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.

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Other offenders:

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


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

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


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

Thornbury and The Learning Body


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

Summary of the Talk

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

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

Embodied Mind

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

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

Embedded Mind

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

Extended Mind

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


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


Thornbury gives this summary:

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


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

Specific Points

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


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

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

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

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

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

A New Term Starts!


Here we go again – a new term is starting at universities offering Masters in TESOL or AL, so once again I’ve moved this post to the front.

Again, let’s run through the biggest problems students face: too much information; choosing appropriate topics; getting the hang of academic writing.

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.  So, here’s the first tip:

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. When you start each module, read the course material and don’t go out and buy a load of books. And here’s the second tip:

Don’t buy any books until you’ve decided on your topic, and don’t read in any depth until then either.

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 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. Which leads me to Tip No. 3:

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, and here comes Tip No. 4:

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.

The Negotiated Syllabus


I suggested in my last post that a real paradigm shift in ELT would involve throwing out the coursebook and standardised tests and replacing them with a process-driven approach which concentrates on the “how” more than the “what” of teaching. So far, so good. But I went further, and in fact, I went rather too far, and I now have to make amends. I suggested that the alternative paradigm was fundamentally defined by a process of negotiation between teacher and learners, and that’s not so. I didn’t actually spell out what this negotiation amounted to, and neither did I make it clear that there are some very good alternatives to the present coursebook-driven paradigm which don’t involve any such “fundamental” negotiation.

For example, Mike Long’s detailed proposal for task-based language teaching, while it’s certainly learner-centred, and while it rejects the “product” or “synthetic” or “Type A” syllabus and hence the use of coursebooks and standardised tests, doesn’t include negotiation with learners about what tasks will form the content of the course, since these are determined by an external needs analysis, and then converted by teaching experts into peadagogical tasks. Various forms of task-based syllabuses, including many designed for business, or academic, or nursing, or other special purposes, while they are neither synthetic nor coursebook-driven (relying on their own materials), do not actually fit the “negotiated syllabus” brief. Even Dogme expects the teacher to be responsible for most of the important decisions about course content and methodology. So I need to explain the negotiated syllabus here, before finally presenting my own suggestion for an alternative to the present coursebook-driven paradigm in ELT.

The negotiated syllabus is the most extreme alternative approach to ELT, the one which most radically challenges assumptions held by most teachers today, the one which really turns everything on its head. Not only does the negotiated syllabus throw out the coursebook, it throws out the traditional roles of teacher and learner too. What follows is a brief summary, which relies heavily on an article by Sofia Valavani from the Second Chance School of Alexandroupolis.


Second Chance Schools

Valavani explains.

Facilitating the fight against illiteracy of adults, the Adult Education General Secretariat implements programmes through which adults who have dropped out of schools have the opportunity to improve their academic and professional qualifications, so that they can get more easily integrated in the labour market or have a second chance for the continuation of their studies. This action addresses adults who were not able to complete their initial compulsory education and aims at offering them a second chance for the acquisition of a study certificate of the compulsory education.

Second Chance Schools is, therefore, a flexible and innovative programme, based on learners’ needs and interests, which aims at combatting the social exclusion of the individuals who lack the qualifications and skills necessary for them to meet the contemporary needs in social life and labour market.

Theoretical considerations

Valavani cites Freire’s view of adult education (Freire 2000: 32) that personal freedom and the development of individuals can only occur mutually with others: Every human being, no matter how ‘ignorant’ he or she may be, is capable of looking critically at the world in a ‘dialogical encounter’ with others. In this process, the old, paternalistic teacher-student relationship is overcome. She adopts Friere’s pedagogy and his “education for freedom”, and proposes a Second Chance Schools syllabus which provides “grounding for a learner-centred syllabus, reintroducing the SCS learners as the key participants in the learning process.”


Following Breen and Littlejohn (2000), teachers and students negotiate together so as to reach agreement in four areas:

  1. Why? The purposes of language learning.
  2. What? The content which learners will work on.
  3. How? The ways of working in the classroom.
  4. How well? Evaluating the efficiency & quality of the work and outcomes.

These four areas of decision-making are expressed in terms of questions. The questions are listed in a questionnaire (best format probably multiple-choice or Likert-scale) and the answers are negotiated by the teacher and the learners together-

The Negotiation Cycle

The negotiation cycle is illustrated below (Breen and Littlejohn (2000, 284)


The syllabus identifies different reference points for the negotiation cycle in terms of levels in a curriculum pyramid. The figure below (Breen and Littlejohn, 2000, 286), illustrates these levels on which the cycle may focus at appropriate times.


