Harold R. Keables

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

Check out the Resources Section, which offers:

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

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

The Involvement Load Hypothesis

You don’t hear much about the Involvement Load Hypothesis (ILH) these days, it hasn’t quite taken off as a research tradition as the authors had hoped, but it’s worth an airing, I think.

I’d like to thank Dan Brown, who’s doing an MA in applied linguitics at Leicester university for help with this. Any references cited below can be found in Martínez-Fernández (2008).

As I mentioned in my last post, few scholars these days question that incidental learning from context (extensive reading) accounts for a substantial proportion of vocabulary acquisition. There is equally wide agreement that retention of information depends on the nature of the information processing involved. Many studies in the 1980s examined various types of rehearsal and their effect on vocabulary learning, all looking for support for the hypothesis that the more deeply words are processed, the more successfully they are retained. Running along side these rehearsal studies were studies that examined the question of whether the addition of some kind of lexical intervention in extensive reading programmes can further promote lexical development, without negating the principle aim of extensive reading which is to concentrate on “getting the message” and avoid studying the text. Studies investigating the effectiveness of different lexical intervention tasks during reading have led to conflicting results, and this is also true of the Involvement Load Hypothesis proposed by Laufer and Hulstijn (2001), which has been fairly rigorously tested and has received both supporting and challenging evidence. The hypothesis has important pedagogical implications, since it allows us to manipulate task features and predict what tasks will be more effective.

Background to “Incidental Learning”

One of the most important distinctions made in SLA is that between conscious and unconscious learning. Some scholars, trying to get a better, more precise fix on this conscious and unconscious dichtomomy, refer to “explicit and implicit learning”, or “intentional and incidental” learning. Perhaps the most famous attempt to build a theory on this distinction is Krashen’s Motitor Model, where the term “acquisition” is used for unconscious or implicit learning and the term “learning” is used for conscious or explicit learning. Krashen’s theory was, in fact, a response to the view that second languages were best taught by doing a contrastive analysis of the L1 and the target L2 and then teaching the differences by explicit instruction. Krashen said that the most important ingredient of SLA was “comprehensible input” and that grammar and vocabulary teaching had a very minor part to play in the process.

Following Krashen (chronologically, I mean), many SLA researchers took a processing approach which sees L2 learning as the process by which linguistic skills become automatic. In this view, initial learning requires controlled processes, which require explicit attention to the code, 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. But there was no agreed model. While McLaughlin (1990) likens the SLA process to driving a car with a clutch (where the proficient driver no longer needs to think about how to use the clutch), Bialystok (1994, 2001) likens the L2 learner to a library user. Bialystok sees the L2 learner’s knowledge as a mental library – the contents of the learner’s linguistic knowledge. The knowledge can be structured to different degrees, and this represents different degrees of control over the knowledge. The learner’s ability to retrieve a book represents his access to the linguistic knowledge he has. The learner’s knowledge can be more or less analysed; according to Bialystok the information is the same, but the more it is analysed, the more the learner is aware of the structure of the information. Bialystok therefore seems to be arguing the opposite of McLaughlin: more conscious control is necessary to speed access and processing.

The question of implicit and explicit knowledge, conscious and unconscious knowledge, acquisition and learning, is one that, in different ways, vexes many of those working on a theory of SLA. The problem is how to conceptualise this difference in such a way that the explanation it offers of the SLA process avoids the circularity of Krashen’s theory. In later work, McLaughlin suggests that since we can’t clearly define these terms in an empirically testable way, we should get rid of them, and use the terms “controlled processing” and “automatic processing” instead. Alas, these new terms suffer from much the same vagueness. Schmidt, rather than accept McLaughlin’s advice to abandon the search for a definition of “consciousness”, attempts to do away with its “terminological vagueness” by examining three senses of the term: consciousness as awareness, consciousness as intention, and consciousness as knowledge. Consciousness and awareness are often equated, but Schmidt distinguishes between three levels: Perception, Noticing and Understanding. As you probably know, the second level, Noticing, is the key to Schmidt’s eventual hypothesis (see here for more on all this).

So that’s the background to Laufer and Hulstijn’s (2001) attempt to work with “incidental vocabulary learning”. I’m not sure how helpful the background is, and I’m aware that I haven’t really worked through the question of how much the interest in incidental learning stems from the fact that it’s much easier to pin down the construct of incidental learning than intentional learning.

Incidental Vocabulary Learning

Laufer and Hulstijn (2001) chose a simple definition of incidental learning for their hypothesis (a variation of one used by many investigating vocabulary acquisition), namely: incidental learning occurs when new information is processed without the intention to commit the new information to memory. The construct is further operationalised by adding that learning remains incidental provided that students are under the assumption that their knowledge of the new vocabulary will not be specifically tested at a later date. This second provisio is intended to deal with the problem that if students know they will be subsequently tested on the new words involved in the study they will try to memorise them, thus invoking intentional learning.

The Involvement Load Hypothesis

The Involvement Load Hypothesis (ILH) states that the potential for learning and retaining unfamiliar words is dependent upon the degree of involvement in processing these words (Laufer and Hulstijn, 2001b:544). The degree of involvement can be measured by measuring 3 components: need, search and evaluation.

The need component is the motivational component; it relates to the need that a task imposes upon a learner. Need has 3 levels: absent, moderate and strong. Need is absent when a learner simply does not need to know a word; moderate when the need to know it is imposed externally (e.g. when a teacher asks a student to look up the meaning of an unfamiliar word or phrase) term; and strong when it is generated internally; for example, when a student decides to look up the meaning of a new word in a dictionary.

Search and evaluation are the two cognitive components of the ILH. Search relates to making an attempt to find the meaning of an unknown L2 word; for instance, searching for the meaning of an unknown L2 word on Google. The search component can be either present or absent. It is present when it is necessary to look up the meaning or translation of a word, for example by the use of a dictionary; and is absent when the meaning or translation is provided.

The third component, evaluation, entails the comparison of a new word with other words in order to assess its suitability for a given context. Evaluation can be absent, when there is no requirement to compare new terms with new contexts, moderate when comparisons have to be made with words for which the context is provided (for example, a gap filling activity), or can be strong when the evaluation requires a decision as to how additional words will fit with new words in self-made, original sentences.

According to the ILH, tasks with a higher involvement load are considered to be more effective for word learning and retention than tasks with lower involvement loads. For comparison purposes, each task is assigned a specific number which relates to an involvement load index. Total absence of a factor is assigned 0, a moderate presence is assigned 1 and strong presence is assigned a score of 2.

