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.

Product or Process? Teachers or Learners?


In 1987 Breen attempted to persuade the ELT world to make a fundamental change in direction by changing from a product syllabus, which concentrates on what is to be learned, to a process syllabus, which concentrates on how the learning is to be done. He failed, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong, or that the change he argued for isn’t still needed today.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the product syllabus flies in the face of generally-accepted findings of SLA, but here I’d like to focus on the roles of teachers and learners. My inspiration comes from the latest posts on 2 very different blogs:

(1) Rose Bard’s Teaching Journal, which highlights work going on in some primary schools in Brazil.

(2) Demand High, which gives a link to Scrivener’s “Demand-High Teaching” article

Before I discuss these two posts let me outline the differences highlighted by Breen (and by White, 1988) between the two syllabus types.

In the Product Syllabus the teacher implements a syllabus which has been previously constructed by a syllabus designer who determines the objectives, and divides the content into what are considered to be manageable bits. The syllabus is thus external to the learner, determined by authority (the syllabus designer’s boss). The teacher’s job is to deliver the course, making all day-to-day decisions affecting its implementation. Assessment of success and failure is done in terms of achievement or mastery, using external tests and exams.

In the Process Syllabus the focus is on how the L2 is to be learned. It involves no artificial pre-selection or arrangement of items and allows objectives to be determined by a process of negotiation between teacher and learners after they meet, as a course evolves. The syllabus is thus internal to the learner, negotiated between learners and teacher as joint decision makers, emphasizes the process of learning rather than the subject matter, and assesses accomplishment in relationship to learner’s criteria of success.

To summarise:

Product Process

The process syllabus recommends itself to all teachers who take a liberal, learner-centred approach to education, and who believe that education is about empowering students by helping them to develop both individual and collective solutions to their problems. The process approach helps people to realise that they have agency, and the power to change and control their lives. In ELT, a process syllabus has a far greater chance than a product syllabus of addressing learners’ needs and of providing the kind of communicative classroom environment most likely to foster fast development of the learners’ interlanguages. Furthermore, teachers implementing a process syllabus are, in my opinion, likely to find their jobs more rewarding than those implementing a product syllabus.



Rose Bard’s post has a video giving an account of the work being done by over 400 teachers working in some of the poorest areas of Brazil.  Here, the learners are centre-stage; and dialogic education is the prime concern. This is what Rose has to say:

By talking and listening, and listening and talking, we go through the process of communicating that implies a certain need to comprehend and know the other person at the same time that you try to make yourself understood while both investigate reality, in other words, you can’t really understand what is going on without engaging in dialogue. ………………………………

Sitting as equals does not mean that we lose our roles in the process or who we are, but that we respect each other; and that by listening and understanding one another we contribute to one another’s development.The goal of the English class is to achieve a level of communication for one to become independent …………………

The goal of the educator should never be to create dependence, but to lead the way, to show how to become independent. And learners who understand the value of autonomy will lead the way for others. Therefore, that is why I honor dialogue in my class. I want everyone to know they can contribute.

Paulo Freire’s work has a big influence on Rose. Friere’s emphasis on dialogue strikes a strong chord with those concerned with popular and informal education in Brazil and resonates with Dogme. Dialogical (or conversational) education emphasises cooperation and mutual respect. Education should not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. Bad teaching, Paulo Freire argues, involves ‘banking’ – the teacher making ‘deposits’ in the learner.

When I read Rose’s blog, I notice

  • the discourse: It’s informal; enquiring ; passionate; engaged; honest and sincere.
  •  the reach: It’s global. Rose talks to the world.
  • the content: It’s packed with practical, detailed teaching suggestions.
  •  the principles: every line of the blog is suffused with a commitment to learner-centred teaching, and to the struggle against poverty and oppression.



The product syllabus is foisted on teachers by coursebook writers, by CELTA , DELTA, and assorted teacher trainers and examiners, and by bosses. All these powerful stakeholders in ELT find that chopping English up into chunks (which are placed in successive units of successive levels of coursebooks) makes it easier to sell, and the business easier to manage. In this approach the boss controls the teacher and the teacher controls the students. The teacher organises everything and learners are given no real say in decisions affecting what is done to them.


Scrivener, J. (2014). Demand-high teaching. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 3(2), 47-58.

In his article (in the very undemanding EJAL), Scrivener urges teachers to awake from their complacent, self-satisfied slumber, demand high, and bring “quality and depth of learning” back into the ELT classroom. You might think that such an ambitious project would involve re-thinking the basic principles of ELT, or at least re-visiting the arguments for product and process syllabuses. But not a bit of it: Scrivener sees no need to look further than the model already presented in his own books 20 years ago. He simply assumes, as if it were a self-evident truth, that teaching can only take place inside the confines of a synthetic, teacher-led syllabus. Anything else is unthinkable and literally unmentionable.

Here’s Scrivener at the start of the article, explaining what teaching is for him:

What I mainly worry about is how tasks and activities will work, how I can run them, how I can give good and clear instructions for them.

I have done what I was trained to do. I have set the task, run it, monitored it, closed it, run feedback on it, and then moved on to the next thing….

But something was missing. Everything had become too automated, too easy, and after years of nagging worry, Scrivener’s epiphany finally arrived when he and Underhill realised that

…teachers who had become very competent at operating ELT tasks and activities…… were not pushing students, not challenging them to tangibly improve. ….. We started asking questions such as: “Are all my learners capable of more?”

