plays an extremely limited role; some say it’s a process where controlled processes become automatic through practice, while others say you just get better at accessing declarative knowledge; some say you just need lots of input, others say you need output too; some say L2 adult learners have access to UG, some say they don’t; some say language is learned in a special way, others say it can be explained by general learning theories. But they at least agree on the best way to do their research, namely by testing hypotheses through the use of empirical data.


Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (Eds.) (2009) Motivation, language identity and the L2 self. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Mitchell, R. and Myles, F. (1998) Second Language Learning Theories. London: Arnold.
Sawyer, M., and Ranta, L. (2001) Aptitude, individual differences, and instructional design. In Robinson, P. Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: CUP.
Schumann, J. (1978) The pidginization process: A model for SLA. Rowley: MA: Newbury House.
Tarone, E. (1983) On the variability of interlanguage systems. Applied Linguistics 4,2,
Tarone, E. (1990) On variation in interlanguage: a response to Gregg. Applied Linguistics 11,1, 392-400.

Starting an MA in TESOL and 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!

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.