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.

The Lexical Approach , Part 13


In January 2015, ELTJ published a commentary with the title Lexical priming and explicit grammar in foreign language instruction, which provoked a reply and counter-reply in subsequent issues. Scheffler (2015) argues that, pace Hoey’s theory of lexical priming, “lexis should be subordinated to grammar in FL teaching.”  Scheffler reminds us that Hoey sees lexical priming as “the mechanism that drives language acquisition”; that the successful language learner recognises, understands and produces lexical phrases as ready-made chunks; and that, consequently, teachers should concentrate on vocabulary in context and particularly on fixed expressions in speech. Scheffler’s reply is that mastery of lexical associations takes too long to be a viable objective for classroom-based foreign language learning and that grammar-based teaching is more efficacious.

According to Scheffler, in order to reach proficiency through learning lexical chunks, EFL learners have two options: either they use the same subconscious mechanism that operates in L1 acquisition, or they consciously apply themselves to the study of appropriate language material. As to the first option, studies of first language acquisition cited by Scheffler show that by the time they’re five years old children have encountered more than twelve million meaningful utterances in communicative context.  Scheffler comments: “No classroom input can come close to this amount of linguistic data”. Regarding the second option, mastering lexical associations through the conscious study of chunks,  collocations, etc., Scheffler cites Pawley and Syder’s (1983) claim that native speakers know ‘hundreds of thousands’ of memorized sequences, and argues that “in the classroom setting, committing to memory even a small subset of these would be a daunting task.”

So, says Scheffler, given that the subconscious or conscious learning of lexical chunks is not a viable option, classroom time should be spent focusing more on grammatical systems than on lists of lexical phrases. He cites Spada and Tomita’s (2010) meta-analysis as convincing evidence that explicit grammar instruction is more effective than implicit instruction for both simple and complex English grammar structures. Scheffler concludes by suggesting that classroom EFL teaching should provide “a combination of grammatically oriented presentation and lexically oriented practice” involving explicit grammar explanations followed by practice to encourage lexical priming. Schleffer offers this example: the teacher presents and explains the present perfect as a grammatical category and then provides practice in the form of drills. The drills allow links between the most frequent lexical instantiations of the present perfect  to be established, and these links are further strengthened in communicative activities and in exposure outside the classroom.  Such procedures offer learners both explicit and implicit instruction. Explicit instruction aims at linguistic awareness, proceduralization of explicit knowledge, and lexical priming, while implicit instruction reinforce primings established in class and gradually create new ones.


I’d say that Scheffler’s suggestion is a bit of a dog’s dinner, mutton dressed as lamb, old wine in new bottles, a botched attempt to have your cake and eat it. Rather than effortlessly trot out more examples of my store of food-and-drink-related-put-downs, let me be more specific:

  1. No attempt is made to evaluate Hoey’s theory of language or of SLA. What are the strengths and weaknesses of a theory which makes collocational priming the key construct in both a description of language and an explanation of how it is learned?
  2. Spada and Tomita’s (2010) meta-analysis in no way supports the view that the presentation and practice of grammatical categories is the best, or even a good, way to organise classroom-based ELT. The authors limit themselves to the claim that adult learners sometimes benefit from explicit attention to form and from opportunities to practise explicit knowledge.  Nothing in Spada and Tomita’s review suggests that organising a syllabus around the presentation and practice of pre-selected bits of grammar like the present perfect is recommendable; nothing in the review challenges the findings of studies which support the view that most explicit grammar teaching falls on deaf ears most of the time, and that teaching can affect the rate but not the route of interlanguage development.
  3. Scheffler begins by saying that basing ELT on the implicit or explicit learning of lexical chunks is unrealistic because there’s too much to learn. That’s a good point, but why then does he end up trying to somehow cram all this lexical chunk learning into the last part of the lesson? The claim is that in a grammar-based PPP approach where communicative activities are included, the explicit grammar teaching will help lexical priming, while the communicative activities will reinforce primings and create new ones. I can see no reason for thinking that this would work. And, of course, it contradicts Hoey’s theory. Grammar views lexical items as isolated elements organised by syntax; and this is exactly the view that Hoey wants to challenge. What sense does it make to expect the explicit teaching of the forms of the present perfect to facilitate fabulous amounts of lexical priming?


Despite its shortcoming, Scheffler’s article does draw attention to the fact that no proper account has ever been given by proponents of the lexical approach of how exposure to massive amounts of what Lewis (1993) calls “suitable input” should be organised into a syllabus.  Walkley and Dellar have published coursebooks which they claim exemplify the lexical approach, but I’ve never managed to get review copies and I can’t bring myself to buy them. As far as I can gather from Dellar’s public pronouncements , he thinks teaching should concentrate on giving learners repeated exposure to the most frequent words in English in context, but important questions remain unanswered.

  1. How should the repeated exposure to massive numbers of lexical chunks be organised? Is frequency of occurrence in the biggest corpora the only criterion for the selection and presentation of lexical items, or are there others?
  2. How do teachers make classroom sessions dedicated to “repeated exposure to the most frequent words in English” interesting and motivating?
  3. How much input do learners need? How do Walkley and Dellar respond to the research findings which suggest that it’s unreasonable to expect FL classroom learners to remember even a small subset of what native speakers know? Sinclair (2004: 282) warns of “the risk of a combinatorial explosion, leading to an unmanageable number of lexical items” and Harwood (2002: 142) warns against “learner overload”, insisting that “implementing a lexical approach requires a delicate balancing act” between exploiting the richness of fine-grained corpus-derived descriptions and keeping the learning load at a manageable level.
  4. How do teachers help learners notice and store the thousands of lexical chunks which are required for a minimum level of proficiency? Put another way, how do teachers help learners turn massive loads of input into an ability to use the language for effective communication?