(0) Absent: Learner doesn’t need to understand or produce word.
(1) Moderate: Learner is required to learn the word by external source (teacher).
(2) Strong: Learner makes decision to learn or produce the word.

(0) Absent: Meaning or translation of word is provided.
(1) Present: Learner must look up meaning / translation of a word.

(0) Absent: Words are not compared with other words.
(1) Moderate: Words are compared to other words in provided contexts.
(2) Strong: Words are compared to other words in self-created contexts.

For example, if a teacher provides students with some new words and their definitions and asks students to create original sentences with them, the task would be assigned the following involvement load score:
Need: Moderate, (1): the assignment is imposed by the teacher.
Search: Absent (0): the definitions are provided.
Evaluation: (2) High: the students need to write their own original sentences.
Total Score: 3

In any study, the strength of each component is considered to be equal, allowing for the systematic scoring of tasks and for the control of variables.

Empirical Evidence of the ILH

The text below is provided by Dan Brown.

The first direct test of the hypothesis was conducted by Laufer and Hulstijn (2001b). The study investigated the effects of Task Induced Involvement in a parallel experiment involving participants in two separate countries. The aim of the investigation was to test whether the success rate of vocabulary acquired was contingent upon task involvement load.

Three tasks of varying involvement loads were selected and each task was administered to different groups of students. The task with the lowest involvement load was a reading comprehension task with marginal gloss. In this task, ten target words whose understanding was relevant to the task were chosen. These words were then glossed into the margin. Participants were required to simply read the text and answer the comprehension questions.

In task two, participants were assigned the same text and same comprehension questions as the students in group one, except this time, the ten target words were deleted from the text. These ten words were then printed onto a separate sheet with their L1 translations, alongside five other random words that were not part of the text. In order to complete this task, participants had to read the text and fill in the blanks with the correct vocabulary words from the separate sheet.

In task three, participants were only provided with the target words and their L1 translations and were asked to create an original composition in the form of a formal letter. In each of the tasks, the involvement load variables of need and search were held constant. According to the index, need was held at moderate (1) because need was induced by the task, search was absent (0) as the vocabulary items were supplied. Holding these components constant meant that evaluation could be isolated as the only variable in the task. It varied as follows: group one, absent (0); group 2 moderate (1) because the context for the words was provided; group 3, high (2) because the words had to be used in original contexts.

Once the tasks were complete, receptive knowledge of the words was tested after one week and again after two weeks. For the test, participants were required to write L1 equivalents of the new vocabulary.

The results of the test found that retention of the new vocabulary directly correlated with involvement load. Participants who had completed tasks with the lowest involvement load scored lowest and those who had completed tasks with the highest involvement load scored highest. This provides evidence in support of the ILH.

The other study that empirically tested the ILH is a study by Keating (2008), who studied a group of beginning learners of Spanish. The participants in this investigation were first year university students studying Spanish as part of a compulsory general education requirement. The study was a replication of Laufer and Hulstijn (2001b), except for one aspect which I’ll ignore here. The results mirrored the Laufer Hulstijn (2001b) study: the lowest word retention rates came from tasks with the lowest involvement load and the highest word retention rates came from tasks with the highest involvement loads. The results clearly show that tasks with a higher involvement load enable learners to retain vocabulary more effectively.

So, there you are. This hypothesis suggests that classroom reading tasks, using a relatively-short text and various well-established activities pertaining to the text, can be manipulated in such a way as to induce a high involvement load, which in turn results in dramatic improvements in vocabulary acquisition. But nothing’s that simple, right? Right! In the next post, I’ll discuss the complicated bits.


Jan H. Hulstijn1 and Batia Laufer (2001) Some Empirical Evidence for the Involvement Load Hypothesis in Vocabulary Acquisition. Language Learning, Volume 51, Issue 3, pages 539–558.

Martínez-Fernández, A. 2008. Revisiting the Involvement Load Hypothesis: Awareness, Type of Task and Type of Item. In Selected Proceedings of the 2007 Second Language Research Forum, ed. Melissa Bowles, Rebecca Foote, Silvia Perpiñán, and Rakesh Bhatt, 210-228. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.

Vocabulary learning


I’ve just read Peter Yongqi Gu (2003)Vocabulary Learning in a Second Language: Person, Task, Context and Strategies Here are a few interesting points which emerge. All references can be found at the end of Peter’s article.

1. Intentional reading should supplement incidental reading.

Like Rose Bard (who’s recently talked about her efforts to introduce an extensive reading programme to her students) and many others, I’m convinced of the value of extesive, TAVI, incidental reading. Krashen’s advocacy of extensive incidental reading is well-known, and his 1989 survey concluded that incidental vocabulary learning achieves much better results than intentional vocabulary learning. But I was interested to read Yongqi Gu make a convincing case for a dual approach. He points out that in order to benefit from incidental vocabulary learning through extensive reading, students must have the ability to read, and this is something which low level foreign language learners only possess to a very limited extent. Research studies show that, particularly at beginner levels, intentional reading of short texts leads to much faster vocabulary learning than reading low-level structuural readers. Incidental vocabulary learning through reading seems to be more effective for intermediate to advanced L2 learners who already have at least a basic grasp of the language skills needed, and even these learners benefit from using intentional learning strategies. Yongqi Gu cites studies which suggest that a combined approach is superior to incidental vocabulary learning alone. Looking at it from a slightly different angle, if we regard the purpose of vocabulary learning as both remembering words and being able to use them automatically when the need arises, evidence suggests that the knowledge aspect requires more conscious and explicit learning mechanisms, whereas the skill aspect involves mostly implicit learning and memory. This suggests that vocabulary learning strategies should include strategies for “using” as well as “knowing” a word.

2. Dictionaries help vocabulary learning

I always used to tell students that when they were doing extensive reading (as opposed to reading and studying a short text), they should only resort to consulting a (monolingual) dictionary in extremis, relying for the rest of the time on contextual clues and getting the gist. So I was interested to see Yongqi Gu cite research suggesting that while it is cetainly true that new vocabulary is acquired in extensive reading through contextual guessing, those who used a dictionary as well as guessing through context, learn far more words immediately and remember more long term. For example, in a study of Japanese EFL university students, results suggested that using a dictionary significantly improved vocabulary learning through reading. As to whether bilingual or monolingual dictionaries are better, I alsways thought that monolingual ones were better, but it seems that there’s increasing interest in the “new bilingualised compromise dictionaries”, hybrid dictionaries that essentially provide translations in addition to the good features of monolingual dictionaries. Evaluation of the effectiveness of such dictionaries emerged in the 1990s and it was found that irrespective of the learners’ proficiency level, the bilingualised version was significantly better than the other two types in both comprehension and production tasks.