Are all his learners capable of more? Well of course they are – but only if he himself is capable of taking off his self-imposed blinkers and ditching his preconceived notions of how ELT should be organised. If he were to drop his assumption that teachers must run the whole damn show; if he considered using something other than a Made in England coursebook with learners (whether they be “secondary school students in Hangzhou or preliminary year undergraduates in Tegucigalpa”); if he questioned the wisdom of teaching a pre-selected sequence of grammatical structures and lexis; if he stopped giving them Made in England tests and exams; if he just stopped telling them what to do all the time, invited them to plan and deliver the course with him, and allowed it to evolve unpredictably and dynamically, driven by real learner needs, well then maybe he would see just how much his learners are capable of. But, alas, that’s not going to happen, because none of it, absolutely none of it, is part of Scrivener’s stunted vision of ELT.

Scrivener’s aspirations for ELT  rest on teachers doing the same old thing, inside the same old confines of the same old product syllabus, but “demanding high”. Teachers will still do what they are trained to do. They will still set the task, they will still run it, monitor it, close it, run feedback on it, and then move on to the next bit of the coursebook. But now they’ll “tweak” it so as to do it better. And that’s it! That’s the cumulative result of all those years of tea-drinking, heart-searching, blue-sky thinking sessions with Underhill: tweak the teaching! Demand-high is about the teacher doing things a bit better inside a framework which remains totally unchallenged. In Scrivener’s ideal ELT world, learners are still done to; learners still take no part in planning or decision-making; coursebooks are still used in such a way that impoverished language is served up in unlearnable chunks; objectives and assessment are still externally decided in advance.

Everything’s the same, except that teachers will use the coursebook more carefully, check comprehension more comprehensively; do grammar practice more thoroughly, re-cycle vocabulary more systematically, give feedback more challengingly; and so on. The unexamined, unquestioned reliance on the tired and bested product syllabus, and the resultant lack of vision demonstrated in this article is so wilfully negligent as to be puzzling, until you appreciate that Scrivener (in his own words, “best known as author of a number of popular ELT methodology titles”) is part of the current ELT establishment, an august body of important people who between them are drowning communicative language teaching under what Thornbury describes as “a grammar-driven materials tsunami”.

When I read Scrivener’s article I notice

  • the discourse: It’s formal; pedantic; remote.
  • the reach: It’s parochial. Scrivener might think he talks to the world, but his writing has the stamp of a culturally-bound Englishman all over it.
  • the content: It’s tentative, confused; please-don’t-get-me-wrong; puffed-up, meta-methodology.
  • the principles: I refrain from guessing what Scrivener’s principles might be.

I should make it clear that Rose has no part in this, doesn’t know I’m writing it. Needless to say, Rose Bard herself may not agree one jot with my criticisms of Scrivener, and in any case would most certainly not express herself the way I do.

My aim here is to challenge the hold of the coursebook-driven product syllabus, which is championed by Scrivener, and to recommend a learner-centred approach to ELT, which is championed by Rose Bard.



Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in syllabus design. Language Teaching (20, 02, pp 81-92) It’s in 2 parts.

Scrivener, J. (2014)  Teaching Demand-High. European Journal of Applied Linguistics

White, R.V. (1988). The ELT Curriculum, Design, Innovation and Management.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Ms. Potts Part 2


In the previous post, I asked readers to vote on what they thought of Ms. Potts’ lesson on the present perfect . Here are the results:


Actually the results as of today are 43 to 36. What, I wonder, can we make of this? Not much, I’m afraid. There are so many limitations in the description of the lesson, and the “forced choice” of the vote is so stark, that it’s not a reliable indication of what the voters feel about explicit grammar teaching. Connie, for example, who does less explcit grammar teaching than any teacher I’ve ever met, felt that she had to vote for the first option. That a majority of voters decided in favour of Ms Potts adds nothing important to the data on an important issue, thanks to the poor “research framework”. So, while I think it was maybe entertaining, let me recognise that the whole bright idea was “dumb” as Shona called it, and try to tackle the problem of explicit grammar instruction again.



The Macro Level

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally recognised that reliable information about how people learn a second language should inform how we teach it. So, what do we know about the SLA process? Two caveats:

a) the “A” in SLA is not Krashen’s “Acquisition”; it’s not a construct, it’s synonomous with learning;

b) I’m considering only what we know about post critical-period SLA (after the age of 12).

So, the most important things we know are that:

1) irrespective of their L1, learners go through common developmental sequences when they acquire the linguistic structures of questions, relative clauses and negation in English.

2) Furthermore, the results of studies on interlanguage development give extremely strong support to the claim that these sequences are impervious to instruction.

Based on this reliable knowledge, the view that SLA is a process of interlanguage development, where the theoretical construct “interlanguage” is defined as a dynamic linguistic system developed by a learner of a second language who is approximating to the target language, and where the development is said to consist of sequences, or stages, that learners move through in a fixed order, is widely held by those who take a processing approach to SLA.

The upshot of all this is that attempts to impose an external linguistic syllabus on learners wrongly assume that the developmental sequences which learners move through can be over-ridden by teaching. They can’t, and this strikes me as reason enough to reject the grammar-based syllabus as an organising framework for classroom-based ELT.