The fact is that, pace Hoey and Lewis, L1 acquisition is not the same as the acquisition which takes place in FL classrooms. As Granger (2011) points out, Lewis claims that “phrases acquired as wholes are the primary resource by which the syntactic system is mastered” (Lewis (1993: 95). This assertion, frequently found in the Lexical Approach literature, is based on L1 acquisition studies which demonstrate that children first acquire chunks and then progressively analyse the underlying patterns and generalize them into regular syntactic rules (Wray 2002).  But (as Wray points out in her overview of findings on formulaicity in SLA), in classroom-based L2 acquisition, learners don’t get enough exposure for the ‘unpacking’ process to take place, and as a result formulaic sequences don’t contribute, as they do in L1 acquisition, to the mastery of grammatical forms. Granger concludes that “while lexical phrases are likely to have some generative role in L2 learning, it would be a foolhardy gamble to rely primarily on the generative power of lexical phrases.” She goes on to cite Pulverness (2007: 182-183) who points to the risk of the ‘phrasebook effect’, whereby lexical items accumulate in an arbitrary way as learners get presented with an ever-expanding lexicon without being given a structural framework within which to make use of all the lexis.

Scheffler’s main objective is to defend the grammar-based syllabus against Hoey’s  suggestion that lexis should be subordinated to grammar in FL teaching. I think he does a poor job of it, but at least he gives voice once again to some unanswered questions. We’ve been waiting for an answer for a while now, and I doubt that we’ll get one any time soon. Meanwhile, perhaps we should turn our attention to the newer but somehow more interesting question of what we are to make of Hoey’s collocational priming: Can this construct lead to a satisfactory explanation of both language and of SLA?


Granger, S. (2011) From phraseology to pedagogy: Challenges and prospects. In: Uhrig, P., Chunks in the Description of Language. A tribute to John Sinclair.  Mouton de Gruyter : Berlin and New York.

Harwood, N. (2002) Taking a lexical approach to teaching: principles and problems. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 12/2: 139-155.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. The State of ELT and a Way Forward. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Pawley, A. and Syder, F. (1983) Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency. in J. C. Richards and R. Schmidt (eds.) Language and Communication. London: Longman.

Pulverness, A. (2007) Review of McCarthy, M. & F. O’Dell, English Collocations in Use, ELT Journal 61: 182-185.

Scheffler, P. (2015) Lexical priming and explicit grammar in foreign language instruction. ELT  Journal, 69,1, 93-96.

Sinclair, J. (ed.) (2004) How to use corpora in language teaching. Benjamin : Amsterdam.

Spada, N. and Tomita, Y. (2010) Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature: a meta-analysis. Language Learning 60/2: 263–308.

Wray, A. (2002) Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A Sketch of a Process Syllabus



Winston Churchill made the good point that “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” Rather than work patiently and diligently on a carefully-crafted Process syllabus which perfectly captures the progressive educational principles that underlie it, I offer this very elementary sketch.



In Freire’s (2000) view of adult education, personal freedom and the development of individuals can only occur mutually with others: Every human being, no matter how ‘ignorant’ he or she may be, is capable of looking critically at the world in a ‘dialogical encounter’ with others. In this process, the old, paternalistic teacher-student relationship is overcome.

To paraphrase Breen (1987), the Process syllabus prioritises classroom decision-making on the assumption that participation by learners in decision-making will be conducive to learning. Decision-making can be seen as an authentic communicative activity in itself. The objective of the Process syllabus is to serve the development of a learner’s communicative competence in a new language by calling upon the communicative potential which exists in any classroom group. It is based on the principle that authentic communication between learners will involve the genuine need to share meaning and to negotiate about things that actually matter and require action on a learner’s part. The Process syllabus proposes that metacommunication and shared decision-making are necessary conditions of language learning in any classroom.


What Does the Process Syllabus Provide?

Two things: a plan relating to the major decisions which teacher and learners need to make during classroom language learning, and a bank of classroom activities which consist of sets of tasks.

The plan consists of answers to questions which the teacher and learners discuss and agree on together. Questions refer to the purposes of language learning; the content or subject matter which learners will work upon; the ways of working in the classroom ; and means of evaluation of the efficiency and quality of the work and its outcomes. Clearly, decisions made about these areas will relate one to the other and they will generate the particular process syllabus of the classroom group. They will also lead to agreed working procedures within the class; a ‘working contract’ to be followed for an agreed time, evaluated in terms of its helpfulness and appropriateness, and subsequently refined or adapted for a further agreed period of time. This joint decision-making will lead to a particular selection of activities and tasks.

As for the materials bank, this needs to be built by each local centre, taking into consideration the known general and specific needs of its students. While today a great deal of material can be found on the internet, there’s no denying that implementing a process syllabus requires an initial investment in both materials and  teacher time in order to assemble and organise a good materials bank. In 1987, Breen had this to say:

A classroom group adopting a Process syllabus would deduce and implement its own content syllabus; a syllabus of subject-matter in the conventional sense would be designed, implemented, and evaluated within the Process syllabus. In circumstances where an external pre-planned syllabus already existed and had to be undertaken by the teacher with his or her learners, the decisions for classroom language learning would be related directly to such a pre-planned syllabus. As a result, the external syllabus may be incorporated within the group’s process — with or without modifications as decided upon by the group — and used as a continual reference point – or source of helpful criteria — during decision-making and evaluation. It is more than likely that any external syllabus will be modified as the group works with it. In sum, the Process syllabus is a context within which any syllabus of subject-matter is made workable. 

I think it’s very important to do without any external syllabus, so my proposal is based on the assumption that the teacher can call on a rich diversity of well-organised materials, where the diversity and the organisation are both crucial factors. Currently, few ELT centres provide such a materials bank, and this fact has led Rose Bard and I to the conclusion that we need to build a materials bank comprised entirely of materials which can be downloaded from a dedicated web site. The materials bank will grow and teachers will, of course, supplement the central hub with their own locally produced materials. The  “central” materials will be organised in a data base using the following provisional fields:

  1. Access number
  2. Source
  3. Medium
  4. Activity type
  5. Level
  6. Topic
  7. Sub-topic
  8. Grammar area
  9. Function

The Access Number is a simple code which defines the level of difficulty (l-6), the ‘medium’ (‘A’ or audio; ‘V’ for video; ‘T’ for text; ‘I’ for Internet;  etc.), and a sequential number of no other significance than to allow us to keep materials in order. Thus, for example, “4.V.19” is the nineteenth video segment for the fourth level of English. The creation of a database allows those creating the materials bank  to produce indexes for as many fields or combinations as they want, and this allows teachers to quickly see what video material is available at their level, or, for example, to find a reading text on tourism at that level. But teachers can also decide that they will concentrate on a certain topic, tourism, for example, and then confect a multi-activity task on that topic. The indexes tell them exactly what is available on this subject in each medium at each level. They can define the task for themselves or choose a ready-made task from the ‘Activities’ index. If they design their own task, they could start with a reading text, go on to an information-gap activity, then use video, then do an Internet  exercise, then move to discussions, presentations, and reports, staying all the time on the topic of tourism and at their chosen level.

