Harold R. Keables

This blog has two aims.

1. To provide those doing a postgraduate course in Applied Linguistics and TESOL with a forum, where issues related to their studies are discussed and some extra materials provided. It is completely independent, and has no support or connections with any university. Let me make these preliminary remarks:

Academics teach and do research. Most of them prefer research to teaching and they haven’t been taught how to teach. So 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.

2. To question the ELT Establishment

The increasing commercialisation of ELT and the corresponding weakening of genuinely educational concerns has resulted in most teachers being forced to teach in a way that shows scant regard for their worth, their training, their opinions, their job satisfaction, or the use of appropriate methods and materials. This is, in my opinion, a disgraceful state of affairs, and one which teachers need to become more aware of.

The biggest single obstacle to good ELT is the coursebook, which forces teachers to work within a framework where students are led through successive units of the book, spending too much time working on isolated linguistic structures and carefully-controlled vocabulary in a sequence which is externally predetermined and imposed on them by the textbook writer. These best-selling, globally-marketed coursebooks (and their attendant teacher books, workbooks, audio, video multimedia and web-based material) have huge promotional budgets aimed at persuading stakeholders in the ELT business that they represent the best practical way to teach English as a second or foreign language. Part of this budget is spent on sponsoring teaching conferences like TESOL International, IATEFL and all the national conferences, where the stars of the ELT world strut their stuff, and, loathe to bite the hand that feeds them, refrain from any serious criticism of the current teaching orthodoxy neatly packaged into shiny coursebooks.

In the last 50 years, studies into SLA have provided supporting evidence for the theory that SLA is a process whereby the learner’s interlanguage (a dynamic, idiosyncratic, evolving linguistic system approximating to the target language) develops as a result of attempts to communicate in the target language. The research suggests that interlanguage development progresses in stages and that it’s impossible to alter stage order or to make learners skip stages. Thus, teachability is constrained by learnability and any coursebook-driven syllabus which attempts to impose an external linguistic syllabus on learners is futile: learning happens in spite of and not because of the course design.

So this blog sets out to question the establishment and the status quo by challenging the role of coursebooks, by being critical of the so-called experts and leaders of the ELT industry – the textbook writers, teacher trainers and examiners; and by promoting the ideas of all those who are trying to buck the trend.

Text Analysis


In response to Scott Thornbury’s post “P is for Power” which appeared recently on his blog, one commentator admonishes Scott for including a  quote which makes “a gratuitously insulting and entirely unjustified comment about IATEFL.” Here’s what he says:

IATEFL first: well lets’s start with the fact that anyone, anywhere in the world can attend IATEFL for free, online. Shoddy? I don;t think so. And that many of the talks are given by people who are not representing or have anything to do with publishers or any concept of greed; that two of this year’s outstanding plenaries were given about situations where that kind of power (though there are others, of course) is not in evidence; that IATEFL is run by a bunch of principled, engaged and committed educators, volunteers for Heaven’s sake, who think it is is their obligation to make their organisation as pluralistic as possible. Yes, there are publishers and exam boards everywhere, but without their money and support IATEFL could not even begin to think of organising conferences where people like Nicola and Russ most deservedly have a chance to communicate their research and feelings to the whole profession – and however well- or badly-informed the comment have been about that, the fact is that a loud discussion is taking place and that’s good – and without IATEFL it wouldn’t have happened. Hand on heart I really admire IATEFL and the effort it makes to be inclusive, egalitarian and fair impress me. It’s easy to try and tar the organisation with unsubstantiated accusations of greed and shoddiness, but as a proud member of the organisation (I declare my interest) I don’t think it holds up.

I showed this text to my daughter. Her opinion was that, given the quality of the text, its author was obviously educationally challenged, and her advice was that whoever had the onerous task of looking after him should enrol him in some remedial course where he could learn the rudiments of sentence structure and written discourse.  She was surprised to hear that the text was written by a professional writer; astonished at the additional information that people actually bought his books; and she fell off her chair when I told her that his book “How to Teach Writing” was required reading in all CELTA courses run in Whoofingham on the Weed.

Let’s take a closer look.


The first argument is: IATEFL offered free online coverage of the conference, so it wasn’t shoddy.  Doesn’t work, does it?

The next sentence is a complete mess, but we can isolate 3 bits:

many of the talks are given by people who are not representing or have anything to do with publishers or any concept of greed. I think this means that some talks were given by people who weren’t associated with publishers, and some by people who weren’t greedy, but perhaps it means that many talks were given by people who were neither associated with publishers nor greedy. Anyway, it carries no force as an argument.

two of this year’s outstanding plenaries were given about situations where that kind of power (though there are others, of course) is not in evidence.  Since we don’t know what “that kind of power”  or the “others” refer to, it’s anybody’s guess what he’s talking about.

IATEFL is run by a bunch of principled, engaged and committed educators, volunteers for Heaven’s sake, who think it is is their obligation to make their organisation as pluralistic as possible.  This is pure assertion, and carries no weight as an argument.

The next sentence gets off to a promising start, but after that it collapses once again into chaos. To be fair, it does just about manage to make the point that the conference relies on sponsors.

Having declared his admiration for IATEFL and said how impressed he is by its efforts to be “inclusive, egalitarian and fair”, the writer concludes with yet another sentence which, grammatically speaking, falls at the last fence.

It’s easy to try and tar the organisation with unsubstantiated accusations of greed and shoddiness, but as a proud member of the organisation (I declare my interest) I don’t think it holds up. He means I don’t think they hold up. 