The Micro Level

But that doesn’t mean that we should reject Ms Potts’ lesson. In order to judge the lesson we need to go beyond the macro level of stages of development and look at micro levels of how learners learn. Steve Brown in his latest post claims that “planning lessons which aim to teach individual language items, preselected by the teacher” contradicts the evidence from SLA research. Does that include Ms. Potts’ lesson, one wonders, or does the fact that Ms.Potts was responding to a request from students exclude it? We begin to see how tricky any judgement about explicit grammar teaching is, and I think that’s because we are coming up against the gordion knot of SLA: the roles of conscious and unconscious learning. Krashen (1985, for example) is clearer than most. He says that conscious learning has a very limited role to play in SLA. Schmidt, on the other hand says that “subliminal language learning is impossible”, and that noticing (a type of conscious awareness) is “the necessary and sufficient condition for converting input into intake” (Schmidt, 1990: 130). Obviously, they can’t both be right.



Quick Detour

McLaughlin (1987) argues that since we lack an adequate theory of mind that allows us to decide that particular mental states or operations are “conscious” or “unconscious,” we should make a distinction between controlled and automatic processing. Controlled processing requires attention, and our capacity for such work is limited; automatic processing does not require attention, and takes up little or no processing capacity. The L2 learner begins the process of acquisition of a particular aspect of the L2 by relying heavily on controlled processing; through practice the learner’s use of that aspect of the L2 becomes automatic. Since humans have a limited capacity for processing information, the more information that can be handled automatically, the more attentional resources are freed up for new information. In short, learning is regulated by controlled processes which lay down the stepping stones for automatic processing. The implication of this view is that if explicit grammar teaching has a place, it will be at the beginning of the acquisition process.



Rather than try to summarise all the various views on conscious / unconscious; explicit / implicit; intentional / incidental learning, let me just state baldly that the dominant view among scholars in the field of SLA is that most second language learning is unconscious. To quote Doughty (2005) “the default mode for SLA is implicit”. Implicit learning is learning without awareness of what is learned, and the end product is implicit knowledge, “knowledge learners have but do not know they have, which they deploy automatically” as Long (2014) puts it. So there we are then: explicit grammar teaching is a waste of time. Well, no, because there’s evidence that in post critical period SLA, implicit learning alone, even thousands of hours of it, rarely leads to more than a mid-intermediate level of proficiency. Can explicit attention to form solve this problem? Long, among others, thinks it can.

Mike Long’s View

Long’s diagnosis and remedy are quite specific. Long says that adult L2 learners are “partially disabled language learners” who use entrenched L1 processing habits for L2 processing. This means that they process the L2 through a filter tuned for the L1 with the result that some differences between the L1 and the L2 are perceived as unimportant, while others are completely missed. The solution is to “re-set” the implicit processing by explicit learning or teaching. By careful focus on form, explicit knowledge facilitates implicit knowledge by helping the learner to modify entrenched automatic L1 processing routines, so as to alter the way that subsequent L2 input is processed implicitly. Get it? Explicit teaching can only help an essentially implicit learning process, but it’s a very significant kind of help which improves both rate and final attainment. Amen to that.

The bits of the L2 that adult learners miss are what Long calls the “fragile features”, those with no, and low perceptual saliency: “infrequent, irregular, non-syllabic, string-internal, semantically empty, and communicatively redundant” features. These fragile features need bringing to the learner’s attention, and Long thinks the best way to do this is through “focus on form” not “focus on formS” (see MP6: Focus on Form in the TBLT post).


Tentative Conclusions

So at least we’ve found some grounds for thinking that some kind of explicit grammar teaching is required for adult learners who aim to go beyond an early plateau. Nina Spada has examined the role of “Form-Formed Instruction” (FFI) in lots of her work, and a Powerpoint presentation provides a handy summary. (BTW, the TESOL Academic website is a very good place for MA students to visit). Spada says that FFI is “any effort to draw learners’ attention to form within communicative and meaning-based contexts” (Spada, 1997). Note the bit about the context, but anyway, she says iIt can be explicit or implicit, and it can be direct instruction or corrective feedback. The question is, of course: “Is explicit better than implicit, and, in regard to the timing of form-focused instruction, is integrated or isolated better?” Well, before going further, let’s recognise that SLA researchers are trying to address questions which directly affect teaching practice. I recommend you read Spada’s presentation notes for yourself, but, very briefly, she concludes that FFI might be more appropriate for low levels, that it depends on the form, and that “as long as learners receive a combination of form and meaning-based practice, differences in the timing of attention to form may be less important”.

You see, these academics just can’t agree! Krashen says don’t teach grammar at all; McLaughlin says do it early (for each stage); Long says sneak it in; Spada says it all depends. Actually, there’s not THAT much difference. While Krashen has been rightly hauled over the coals for being too strident and for the awful constructs he uses to confect a circular theory of SLA, he’s basically right: SLA is a process involving predominantly implicit learning. Making the explicit teaching of grammar the driving force of any classroom-based syllabus gets the thumbs down from the vast majority of academics who have studied instructed SLA.

The picture that emerges is that we should concentrate on meaning, not form, and that grammar instruction is best done when the need arises. Don’t we all instinctlively feel that this is right? If we do, doesn’t Dogme recommend itself more than coursebook-driven teaching?