3. Rote Rehearsal is good for Vocabulary Learning

Well I knew that this was “back in fashion”, but here’s what the article says:

a) Research show that a surprising amount of word pairs can be learned within a relatively short time and not many repetitions are needed before the L2-L1 word pairs are remembered.
b) If a word list does not contain a lot of difficult words, lists of 100 or more words can be studied at one time.
c) Forgetting words mostly occurs immediately after initial encounter, and the rate of forgetting slows down afterwards. Students should start repeating newly learned words immediately after the first encounter. Spaced recall and repetition should follow afterwards at longer intervals.
d) Repeating words aloud helps retention far better than silent repetition.
e) Research shows convincingly that it is necessary and legitimate to employ various repetition strategies, like drills, at the initial stages of vocabulary learning.

4. Beware Mnemonics

Learners of a foreign language should be explicitly warned that mnemonic devices are only meant to complement rather than replace other approaches to vocabulary learning. Too great a focus on learning vocabulary as discrete items leads to neglect of the skill aspect of vocabulary in natural discourse.


5. Organised learners learn faster

From guessing at the first encounter, to possible dictionary use and note taking, to rehearsal, encoding, and contextual activation, vocabulary learning in real life situations is a dynamic process involving metacognitive choices and cognitive implementation of a whole spectrum of strategies. These strategies influence the outcome of learning far more than any task specification. In one study Yongqi Gu cites, two approaches to vocabulary learning were identified. One group approached vocabulary learning in a structured way, setting criteria for the selection of words, engaging in self-initiated learning activities, keeping a systematic note of vocabulary items being learned, and regularly reviewing their records. The other group, by contrast, did little independent learning, kept minimal records of new words being learned, and relied heavily on classroom instruction. The first group learned a lot more, leading to the conclusion that good learners (those who initiate their own learning, selectively attend to words of their own choice, studiously try to remember these words, and seek opportunities to use them) learn faster.

6. Research is needed on learning lexical chunks

While existing research on vocabulary learning strategies suggests that good learners pay more attention to collocations, the field needs a clearer focus on how exactly learners learn multiword units and how these strategies are related to learning outcomes. Fifteen years ago, Scmitt and Carter noted “there is little empirical evidence one way or the other as to the actual effectiveness of Lewis’ lexical approach …. In light of the essential nature of lexical chunks, we need to come to a better understanding of their behavior and to develop innovative ways of incorporating lexical phrase instruction into the language syllabus”. As far as I know, if we lead aside frequency studies, taxonomies, and other essentially descriptive results of computer-based examinations of big corpora, the only contribution to our understanding of the behaviour of lexical phrases is Hoey’s Lexical Priming theory (which I have seen no convincing defence of) and there have been no serious suggestions about how to incorporate lexical phrase instruction into the language syllabus in the last 10 years.

New books for your library

You do have a library, don’t you? I’ve lived in some pretty awful accommodation in my time, but now, cheating all the odds, I live in a very comfortable house which includes a library. When friends chopper in for an impromptu visit (these days many come to see what our dear friend Banksy’s done to brighten up the walls of our rather run-down stables), our butler Josep shows them to the library. As they sip the Gramona 2001 Celler Batlle Gran Reserva Cava, and marvel at the rare first editions which pack the shelves, they often ask Josep to lend them his white gloves so that they may reverently turn the pages of the finest book in our collection: a 1934 copy of J. Harmer’s towering classic “How to Write Your Name in English”. Apart from Dan Brown, I can think of no living author who has done more than Harmer to (cont. page 98).

So anyway, here’s my selection of recent good books which those doing an MA in TESOL, and hopefully other teachers too, might fancy.

Ur book

1. Ur, P. and Swan, M. (2014) Discussions and More: Oral Fluency Practice in the Classroom. Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers.

I start with this because if you’re doing an MA you hopefully want to keep real, and anyway, you’ll be expected to write about teaching practice. This book started out as Discussions That Work in 1981, and its most recent version has the wonderful Michael Swan as “consultant”. There’s a mass of stuff in here. It’s well-organised, the activities are clearly-described and easy to bend to your students’ needs. Which is just as well, because you probably won’t like a lot of them exactly as they are. To use a cookbook analogy, you might choose to use fewer ingredients and to decide for yourself when it’s done rather than cook for exactly 40 minutes. Maybe you’ll hate it; I’m losing my nerve now. Well I think it’s OK. It’s very practical and I think it manages to preserve good principles. And, like all the books I include here, it’s a book to dip into.

2. Long, M. (2014) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley

Mike Long sent me a copy of this with the dedication “Endorsed by good cab-drivers everywhere. Test on Monday”. He’s a big fan of Catalan culture, particularly the anarchist tradition, Barcelona FC, and Priorat wines. But he’s also one of the best, most meticulous scholars in the field and he refuses to dumb down, so this isn’t a light read. The book integrates SLA theory and research findings with a systematic framework for Task-Based Language Teaching, and includes a splendid chapter on “Philosophical Underpinnings” which his publishers only reluctantly agreed to. I’ve talked about this book in recent posts and hope to do a post soon presenting an example of a task-based syllabus based on it. I was interested to read Scott Thornbury’s recent comment about Long’s version of TBLT, which was that one’s entitled to ask why if it’s so good it hasn’t really made much impression on ELT practice. He suggests that part of the reason might be that Long’s version is very demanding, and I think he’s right: the needs analysis, the development of tasks from the needs analysis, the use of texts which are carefully prescribed, the careful use of recasts and other types of negative feedback which avoid any “focus on forms”, and so on, make it look rather daunting to the average teacher or school. Anyway, it’s bound to become a required reference for any MA paper on syllabus design, so take a look.

3. Robinson, P. (2014) The Routledge Encyclopedia of Second Language Acquisition.

I’m biased about this book, because it includes an entry on Theoretical Constructs by yours truly. But, that apart, it’s a really well-organised and very accessible reference work which covers the field very thoroughly and has contributions from all the best people. Woops. Need I say that reference works are best used when the need arises, and, if you’re interested in SLA, which you really should be, then I think that you’ll quite often feel the need to reach for this book.


4. Tokowicz, N. (2014) Lexical Processing and Second Language Acquisition Routeledge

This isn’t a great book, but it’s honest, and does quite a good job of reviewing the research on second language lexical processing. Tokowicz hardly nails it, but at least the book shows an appreciation of complex factors which those who promote a lexical approach to ELT seem reluctant to address.