What’s notable is that the final sweeping remark attempts to majestically tie up an argument which has never been made. And this is the key to a critique of the text: it’s not just verging on illiterate, more importantly, the strangled arguments gasping for expression rely almost entirely on appeals to overworked sentiment. There’s no need to argue your case, it’s enough to really really really believe in it. In a talk at the IATEFL conference the author yelled “Why do I say this? Because I believe it.” In the text examined here, if he puts his hand on his heart and tells us he really admires IATEFL, well he must be right. If, as a proud member of IATEFL, he doesn’t think the accusations hold up, well then they don’t.  As if in some ridiculous,  Americanised, heart-on-sleeve parody of Dickensian school teachers, the discourse equates bossy sincerity with moral high ground. Running through all the dross of this text is the absurd assumption that with position comes overweening moral authority; power bestows authority to sentiments so that their expression acts as a kind of categorical imperative. I, as a senior, well-recognised, much-garlanded figure in my field, have deep, heartfelt  feelings on this matter. I honestly, sincerely, completely believe I’m right about this. Ergo, I’m right about this.

Motivation, again


I’ve made two attempts to talk about motivation (see the list of pages on the right) and here’s another. This time I offer a brief story of theory development which you might find interesting. I rely on Sam Croft’s (2014) excellent dissertation throughout; Much of the text is his, although I’ve butchered it and beg his pardon.


The Force

Research into motivation took a big step forward in 1972 when Canadian researchers Gardner and Lambert published their seminal work on the motivation of French and English speaking language learners in Canada (Gardner & Lambert, 1972). The authors suggested that understanding the relationship between the two communities was crucial in understanding their motivation to learn each other’s languages. This approach departed from previous conceptions of motivation, which focussed on the individual, and further drew a distinction between language learning and other subjects. Williams (1994) highlights the significance of this research, suggesting that it led to the conceptualisation of language learning as a process involving a fundamental alteration of self-image that was not part of the learning experience of other subjects in the curriculum.

Gardner introduced two terms which endure. The first is instrumentality, which refers to the pursuit of language study as a means to an end, for example in order to improve job prospects or to pass exams, the second is the concept of integrativeness, which Gardner (1972: 135) defines as the willingness to “identify with members of another ethno-linguistic group.” Gardner and Lambert’s work advanced the theory that intergative motivation was the key to success in second language learning.

The Counterforce


A series of longitudinal studies conducted in Hungary by Dörnyei and Csizér between 1993 and 2004 (Dörnyei & Csizér, 2002; Csizér & Dörnyei, 2005) aimed to empirically test integrativeness as a predictor of motivation. Hungary, a country with a small enough English speaking population to make integration with a target L2 community a practical impossibility, provided an excellent context in which to test their hypothesis that integrativeness was not,  in fact, the best predictor of motivation. And here comes the kicker. The results of the study showed integrativeness to perform extremely well in predicting motivated behaviour, leading Dörnyei, (2005) to call it the “integrativeness enigma.” As Ryan (2009) explains, the fact that this finding was obtained in a context where the possibility of integration didn’t exist made no sense, and thus the need for a reinterpretation of the concept of integrativeness became clear.

So Dörnyei and his associates developed the L2 motivational self system which refocused motivation theory away from the integrative paradigm towards a more internal approach directed at individuals hopes and aspirations for the future. Based on the psychological desire to “reduce the discrepancy between our current and future possible selves” (Ushioda and Dörnyei, 2009: 4), the new framework consisted of three central elements.

First, the ideal L2 self. This variable represents learners’ “ideal self image expressing the wish to become a competent L2 speaker” (Csizér and Kormos, 2005: 99). This variable, according to Ryan (2008), is the theoretical pivot of the entire framework, intended to replace integrativeness as the main variable in understanding motivated behaviour among language learners. The second component is the ought-to self, representing what learners believe their obligations and responsibilities as language learners to be. The third component is the L2 learning situation, which refers to a collection of variables such as the teacher, learner group and methods of instruction and the influence that these can have upon motivation.



It spoils the narrative a bit, but we must note, as Sam Croft faithfully does, that alongside the integrativeness enigma, one of the challenges tackled by the L2 self motivational system was distinguishing integrativeness from instrumentality (Csizér & Kormos, 2005). As Lamb (2004) points out, variables such as ‘desire to meet with westerners’ or ‘desire to use English websites,’ are increasingly difficult to categorise as driven by either instrumentality or integrativeness, and are in fact clearly linked to both. With the L2 self motivational system, there is a temptation to divide the ideal and ought-to L2 selves along similar lines. This is a temptation that must be resisted however, as recognising the interconnectedness of the all strands is necessary to avoid allowing the L2 self motivational system to become “yet another dichotomous, reductionist model of language learning motivation” (Ryan, 2009: 121).



So the outcome of a study which set out to falsify a theory (integrativeness is the dominant variable in predicting motivated behaviour) actually lent support to it. Surely, following Popper, we should expect this failed attempt to falsify a theory to have the positive effect of adding to its strength, no? Well no. As we’ve seen, what actually happened (and this is pretty typical of what happens in theory construction) was that the authors of the study decided that Gardner and Lambert had got it all (well, mostly) wrong anyway. While the original theory based itself on external factors such as target language speakers and communities, the L2 self motivational system turned the theory on its head (another favourite term in the history of theory development!) and focused instead on learners’ internal hopes and aspirations. Job done! Dornyei and associates, noteably Ushioda, have gone on to develop their theory and are now considered the leading lights in explaining how motivation affects SLA.