Krashen, S.D. (1985) The Input Hypothesis. NY Longmans.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second Language Learning. London: Edward Arnold

Long, M. (2014) SLA and TBLT. Wiley.

Schmidt, R. (1990) The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11,2, 129-158.

Ms. Potts Presents the Present Perfect


Here’s an hour and a half in the life of Ms. Potts the English teacher. The question is: Does she use the time well?

Just a bit of background information for you. Ms. Potts teaches in a private language school in Barcelona. Her students are adults, there are 12 of them, the level is upper intermediate; the 90-hour course started in January and finishes in June. Everybody has a copy of English File Upper Intermediate, but Ms. Potts says she uses it “judiciously” and that priority is given to oral communication, so most classroom time is built around a focal speaking activity. The week before, the class had done an exercise from the coursebook on the present perfect, found it confusing, and asked Ms. Potts to explain it from scratch. The presentation material would look a lot more attractive than it does here; the students and Ms. Potts get on very well; and Ms. Potts has a DELTA certificate and 3 years experience in ELT. Get the picture? OK, here we go.

With about 90 minutes left of her class, Ms. Potts says to her upper intermediate students: “Last week you asked me to give you a presentation of the form and main uses of the present perfect. So, here it is”. Ms. Potts then talks through the slides below which are projected onto a screen at the front of the class. As she talks through each one, she checks for questions, explains more when necessary, and elicits lots of additional examples as she goes along.

I’ve lived in London for ten years.
• He’s been teaching English here since 2012.
• Have you seen the film Blade Runner?
• She hasn’t finished the report yet.

This can be difficult for Spanish speakers because the form is similiar but most of the uses in English are different.

¿Has visto a Frank?  =  Have you seen Frank? :-) The Same!
¿Cuándo le has visto?  =  When did you see him? :-( Different!
Hace dos semanas que no le veo = I haven’t seen him for two weeks. :-( Different!

The big difference is that the English present perfect tense is used mostly to talk about the present and not the past.



Present tense of the verb to have and the past participle of the verb. Example: I have + finished; I’ve finished.

Regular verbs form the past participle by adding ed to the infinitive: open – opened; play – played; follow – followed

Some verbs have an irregular past participle: go – gone; see – seen; write – written. Example: Mary has gone.

Present perfect continuous: present perfect of the verb to have and the present participle of the verb.

Examples: We’ve been coming here for ages. Have you been waiting long? She hasn’t been working here long.




1. To talk about something that started in the past, and continues into the present:
I have worked for IBM for ten years. This means I work for IBM now.


I worked for IBM for ten years. This means that now I do not work for IBM; the action is finished.

The words for and since are frequently used with the present perfect:
She has had the same job since 1994.
• You haven’t phoned me for five months.

For is used with periods of time: for two hours; for ten days; for a long time
Since is used to refer to a point in time: since 10.30; since Tuesday; since 1987

2. With just to talk about an action that happened very recently:
Mr. Smith has just left.
• She has just bought a new car.

3. To talk about a past action when no time reference is given:
She’s been to France for the Fair.
• They’ve gone to the bank.
• I’ve read that book.

In this context the words ever and never are often used:
Have you ever been to Istanbul?
• I’ve never seen a blue banana.

Note that if we say when something happened in the past (ie: if we make a time reference ) we have to use the past tense:

A: Have you ever met Bill Gates?
B: No, but I saw him some time ago on TV .
( NOT:  I ‘ve seen him some time ago.)

A: I’ve sold my house.
B: Oh, really. When did you sell it?
( NOT:  When have you sold it?)


This takes Ms. Potts about half an hour. She then spends 10 minutes doing a variety of concept questions to check that they’ve got the basics and then, after a quick coffee break, she divides the class into 4 groups and gives out photocopies of this worksheet:



Part 1.
A: Have you ever been to a wedding?
B: Yes, I have.
A. Whose wedding was it? / Where was it? / Who did you go with? / Did you enjoy it? / What did you wear?
Ask each other these questions:
Have you ever
…. broken a bone?
…. seen a shark?
…. won a prize?
…. been to Paris?

Part 2
A: Are you married?
B: Yes I am.
A: How long have you been married?
B: Since 2009.

Ask each other questions about how long you’ve
….had your present car / watch / briefcase
….been working in your present job
….lived at your present address
….been studying English

Ms. Potts visits each group and joins in their discussions. For homework, she asks them to go to their class website where they can see the presentation slides she’s used, write any comments they might have about the lesson, and do the exercise below.…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….


A. Complete the following sentences using the verb indicated in the Present Perfect or the Simple Past tense.

1 I ……………………….. (send) you an e-mail message yesterday.
2 He ………………………… ( work) in Manchester from 2005 to 2010.
3 Phillip …………….. (live) in Rome since 1997.
4 The Mac …………….. (be) on the market for 30 years, and it’s still a great PC.
5 We …………………… (have) no calls from head office so far this morning.
6 I …………………. (know) Steve since he was 15; he hasn’t changed a bit.
7 He ………………. (go) to the Antiques Fair every year until it closed last year.
8 The banks ………………….. (do) nothing to rescue the company when it crashed in 2008.
9 I ………………….. (buy) the new PC World magazine faithfully since it started.
10 We ……………… (finish) this test! Now we can go home!