Decisions range from the immediate, moment-by-moment decisions made while learners are engaged in a task, to the more long-term planning of a language course (and in the Breen & Littlejohn model, through to the planning of the wider educational curriculum). Together, the negotiation cycle and the curriculum pyramid represent a negotiated syllabus as negotiation at specific levels of syllabus and curriculum planning. Breen’s figure (ibid: 287) illustrates this, with the negotiation cycle potentially being applied to a particular decision area at each of the different levels in the pyramid.



In order to implement this design, a number of tools are needed, among them, the 4 below.

  1. Tools for establishing purposes: Initial questionnaires to learners, learning contracts, planning templates.
  2. Tools for making decisions concerning contents: A learning plan developed jointly by a teacher and learners; learner-designed activities; a materials bank including a wide variety of tasks, texts, worksheets, grammar work, etc..
  3. Tools for making decisions about ways of working.
  4. Tools to evaluate outcomes: Daily/ Weekly/ Monthly retrospective accounts, reflection charts, assessment (can-do) cards, work diaries, reflective learning journals, peer interviews, portfolios, one-to one consultations, etc..


This very brief outline gives a good idea of the principles involved, but doesn’t give us a good picture of what actually happens in the implementation of such a negotiated syllabus. I think that what’s most important is to see it as an extension of the task-based syllabus: tasks are what drive it, but the tasks are decided on by teacher and learners together. The negotiation part looms large, like a bogey man, but in fact 90% of the course would be dedicated to carrying out the tasks.  What we need to explore more is how the negotiation affects the selection, sequencing and evaluation of the tasks.  So, for example, at the start of the course, the teacher, having explained what’s going to happen, works through the first questionnaire which aims to make a plan for the first phase of the course, maybe the first 6 to 10 hours. The questionnaire is obviously vital here, as is the teacher’s ability to help members of the new group to articulate their views and find consensus. Objectives may  be quite broad (improve ability to communicate with people) or more specific (give a presentation in a business meeting), but  they have to provide a good idea of priorities in terms of “can-dos”, the 4 skills, etc.. The content at this stage is also broadly specified, but again, a general feeling for areas of interest is teased out, and, similarly, preferred ways of working are voiced and discussed.  What would the questionnaire look like? How long would be spent on discussing it and arriving at a plan?  What happens next?

My own version of this entails the teacher doing the first phase without any negotiation about the tasks to be done, in order to help the learners see the range of possibilities and get a feel for more “micro” levels of negotiation. In the next post, I’ll try to tackle some practical issues, flesh out the tools listed above, and suggest a syllabus for a group of lower intermediate students enrolled in a course of General English.


All references can be found in Valavani’s article: Negotiated syllabus for Second Chance Schools: Theoretical considerations and the practicalities of its implementation

Are we on the brink of a paradigm shift in ELT?


Kuhn used the term “paradigm shift” to challenge the account given by philosophers of science such as Popper of how scientific theories evolved and progressed. Popper said that scientific progress was gradual and accumulative; Kuhn said it was sudden and revolutionary and involved paradigm shifts where one way of thinking was suddenly swept away and replaced by another. A paradigm shift involves a revolution, a transformation, a metamorphosis in the way we see something and it has profound practical implications. Change begins with a change in awareness and perception. Our perception is heavily influenced by our past and by social conditioning, and most of the time we go along with the paradigm view / normal science / the status quo / the theory taught at MIT / the prevalent narrative. But there are revolutionary moments in history when we prove ourselves to be capable of transforming and transcending the prevailing paradigms which so affect our lives, and I wonder if we are currently approaching a paradigm shift in ELT?


The present ELT paradigm has these characteristics:

  • Standard English is the subject taught.
  • Vocabulary and grammar are the subject matter of EFL / ESL.
  • SLA involves learning the grammar and lexicon of the language and practicing the 4 skills.
  • A product syllabus is used. This focuses on what is to be taught, and, to make the “what” manageable, chops language into discrete linguistic items which are presented and practiced separately and step by step in an accumulative way.
  • A coursebook is used. The coursebook is the most important element determining the course. It’s usually grammar-based and presents the chopped up bits of language progressively. Other material and activities aim at practicing the 4 skills.
  • The teacher implements the syllabus , using the coursebook. The teacher makes all day-to-day decisions affecting its implementation.
  • The students are not consulted about the syllabus and have only a small say in its implementation.
  • Assessment is in terms of achievement or mastery, using external tests and exams.


The rival view of ELT has very different characteristics:

  • Standard English is one variety of English; it is not the subject taught.
  • Texts (discourse) are the subject matter of EFL /ESL.
  • SLA involves the socially-mediated development of interlanguage.
  • A process syllabus is used. This focuses on how the language is to be learned. There’s no pre-selection or arrangement of items; objectives are determined by a process of negotiation between teacher and learners as a course evolves. The syllabus is thus internal to the learner, negotiated between learners and teacher as joint decision makers, and emphasises the process of learning rather than the subject matter.
  • No coursebook is used.
  • The teacher implements the evolving syllabus in consultation with the students.
  • The students participate in decision-making about course objectives, content, activities and assessment.
  • Assessment is in terms of low-stakes formative assessment whose purpose is “to act as a way of providing individual learners with feedback that helps them to improve in an ongoing cycle of teaching and learning” (Rea-Dickens, 2001).