Poor old Gardner, eh? Theory construction in SLA is a tough world, make no mistake, and justice has a small part to play in its rough and tumble. It leads many, particularly those of a relativist bent, to confuse the sociology of science with progress in understanding the matters under investigation. But in this case, I wonder how much progress has been made. Dörnyei has certainly made some progress in pinning down the notoriously difficult construct of motivation, and perhaps his work can be incorporated into an eventual overarching theory of SLA, though I doubt it. But in rejecting Gardner and Lambart’s attempts to see motivation from a social psychological perspective, much has been lost. There are, after all, limits to the realms of science, and maybe a more political perspective can throw more light on things. If there is evidence of integrative motivation to learn English in places like Hungary and Japan, maybe it can be better explained by globalisation. To quote a post from Torn Horns  “the mania for English” in these countries “is not due to the fact that English is the language of things like the internet, academia and air traffic control; rather, it is due to the political decision to open up to the world market. The demand for English is a product of the demand for wealth.”


Csizér, K. & Dörnyei, Z. (2005) Language Learners’ Motivational Profiles and their  Motivated Learning Behaviour. Language Learning, 55/4: 613 – 659.

Csizér, K. & Kormos, J. (2009) Learning Experiences, Selves and Motivated Learning Behaviour: A Comparative Analysis of Structural Models for Hungarian Secondary and University Learners of English, Chapter 5, 67 – 98, in Dörnyei, Z & Ushioda, E. (eds.) (2009) Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Croft, S. (2014) Fostering Communicative Incompetence: A look at the role of entrance exams in reducing motivation to develop communicative competence at the pre tertiary level in Japan. Unpublished MA dissertation, University of Leicester.

Dörnyei, Z. (2005) The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in  Second Language Acquisition, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Dörnyei, Z. & Csizér, K. (2002) Some Dynamics of Language Aptitudes and Motivation: Results of a Longitudinal Nationwide Survey. Applied Linguistics, 23: 421 – 462.

Gardner, R. C & Lambert, W.E. (1972) Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Lamb, M. (2004) Integrative Motivation in a Globalizing World. System, 32: 3-19.

Ryan, S. (2009) The Ideal L2 selves of Japanese Learners of English. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Nottingham. Retrieved on May 29, 2011 from http://etheses. nottingham.ac.uk/550/1/ryan-2008.pdf

Ushioda, E. & Dörnyei, Z (2009) Motivation, Language Identities and the Ideal L2 Self: a Theoretical Overview, Chapter 1, 1 – 9, in Dörnyei, Z & Ushioda, E. (eds.) (2009) Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self. Bristol: Multilingual Matters


Power in the ELT industry


Last Sunday, Scott Thornbury discussed aspects of IATEFL’s  organisation in a thoughtful, well-measured post about power in the ELT industry. He quoted Bill Johnston (2003: 137):

I believe that all our talk of teacher professional development is seriously compromised if we ignore the marginalisation of ELT that is staring us in the face, that is, if we treat the professional growth of teachers as something that can be both conceived and carried out without reference to the sociopolitical realities of teachers’ lives. To devalue this central feature of work for huge numbers of teachers is to fail to grasp the significance of the drive for professional development. I believe that the ELT professional organisations have unwittingly colluded in this artificial separation of the professional and political. For many years, for example, … the annual meeting of the TESOL organisation was almost exclusively devoted to matters of classroom techniques and materials. These things are of course important and useful to teachers. What was lacking, however, was any sense of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted, or of its role in those contexts.

Scott’s post ended with the question “How cognizant are we (to borrow Johnston’s phrase) “of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted”?  How is power distributed in these contexts? How could it be distributed more equitably?”

These are precisely the questions which those in “the TaW collective” as Scott calls us, wish to address. Scott backed the group, saying “their cause is a worthy one”, and it’s a pity that the lively discussion that followed his post included an unecessary argument about naming members of this fledgling group. It isn’t even officially formed yet, and those trying to get it off the ground are still thrashing out some basic questions about its aims. I’m sure I speak for all concerned when I say that we want as many people as possible to join in these discussions, and there’s no question of trying to hide anything. Just to clarify: the original idea was for TaW to be an IATEFL SIG, and it’s founders were told that they needed 200 people to sign a petition. Currently, about 160 people have subscribed (clicking on the TaW logo will open the subscription page) and some very animated and interesting talks are going on among us about how to proceed. Please do join in.

Steve Brown’s comment on Scott’s post was, I thought particularly good. He pointed out that

ELT is now a global industry… caught up in the whole Knowledge Economy thing. English is, to a large extent, a commodity that individuals, companies and whole nations want to acquire in order to develop their capital. The role of education as a means of empowering or liberating the individual through imparting knowledge and encouraging critical thinking that can lead towards social justice seems to have got lost as a result.

Scott replied

Thank you, Steve, for your comment – and for connecting the ‘commodification’ of English with issues of power and agency: so long as teachers are viewed merely as intermediaries in the transmission of ‘grammar mcNuggets’ then there is little chance that their authority will be respected or their status improved.

Well said, Scott. And well said Bill, Steve, Anthony, Nicola, Paul, Phil, and many others. It was an excellent Sunday discussion.

I should add that the short comment by Torn Halves led me to a blog which has some of the best political posts I’ve read for years.

Radical Happiness


In an attempt to convey a more positive, upbeat, sunny view of things than I usually do, here’s a summary of an article from the 2014 Summer issue of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (ASR) on happiness.