B. Translate these sentences into English:

1. Hace mucho tiempo que no veo a Mary.

2. ¿Dónde has estado? Llevo media hora esperandote.

3. Nunca he visto nada igual.

4. Llevan 20 años casados.

5. ¿Qué has dicho? ¿Qué son las 11 ya?



It’s easy to imagine what those holding extreme views of this lesson would say. At one end “There is simply no place for this kind of teaching today”, and at the other “The presentation, practice and eventual production of the present perfect is an essential part of any ELT course”. But let’s look at more reasonably opposed views; something like:

AGAINST:  Given what we know about the English language and about SLA, it’s time we moved on from this kind of lesson.

IN FAVOUR: Lessons like this have a legitimate place in ELT today.

So let’s start with the case against the lesson.



Those who think this lesson is not good current practice might begin by using the sort of arguments Hugh Dellar uses against grammar teaching in general and PPP in particular. Dellar refers to “the tyranny of PPP – grammar teaching”, and says that the presentation and practice of successive parts of English grammar, as takes place in a typical grammar-based syllabus, is “an outmoded and outdated way of thinking about grammar”. The new, better, modern way is, of course, the lexical way, which starts from the premise that “language is not lexicalised grammar, rather it’s grammaticalised lexis. First and foremost it’s lexis that carries more meaning and drives communication”. The profound shift in perspective afforded by this new view results in radical changes in teaching practice, where the old PPP methodology is firmly rejected.

Dellar recently drew his readers’ attention to what he called “a crucial fact”, which is that

“the ability to use grammar well generally seems to be less to do with an abstract understanding of generalized principles of usage and more to do with familiarity with the most common phrases and chunks within which particular items are used”.

Once again, Dellar’s inability to express himself succinctly is in evidence here, but surely it’s a fair point: rather than follow Ms. Pott’s example, we’d be better off teaching lexical chunks like “I haven’t seen you for ages”, “How long have you lived here?”, “She’s just left”, etc., drawing attention to their flexibility (“They haven’t been out since the accident”, “How long has he worked there?”, “We’ve just arrived”, etc.), and basing the lesson on an approach which gives proper recognition to the special qualities of English as a lexically-driven language and to the importance of formulaic language.

Then we might turn to a consideration of evidence from SLA research over the last 50 years. Does this not indicate beyond any reasonable doubt that the students will quite simply not learn what Ms. Potts is trying to teach them? A lot of very good evidence suggests that Ms. Potts’ students are developing their own idiosyncratic interlanguage and that this development is impervious to instruction. We don’t know exactly what the route of any individual’s interlanguage development is, but we know that all learners go through various stages in developing different areas of a very complex communicative competence of which grammatical competence is a part, and that teaching doesn’t affect this route. We know that the development of grammatical competence is not linear but probably U-shaped, and many think Widdowson is right to see communicative competence as

“a matter of knowing a stock of partially pre-assembled patterns, formulaic frameworks, and a kit of rules, so to speak, and being able to apply the rules to make whatever adjustments are necessary according to contextual demands. Communicative competence is a matter of adaption, and rules are not generative but regulative and subservient”.

If we take the results of research seriously, and if we are persuaded by Widdowson’s and other scholars’ view of communicative competence, then it follows that the only way we can respect the learners’ internal syllabus and their developmental sequence is by avoiding futile attempts like Ms Potts’ to impose an external linguistic syllabus on them. Both traditional grammar teaching and the product syllabus which implements it run counter to what we know about SLA. So, if we are to be rational, we should adopt a different teaching methodology and a different type of syllabus. For example, we could provide input which is roughly tuned to learners’ current processing capacity by negotiating with them during collaborative work on pedagogic tasks. Grammar points would be dealt with as they arose, not pre-determined, and most of the time they would be dealt with implicitly through various types of negative feedback, recasts, for example.

In brief, then, the type of presentation and practice Ms. Potts is attempting here is based on the false assumption that English as a foreign or second language should be taught in the same way as geography or biology, for example, where conscious knowledge of the subject is the primary goal. It fails to appreciate that learning English is not really a question of what you know about the language, but of what you can do with the language. Krashen went a bit too far when he claimed that conscious learning plays no important part in the SLA process, but it’s generally accepted these days that most language learning is done implicitly, by using the language, by communicating in the language, not by listening and reading to explanations about the language. You learn a language by using it, not by studying it; communicating in a foreign language is a skill, honed through practice,  like learning to drive or to swim, and it’s best done by engaging in activities which have a genuine communicative purpose, involve real, meaningful exchanges, and have a hands-on, problem-solving quality which arouses learners’ interest and holds their attention.

Scott Thornbury said recently

“I still believe that CLT was ‘betrayed’ in the mid-1980s by the revival of the grammar syllabus and the associated drift back to an accuracy-first methodology. …. . I also believe that it is possible to combine a fluency-first methodology with a focus on form, so long as that focus is primarily reactive, not pre-emptive.” 