Which reminds me that Dellar and Walkley have just launched the Lexical Lab The first post begins by telling us that the word “blonde” appears less frequently than the word “arise” in the BNC. This is followed by assertions about “availability bias” and “priming”, and a small selection of fixed phrases which include “arise”. What you’re supposed to do with this list I’m not sure. But more seriously, there’s a part of the website which deals with the principles which Dellar and Walkley say inform their lexical approach. I was very pleased to see that they were responding to the request for some information about underlying principles, so I eagerly clicked on “Resources” and then “Core Principles”, only to read one of the worst attempts I’ve ever seen to articulate principles informing a teaching methodology. Come on lads: get a grip! (Two useful little chunks there; so much more fun than If anything arises while you’re staying, just email me. I check pretty regularly. don’t you agree?

5. Cruttenden, A. (2014) Gimson’s Pronunciation of English. Routeledge.

This is a splendid rendition of Gimson. I’ve got a first edition of Gimson (not worth anything because it has Norman Coe’s name in it, and, more damningly, the name of the library he pinched it from), and I remember being totally flummoxed by it when I first read it. Cruttenden does a great job of making it more accessible, although it’s still damn hard work. This is SUCH a hard area for your normal teacher to get into, don’t you think? I find Rogerson-Revell’s book the most accessible, but you really should have this book as a reference.

6. Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2014) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge Language Teaching Library

Still the best of the lot, after all these years. Well-informed, carefully-considered, but sharp; it sparkles and shines, it invigorates as much as it informs, it makes you think and it makes you want to get up and do a class. Jack Richards is the theorist, and Theodore Rogers is the man with the plan. One of the best days I ever spent at a conventon was with Rogers at the TESOL International convention in Vancover in 1992. I sat down with him at 11 in the morning in the lobby of the convention centre where we could see sea planes landing on the lake, and I got up, totally drunk, seven hours later. What tales he told! He’d seen it all and met them all, and drunk them all under the table. Ah, those were the daze!

7. Long, M. and Doughty, C. (Eds.) (2011) Handbook of Language Teaching. Wiley.

I’ve saved the best till last. I know it’s not a new publication, but never mind. If you only have room for 5 books on your ELT bookshelf, this must be one of them. This is a superlative collection, not one dud contribution among the 39 chapters. Everything you ever wanted to know about ELT gets a good start here. Buy it, steal it, download it, read it.

What happens to the teacup after the storm?

More than 2,000 people have visited this blog in the last 2 weeks to read the post on Demand High, and a lot more than that have visited other blogs to read various reactions to it. The “little flurry of blog posts”, as Steve Brown calls it, has passed and so we move on. Was anything achieved by this flurry of posts, I wonder? Probably not, but, in the light of all the comments (over 80 on Steve’s “Don’t blame us ..” post alone) I’d like to make some closing remarks of my own.

I suggested that Demand High was one of many dud products crowding the multi-billion dollar ELT industry, where maximising profit is the main goal not only of publishers, but also of teaching establishments like the British Council and Cambridge University, and teachers’ organisations like TESOL and IATEFL. 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 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 should fight by

* refusing to use coursebooks,
* boycotting TESOL and IATEFL,
* refusing to attend training sessions run by people selling dud products and having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo,
* involving students in decisions affecting their course,
* producing their own materials with input from the students,
* organising themselves locally so as to share ideas, develop on-going training programmes, and fight for better pay and working conditions.

Grounds for pessimism

While I don’t think this list of suggestions is at all utopian, I think the first one is the most important and I recognise that the bosses of the four biggest ELT companies (Pearson, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Macmillan) are unlikely to be quaking in their boots. Unless something dramatic and unfoseen happens, teachers will continue to be sold training courses, teaching certificates and books on how to teach, much of it of very poor quality and subjected to almost no critical review. And most English language teaching will continue to consist of courses of 50 to 100 hours where students are led through units of a coursebook, spending much of the 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 biusiness that they make sense and 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 carefully-nutured 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 40 years, over 100 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.

Apart from attempting to impose a product-based syllabus on learners, the spoken or written texts found in coursebooks contain mostly impoverished input. As Long says “Controlling grammar, vocabulary and sentence length results in a limited source of target-language use upon which learners must rely in order to learn the code. The often tiny samples are worked and reworked in class, whether practiced until rote-memorized, milked meta-linguistically, or both, and learners are expected to learn the full language on the basis of access to such limited data”.

All of which is depressing enough to make one lose hope and consider what Connie refers to as “the pebbles in the pockets” solution, specially if there’s a fast-flowing river near your teachers room. But we can always, of course, look on the bright side.

Grounds for optimism

There are lots of teachers who take advantage of the “wriggle room” in their teaching situation and manage to do a first class job. Rose Bard’s blog testifies to what you can do even when your school is poor and your hands are somewhat tied. Whatever you’re told to do and whatever materials you have to use, Rose shows that you can put into practice a truly learner-centred methodology; all you need is buckets of optimistic enthusiasm and inspiration from the likes of Freire and Fanselow.

There are also some well-articulated, well-argued alternatives to the coursebook-driven product syllabus, such as various versions of the task-based syllabus, particularly that argued for by Mike Long, and the Dogme approach, as argued for by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings. These alternative approaches to ELT are based on principles and practical suggestions which, far from being unrealistic, utopiuan dreams, can guide you through tomorrow’s class wherever in the world you happen to be. I’ve recently discussed both TBLT and Dogme in this blog, and among the ideas which emerged are these:

* Get together locally to examine methodological principles and, using the Richards and Schmidt (2002) template, articulate your own answers.
* Let your teaching be driven by conversation, or base teaching on practical hands-on experience with real-world tasks.
* Place more emphasis on a discourse-level rather than sentence-level approach to language.
* Build the course you teach with your students. This means engaging students in the creation and discussion of content and giving prime place to the learner’s voice.

It’s important to stress that teachers aren’t faced with an all-or-nothing choice: ten thousand pin pricks can be as deadly as a bullet (or however the saying goes). Here’s my advice, then. Question the status quo. Evaluate the work of textbook writers and teacher trainers more critically. Collaborate more with colleagues. Most important of all, gradually change classroom practice in such a way that the learner’s voice is heard more, while the coursebook writer’s voice is heard less.

Demand High, Part 2: An Exchange with Steve Brown

Steve Brown commented on my post about Demand High and I’d like to develop our exchange here. I should make it clear that Steve doesn’t share my opinions of Demand High; I think his comments show this, but there’s the danger that he’ll be “guilty by association”. There was no collaboration between us whatsoever.