There’s a new orientation within psychological research called positive psychology which studies well-being, happiness, and other positive aspects of people’s lives (see, for example, Keyes and Haidt, 2003 and Fredrickson, 2009). Happiness is a tricky construct for researchers to define; they tend to use terms like well-being, satisfaction and flourishing, and to examine experiences such as engaging in relationships, developing skills and contributing to society. There are a plethora of methodological issues in play here, but, in the spirit of the piece, I’ll keep my doubts to myself.

The article begins the review of findings by examining factors which have a low impact on happiness, the most notable being income and possessions. The best studies here are of lottery winners (particularly the classic Brickman et al (1978) study), all of which show that the happiness produced doesn’t last and that the consequences of suddenly becoming very rich are often disastrous. The most salient construct in these studies is “adaption”, a process whereby people quickly get used to more money and more possessions and, after a short period of elation, revert to their own normal “set point”. This extends to external factors like climate: moving to warm, sunny climes has no lasting effect on people’s satisfaction with life.


So what makes a significant contribution to greater well-being?  The answer is changes to your thinking and behaviour. Some examples:

Expressing gratitude: Experiments show that giving thanks for what you have, for example by spending a few minutes each week thinking about 3 things you’re grateful for, improves your satisfaction with life.

Reducing overthinking and being optimistic.

Minimising social comparisons: Comparing yourself to rich, good-looking, talented people draws attention to your inadequacies and distracts attention from the good things in your life.

Helping others: Acts of kindness are very beneficial to the giver. But it needs to be voluntary and not routine.

Maintaining and building social relationships For most people, having strong, positive relationships with others is one of the most important factors in happiness.


Experiencing flow: While using a highly-developed skill such as reading, surfing, gardening, flying a plane many people enter a mental state of total absorption which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow (see this talk by him in YouTube). Athletes talk of being “in the zone”.  Flow occurs when you’re near the limits of your abilities: not anxious, but not bored.

Pursuing meaningful goals.

Cultivating religiousness or spirituality.  A sense of wonder about a greater meaning to the universe is strongly associated with greater happiness.

Savouring: Take more time to experience everyday pleasures like a shower, an apple, a breeze. It involves deliberate focus: don’t gobble down that glass of wine, savour it.




The striking thing about these factors is how much they depend on thought and behaviour, which makes it easy to see them in an individualistic way. You won’t be surprised to learn that the author of the article which appears in the ASR stresses the social implications of positive psychology. To start with, the research shows that although more money makes little difference to those whose income is “adequate for basic needs”, more income makes a LOT of difference to the happiness of those in poverty. Thus, the best way to increase general happiness is to  redistribute wealth so as to improve the economic conditions of the poor. Alas, this isn’t happening. While a record-breaking 12 million people around the world were millionaires last year, over 3,000,000,000 people (nearly half of the world’s population) live on less than $80 a month.

Similarly, those who use their work as a path towards their life’s goals are said to have a calling; they make their living doing what they want to do anyway. This is far more satisfying than simply having a career, which in turn is more satisfying than having a job, an alientating experience undertaken to support personal goals achieved outside of paid employment.  Alas, very few people have callings; the vast majority of the world’s population are either unemployed or have “jobs”.

How can we change the world so that fewer people suffer from poverty and more people have opportunities to pursue their callings? Anarchists suggest that the answer is workers’ control. What might this anarchist principle mean for our satisfaction as teachers?


When helping people becomes a required part of the job and highly bureaucratised, much of the satisfaction of giving is obliterated and replaced by a feeling of oppression. In traditional schools the teacher has a mostly authoritative and bureaucratic function; teachers’ feelings of helping are too often swamped by feeling stressed, overworked, under-valued and under-paid. But opportunities for helping can be broadened by learner-centred education and peer mentoring, where teachers involve learners in the learning process and learners help each other, thereby learning more themselves. Used as a principle, the idea of mutual help leads to free schools in which decsions about learning are made by teachers and learners together in a cooperative way. If we add to this that workers have collective control over how the educational institution is run, when and how they work, what materials and facilities they use, and how wages are distributed, then we make the workplace even more satisfying and give many more people the chance to pursue their callings. With workers control, managerial posts are eliminated, shared or rotated among teachers so that there is much greater participation in decision-making. Greater participation in our work gives a greater sense of purpose to our lives: it makes us happier

Utopian dreaming you might say. Well actually it isn’t quite that because there are a few free schools here and there run as cooperatives where teachers run the show, where managers don’t exist, where learners are involved in planning and implementing the curriculum. If you dare to think that progress can be made in this direction, then challenge the present principles and structures of the ELT industry, support the TaW movement, and take a few small steps towards a more learner-centred, cooperative way of working with your students and colleagues. Satisfaction guaranteed!


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. NY: Harper.

Fredrickson, B. (2009) Positivity. NY: Three Rivers Press.

Keyes, C. and Haidt, J. (eds) (2003) Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived. Washington: APA.

Martin, B. (2014) Radical Happiness. ASR, Summer, 2014. Email:  anarchosyndicalistreview@gmail.com

IATEFL Post Mortem Part 2


I can’t think of a more important area of ELT than testing: it goes to the heart of what teachers do. Testing has various goals, but its most important one is to measure proficiency. How we measure language proficiency is of supreme importance to everybody working in ELT and testing has, not surprisingly, given rise to a specialised field within the general area of applied linguistics. Bachman and Fulcher are, in my opinion, the scholars who today are doing the best work in testing in EFL/ESL, and I think Glenn Fulcher’s work is particularly worthy of note. I decline to give references, but any search of either scholar on Google will give access to their work.