So let’s look now at the example.


An Example Process Syllabus

In the following, I’ll refer to the teacher as “he”, supposing him to be a younger version of me.

Type of Student: Adult

Number of Students: 12

Level: Mid-Intermediate (CEFR: B2). The students should have done a proficiency test, ideally including an interview, prior to enrolling in the course.

Course Duration: 100 hours; 6 hours a week.

Objectives: The main objective of the course is to improve the students’ ability to use English for professional purposes. Priority is given to oral communication.


Step 1    

  1. The teacher greets everybody, introduces himself, and then asks students to get into four groups of 3 (A,B, & C) and to use questions displayed on the whiteboard in order to find out personal and professional information about each other. He then asks A to introduce B, B to introduce C, and C to introduce A.
  2. After that he explains that the course will use a process syllabus and gives a quick description of what that involves.
  3. (This bit of the class aims to reaffirm the feeling that the main thrust of the course is communicative oral practice.) “What’s in the news?”. The teacher brainstorms things in the news – local, national, international, sport, scandal, business, etc., – in order to generate a list of 6 or 7 items on the whiteboard. Students are put into groups of 3 and each group has to choose 1 of the items on the list. They then discuss the item and prepare a report. When everybody’s ready, the class gets back together and then each group gives its report (A gives the background, B gives the news, C gives the group’s opinion). The topic’s then open for others in the class to have their say.
  4. After a break, the teacher gives out a needs analysis worksheet: see here for possible format. (To get back to this page, hit the arrow at the top left of the screen) When everybody has filled in the form, the class divides into 3 groups and discusses their answers. The teacher asks one of each group to report on the answers to each of the 7 questions. This is a long activity, and will take the rest of the class time. The teacher collects the worksheets before everybody leaves.

Step 2

Before the next class, the teacher looks through the needs analysis forms and designs the next 10 hours of the course, confecting tasks from activities and materials in the materials bank. In fact he’s already done most of this work in previous courses, but just needs to fine-tune the tasks in line with the data collected.

Step 3

In the next classes the teacher leads students through a series of tasks involving activities such as problem-solving, information-gap, data gathering, case studies, role plays, presentations, debates, discussions, etc. involving group work, pair work, and whole class work, and using a variety of media. Various types of focus on form, vocabulary building, feedback and correction are used, and homework includes written work, and participation in an on-line discussion forum set up for this course.  Apart from their overt usefulness, the idea of these classes is to give students a taste of a wide variety of activities and formats.

During the classes the teacher tries to put into practice the Methodological Principles (MPs) re-stated in Long (2015), which I’ve summarised in a previous post. In fact, there are very important differences between Long’s TBLT syllabus proposal and this one, which will need discussing at some point, but I think the important points of agreement are:

  • MP2: Promote Learning by Doing. Practical hands-on experience with real-world tasks brings abstract concepts and theories to life and makes them more understandable);
  • MP4: Provide Rich Input. Adult foreign language learners require not just linguistically complex input, but rich input (i.e., realistic samples of discourse use surrounding accomplishment of tasks).
  • MP5: Encourage Inductive (“Chunk”) Learning. Learners need exposure to realistic samples of target language use and then helped to incorporate, store and retrieve whole chunks of that input as whole chunks.
  • MP6: Focus on Form. A focus on meaning can be improved upon by periodic attention to formal aspects of the language. This is best achieved during an otherwise meaning-focused lesson, and using a variety of pedagogic procedures where learners’ attention is briefly shifted to linguistic code features, in context, to induce “noticing”, when students experience problems as they work on communicative tasks. The most difficult practical aspect of focus on form is that, to be psycholinguistically relevant, it should be employed only when a learner need arises, thus presenting a difficulty for the novice teacher, who may not have relevant materials to provide. Where face-to-face interaction is the norm, as in L2 classrooms, recasting is the obvious pedagogical procedure. Once an L2 problem has been diagnosed for a learner, then pedagogical procedures may be decided upon and materials developed for use when the need next arises.
  • MP7: Provide Negative Feedback. Recasts are proposed as an ideal (but not the only) form of negative feedback.
  • MP8: Respect Developmental Processes and “Learner Syllabuses”. I’ve already said enough about this in previous posts dealing with interlanguage development.

Step 4

After approx. 12 hours of classroom time, the teacher holds “Feedback and Planning Session 1” where everybody reflects on what happened and plans the next part of the course. See here for possible format of the worksheet.  (To get back to this page, hit the arrow at the top left of the screen.) This session is obviously a pivotal part of the process syllabus and requires careful handling by the teacher . I think training in how to conduct these sessions is required for new teachers, and I’ll devote a separate post to discussing such sessions. Let me just say here that the teacher must avoid defending himself against any criticisms and must also avoid the temptation of the students to say “Everything’s fine: carry on!” With a bit of practice, these sessions become very dynamic and rewarding encounters, and succeed in giving the teacher a good idea of how to proceed.  I think it’s a good idea for the teacher to video-record the session so as to be freed of the task of taking notes.

Step 5   

Before the next class, the teacher assimilates the data from the planning session and designs the next 20 hours of the course, again confecting tasks from activities and materials in the materials bank, but this time based on what the students have indicated they want to do.

Step 6

The teacher presents his plan at the next class, and proceeds with its implementation. At around Hour 30 there’s “Planning Session 2” where feedback is again sought and the next part of the course is planned. The whole course thus comprises of about 5 cycles.