First Comment from Steve (abridged)

When I first heard about Demand High I was quite excited. I could recognise what Scrivener and Underhill were talking about .. in their criticisms of common classroom practice. I liked the phrase “going through the motions teaching” that Jim Scrivener used to describe lessons that demonstrated technical competence on the part of the teacher but didn’t involve much engagement with the learners and their learning. When he told us at IATEFL 2012 that communicative language teaching had got itself into a cul-de-sac of complacency I agreed with him. I thought that these guys shared my concerns that teachers focus too much on materials, activities and lesson plans, and not on learners and the actual processes of learning that they’re going through.

However, as you rightly point out, Scrivener and Underhill may be highlighting a problem but they don’t have a solution. If Demand High is simply about “tweaks” and “small adjustments” then this doesn’t cut it. We need far more radical change, as you suggest.

Your point about Scrivener and Underhill being part of the establishment is perhaps the most important one. They have benefited enormously from the ELT industry over the last 30 years or so. In fact, they are both influential enough to have shaped the industry to a considerable extent (how many CELTA centres prescribe Learning Teaching as required reading? How many classrooms have a copy of Underhill’s phonemic chart on the wall?), and this leaves them in an awkward position. If they were to call for wholesale changes in our approach to language teaching they’d effectively be contradicting a lot of what they have said in the past.

So yes, I agree with you that Demand High, as presented to us by Scrivener and Underhill, is a dud product in that it’s nothing more than a series of minor adjustments and repackaged ideas for people to try within the existing constructs of the average ELT lesson. It doesn’t go anything like far enough. Having said that though, I have a suspicion that Scrivener and Underhill would actually like it to go much further. I think they secretly realise that they’re part of a system that needs to be overthrown, but because they’re part of it they can’t be the ones to start the revolution. Maybe they’re too scared, maybe they feel they would lose credibility, maybe they simply don’t have a solution.

My Reply to Steve

Scrivener’s claim that communicative language teaching (CLT) has got itself into a cul-de-sac of complacency is both arrogant and self-serving. CLT is an umbrella term under which millions of teachers ply their trade, and Scrivener can’t know whether most teachers suffer from the condition which he so “perceptively” describes. If you read the dozens of blogs written by young EFL /ESL teachers, they can hardly be characterised as complacent. Scrivener’s claim is, in my opinion, best interpreted as the opening line to a sales pitch aimed at promoting loyalty to the Scrivener brand, which, as the market-savvy Scrivener realises, needs a new model. So the team who brought you “Spoon-feeding your Students to Success”, now proudly presents the new low-calorie (in fact no calories at all) Demand High. Having sold teachers materials, activities and lesson plans for the past 30 years, in 2012 Scrivener turns round and tells teachers that they’re using all this stuff complacently, and so what they need now is what he’s got for them: that very 21st century product: an attitude. And of course, this is not just any attitude, this is the Scrivener and Underhill attitude. The attitude has the cleverly-designed label “Demand High”, is glossily packaged in smarmy, aspirational doublespeak, and has as its secret ingredient the mysterious meme.

I don’t think Scrivener and Underhill are too scared to say what they really believe: I think they believe in the crap they’re selling.

2nd Comment from Steve

Maybe you’re right, Geoff. It’s certainly possible that Scrivener and Underhill (Scriverhill?) are genuinely unable to offer us any more than the blandness that is Demand High.

Your point about CLT is fair enough as well. It is an umbrella term that is used to include all sorts of practice, good and bad, and Scrivener doesn’t provide much in the way of evidence to back up his idea that CLT has become stagnant.

However, the fact that CLT is an umbrella term for pretty much everything that goes on in ELT is, in itself, a problem. A lot of “communicative” activities don’t really tie in with the original principles of communicative language teaching. I wrote a post a while ago arguing that CLT in its real sense has never really got off the ground ( https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/comunicative-breakdown/ ) and I think this has allowed it to be wrongly defined and misunderstood ever since. This woolliness then allows people like Scriverhill to present something equally woolly and all-encompassing.

Anyway, I agree it’s wrong to blame teachers for problems with our profession. We could perhaps blame the way they are trained though..?

My reply to Steve

An anecdote.

When I was in my fresher year at the LSE (1962), I was lucky enough to attend a talk given by Joan Robinson, the brilliant Cambridge economics professor who used parts of Marx’s work in her critique of Keynes. Despite its reputation for being left-wing, at that moment the LSE economics department was stuffed with aplogists for free market economics and led by Richard Lipsey who perfectly expressed the new liberalism.

The department was rightly nervous about Robinson’s talk and lined the front rows. So in sweeps Joan, in an evening dress that wouldn’t have been out of place at La Scala (and consequently would have been enough to provoke catcalls and boos from the young firebrands gathered in the Old Theatre had they not known of her work), and she starts to unpick the shoddy arguments of our man Lipsey. After a few minutes she asked the audience “What do they tell you here about Keynes?” Some brave undergraduate told her that we were told that while Keynes had rightly identified cyclical activity, his argument that the state should intervene to smooth out the booms and slumps was naïve and failed to take into account a number of complex factors. Prof. Robinson listened patiently to the list of complex factors, smiled, and said in her cut-glass accent:

“What’s so laughable is the sheer effort these chaps exert to make their ridiculous account sound plausible!”

The house came down! Hundreds of elated students jumped up from their seats and shouted approval, while the front rows yelled their protests.

Robinson’s remark has stayed with me. It asserts that the more implausible the argument, the more effort is required to promote it. Post-modernist arguments for relativism are a good example, Demand High is another. Demand High argues that a meme can affect progress in ELT. Since a meme is in itself nothing, Scrivener and Underhill are forced into increasingly ridiculous attempts to pump meaning into their dead construct.

My anecdote has another purpose, which is an aside. As an old-timer who has seen and sometimes been part of spirited debates, I note that there’s little spirited debate these days in the ELT world: robust criticism of the work of the ELT establishment is considered taboo. When I rant against the published pronouncements of members of this establishment (never, BTW suggesting that they’re not decent human beings), most people in the blogging world prefer to hide behind objections to its style and say nothing. “Don’t give this stuff oxygen” is the tactical response. So thanks for joining in, Steve.

To the issue, then. You say that CLT has often been “wrongly defined and misunderstood”, and that woolly thinking is the culprit. Well, yes and no. In my opinion CLT is none the worse for being wooly: the offence is to claim, as Scrivener often does, that you know the best (the highest?) way to do it. CLT was a reaction to a behaviouristic view of learning, and as such, I think it was a good development. Let me take you on a visit to the past.