Current issues in testing include such matter as portfolio assessment, measures of pronunciation, grading according to levels, holistic testing, validity measures, and language policy, just to take a few at random. My MA students are expected to show a knowledge of all these issues and much besides. Any teacher of English as a second or foreign language should be aware of the general considerations  which are involved in putting a test together, and any critical teacher should be aware of the various types of bias that skew the tests which are used internationally to assess L2 proficiency. I won’t go into the raft of biases found in the TESL and Cambridge tests here, or into the well-founded criticisms of proficiency used in the CEFR, but let’s be clear that all these tests and levels need careful scrutiny.

So what happened at the IATEFL 2015 conference? How did presenters address these complex issues?  Maybe some lowly unsung presenters addressed the issues well, but what we got in the IATEFL / British Council coverage were a presentation by Jeremy Harmer and a debate.


Jeremy Harmer was given the biggest room in the conference to present his 30 minute talk on why teachers should love testing.

First he looks at reasons against testing.

The Montessori School doesn’t like them because they don’t measure important things like creativity.  Chomsky says “testing is an anathema”.  Posts on Facebook say they don’t like testing. Testing 4 year olds is weird.  “Oh, and testing is a snapshot”.  Some people are good at testing, some aren’t.  On internet a certain man called Luke said “Give the test a rest” and someone else said “I am more than a score”.

Then he gives the reasons why teachers should love testing

He got a Grade 1 in playing the tuba because there was a test, and he performed badly in a concert because there wasn’t a test. Testing is thus a powerful motivator. Neurosurgeons and pilots must be tested. So we need tests.  Good language testing gives students and teachers an aim. “How else do we know where students are?” A test if it’s well done will tell you how well your students have done. Tests are getting better. “The Pearson test of academic English is bloody wonderful. I’m saying that because I believe it, not just because they pay me”.  Harmer then gives an example of an item in the Pearson test of Academic English. “What the test designers say is that the algorithms that are built into the software will grade and evaluate what you say more reliably and as as accurately as any human being can.  And I have no reason to doubt that because the research behind it is is er er massive”.

Harmer concludes that tests are not going away. He urges teachers to learn about tests. “Do you know about testing? How would you design a test. Do you know about different test types?”  He says “We need to get inside tests and understand them”.  The problem is that “some countries do wretched tests”. So if you want to change testing you can moan or do something. And that’s it.

If you think I’m not giving a fair account of Harmer’s talk, watch it at the link given above. Allowing that I’ve given a fair summary, then for me the truly perplexing question is why the audience didn’t boo him off the stage. Harmer’s talk is pure bullshit: it’s gung-ho nonsense and it should be recognised as such by all thinking people. It’s deeply offensive in its ignorant treatment of a serious issue; it insults the work done in testing and it insults its audience by supposing that loud exhortations thrown around with enthusiastic bluster can take the place of a well-reasoned, well-supported argument. I can’t overstate my distaste for such crap.

The only other event covered is the debate between Richard Smith and Anthony Green about testing. The whole thing is so absolutely dire that I just can’t bring myself to summarise it, but I think it’s fair to say that the session was a total waste of time.

So much for IATEFL 2015. Good riddance to it.

IATEFL Post-Mortem Part 1


Did you follow the on-line coverage of the IATEFL conference?  If you did, I wonder if you share my opinion that not one interview and not one recorded session said anything that might lead to real progress in the profession. The dismal quality of the whole sorry affair (with the exception of Nicola and Russ’s talk, but including Scott’s empty contribution to a very disappointing round table discussion on the use of L1), was highlighted for me by Jeremy Harmer’s truly crass talk on testing, of which more in Part 2. Here, a comment on the interviews.

The worst part of the IATEFL / British Council coverage was the series of poorly prepared, totally uncritical, uninformative, lack-lustre interviews. The interviewers fawned over the interviewees, oblivious to the opportunity to ask these powerful people to explain themselves. All three interviewers showed a shockingly smug lack of awareness about what can be achieved in an interview; their blissful disregard for all the skills required to get good content from an interviewee was gob-smacking, and a true reflection of the lack of professionalism in a bloated organisation where quality counts for little. How much planning went into the interviews?  I get the impression that whoever was responsible for this shockingly amateur mess thought that it was enough to just get a list of “important people” lined up, set up the recording gear, sort out the IT stuff, put a few adverts for British Council around the set, and go at it. One thing is to deliberately set out to establish a relaxed, informal atmosphere where the audience can see the “human face” of all the big names (such a plan would actually require quite a lot of thought and sensitive decision making) and another is to completely ignore the complex components of a good programme of interviews. In this case, everybody concerned seemed totally unaware of anything beyond their noses: they seemed to think that it was enough to just talk to the big names about their most recent accomplishments for everybody to be enthralled. Such is the self-satisfied complacency of those who lead IATEFL and the British Council.

No attempt was made to probe any important current issue affecting the membership of IATEFL. No attempt was made to bring people with different views head to head. No attempt was made to follow a thread – testing, for example. No attempt was made to give coherence or cohesion to the interviews as a whole. And of course, there was a total lack of critical content. Just for example, why wasn’t the new president of IATEFL asked about NNESTs, or the pay and conditions of most teachers, or the CELTA and DELTA courses, or the refusal to allow the TaW Sig, or the lack of women among those who make the most money out of ELT?

Just to really put the seal on it, we had Carol Read’s final contribution to the interviews: a gushing “Well done Everybody!” affair, where her extraordinarily enthusiastic endorsement of the team’s efforts highlighted the extent of her ignorance of what good coverage of a conference entails.