As for assessment, I refer you to final section of my post on Test Validity where I briefly summarise Fulcher’s important distinction between large-scale testing and classroom assessment. To the extent that students need an external assessment of their current language proficiency when they finish the course, they have various alternatives, such as those offered by TOEFL, or the Cambridge Examination Board.



This is a rough sketch of a possible process syllabus and I’m aware that it raises lots of important questions. Most importantly, in my opinion, it dispenses with any proper needs analysis and relies on the use of what Long (2015) would call a “hit and miss” approach to materials and task design. But it’s a start: it flies a very fragile kite.

To the objection that the syllabus relies on the existence of a materials bank, I can only reply that there is an abundance of cheap or free material available for ELT these days, but I agree that it needs organising for a particular school’s or institute’s needs. Similarly, to the objection that the teacher is expected to do much work preparing the tasks, my reply is that it doesn’t actually involve that much work, although an initial effort is certainly required. As the saying goes: Where there’s a will there’s a way.

The most important element in the proposal is the negotiation between teacher and students and it’s this element which needs to be tested by being put into practice by teachers in their local environments. I’ve done it myself and I know lots of other teachers who’ve done it, but more serious study is required to properly test the assertions made here. In my experience, students soon get used to the new roles, and the inevitable initial scepticism is soon overcome. The students’ contribution to decision-making, and everybody’s appreciation of the new approach, grows as the course develops; it is, indeed a virtuous circle.  I’m aware of the need to take into account local cultural issues, but, on the other hand, we should not bow to stereotypes. There are schools in England where students are punished for speaking out of turn or for challenging the authority of the teacher, and there are schools in South Korea where students are encouraged to contribute to decisions about what and how they learn. The principles underlying a process syllabus reflect a libertarian educational philosophy which in recent times has perhaps been best articulated by Friere, but which has echoes in all the major cultures of the world.


Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design Part II. Language Teaching, 20, pp 157-174.

Friere, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. Bloomsbury Academic.

Long. M. H. (2014) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley-Blackwell.

Dellar and Lexical Priming


In a recent webinar (which I read about in a post by Leo Selivan) Hugh Dellar talked about colligation. I missed the webinar and I found Selivan’s report of it confusing, so I took a look at the slides Dellar used.  Early on in his presentation, Dellar quotes Hoey (2005, p.43)

The basic idea of colligation is that just as a lexical item may be primed to co-occur with another lexical item, so also it may be primed to occur in or with a particular grammatical function. Alternatively, it may be primed to avoid appearance in or co-occurrence with a particular grammatical function. 

I don’t know how Dellar explained Hoey’s use of the term “primed” in his webinar, but I understand priming to be based on the idea that each word we learn becomes associated with the contexts with which we repeatedly encounter it, so much so that we subconsciously expect and replicate these contexts when we hear and speak the words. The different types of information that the word is associated with are called its primings.

What does Hoey himself say? Hoey says that we get all our knowledge about words (their collocations, colligations, and so on) by subconsciously noticing everything that we have ever heard or read, and storing it in memory.

The process of subconsciously noticing is referred to as lexical priming. … Without realizing what we are doing, we all reproduce in our own speech and writing the language we have heard or read before. We use the words and phrases in the contexts in which we have heard them used, with the meanings we have subconsciously identified as belonging to them and employing the same grammar. The things we say are subconsciously influenced by what everyone has previously said to us (Hoey, 2009 – Lexical Priming)  

Hoey rejects Chomsky’s view of L1 acquisition and claims that children learn language starting from a blank slate and then building knowledge from subconsciously noticed connections between lexical items. All language learning (child L1 and adult SLA alike) is the result of repeated exposure to patterns of text, where the more the repetition, the more chance for subconscious noticing, and the better our knowledge of the language.

The weaknesses of this theory include the following:

  • Hoey does not explain the key construct of subconscious noticing;
  • he does not explain how the hundreds of thousands of patterns of words acquired through repeatedly encountering and using them are stored and retrieved;
  • he does not acknowledge any limitations in our ability to remember, process or retrieve this massive amount of linguistic information;
  • he does not reply to the argument that we can and do say things that we haven’t been trained to say and that we have never heard anybody else say, which contradicts the claim that what we say is determined by our history of priming.
  • while Hoey endorses Krashen’s explanation of SLA (it’s an unconscious process dependent on comprehensible input), Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis contradicts Hoey’s lexical priming theory, since, while the first claims that SLA involves the acquisition of grammatical structures in a predictable sequence, the second claims that grammatical structures are lexical patterns and that there is no order of acquisition.

These limitations in Hoey’s theory get no mention from Dellar, who, having previously modelled his lexical approach on Michael Lewis, now seems to have fully embraced Hoey’s lexical priming theory. Let’s look at how this theory compares to rival explanation. (I’m here making use of material I’ve used in previous posts about Dellar & Hoey.)


Interlanguage Grammar versus Lexical Priming

In the last 40 years, great progress has been made in developing a theory of SLA based on a cognitive view of learning. It started in 1972 with the publication of Selinker’s paper where he argues that the L2 learners have their own autonomous mental grammar which came to be known as interlanguage grammar, a grammatical system with its own internal organising principles, which may or may not be related to the L1 and the L2.

One of the first stages of this interlanguage to be identified was that for ESL questions. In a study of six Spanish students over a 10-month period, Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky and Schumann (1975) found that the subjects produced interrogative forms in a predictable sequence:

  1. Rising intonation (e.g., He works today?),
  2. Uninverted WH (e.g., What he (is) saying?),
  3. “Overinversion” (e.g., Do you know where is it?),
  4. Differentiation (e.g., Does she like where she lives?).

A later example is in Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991: 94). They pointed to research which suggested that learners from a variety of different L1 backgrounds go through the same four stages in acquiring English negation:

  1. External (e.g., No this one./No you playing here),
  2. Internal, pre-verbal (e.g., Juana no/don’t have job),
  3. Auxiliary + negative (e.g., I can’t play the guitar),
  4. Analysed don’t (e.g., She doesn’t drink alcohol.)