This is surely the rub: focus on form is fine, but so long as it’s “reactive” not “pre-emptive” to use Scott’s words.  Since the 90s, with the emergence of the modern coursebook and all its paraphernalia, we’ve been dragged away from the principles of CLT, back to a grammar syllabus where too much time is spent talking about English instead of talking in English for some interesting purpose. Ms. Potts’ lesson is an example of this backward step. She imparts information which her students are expected to receive; she leads, they follow; she prompts, they respond; the language she uses is artificial, uncontextualised and impoverished, and the communication among students in the practice session serves no real communicative purpose. Never mind if Ms. Potts is really nice, and never mind if this is what the students expect: this kind of lesson is not an optimal use of classroom time and should be gently but firmly discouraged.



Those who think the lesson is OK could reply that however you choose to describe the subject matter of ELT, whatever kind of code you say it is, your description has no necessary implications for teaching. How many times do we have to point out, they may patiently ask, that you can’t get an “ought” from an “is”?  For example, just because it’s a fact that 3,000 words make up 70% of all utterances in English, doesn’t mean that we ought to make the 3,000 highest frequency words the main content of English courses. Even if lexis does drive communication, that doesn’t mean that presenting the forms and uses of the present perfect tense is wrong-headed. And just by the way, until Dellar tells us how to organise the lexical approach into something more compelling than exposure to an endless succession of handy phrases and “real English” texts, he’s unlikely to persuade many of us that his lexical approach offers a viable alternative to “the tyranny of grammar teaching”. To return to the main point, no description of English, whether it be grammatical or lexical or functional or any combination, says anything about how we should teach whatever it is we see as the content. Most would agree that since grammar explains rules for organising words into sentences, it deserves attention in the classroom. But it’s precisely how we teach it which causes disagreement. Whether and/or when we should lay out the grammar content in well-organised bits, or, alternatively, invite students to explore it and make sense of it for themselves with a bit of help and correction from us, are pedagogical questions not answered by giving a particular description of English. While everybody these days is likely to agree that grammar teaching should not dominate every classroom session, I suspect that there is far wider reluctance to join in the call to confine the presentation and practice of discrete grammar points to the dustbin of history.

As for the results of SLA research, however impressive their discoveries might be, researchers certainly haven’t discovered the best way to teach English as a foreign or second language. However appealing the term “interlanguage” might be to academics it remains a theoretical construct which has yet to form part of any satisfactory theory of SLA. Two things strike you when you look at SLA research: first, the lack of any agreement on the key questions it tries to answer, and second, the enormous distance between the discussions going on in academic journals and discussions going on in teachers’ rooms. Teaching English is a craft and its secrets have remained mostly unrevealed by academic research. Put another way, the results of SLA research are so inconclusive, and the domain of classroom teaching so far removed from it, that teachers should not feel bound to base classroom methodology on considerations of what we know about interlanguage development.

Many teachers will doubtless react approvingly to Ms. Potts’ lesson, and will feel convinced that it promotes real learning. Surely the students will learn something about the present perfect, and also something about how to use it (i.e. both declarative and procedural knowledge will be acquired), although we can’t say precisely who will learn what. Those in favour of Ms. Potts’ lesson will argue that this kind of presentation and practice often helps the penny drop. In this particular case, one can easily imagine that the students have been told about the present perfect lots of times before, one way or another; that they’ve seen it presented in various ways (boxes, charts, time lines, etc.); and that they’ve written various examples of it in various exercises or texts. Isn’t it entirely possible that the type of revision provided by Ms Potts here will provide just what’s needed to finally nudge this part of the puzzle into place?  And is it not equally possible that the lesson will help the learners “notice” salient parts of future input, too?  So there are plenty of ways in which this lesson could help the students learn faster than if they were exclusively engaged in “meaningful tasks”. Nothing’s certain, of course, but it’s not doing any harm and you can bet your life that most of the students will think it’s what they need.


A lot more could be said to attack and defend Ms Potts’ lesson. But the basic question of whether or not this kind of “PPP” lesson is still defensible is surely an important one. Here we are in 2015, with more evidence than ever that explicit grammar teaching doesn’t work, with more alternatives than ever being proposed – the lexical syllabus, Dogme, the task-based syllabus, the flipped classroom – and yet, ……

So what do you think? Please cast your vote in the poll below.


Starting an MA in TESOL


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

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

1. Too much Information.

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

Similarly, you have to learn what to read, and how to read. First, when you start each module, read the course material and don’t go out and buy a load of books. My advice is don’t buy anything until you’ve decided on your topic, and don’t read in any depth until then either. And keep in mind that you can download at least 50% of the material you need from library and other web sites, and that more and more books can now be bought in digital format.

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

2. Choosing an appropriate topic.

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

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

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

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

3. Academic Writing.

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

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


Making the Course Manageable

1. Essential steps in working through a module.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 8: Write the final version of the paper.

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

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

3. Using Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Demand High, Part 2

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: A 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.

4 Questions about TBLT


In response to my previous posts about TBLT, Russ Mayes asked some interesting questions, and I’ll try to answer them here.

Question 1
To start at the end, Russ says in regard to interlanguage:

If it’s not innate but also consistent regardless of the L1 or target language, what on earth could be the mechanism leading to this?