In Part 2 I’ll comment on the plenaries and on the sessions devoted to testing.

The “L” in SLA


Attempts to explain SLA focus very much on how people learn a second language, and theories of SLA thus offer a classic causal explanation of the process, in terms of factors in the environment, or social interaction, or mental processes, for example. But many SLA scholars, noteably Kevin Gregg, insist that before attempting to explain how people learn a second language, we must establish what is learned; and in order to answer this question, a linguistic theory is required. As White (1996: 85) puts it:

a theory of language acquisition depends on a theory of language.  We cannot decide how something is acquired without having an idea of what that something is.

White is a committed nativist, so she thinks a theory of SLA should explain not the behaviour of speakers but rather the mental system of knowledge underlying that behaviour; after all, she says, people don’t acquire utterances, they acquire knowledge. So, to explain what this knowledge is (how, that is, L2 competence is instantiated in the mind), we need a “property theory” which describes what the knowledge consists of.  Various answers have been suggested

in the form of connectionist nodes, or in the form of general knowledge representations, or in the form of rules of discourse, Gricean maxims, or in the form of UG (Gregg, 1993: 279).

To explain how L2 competence is acquired, on the other hand, needs a “transition theory” which narrates how the mind changes from a state of not knowing X to a state of knowing X (where X can be any part of what is necessary for L2 competence).  Thus, a satisfactory theory of SLA must describe the L2-related interlanguages (IL grammars) and other aspects of the L2 competence finally attained by learners, and also explain how learners acquired them.

As I mentioned above, not much attention is paid to the question of what is acquired, especially by those working on what can be termed processing approaches to SLA, and I’ve tended to go along with the view that there are more important matters to worry about. In my book (Jordan, 2004) I wrote:

To the extent that we have no clear answer to the question of what L2 competence is, we might be said to be working in the dark. Of course, it would be good to have “more light”, but, unlike Gregg, I do not consider the lack of it to be in any way a fatal weakness in SLA theory construction to date.  There are …. good reasons why SLA should concentrate on the process of SLA….. We should not ignore the question of L2 competence,  but we should not be blinded by it, or persuaded by Gregg that both the methods and the focus of SLA research should faithfully follow the UG approach.

In the history of science there are many examples of theories that started off without any adequate description of what is being explained, although sooner or later, this limitation must be addressed.  An example that comes to mind is Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, according to which the young born to any species compete for survival, and those young that survive to reproduce tend to embody favourable natural variations which are passed on by heredity. Darwin’s concept of variation lacked any formal description of variations, or any explanation of the origin of variations or how they were passed between generations. While he recognised that his description and explanation of heredity were limited, Darwin insisted that as long as inherited variation does occur, his theory would work. It was not until Mendel’s theories and the birth of modern genetics in the early 20th century that this deficiency started to be dealt with.

I’m now not so sure that the Darwin analogy is a good one (the theory of natural selection didn’t have rival theories which contradicted it), nor am I so sure that we can just park the question of what the “L” in SLA refers to. So here, I’m just unpacking the cupboard that has all this unaired stuff in it to see what’s there.


Components of Language Competence

Gregg and White, among others, think that UG is the best candidate to provide the framework for describing the IL grammar, but I suggest that while there is no serious rival to UG and the Language Acquisition Device as an explanation for how children acquire their knowledge of the L1 grammar, UG is of little use in describing the knowledge and skills involved in SLA. Let’s take a look.

Chomsky’s model of language distinguishes between competence and performance, between the description of underlying knowledge, and the use of language, influenced as the latter is by limits in the availability of computational resources, stress, tiredness, alcohol, etc.  Chomsky says he’s concerned with “the rules that specify the well-formed strings of minimal syntactically functioning units” and with

an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogenous speech-community, who knows his language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance  (Chomsky, 1965: 3).

The underlying knowledge of language that’s acquired is referred to as “I-Language” as distinct from “E-Language”, which is performance data of the sort you get from a corpus of real texts. “I-Language” obeys rules of Universal Grammar, among which are structure dependency; subjacency (which constrains the movement of categories); C-command and government theory (which constrain a number of the subsystems, such as case theory); and binding theory (which constrains the formation of NPs). So,

UG consists of a highly structured and restrictive system of principles with certain open parameters to be fixed by experience.  As these parameters are fixed, a grammar is determined, what we may call a `core grammar’  (Chomsky 1980, cited in Epstein, Flynn and Martohardjono, 1996: 678).

The principles are universal properties of syntax which constrain learners’ grammars, while parameters account for cross-linguistic syntactic variation, and parameter setting leads to the construction of a core grammar where all relevant UG principles are instantiated. Chomsky’s attempts to pin down the essential rules of language require this key distinction between competence and performance, and it’s important to be clear that performance refers to the actual utterances, spoken and written, of language users in their day to day communication. Such data, while doubtless of great interest to those investigating other areas of linguistics, is irrelevant to the development of UG theory, which is a property theory: it attempts to describe the essential rules of syntax governing all languages. It also provides an elegant, hugely persuasive explanation of how children acquire their L1,  but that’s a different story. Let’s continue now with competence.