In developing a cognitive theory of SLA, the construct of interlanguage became central to the view of L2 learning as a process by which linguistic skills become automatic. Initial learning requires controlled processes, which require attention and time; with practice the linguistic skill requires less attention and becomes routinized, thus freeing up the controlled processes for application to new linguistic skills. SLA is thus seen as a process by which attention-demanding controlled processes become more automatic through practice, a process that results in the restructuring of the existing mental representation, the interlanguage.

So there are two rival theories of SLA on offer here: Hoey’s theory of lexical priming (supported by Dellar, Selivan and others) and Selinker’s theory of interlanguage (developed by Long, Robinson, Schmidt, Skehan, Pienemann and others). Dellar should resist giving the impression that Hoey’s theory is the definitive and unchallenged explanation of how we learn languages.


Errors and L1 priming

in his presentation Dellar says “All our students bring L1 primings” and gives these examples from Polish.

On chce zebym studiowal prawo.

Zimno mi.

Jak ona wyglada?

These L1 primings “colour L2”

He wants that I study Law.

It is cold to me.

How does she look?

Dellar says that these are not grammar errors, but rather “micro-grammatical problems” caused by a lack of awareness of how the words attach themselves to grammar. The solution Dellar offers to these problems is to provide learners with lots of examples of “correct colligation and co –text”.

He wants me to study Law.

My dad’s quite pushy. He wants me to study Business, but I’m not really sure that I want to.

It’s really cold today.  It’s freezing!  I’m freezing!

What does she look like?  Oh, she’s quite tall . . . long hair . . . quite good-looking, actually. Well, I think so anyway.

This kind of correction is, says Dellar, “hard work, but necessary work”. It ensures that “students are made aware of how the way they think the language works differs from how it really works.” Dellar concludes that

 Hoey has shown the real route to proficiency is sufficient exposure. Teachers can shortcut the priming process by providing high-reward input that condenses experience and saves time.

We may note how Hoey, not Krashen, gets the credit for showing that the real route to proficiency is sufficient exposure; how priming now explains learning; and how teaching must now concentrate on providing shortcuts to the primimg process.

To return to Dellar’s “micro-grammatical problems”, we are surely entitled to ask if what SLA researchers for 50 years have referred to as the phenomenon of L1 transfer is better understood as the phenomenon of L1 primings. Recall that Pit Corder argued in 1967 that learner errors were neither random nor best explained in terms of the learner’s L1; errors were indications of learners’ attempts to figure out an underlying rule-governed system.  Corder distinguished between errors and mistakes: mistakes are slips of the tongue and not systematic, whereas errors are indications of an as yet non-native-like, but nevertheless, systematic, rule-based grammar.  Dulay and Burt (1975) then claimed that fewer than 5% of errors were due to native language interference, and that errors were, as Corder suggested, in some sense systematic.  The morpheme studies of Brown in L1 (1973) led to studies in L2 which suggested that there was a natural order in the acquisition of English morphemes, regardless of L1.  This became known as the L1 = L2 Hypothesis, and further studies all pointed to systematic staged development in SLA.  The emerging cognitive paradigm of language learning perhaps received its full expression in Selinker’s (1972) paper which argues that the L2 learners have their own autonomous mental grammar (which came to be known, pace Selinker, as interlanguage (IL) grammar), a grammatical system with its own internal organising principles, which may or may not be related to the L1 and the L2.

All of this is contradicted by Dellar, who insists that L1 priming explains learner errors.


Language development through L2 priming  versus processing models of SLA

Explaining L2 development as a matter of strengthening L2 primings between words contradicts the work of those using a processing model of SLA, and I’ll give just one example. McLaughlin (1990) uses the twin concepts of “Automaticity” and “Restructuring” to describe the cognitive processes involved in SLA. Automaticity occurs when an associative connection between a certain kind of input and some output pattern occurs.   Many typical greetings exchanges illustrate this:

Speaker 1: Morning.

Speaker 2: Morning. How are you?

Speaker 1: Fine, and you?

Speaker 2: Fine.

Since humans have a limited capacity for processing information, automatic routines free up more time for such processing. To process information one has to attend to, deal with, and organise new information.  The more information that can be handled routinely, automatically, the more attentional resources are freed up for new information.  Learning takes place by the transfer of information to long-term memory and is regulated by controlled processes which lay down the stepping stones for automatic processing.

The second concept, restructuring, refers to qualitative changes in the learner’s interlanguage as they move from stage to stage, not to the simple addition of new structural elements. These restructuring changes are, according to McLaughlin, often reflected in “U-shaped behaviour”, which refers to three stages of linguistic use:

  • Stage 1: correct utterance,
  • Stage 2: deviant utterance,
  • Stage 3: correct target-like usage.

In a study of French L1 speakers learning English, Lightbown (1983) found that, when acquiring the English “ing” form, her subjects passed through the three stages of U-shaped behaviour.  Lightbown argued that as the learners, who initially were only presented with the present progressive, took on new information – the present simple – they had to adjust their ideas about the “ing” form.  For a while they were confused and the use of “ing” became less frequent and less correct.

According to Dellar (folowing Hoey) this “restructuring” explanation is wrong: what’s actually happening is that the L2 primings are not getting enough support from “high-reward input”.



There are serious weaknesses in the lexical priming theory as a theory of SLA, and few reasons to think that it offers a better explanation of the phenomena studied by SLA scholars, including the phenomenon of L1 transfer, than processing theories which use the construct of interlanguage grammar. Even if there were, Dellar seems not to have grasped that his newly-adopted explanation of language learning and his long-established teaching methods contradict each other. If lexical priming is a subconcious process which explains language learning, then the sufficient condition for learning is exposure to language and opportunities to strengthen and extend lexical primings. All the corrective work that Dellar recommends, all that “hard but necessary work” to ensure that “students are made aware of how the way they think the language works differs from how it really works” is useless interference in a natural process involving the unconscious acquisition of lexical knowledge.



Cazden, C., Cancino, E., Rosansky, E. and Schumann, J. (1975) Second language acquisition sequences in children, adolescents and adults. Final report submitted to the National Institute of Education, Washington, D.C.

Corder, S. P. (1967) The significance of learners’ errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics 5, 161-9.