Good question! No really, it is a good question. Interlanguage as a theoretical construct refers to a systematic, natural language, so learners are constrained in the development of interlanguages by the same principles that constrain the development of any human language. Those researchers who argue that UG is fully accessed in SLA say these constraints are due to a human language faculty (what Chomsky calls the L.A.D). But others (and I place myself in this other camp) claim that general cognition principles which explain how we process and learn any other kind of information, can explain how L2 learners develop their interlanguages. The UG view of interlanguage development is powerful, because it has the backing of an excellent theory, but, since I ‘m not persuaded that UG applies to SLA, I have to reply to Russ’ question “What’s the mechanism?” by saying: general cognitive processing. “Thin soup”, I can hear Russ grumble, so, in a desperate attempt to thicken it a bit, we must go back to the story. What follows is mostly taken from Ortega (2009).


Let me summarise the 3 important features of interlanguages. First, input can’t explain it. Oshita (2000) quotes from an L2 English essay written by an L1 Spanish speaker: “It [a wall] was falled down in order to get a bigger greenhouse”. The regular past tense ending -ed has been added to an irregular intransitive verb. The learner didn’t pick this up from input.

Second, if we hear “How I do this?” from an L1 Spanish learner or an L1 Punjabi learner, whose languages do not have inversion, we may say that the L1 is inducing the choice. But, as Ortega says, “if we sampled learners from a wide enough range of L1 backgrounds, including languages where inversion does exist (e.g., Dutch and German), we would find that they, too, use un-inverted questions in their English interlanguage at an early stage of L2 development”. The evidence suggests that the L1 cannot be the correct explanation for lack of inversion, and it turns out that “How I do this?” results from what Ortega calls “a universally attested interlanguage solution to the problem of question formation in English”, namely fronting.

Third, many interlanguage solutions are also attested in the production of children acquiring their first language. “How”, Ortega asks, “can we explain interlanguage solutions that are neither directly attributable to the input nor to the L1, and that are shared by first and second language acquirers? The unavoidable conclusion is that these forms are interim systematic innovations that learners independently create when they are trying to figure out the workings of the new language system they are learning. …. Interlanguages develop due to the interaction of multiple forces including input, knowledge of the L1, and the interaction between the universal shape of languages and the conceptual apparatus of the human mind. These include syntactic, semantic-discoursal and statistical, as well as conceptual and sensorimotor, processing influences on the one hand, and communicative pressures and social incentives learners experience as they use the language to make meaning on the other”.

Interlanguage Sequences

In order to illustrate L2 sequences, Ortega examines findings for five interlanguage domains. These are:

1. Morpheme orders
2. Form-function mappings
3. Developmental stages of negation
4. Developmental stages of word order and questions
5. Hierarchical acquisition of relative clauses.

In all 5 domains evidence from a number of studies strongly indicates a sequence of learning which is unaffected by learner age, L1, acquisition context, or instructional approach.


Having spent some considerable time discussing research on L2 sequences, Ortega turns to a discussion of processes, which are “the manifestation of putative mechanisms by which learners develop (or fail to develop) their internal grammars”. She focuses on four processes: simplification; overgeneralization; restructuring and U-shaped behaviour; and fossilization.

Simplification reflects a strategy that is called upon when messages must be conveyed with little language. Simplification is seen during very early stages of L2 development and also later on, when complex syntax and some morphology emerge. So, for example, even though a full range of formal choices is available in the morphology of the target language, a base (invariant) form tends to be chosen by learners at first; and even though multiple form-meaning mappings exist in the target language, a one-meaning-one-form mapping is initially represented in the learner grammar.

Overgeneralization involves the application of a form or rule not only to contexts where it applies in the target language, but also to others where it does not apply. Ortega gives the case of systematic overgeneralization in morphology where an attempt is made to make irregular forms fit regular patterns, as seen in the example from Oshita, 2000, cited above.

Restructuring is the process of self-reorganization of grammar knowledge representations. During periods when restructuring of internal representations is happening, learners may seem to “backslide” and produce “errors” they did not seem to produce earlier, producing a pattern known as U-shaped behavior. Sharwood Smith and Kellerman (1989) define it as “the appearance of correct, or nativelike, forms at an early stage of development which then undergo a process of attrition, only to be re-established at a later stage” .

Simplification, overgeneralization, restructuring, and other fundamental processes help learners move along the sequences. But there is no guarantee that the outcomes of these processes will keep propelling all learners toward convergence with the target system. Despite apparently favourable conditions for learning, many L2 users may stop anywhere along a given sequence of development, perhaps permanently. The term fossilization was coined by Selinker (1972) to refer to such cases of “premature cessation of development in defiance of optimal learning conditions” (Han, 2004, cited in Ortega, 2009).

I’ve omitted all the examples Ortega gives of sequences and processes, and strongly advise all those interested in interlanguage development to read the chapter in its entirety. I should say here that IMHO, Long and Doughty’s 2009 Handbook of Language Teaching contains a superb collection of papers; it’s the best book in the field of applied linguistics published in the last 10 years.

Question 2
I know Russ well enough by now not to say anything rash like “So, there we have it”; I’ve simply outlined a picture which needs filling in and even then, it’s hardly a shining portrait of the obvious truth. But I think it’s enough to answer Russ’ questions, so let’s deal with the rest of them. Russ asks for clarification about the claim that instruction can’t affect the route of interlanguage development. Russ says:

the claim only applies to L2 grammar development, right? You could learn as many words, phrases etc as you wanted. Also, the scope of what is defined as ‘grammar’ is not things like ‘you should play tennis’, this would be classed as vocabulary.