If this rival view were to be widely-adopted in ELT it would certainly constitute a revolution, a complete paradigm shift. But will it happen? When one looks at the arguments for and against the 2 views of ELT sketched above, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the current paradigm is becoming less and less defensible, in the light of increasing knowledge of the the SLA process; poor results of classroom-based ELT courses; poor morale among teachers (apart from suffering from bad working conditions and pay, most teachers are denied the freedom to teach as they’d like to); and the increasing viability of alternatives.

Doesn’t the alternative seem so much more appealing? What’s better, that course content grows out of the experiences of the learners and is based on topics which reflect their reality, or that it derives from a coursebook made in London or New York? What’s better, that conversational dialogue is the essential component of the course, or that the teacher talks most of the time, gives presentations about English and leads the learners through prefabricated activities? What’s better, that the teacher follows orders and carries out a plan made by somebody in London or New York, or that the teacher is given permission to build the course as it goes along, involving learners in all the important decisions concerning objectives, content, activities and assessment? From both the learners’ and the teachers’ point of view, which approach is likely to lead to higher levels of interest, motivation, energy, engagement and satisfaction? Which approach is likely to lead to better results?

And don’t the replies to criticism of those who promote the current paradigm add further weight to the alternative argument? I’ve discussed elsewhere how some of the leading lights in ELT respond to criticisms of the current paradigm, and I think it’s fair to say that none of them has offered any proper defence of it. The gist of the argument is that alternatives are “unrealistic” and that ELT practice under the present paradigm is slowly but surely improving. As Harmer puts it, unafraid as always of using a handy cliché, “tests are getting better all the time”.


Another supporter of the present paradigm, Jim Scrivener, shows how little importance he gives to any real examination of alternatives. Scrivener simply assumes that teachers must run the show and that “Made in the UK (or USA)” coursebooks and test materials should determine course objectives and content. Rather than question these two fundamental assumptions, Scrivener takes them as given and thinks exclusively in terms of doing the same thing in a more carefully-considered way. In Scrivener’s scheme of things, everything in the ELT world stays the same, but the cobwebs of complacency are swept away and everybody demands high (whatever that means). So teachers are exhorted to up their game: to use coursebooks more cleverly, to check comprehension more comprehensively, to practice grammar more perspicaciously, to re-cycle vocabulary more robustly, and so on, but never to think outside the long-established framework of a teacher-led, coursebook-driven course of English instruction. Recently Scrivener commented that a good coursebook is “a brilliant exploitable all-bound-up-in-one-package resource.” No attempt is made to argue the place of coursebooks in ELT, but Scrivener does take the opportunity to caution on the need for teachers to be trained in how to use coursebooks. Some teachers find reading pages of coursebooks (in the sense of appreciating the links between different parts of the page and pages) “baffling” and so they need to be shown how to “swim” in the coursebook, how to take advantages of all that it has to offer. Apart from giving the impression that he thinks he’s very smart and that most teachers are very dumb, Scrivener gives more evidence of the limits of his vision: nowhere does he discuss training teachers how to do without a coursebook, for example. After all, why on earth would anybody want to do that?


In the same discussion of coursebooks on Steve Brown’s blog, Scott Thornbury eloquently summarized the case against them. I cut and pasted his summary on this blog, leading Hugh Dellar to tweet “Shocking disdain for the craft of writers & editors, as well as the vast majority of teachers from @thornburyscott.” This is typical of Dellar’s response to criticism of coursebooks in two respects. First it is badly-written, and second it takes offence rather than offering any evidence or arguments to the contrary. Dellar has made a number of comments on my criticisms of the dominant role of coursebooks in current ELT, but none of them offers any argument to refute the claim that coursebooks are based on false assumptions and that a process syllabus better respects research findings in SLA, and represents a better model of education. In all the recent discussions of teaching methodology, the use of coursebooks, the design and use of tests, teacher training, and so on, both in the big conferences and in blogs, nobody who defends the current paradigm of ELT has properly addressed the arguments above or the arguments for an alternative offered by Richard Breen, Chris Candlin, John Faneslow, Mike Long, Rose Bard, Graham Crookes, Scott Thornbury, Luke Meddings, and many others. These are met with a barrage of fallacious arguments and very little else.