Hymes (1972) criticised the Chomskian account of competence as too limited and argued that knowledge of the appropriacy of language use was also important.  Canale and Swain (1980) described communicative competence in terms of three components, and Canale (1983) proposed four components: linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic. Bachman (1990) also proposed four components but omitted strategic competence because, he argued, language competence consists of knowledge of and about the language, while strategic competence (the general cognitive skills involved in language use) are better understood as an ability, or capacity, rather than knowledge. For the moment, we may simply note the kinds of knowledge that are regarded as part of language competence, taken from Bachman and Palmer’s 1996 book. It’s interesting that Bachman’s 1990 book has the same diagram as the one below, but in the 1990 version, all components are labelled “Competence” (Organisational Competence, Grammatical Competence, etc.).


The  model reflects the growing opinion that Chomskian competence is not the best bedrock for a framework for examining SLA.  A description of what constitutes competence in an L2 is very different to a description of the modular knowledge that Chomsky gives for L1 acquisition and so the question “What is acquired in SLA?”, while arguably requiring a property theory, certainly can’t make much use of Chomsky’s narrowly-defined linguistic competence. But what do we make of Bachman’s model? After all, Bachman’s objective in identifying the various types of knowledge or competencies outlined here is to construct adequate tests of L2 learners’ proficiency; his re-organising and re-defining of the terms used previously by Hymes, and Canale and Swain is motivated by a desire to make the terms more testable. But in so doing, Bachman is, at least implicitly, saying that, pace Chomsky,  measures of a learner’s performance, far from being irrelevant, are a good reflection of his or her competencies.

Which brings us back to strategic competence. While Canale saw it as  performing a compensatory role (to be used to repair gaps in knowledge) Bachman gives it a central role, namely: mediating between meaning intentions, underlying competencies, background knowledge, and the context of the situation. It does this by determining communicative goals, assessing communicative resources, planning communication, and then executing the plan.


This, as Skehan (1995) argues, is a model of performance. Skehan argues that by considering strategic competence as not just compensatory but central to all communication

the nature of the relationship between competence and performance is being redefined, since Bachman is proposing a dynamic for communication.  He sees this relationship as being mediated through the operation of a pervasive strategic competence (Skehan, 1995: 93-94).

Skehan concludes that in SLA it’s misconceived to see competence as underlying performance in any straightforward way: psychological mechanisms are key (but are they parts of competence?); formulaic language, everybody seems to agree is not really a competence (but why not?); and planning (not a competence) helps draw on form (knowledge of which is most certainly a competence). So what Skehan is obviously challenging here is both the competence /performance dichotomy, and the knowledge/ skill dichotomy too. Skehan concentrates on the question Is strategic competence part of L2 competence? He points out that although awareness of how to cope can be seen as competence, behaviour during communication is clearly in the realm of performance. The answer to this problem, Skehan proposes, is to see strategic competence as the operation of processes which constitute “ability for use”.

Ability for use, in other words, is what goes beyond Bachman’s (1990) assessment, goal-setting, planning, and execution and is what accounts for the balance between analysability and accessibility as the processing dimension of actual communication  (Skehan, 1995: 106).

Well I give this quote, but it’s hopelessly out of context. The reference to analysability and accessibility is to Widdowson, and you need to know that Skehan’s article appeared in a festschrift to Widdowson, and that when Widdowson talks about these two terms he too is questioning the competence versus performance distinction  But anyway, we may take from all this that Skehan’s “ability for use” construct is one alternative to the usual distinction made between competence and performance.



Another way to look at the problem of competence is to return to the question of language proficiency, as Bialystok (2001) does.

What is the norm for language competence?  What do we mean by language proficiency?  What are its components and what is the range of acceptable variation?  Although these questions may seem to be prior to any use of language as a research instrument or conclusion about language ability in individuals, they rarely if ever are explicitly addressed  (Bialystok, 2001: 11).

Bialystok doesn’t underestimate the difficulties of measuring language proficiency, and she does no more than “point to approaches that may eventually provide a fruitful resolution”, but her book serves to once again call into question the competence / performance dichotomy. Bachman’s work does the same thing since he’s talking exclusively about performance.

I think this is the way to go. If we can get a handle on proficiency, go beyond the very limited frameworks  offered so far by various English (e.g. Cambridge) and international (e.g. the increasingly questioned European Common Framework) bodies, we may have a really useful construct to work with. I’m rather surprised at the lack of research done on Bachman and Palmer’s model.


Formal versus Functional Grammars

In trying to sort out the confusion caused by different takes on the  competence / performance issue, we can also consider the arguments among those that adopt formal and functional approaches to linguistic theory. As Bialystock (2001: 14) says:

We need to establish fixed criteria that supersede the theoretical squabbles and point to critical landmarks in language mastery.  These are lofty goals, but without some framework for evaluating progress it is impossible to produce meaningful descriptions of the acquisition of language.

Bialystock points out that functionalists limit themselves to the claim that language is in the environment, and cite computer simulations, such as connectionist modelling, as evidence of the sufficiency of their explanation.

But what is language, why is it structured as it is, and why are all languages so similar? The functionalist approach treats language as though it were like yogurt: once some exists, it is fairly straightforward to reproduce it, but where did the first yogurt come from? And why does yogurt from different places always come out more or less the same? To make yogurt, one must start with yogurt. There is something essential about its nature. So too with language: once it is in the environment, there are a number of ways one can explain how individual children obtain their own copy, but how did languages develop the predictable regularities they did, especially when the same regularities are observed across highly disparate languages? And why does the path to acquisition always look so similar? The functionalist response is to deny they are dealing with yogurt: the idea of linguistic universals is a fiction and each language is as different from all others as is each child who learns it (Bialastok 2001: 51).