CLT took off in the eighties, which was a tremendously inventive and invigorating time in ELT. Dissatisfaction with the accepted methodology, the “Direct Method” as it was known, spawned some whacky stuff, like Suggestopedia, Total Physical Response, The Silent Way and Curran’s Communative Language Learning, and all of us who were teaching under the behavioustic paradigm at that time were fascinated by these daring alternative approaches. We were challenged, we were restless, we were motivated to change. For those of us who lived through that time, Earl Stevick was a wonderful guide; his book “A Way and Ways” is still the best book I’ve ever read on ELT, and it had a profound influence on all of us lucky enough to have had access to the book and to him – he gave lots of fantastic workshops in ESADE Idiomas.

I remember the teachers room of ESADE Idiomas in the eighties as one of the most exciting places I’ve ever been in. It was buzzing with enthusiasm and energy. After a day’s teaching I went to the bar and drank mad amounts of beer with colleagues while feverish discussion of teaching raged. Somehow, through the boozy haze, I also spent hours reading books by people like Breen and Candlin and Widdowson, and planning the next day’s work.

We had a mad boss who insisted on experimentation and who, with his huge budget, brought us everybody who was pioneering new approaches. We had workshops by Zanon, a real zealot; by Caroline Graham (we bought her keyboard off her); by Faneslow; by Rinvolucri; by Stevick; by Candlin; by Riley; by Widdowson; and, yes indeed, by Underhill.

In different classrooms of ESADE Idiomas in 1985 you could find teachers using Streamline Departures to bang home the present perfect; teachers using Cuisinere Rods and pointing at weird phonetic charts; teachers asking their students to lie on the floor, close their eyes and listen to Cat Stevens singing Father & Son; teachers checking that everybody had read at least 5 of the 30 novels recommended; teachers doing drills; teachers using plastic skulls to show how to distinguish minimal pairs; teachers sitting outside the classroom so as not to influence the students’ discussion of how the course was going; teachers making surprise visits to other teacher’s classrooms; teachers pretending they were blind and asking students to help them put bits of a picture together; teachers asking students to talk about photos they’d brought in, and so on. Now wasn’t this CLT evolving, Steve?

As we went about our job, happily eclectic and flexible, the ELT market exploded and thus became of increasing interest to big business. The publishing giants pounced on a lucrative opportunity and “The Coursebook” soon pervaded ELT practice. I can’t remember the first one we used in ESADE Idiomas, but maybe it was Headway. In any case, by 1990 the coursebook ruled and everything changed. Like the new convenience food, the new coursebooks dulled the senses: they made life easy, but they weren’t nutritious. ESADE Idiomas became a dull place, went slowly downhill and closed in 2008.

So that’s the story. Except, of course, that it isn’t the whole story. ESADE Idiomas didn’t fail because of the almost compulsory requirement to use coursebooks. The vibrant life of the school, partly illustrated by different teachers using different materials and methods, depended on the interplay of a very delicate mix of factors, only one of which was the new role of the coursebook. Nevertheless, I think our lovely little world was seriously damaged by the arrival of these horrible books.


I’m an old armchair anarchist. I believe that we’d be better off without a central government and without a profit-driven economy. However daft you might find these beliefs, you might nevertheless agree that the current ELT establishment’s attempts to control the way we teach have a detrimental effect, and that we’d be better off organising things for ourselves. I suggest that we see Demand High as a botched attempt by these 2 establishment figures to develop a new product range in ELT (power training or some such bollocks) and that more, “better” versions will follow.

We owe it to ourselves to think for ourselves and to critically examine all the stuff that leading lights in our profession tell us. We should sniff out bullshit and explore for ourselves the values and practices so eclectically and chaotically expressed by the pioneers of CLT. As indications of what that might entail, I recommend Rose Bard’ Teaching Journal and Scott Thornbury’s various publications on Dogme.

Hello, Steve? Steve? I think he’s nodded off.

Demand High: Another Dud Product


Demand High is the work of Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill. My argument in regard to Demand High is this:

1. Two members of the ELT establishment have taken advantage of their position, their “leverage” as they say these days when talking of power and influence, to launch a half-baked product onto the ELT world and promote it by giving talks and workshops in as many places as will pay their vaunted fees and expenses.
2. The product is a dud and serves as an example of how dud products crowd the present ELT industry.
3. Teachers at the chalk face are handicapped in their work by being obliged to work with the dud products sold to their bosses.
4. Teachers should challenge the present ELT establishment by organising themselves into collectives.


1. Demand High gets its credibility from On High

The first step of the argument is very simple: Demand High has credibility because its promoters are stars: part of the ELT establishment. Personally, I find Scrivener’s oeuvre pedestrian, tedious and snobbish, while Underhill’s is very good indeed, but that’s not the point: the point is that Demand High didn’t get its exposure through the merit of its arguments but rather through its authors’ establishment status.


2. The Product is a Dud

Demand High is preposterous, arrogant, half-baked crap. It’s high-handed, condescending, bordering on offensive. It manages to encapsulate all that’s bad about current training programmes: the doublespeak, the appeal to raising the bar, making the most of oneself, asking difficult questions, demanding more, and all that and all that. The coyness, the laboured sincerity, the sort-for complicity; it’s carefully-crafted, yet unaware of its posturing, symptomatic of what Satre would call false consciousness. I invite you to look at their web page “What is Demand High” and then say what Demand High is. You won’t be able to, because there’s nothing of substance there.

Here are a few examples of Demand High rhetoric:

“Demand High asks Are our learners capable of more, much more?” What do you think the answer is?

“Have the tasks and techniques we use in class become rituals and ends in themselves?” You’re expected to say “Yes”. You’re expected to recognise the awful depths to which your teaching has sunk and to credit these seers with insight into classroom rituals and things you do which are “ends in themselves”.

“How can we stop “covering material” and start focusing on the potential for deep learning?” This is, of course, drivel, worthy of some bad advertising agency’s attempt to sell you a self-help book.

“What small tweaks and adjustments can we make to shift the whole focus of our teaching towards getting that engine of learning going?” Ah! Now here they can help! They can pull out their tired collection of classroom tricks, like the pronunciation practice stuff which Adrian first presented 25 years ago, a few classroom management tips, and so on. This, coupled with a deep commitment to the meme, should do it.

“We are proposing a demand that comes precisely at the point where the learner is capable of making their next steps forward – and helping them to meet that demand, rather than avoiding it”. How do we identify the point where the learner is capable of making their next steps forward? It sounds like these guys know something about how to tap into interlanguage development, but of course they don’t, or at least they don’t give any indication whatsoever that they do. It’s more hogwash.