Dulay, H. and Burt, M. (1975) Creative construction in second language learning and teaching. In Burt, M and Dulay, H. (eds.), New directions in second language learning, teaching, and bilingual education. Washington, DC: TESOL, 21-32.

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

Krashen, S. (1981) Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon.

Larsen-Freeman, D. and Long, M. H. (1991) An introduction to second language acquisition research. Harlow: Longman.

McLaughlin, B. (1990) “Conscious” versus “unconscious” learning. TESOL Quarterly 24, 617-634.

Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage.  International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 209-231.

British Council Cultural Claptrap


On the British Council website, Ian Clifford asks two questions:

Do learner-centred approaches work in every culture?

Is it time to challenge Western assumptions about education, especially when it comes to promoting ‘good teaching approaches’ in the developing world?

I bet you won’t fall off your chair when I tell you that Clifford thinks the answers to these questions are “No” and “Yes”.

Clifford starts by saying that most Western educators think learner-centred education represents “everything that’s good and wholesome in education.” Just in case that sounds a bit blasé, Clifford gets more scholarly and says that learner-centred educational practice can be traced back to ‘child-centred’ education which

draws on the work of 18th century philosophers such as Rousseau and Locke, who suggested that teachers should intervene as little as possible in the natural development of children.”

Unfortunately, this attempt at scholarship fails, since in fact Rousseau and Locke suggested the opposite. They were both pioneers in promoting child education where the teacher held absolute authority, and, in Locke’s case, children were expected to do exactly as they were told by teachers under threat of dire corporal punishment.

Clifford then asks “What exactly do these (learner-centred) approaches amount to in the classroom?” The answer to this important question is that some educators associate learner-centred approaches with group work, some think it means teachers let learners find out for themselves; and some can’t identify any method at all. You might think that this is not a very “exact” answer, but never mind, because the main point is to establish the different perceptions of learner-centred and teacher-centred approaches. While a learner-centred approach represents everything good, a teacher-centred approach is generally regarded as

“authoritarian and hierarchical, encouraging rote learning and memorisation, without any real understanding.”


Proceding with his absurd parody of the two approaches (in the West we blithely abandon learners to their own devices, while in the East learners bang away at drills and memorise things without achieving real understanding), Clifford cites Kirschner’s work,  which shows that

“leaving learners to solve problems for themselves leads to brain overload.”

Pretty persuasive evidence, don’t you think? And as if this scary brain overload weren’t reason enough to bury learner-centred approaches once and for all, Clifford goes on to give a skewed summary of two more studies. First, Clifford claims that a 2014 meta-study

“favoured ‘direct teaching’ over approaches that involved little teacher instruction such as ‘discovery learning’.”

Quite apart from the fact that “discovery learning” is not a method associated with ELT, if you click on the link and read the summary at the top for yourself, you’ll see that that’s not an accurate summary of the findings. Then Clifford cites Schweisfurth (2011) , who reviewed 72 articles about projects promoting “student-centred” approaches and concluded that they record ‘a history of failures great and small’. Clifford says that the “most important” reason for failure is “cultural mismatch.” He explains:

“Approaches to teaching based on a Western idea of the individual don’t fit well in cultures which emphasise group goals over individual needs. In such cultures, teachers are expected to be authoritative and learners obedient.”

This is a lazy, inaccurate, and misleading report of the findings. Nowhere in the entire article does Schweisfurth use the term “cultural mismatch”, nor does she say that cultural divergence is the most important reason for failure in any of the 72 cases studied. And of course she says absolutely nothing to warrant Clifford’s crude claim about the assumed roles of teachers and learners. On the contrary, she calls for analyses which “help to take us beyond the crude binary codes of Teacher-Centred Education versus Learner-Centred Education, or implementation success versus failure.”

Finally, Clifford gives “The case of Burma”, where, he says, various attempts to implement a ‘child-centred approach’ have failed. Who do you think have been called in to sort out the accumulated mess caused by the well-intentioned but misguided advocates of a learner-centred approach? Yes! The British Council – that hallowed institution famed for subordinating promotion of its own national culture to the greater mission of fostering global cultural diversity! Clifford proudly tells us that the British Council’s “English for Education College Trainers” project in Burma is going to

support local teachers to do whole-class teaching more effectively and interactively and in the second half of the year teach techniques to get learners learning from each other.”

Isn’t that just peachy, as we say in Henley on Thames.


Coming through, loud and clear, through the poor scholarship, the cherry-picking use of evidence, and the reliance on absurd straw-men versions of learner-centred and teacher-centred approaches, is a clear message. The West has been duped by lefty-liberals into accepting a dangerous, learner-centred approach to education as its paradigm, and it’s now trying to hoist this approach onto counties whose cultures make its implementation doomed to failure. We need to reject learner-centred approaches and go back to traditional “whole-class teaching”. The message is what you’d expect from a spokesman of the British Council (conservative, cautious, resistant to change) and it typically gets everything wrong. Pace Clifford, the West is not in the grips of a learner-centred paradigm in education, and there must be very few professionals working outside the cosy confines of the British Council who nurture such a paranoid illusion. More specifically, a learner-centred approach to ELT is not widespread in the West; rather, as I’ve argued elsewhere, ELT practice is mostly teacher-led and coursebook-driven. And while there is undeniably cultural resistance in many countries to the full implementation of a communicative approach to classroom language learning, surely we should be looking for ways to overcome this resistance rather than using opportunistic interpretations of multiculturalism to perpetuate the problem.

Three Cheers


A quick post to give my support to three good ventures currently doing their best to improve the ELT world.

1. SLB Cooperative


The SLB Cooperative, founded by Neil McMillan, provides language services to companies, organisations and individuals in Barcelona and beyond. Their objective is to provide a whole range of resources and professional development opportunities to members and associates, which in turn enables them to deliver the best possible service to clients. They do English classes, translation, editing, proofreading, and other language services, and they also offer low-cost or free language classes and translation services to those individuals in the community who are otherwise unable to afford them.