This eloquent defence of formal grammar should not be interpreted as unconditional support: Bialystok not only berates the functionalists for their refusal to accept the idea of linguistic universals; she also admonishes the formalists, whose theories she describes as “equally parochial”.  While in 2004 I considered that the “theoretical squabbles” were of minor importance, and that the sensible thing was to agree that both the underlying rules of grammar and the descriptions provided by functionalists of how we use language for different purposes are important elements of our knowledge of language, I’m now a lot  more concerned about the worrying issues bubbling under the surface here, if you’ll forgive the expression.

Just one last element in the growing conundrum needs mentioning: connectionism, known these days as emergentism.



The “emergentist” approach to SLA is becoming very fashionable these days, notwithstanding (or maybe partly due to) the hopelessly-mangled attempts by Larson-Freeman to promote it. Ellis (2002) explains that emergentists “believe that the complexity of language emerges from relatively simple developmental processes being exposed to a massive and complex environment.”  Emergentists reject the UG account of language, and the nativist assumption that human beings are born with linguistic knowledge and a special language learning mechanism. Ellis shows how language processing is “intimately tuned to input frequency”, and expounds a “usage-based” theory which holds that “acquisition of language is exemplar based”. (Ellis, 2002: 143) The power law of practice is taken by Ellis as the underpinning for his frequency-based account, which argues that “a huge collection of memories of previously experienced utterances” rather than knowledge of abstract rules, is what underlies the fluent use of language. In short, emergentists take most language learning to be “the gradual strengthening of associations between co-occurring elements of the language”, and they see fluent language performance as “the exploitation of this probabilistic knowledge” (Ellis, 2002: 173).

Seidenberg and MacDonald (1999) suggest that connectionism provides an alternative framework to “the generative paradigm”. In place of equating knowing a language with knowing a grammar, the probabilistic constraints approach adopts the functionalist assumption that language knowledge is “something that develops in the course of learning how to perform the primary communicative tasks of comprehension and production.” (Seidenberg and MacDonald, 1999: 571) This knowledge is viewed as a neural network that maps between forms and meanings, and further levels of linguistic representation, such as syntax and morphology, are said to emerge in the course of learning tasks. An alternative to “Competence” is also offered by Seidenberg and Macdonald, who argue that the competence-performance distinction excludes information about statistical and probabilistic aspects of language, and that these aspects play an important role in acquisition. The alternative is to characterize a performance system that handles all and only those structures that people can. Performance constraints are embodied in the system responsible for producing and comprehending utterances, not extrinsic to it. This approach obviates the paradox created by a characterization of linguistic knowledge that generates sentences that people neither produce nor comprehend (Seidenberg and MacDonald, 1999: 573). I’ve written about all this in my book (Jordan, 2004) and there’s an extract from it on the blog under the title Emergentism.


What seems to have happened is that Chomsky’s “competence” construct got mixed up in subsequent attempts to talk about the “L” in SLA; and, slowly but not at all surely, a distinction is made between knowledge and skills, so that language knowledge is seen to be interacting with the other non-linguistic factors. In particular, strategic competence (a non-linguistic general “ability” that enables an individual to use available resources by regulating online cognitive processes in accomplishing a communicative goal)  is separated from language competence. But this hasn’t, alas, resulted in all those working on a theory of SLA having a clear picture of what is acquired. Bachman’s description of language competence, while designed to measure language use, indicates the kinds of knowledge and skills that are involved in developing IL systems, and Bialystok has suggested how the search for proficiency measurements might contribute to clarifying the matter. But it’s the differences between formalists and functionalists, with the added ingredient of emergentism weighing in on the functionalist side, that now strike me as demanding closer attention and evaluation. Maybe for the practical purposes of ELT we can get along quite well using a combination of grammar rules and exemplars, particularly lexical chunks, but I think that for those interested in theory construction, major concerns involving such weighty matters as mind versus brain and rationalism versus empiricism need to be resolved. Both nativist (UG) and empiricist (connectionist) theories of SLA actually provide both a property and a transition theory of SLA. I think they’re both wrong, but I recognise that my own view – based on a rather bolted together and incomplete cognitive transition theory – offers nothing very substantial to put in their place. A satisfactory description of the “L” in SLA would certainly help.


Bachman, L. (1990) Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bachman, L. and Palmer, A.S. (1996) Language Testing in Practice. Oxford, OUP.

Bialystok, E. (2001) Bilingualism in Development.  Cambridge: CUP.

Canale, M. (1983) On some dimensions of language proficiency.  In Oller, J. (ed.): Issues in Language Testing Research.  Rowley, M.A.: Newbury House.

Canale, M. and Swain, M. (1980) Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics 1: 1-47.

Chomsky, N.  (1965) Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Cook, V. J. (1993) Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.  Basingstoke:Macmillan.

Ellis, N. (2002) Frequency Effects in Language Processing and Acquisition.  Studies in Second Language Acquisition 24,2, 143 – 187

Epstein, S., Flynn, S., and Martohardjono, G. (1996) Second Language Acquisition: Theoretical and experimental issues in contemporary research.  Behavioural and Brain Sciences.  Vol. 19, 4, 677-758.

Hymes, D. (1972) On Communicative Competence. In Pride, J. And Holmes, J. (eds.) Sociolinguistics.  Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Seidenberg, M.S. and MacDonald, M.C. (1999) A probabilistic constraints approach to language acquisition and processing.  Cognitive Science, 23, 569-588.

Skehan, P. (1995) Analysability, accessibility, and ability for use.  In Cook, G. and Seidlhoffer. B. (eds.): Principles and Practice in Applied Linguistics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.