“We want to explore:
• How can I push my students to upgrade their language and improve their skills more than they believed possible?
• How can I gain real learning value from classroom activities that have become tired or familiar?
• What teacher interventions make a real difference?
• How can I shift my preoccupation from “successful task “to “optimal learning”?
• How can we transform “undoable” or “low” demand into “doable demand”?
• What is the minimum tweak necessary at any point in any lesson to shift the activity sideways into the “challenge zone”?
• What attitude and action changes would lead to “Demand-High” teaching in my classroom?
• What is the demand on a teacher to become a “Demand High” teacher?”

To the question “But HOW can we explore all this, Oh Wise Ones?” answer comes there none. But just sign up for a series of very expensive workshops and we’ll work through it, OK? Because, in essence, Demand High is a meme. According to Wikipedia, a meme is “an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.” One might be forgiven for thinking that Demand High invites you into a cult where high priests help you get into the groove of Demand High teaching. But no; at least, not yet. All that Demand High offers so far are some very pedestrian ways of “upping your game” as a teacher. It’s spinned platitudes; it’s aspirational hype; it’s hopelessly unexamined educational values mixed up with unidentified teaching practice; it’s an appeal to “seriousness” where nothing serious is offered. It’s crap.

2.1 Demand High is a commercial product

Let’s be clear: Demand High is a sales pitch. It’s a commercially-constructed neologism (“Demand high what?” one would normally ask). Scrivener and Underhill are selling a product in a lucrative ELT market which turns over billions of dollars every year, and their customers are those who hire the teachers, the chalk-face workers, most of whom earn a pittance. These customers are managers in chains of ELT centres like the British Council, Wall Street, International House, etc.; or owners of language schools; or conference organisers like TESOL International , IATEFL, etc.. They pay for Scrivener and Underhill to put on workshops and presentations, and they also buy coursebooks and other materials written by them.

2.2 Demand High is one dud product among hundreds

Hugh Dellar’s successive attempts to promote the lexical approach are re-works of a dud product. Jeremy Harmer offers a variety of dud products. Most coursebooks that teachers are obliged to use are dud products, offensive in a variety of ways. For example, they misrepresent interlanguage development, gender differences, and cultures. The huge supply of supplementary materials that teachers use are similarly flawed. All this dross is measured by the over-riding criterion of profit, and considerations of educational value are bent to its demands.


3. Teachers at the chalk face are handicapped in their work by being obliged to work with dud products.

Teachers who attend a workshop given by the ever-so-caring-and-sincere Demand High advocates might be forgiven for feeling patronised and for trying to lynch them. Alas, they make no such attempts and, indeed, are often impressed by Underhill’s insistence that they demand high in attempts to help their students distinguish a shit from a sheet. The fact remains that most teachers are hampered rather than helped by the dud products that they’re forced to use in their jobs. The enormous interest shown by teachers in Dogme, and the almost hysterical reaction of publishers and their writers, highlights the conflict between good teaching and commercial interests.


4. Teachers should challenge the present ELT establishment by organising themselves into collectives

When capitalism delivers good wages for workers, including intellectual workers, workers tend to forget how badly they’re treated. In the ELT industry, teachers are suffering the consequences of an economic crisis for which they’re blameless and in Spain I know that lots of teachers are being paid less than the minimum wage. By coming together as a collective (avoiding official trade unions who disgrace their heritage and misrepresent their members) teachers have a better chance of getting not only better pay but also more control over how they teach and what materials they use. I know it’s easy to say and difficult to do, but the option is there. The Cooperative “Serveis Lingüístics de Barcelona”is just one example.I invite all teachers to use this blog to get a local cooperative going.


Demand High exemplifies what’s wrong with the ELT industry. I suggest that we tell Messrs Scrivener and Underhill to piss off; cancel our subscriptions to TESOL and IATEFL; boycott all sponsored talks in our workplaces; refuse to use the prescribed coursebooks; and adopt a Dogme approach to our teaching.

Note: I haven’t consulted the Dogme team about this post and they have no responsibility for its contents.

Principles and practice


As teachers, we often discuss how we do things – teach pronunciation, use lexical chunks, give feedback, do business simulations, run a chat room, prepare and select classroom materials, and so on – but we seldom discuss why we do them. Put another way: we rarely examine the methodological principles which underlie what we do. At present we teachers use an eclectic assortment of hit-and-miss methods which are based on unstated and often contradictory principles. In this post, I’d like to suggest that if we articulated the principles which underlie our teaching practices, we’d reveal the inadequacies of much of what we currently do. And if we were then given the chance to change our practice, we’d become better, more independent teachers.


Here’s a bit of evidence to support the claim that methodological principles are mostly ignored (on the grounds that the justification somehow speaks for itself).

* OneStopEnglish, MacMillan’s flagship website gives this summary of Communicative Language Teaching: “We’ve stepped back from the extremes of the totally communicative classroom, with its obsession about reducing teacher talking time to a minimum. …. A more balanced approach gives opportunities for structural input. …. Now there is an emphasis on more authentic contexts with example sentences being at least semi-authentic and potentially of communicative use”. Not a word is spent explaining why this “more balanced” approach recommends itself: “It’s obvious!”

* If you fancy the lexical approach, Hugh Dellar exhorts teachers around the world to “Keep it real”. “Teach what people really say in English, stick to typical contexts, focus on institutionalised sentences.” “Conversations must be given priority.” “Don’t teach single words.” Dellar tells us neither how nor why we should do as he suggests, but that’s because he thinks that once we shake off the tyranny of grammar-based PPP teaching, and realise that “language is grammaticalised lexis”, well the rest is obvious!

* Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener are so anxious to ensure that “Demand High” doesn’t get mistaken for just another method (it’s a meme, OK?), that it’s hard to pin down exactly what they think we should do as teachers; they seem in constant danger of disappearing into the mystic ether. But anyway, in one attempt to touch base, Underhill manages to give this more or less practical bit of advice: “The teacher can encourage the student to go back over what he is saying several times, integrating some new variable on each occasion .. until it sounds as if he has captured at least something of the spirit of the language”. How the teacher goes about such transformational encouragement we’re not told, and, once again, no explanation for why the teacher should bother trying is offered. Presumably Underhill thinks it’s obvious.

* The British Council website asks its readers “Did you know that you have to see a new word at least five times before you can usually use it and include it in your ‘active’ vocabulary?” This dubious piece of knowledge is followed by suggestions on how to make “a class word bag” to help learners learn new vocabulary. Yet again, the writer simply assumes that word bags are a good thing: “It’s obvious”.