As they say on their website, the SLB is “a forward-thinking organisation, not a traditional school or language academy.” Being a cooperative, they cut out the middle-man, and offer clients a personalised service, at great value. What makes them different is that they work for themselves and for each other, and not under a manager who does not understand their jobs. At SLB, they value quality over quantity and service over sales.  To become a member, you contact them, and they invite you to an interview. If everybody is happy, you join. By paying your membership fee, you are a full member of the cooperative. Each associate has the same responsibilities, and the same right to vote. Each associate has the same share in any potential profits, if the cooperative vote to award dividends at the end of the financial year. They have very nice premises in Gracia, where members meet, pool resources, hold training sessions, and can use a well-equipped classroom. There’s a a great atmosphere in their centre, numbers are growing, and I’m going to join next week!


2. TEFL Equity Advocates


TEFL Equity Advocates opposes discrimination against non-native speaker teachers (NNESTs) and has quickly established itself as a powerful voice for change. Its blog has over 2,500 followers, and there’s no doubt that in the last 2 years they’ve made a huge contribution to the fight. Their aims are

  1. Acknowledge and expose the discrimination of NNESTs in TEFL.
  2. Sensitise the public to the problem.
  3. Debunk the most common and damaging myths and stereotypes about NNESTs.
  4. Reduce the number of job ads only for NESTs.
  5. Give self-confidence to NNESTs.


3. Decentralising Teaching and Learning

Sin título1

Decentralising Teaching and Learning is Paul Walsh’s blog. He created the concept of “Decentralised ELT”, believing that the teaching of languages is over-centralised.  When asked to describe Decentralised Teaching in one sentence he says “The central tenet of Decentralised Teaching would be: Devolving power, resources and responsibility down to the learner in order to optimise learning.  He has a very good ‘dummies guide’  to his teaching methodology on the About page, and there are some great blog posts, free lesson plans and other resources on offer.

Even when you add explosions to the mix, grammar is still boring


The splendid opinion voiced in the heading of this post is a quote from a paper of a student in an MA programme on Linguistics at San Jose State University. It’s one of many delightful quotes collected by lol my thesis  (thanks to Shelagh Byron for telling me about it) and prompts me to comment on a few more examples, with the hope that they might prove useful to all those doing an MA in TESOL and applied linguistics as they start the new term and confront the task of writing their first, or next, 3,000 word assignment.


1. I don’t know what I’m talking about but hopefully using big words will make it seem like I do (Linguistics, Arizona State University).

One can only sympathise with this frank and very telling assumption of what’s required in an MA paper, but there are two problems. First, you shouldn’t reveal yourself personally, or invite complicity. We’ve moved a long way from the suffocating style that until recently characterised academic papers, but you still have to keep your distance from the reader. We, the readers, are not, alas, interested in your personal feelings, so keep them to yourself. But you can and should develop your own voice. Try to write as you might speak when expressing the views you want to talk about; be as natural as possible, don’t be stilted and don’t “pose”. On a technical note, the passive voice is no longer de rigor, and it’s now perfectly OK to use the first person “I” (rather than “the researcher”, for example) to state your views or talk about your study. But contractions are still frowned on, though it beats me why they’re totally banned. I recommend that you read Kevin Gregg’s papers; he uses contractions now and then, he has his own very distinctive, personal, beguiling academic voice (peerless in its coherence and cohesion), but he keeps his distance.

Here are 4 more offenders, all wonderful, but all unlikely to get the approval of the markers:

  • I’ve spent four years becoming qualified enough to crawl around the lab on my hands and knees looking for the carbonized seed I just dropped. (Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania.)
  • It would really suck to have one’s face surgically grafted onto a dude’s ass. ( English, Lougborough University.)
  • i fell in love so i locked myself in a barn and translated rilke for two years (German, University of Vermont.)
  • If tiny black holes existed like my advisor wishes they did, I would have graduated three years ago and gotten a Nobel Prize. (Physics, University of Maine.)

The second “problem” is that big words don’t actually make it seem like you know what you’re talking about. At least, they don’t if the reader has a minimal ability to see through them and if the faculty you’re in doesn’t actively encourage them. The famous Sokal hoax shows that some academic faculties are more easily fooled than others. Obscurantism (before, the practice of keeping knowledge or understanding about something from people by using obscure language, and now the preferred style of many academics, particularly those of a post-modernist persuasion) is a scourge of modern sociolinguistics, and one that you should make every effort to avoid. Don’t dress up what you say, don’t use any high-sounding term when a simple term is available. In short, speak directly and don’t resort to bullshit. Academic jargon helps promote bullshit and one website votes “Problematize” as its Number 1. “The blame for this awful neologism lies with academia, where the word serves no apparent purpose except to demonstrate one’s mastery of obscurantist jargon”.


2. Over the years, Greek history has over the years been altered and romanticised through repeated reinterpretation, and in some cases, such as in the popular film 300, completely made up, and by someone who apparently doesn’t know a Spartan from a Del Monte Pineapple.(Classics, King’s College London)

Leaving aside problems of style, the author fails to cite references to support the assertion made. Seriously, this is a basic requirement of any academic paper. Any assertion you make MUST be supported by references. So here, the undeniable assertion that “Greek history has over the years been altered and romanticised through repeated reinterpretation” needs references. And the film 300 needs a reference too. Right from the start, get the habit of giving references for any assertions you make. The obvious caveat is that there’s no need to overdo it.

Other offenders:

  • Some dude who most people forgot about was actually a philosopher, but his philosophy sucked anyway, probably explaining why everybody forgot about him. (History and Literature, Harvard)
  • Ladies got shit done during the Civil War. (History, Calvin College.)
  • Water was really in important in Ancient Rome. Like Really. (History, San Francisco State.)
  • Everybody liked porn in early 20th-century China and everybody everywhere still does. (History, Stanford University.


3. Everything is imperialist. Come to think of it, this thesis is imperialist. (Foreign Languages, Scripps College.)

Apart from the problem of thinking out loud, the problem here is lack of focus. In my opinion, this is the biggest problem you face when organising your paper. You might think that in SLA everything depends on motivation. Come to think of it, my motivation …. You might think that the grammar of English is dominated by modals. Come to think of it, my use of “might”…. . Don’t even start writing a draft paper before you articulate a thesis question which clearly articulates what “problem” you’re going to address. Focus, focus, focus. What’s the problem? Bring it down and down until it’s manageable. Articulate it into a thesis question. Then start digging.