The claim extends to the 5 domains listed above, which, of course includes morphology and the development of the accurate use of phrases and lexical chunks. But I should bring to light (because if I don’t, Russ will) studies that show that explicit instruction in a particular structure can produce measurable learning: Long mentions several, but points out that the studies involved devoting far more extensive periods of time to intensive practice of the targeted feature than is usually available and that “once the teaching focus shifts to new linguistic targets, learners revert to an earlier stage on the normal path of acquisition of the structure which they had supposedly mastered in isolation “ahead of schedule”” (Long, 2015, p. 22) .

Question 3
Another issue Russ brings up concerns learning relative clauses. Russ says:

The evidence shows that Arabic speakers and Chinese speakers get roughly equal scores on tests of relative clauses. But closer inspection shows that Chinese students used them far less. Chinese doesn’t have relative clauses and Arabic does, so it could be supposed that when Chinese students used them they were more careful.

Quite right, and this supposition was taken into account in the study. I think Russ’ general point is that in studies of SLA (or anything else for that matter) we have to be very careful in saying what the evidence we gather is evidence of. I’ve said elsewhere that evidence (data) should be in the service of some theory or hypothesis that attempts to explain a phenomenon, and that lots of raw data really doesn’t get us anywhere. Data offered in support of the theory of interlanguage development (a theory which is far from complete or free from controversy) needs to be very carefully scrutinised.

Question 4
A fourth question Russ asks is:

How do these developmental stages occur (a) if the ‘stage’ doesn’t actually exist in the target language; (b) when the L1 and L2 both have the target feature constructed in the same way. An example might be question formation in English versus Japanese. A Chinese student learning Japanese only has to learn that ‘ma’ is ‘ka’ in Japanese, but in English has to learn the entire convoluted ‘do support’ system (which only 2 other languages possess).

If the ‘stage’ doesn’t actually exist in the target language then it is skipped; but, as was briefly mentioned above, whether the L1 and L2 both have the target feature constructed in the same way or not, learners seem to go through the same stages in the development of “the entire convoluted ‘do support’ system”. The emergence of questions in L2 English has been traced by many, including Pienemann, Johnston, & Brindley (1988, cited in Ortega, 2009).

Stage 1: Words and fragments with rising intonation. E.g.: One astronaut outside the space ship? A ball or a shoe?

Stage 2: Canonical word order with rising intonation. E.g.: He have two house in the front? Two children ride a bicycle?

Stage 3: Fronting of a questioning element (wh-word, do something else). E.g.: Where the little children are? What the boy is throwing?

Stage 4: Inversion in two restricted contexts: (1) in wh-questions with copula, (2) in yes/no questions with auxiliaries other than do. E.g.: Where is the sun? Where is the space ship? The ball is it in the grass or in the sky?

Stage 5: Inversion expands to the full range of target like contexts . E.g.: How many astronauts do you have? What is the boy throwing?

Stage 6: Negative questions; Question tags; Questions in embedded clauses. E.g.: Doesn’t your wife speak English? You live here, don’t you? Can you tell me where the station is?

Just by the way, the pattern in L2 development shown here is one of gradual approximation to the target system, and learners “outgrow” each stage as they develop. This is not the only pattern as illustrated by the pattern uncovered by Meisel, Clahsen, and Pienemann (1981, cited in Ortega, 2009) for word order in L2 German. Unlike the emergence of questions (or the negation sequence which Ortega also describes), where the learners gradually outgrows each stage, the word order stages are cumulative. This means that each stage adds an important piece to the increasingly more complete repertoire of syntactic options, until the interlanguage system matches the full complexity of the repertoire available in the target grammar.


As a final twist, an unwary novice teacher might jump to the naïve conclusion that the sequences and processes of L2 development discovered by SLA research should form the basis for a syllabus aimed at classroom instruction. Well, no. First, most aspects of the grammar of any target language are not covered by the research. Second, we don’t know how even the different sequences we’ve uncovered relate to each other in the grammar of individual learners, so textbook writers and curriculum developers have little guidance as to how to sequence grammatical targets according to developmental learner readiness principles. Third, learning syntax and morphology is only part of the task; learning vocabulary, pragmatics, phonology, and so on is also involved, and although a lot is known about how these areas are learned by L2 users, it’s not obvious how all this knowledge can be used to design a syllabus. Most importantly, as I hope I’ve explained in previous posts, organising classroom teaching around grammar in a product or synthetic syllabus is less effective than options more attuned to what we know about psycholinguistic, cognitive, and socioeducational principles for good language teaching.

Ortega finishes her chapter on an upbeat note. “Nevertheless, knowledge about the sequences and processes of interlanguage development can inform good teaching by helping teachers (and their students) cultivate a different attitude toward “errors,” and more enlightened expectations for “progress.” It can help them recognize that many so-called errors are a healthy sign of learning, that timing is hugely important in language teaching, and that not all that can be logically taught can be learned if learners are not developmentally ready. Knowledge about sequences and processes can also help counter the deficit view that interlanguages are defective surrogates of the target language by making it clear that interlanguages are shaped by the same systematicity and variability that shape all other forms of human language.”

Long, M and Doughty, C. (2009) Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.
Ortega, L. (2009) Sequences and Processes in Language Learning. In Long and Doughty Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.