But is it obvious? Should we assume that using example sentences which are at least semi-authentic, or never teaching single words, or helping students to capture the spirit of the language, or making word bags are examples of good ELT practice? The answer is, of course: No, we shouldn’t. We should ask ourselves why we do what we do and try to make explicit the principles which we teach by. Below are two examples of attempts to do this.


Methodological Principles of TBLT

In the elaboration of their task-based syllabus, Doughty and Long articulate ten Methodological Principles (MPs) which inform pedagogic procedures. While the principles are language teaching universals, the pedagogic procedures comprise the potentially infinite range of local options for realizing the principles at the classroom level. I’ve discussed these 10 MPs elsewhere, but let me just sketch a few of them here.

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. New knowledge is better integrated into long-term memory and more easily retrieved if tied to real-world events and activities.

MP4: Provide Rich Input. Linguistically simplified input is impoverished. Controlling grammar, vocabulary and sentence length results in a more limited source of target-language use. The impoverished samples are worked and reworked in class and learners are expected to learn the full language on the basis of access to extremely limited data. Adult foreign language learners require not just complex input, but rich input . This will usually mean task-specific and domain-specific target-language use not typically found in commercially published language teaching materials.

MP6: Focus on Form Comprehensible L2 input is necessary, but not sufficient: periodic attention to language as object is needed. This is best achieved not by a return to discrete-point grammar teaching, or focus on forms, where students work on isolated linguistic structures in a sequence predetermined and imposed externally by a textbook writer, in conflict with the learner’s internal syllabus. Rather, during an otherwise meaning-focused lesson, learners’ attention is briefly shifted to linguistic code features in context, to induce “noticing”.

MP7: Provide Negative Feedback. Recasts are proposed as an ideal (but not the only) form of negative feedback in TBLT because they don’t intrude on the processing of meaning during task accomplishment and they don’t depend upon metalinguistic discussion of a language problem. Recasts are pervasive in child-adult discourse and in L2 classroom discourse.

MP8: Respect Developmental Processes and “Learner Syllabuses” There is strong evidence for various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development. Acquisition sequences don’t reflect instructional sequences, and teachability is constrained by learnability . The idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, but wrong.

Equally well attested in the literature are the beneficial effects of instruction in such areas as accelerating passage through the sequences and extending the scope of application of grammatical rules and in generally improving accuracy, rate of learning, and level of ultimate attainment. The question, then, is how to harmonize instruction with the learner’s internal syllabus. TBLT does this by employing an analytic, not synthetic, syllabus, thereby avoiding futile attempts to impose an external linguistic syllabus on learners and, instead, providing input that is at least roughly tuned to learners’ current processing capacity.

Methodological Principles of Dogme

The second example is Thornbury (2013), who uses the Richards and Schmidt (2002) template to articulate the methodological principles of Dogme. Recall that the ELT version of Dogme was born from frustration at “materials-driven lessons” and from a belief that “teaching should centre on the local and relevant concerns of the people in the room”. Nothing should interfere with “the free flow of participant-driven input, output and feedback”. Here’s Scott’s summary:

“1.The nature of language: language is a resource for making meaning and is realised as discourse, either written or spoken, which is constructed from elements of varying degrees of conventionality (words, collocations, verb patterns etc);
2. The nature of second language learning: learning occurs when these elements are enlisted in discourse for the purposes of making meaning, and shaped and refined in response to implicit or explicit feedback and instruction;
3. Goals of teaching: to enable learners to become resourceful and self-directed language users, by providing the optimal conditions for discourse creation, and the linguistic means for doing this;
4. The type of syllabus to use: an emergent syllabus (of lexis, constructions, genres etc) that evolves as a (negotiated) response to the learners’ developing needs and abilities;
5. The role of teachers, learners and instructional materials: the teacher motivates and scaffolds interactions between learners, providing instruction at the point of need, using materials contributed or accessed principally by the learners themselves;
6. The activities, techniques and procedures to be used: these are not prescribed, but would need to be consistent with the above goals, contextually appropriate, and mutually agreed. They are likely to share features with the practices of task-based instruction or whole-language learning.”

So there they are: two rather different approaches to organising ELT. Both articulate basic principles of methodology, and in doing so, both take account of research findings in SLA. I personally think that they’re right to base their pedagogical procdures on methodological principles, and that they’re right to suggest that these principles call into question current ELT practice. The principles minimally outlined here suggest that we should reject our heavy reliance on coursebooks and commercially-produced ELT materials; reject any synthetic / product-based syllabus; reject grammar-based lessons; and reject the traditional roles of teachers, learners and materials.

What if?

What if we followed these suggestions? What if teachers in their own local communities got together to examine their methodological principles and, using the Richards and Schmidt (2002) template, articulated their own answers? What if they agreed that all product-based syllabuses offend the basic principle of respect for the learner’s own interlanguage development? What if they agreed that coursebooks act as straight-jackets; fail to provide the rich input their learners need; impose an eroneus view of grammar on teachers and learners; and are stuffed with cultural biases which reflect the need to sell in a global market where Western culture is assumed to be highly valued?

What if they agreed in Community X with Thornbury that “teaching should be driven by conversation”; or in Community Y with Doughty and Long that we should base teaching practice on practical hands-on experience with real-world tasks? What if they agreed to place more emphasis on a discourse-level rather than sentence-level approach to language? What if they adopted Dogme’s principles of interactivity (teachers and students must together build the course they participate in), of a pro-active approach to content (students must engage in the creation and discussion of content), of the construction of knowledge (learning is social and dialogic, knowledge is co-constructed ), and of learner-centred lessons where prime place is given to the learner’s voice? Or what if, instead, they decided to adopt a task-based approach based on the principles proposed by Doughty and Long?

If enough of us chose to substitute product-based syllabuses using coursebooks produced by major publishers for a process syllabus, based on either Dogme principles or the TBLT principles outlined anew by Long (2014), we’d revolutionise our profession. Alas, those who control the multi-billion dollar ELT industry make sure that such a choice is never offered to those who actually do the teaching.


Doughty, C. and Long, M. (2003) “Optimal Psycholinguistic Environments for Distance Foreign Language Learning” http://llt.msu.edu/vol7num3/doughty/default.html
Long, M. (2014) SLA and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley.
Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged. London: Delta.
Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (eds.) (2002). Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.) Harlow: Longman.
Thornbury, S. (2013) Dogme: hype, evolution or intelligent design? The Language Teacher 37.4.