What I think is most remarkable about all the examples you’ll find on the lol my thesis website is how they reflect the new way that post graduate students express themselves. One thing is to point out the need for a certain distance, a need to support assertions, and a need for focus. There’s also the obvious need to demonstrate a good command of subject matter, an ability to critically evaluate what one reads, and an ability to put together a coherent and cohesive academic text. But maybe it’s also important to allow students to express themselves more freely.

Thornbury and The Learning Body


Scott Thornbury has been talking about “The Learning Body” for a while now. You can see one version on YouTube and you can see another version at the ELTABB website. You can also read a fuller treatment in Thornbury’s chapter in the tribute to Earl Stevick: Meaningful Action   (Just BTW, it’s not a great collection: Connie O’Grady would have lifted it by talking about Earl and his effect on teachers. if only somebody  had had the sense to ask her to contribute.)  I base this critique on the YouTube talk.

Summary of the Talk

Thornbury starts by asserting that “Descartes got it wrong”. There is no mind/body dualism, rather “Brains are in bodies, bodies are in the world and meaningful action in these worlds is socially constructed and conducted” (Churchill et al, 2010). This devastating rebuttal of Descartes, which Thornbury (ignoring works by Locke, Hume, Derrida and others) reckons was “finally revealed” in 1994, has been ignored by those responsible for the prevailing orthodoxy in SLA, who insist that “language and language learning are a purely cognitive phenomenon.” Thornbury tells us that this orthodoxy claims that we need look no further than cognition for an explanation of SLA – other factors are not important.

Thornbury then goes on to explain that the modern view sees the brain as part of a larger set, involving the body and the world, leading to a new concept of “embodied cognition”. Without bothering with considerations of how “the mind” as a construct relates to the brain as a physical part of the body, Thornbury proceeds to look at the mind as embodied, embedded and extended.

Embodied Mind

The construct of the “embodied mind” is defined as “rooted in physical experience”. Our mind (see how hard it is, even for Thornbury, to stay away from Cartesian dualism) deals with ideas that are all related to our “physicality” as Thornbury puts it, and this applies to language and language learning. Key points here are:

  • “Language is rooted in human experience of the physical world”(Lee, 2010)
  • We adapt our language to different circumstances and different people.
  • Learning is enhanced by physical involvement.
  • Larsen-Freeman’s latest work argues that language is a dynamic emergent system.
  • Language is noted, applied and adapted in context.
  • Mirror neurons and body language are evidence for the embodied mind construct.

Embedded Mind

No definition of this construct is offered. Thornbury only says that language is embedded in context, which should come as a surprise to nobody. Thornbury refers to “ecolinguistics”, likens the learning of language to the learning of soccer by children, and reminds us that we adapt our language to different circumstances and different people.

Extended Mind

The “Extended mind” construct is nowhere even casually defined, but Scott uses the film Memento (a great film which I recommend, but which has little to do with Scott’s description or use of) to make the point that our bodies help us to remember. This is followed by a discussion of gestures, which have a big role in communication.


Not much here. Thornbury refers to the importance of our physical relationship to our students and says “Learning is discovering alignment”. This means group work, gesture, eye contact, “acting out”.


Thornbury gives this summary:

  • I think therefore I am: Wrong. Better:
  • I move therefore I am.
  • I speak therefore I move.
  • I move, therefore I learn.


Thornbury’s talk is interesting, and very well-delivered: he’s the best stand-up act in the business (sic) and his use of video clips is particularly good. But when you tot it all up, there’s almost nothing of substance, and the argument is hollow. Thornbury makes a straw man argument against research in SLA, and says nothing of much interest as to how all this “embodied” stuff might further our understanding of SLA. As to teaching, there’s absolutely no need to even mention “embodied cognition” in order to agree with all the good things he says about gestures and the rest of it. Earl Stevick was indeed concerned with holistic learning and a teaching methodology which reflected it, but I doubt he’d be impressed by this attempt to use fashionable speculations about cognitive science to back it up.

Specific Points

  1. The use of Descartes to promote an argument against current SLA research is simplistic and boringly trite. In the “Discourse on Method” Descartes was concerned with epistemology, with reliable knowledge. His famous conclusion “Cogito ergo sum” has never been falsified – how could it be! – and it’s plain silly to say that “he got it wrong”
  2. Thornbury says that SLA orthodoxy sees language learning as a purely cognitive phenomenon taking place in the mind. He’s wrong. The most productive research in SLA concentrates on cognitive aspects of SLA, but those involved in such research are quite aware that they’re focusing on just one aspect of the problem. They do so for the very good reason that scientific research gets the best results. The job of those who look at other aspects, such as those covered by sociolinguistics, is to show how their work has academic respectability, and misrepresenting the work of those who adopt a scientific methodology does nothing to enhance that job.
  3. The question of the distinction between the brain and the mind is a fundamental one. Thornbury doesn’t even mention it. .


Thornbury, following the muddled and generally incoherent arguments of Larsen Freeman, wants to say that SLA is best seen as an emerging process where, well, things emerge. And given that it all kind of emerges, ELT should help all these things, well, emerge. This is absolutely hopeless, isn’t it? Any theory of SLA must be sharper than this; any teaching methodology needs a firmer basis. There is, of course, a very interesting strand of SLA research that takes an emergentist approach, but it has little in common with Thornbury’s musings. And there are, of course, teaching methodologies based on helping learners “emerge”, although they don’t put it quite like that. Thornbury has done very little to critique SLA research, or to explain how all his “emerging” bits and pieces might help future research move in a better direction.Furthermore, nothing in his suggestions for teaching practice is new, and none of it depends on his “theoretical basis”.

Finally, let’s just have another look at this:

  • I think therefore I am: Wrong. Better:
  • I move therefore I am.
  • I speak therefore I move.
  • I move, therefore I learn.

Not exactly a syllogism, now is it? I speak therefore I move? Really?

And quite apart from being incoherent, how will it affect your understanding of SLA?  Still, at least the last sorry line might inspire you to get off your butt and revisit Asher – he of Total Physical Response.