While I believe that those who fight against the current paradigm have the more persuasive arguments, not to mention the more exciting agenda, I unfortunately don’t believe that we’re on the brink of a paradigm shift in ELT. The status quo is too strong and the business interests that support and sustain this status quo and its institutions are too powerful. The alternative view of ELT described here is essentially a left-wing view which is just too democratic to stand a chance in today’s world. I suppose the best that those of us who believe in an alternative can do is to argue our case and make our voice heard. Whether or not to compromise is another important issue. I was interested to see Luke Meddings propose a 50-50 deal recently: “OK”, he suggested, “just put the book and the tests away for 50% of the time!” I don’t feel comfortable with that, but he might well be on the right track.  So anyway, “Keep on truckin’!” as the great Robert Crumb (see graphic) advised.

Test Validity


Lado (1961) succinctly summarises validity in this way: “Does a test measure what it is supposed to measure? If it does, it is valid.” Six years earlier Cronbach and Meehl had introduced the ‘trinitarian’ view of validity which was dominant until the 1990s, and which Harmer used his three fingers in an unsuccessful attempt to remember in his 2015 TOBELTA Online Conference talk. Validity was seen as comprising content validity, criterion-related validity (the one which eluded Harmer), and construct validity. Messick (1989) challenged this view by drawing attention to the importance of HOW a test is used, thus shifting perspectives on validity from a property of a test to that of test score interpretation. If we follow Messick, we see validity as a judgement on the adequacy and appropriateness of inferences and actions based on test scores, and this leads to more attention being given to the social consequences of a test. Washback, ethics, administration procedures, the test environment, test-taker characteristics (emotional state, concentration, familiarity with the test task), and, perhaps most importantly, the sorting and gate-keeping roles of a test, are all aspects of validity. Furthermore, score interpretation involves questions of values, and thus the assumption that a test elicits the communicative ability of the test-taker, and then arrives at a “true”, objective assessment of that ability ignores the fact that all assessment is value-laden and ‘truth’ is a relative concept.

In light of all this, we must take a critical look at the use – and misuse – of tests. Large-scale tests are often used by the state or other authorities to ration limited resources and opportunities, and such tests are currently being used all over the world to achieve a wide range of political goals, including curbing immigration and promoting private education. Shohamy (2001) argues that “centralized systems” use externally imposed, standardized, one-shot, high-stakes tests to control educational systems by defining what kind of knowledge is prestigious. Fulcher goes further and suggests that we need to understand the political philosophies which lead to centralised or decentralised types of government, and their associated ways of using tests as policy tools. Since political philosophy is concerned with the balance between the state and the individual, Fulcher argues that “depending on where a political philosophy stands on the cline between the two, we can identify the kind of government likely to be favored, and the kind of society valued. It is my contention that it also explains (and predicts) the uses of tests that we are likely to find” (Fulcher, 2009, p. 5).


Fulcher defines “collectivist societies” as “those in which the identity, life, and value of the individual is determined by membership of the state and its institutions. Decisions are made to benefit the collective and its survival rather than its individual members.” In contrast, “modern individualism” starts from the claim that, as Locke put it, “men are by nature all free, equal, and independent”, that “no one can be subjected to the political power of another without his own consent”, and that there are limits upon the authority of the state, such that laws apply to all equally, that they protect the rights of individuals and that laws can only be made by the legislative who must be democratically elected. I’m not entirely happy with Fulcher’s use of these 2 “isms”, but it’s clear that they don’t equate with left- and right-wing politics, and, anyway, they can certainly be used to examine test use.

Collectivism and Testing

Fulcher argues that in societies that tend towards collectivism, the centralization of both educational systems and testing is a priority. Modern collectives use testing to control the educational system, to select and allocate individuals to roles or tasks that benefit the collective, and to ensure uniformity and standardization. While we might think immediately of countries like North Korea or China in this regard, Fulcher argues that established democracies are not immune from “neocollectivism”: we need look no further than the UK.

Examples of centrally controlled standards-based education systems, with a high level of control over teacher training and school learning, are not hard to find (Brindley, 2008). The clearest example is that of the United Kingdom, which has systematically introduced standards-based testing in an accountability framework that ensures total state control over the national curriculum and national tests, as well as teacher training; even educational staff are rewarded or disciplined based on national league tables (Mansell, 2007).  (Fulcher, 2009., p.7).

Fulcher argues that that these hyperaccountability policies are pursued by the state in an attempt to improve performance in the global market place; “the educational system is reengineered to deliver the kinds of people who will serve the perceived needs of the economy” (Fulcher, 2009, p.7).

Fulcher goes on to give the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) as an example of neocollectivism at the supranational level, claiming that the system is used to control language learning so as to deal with its weakened position in global markets. Fulcher claims that the CEFR is being used “as a tool for designing curricula, reporting both standards and outcomes on its scales, and for the recognition of language qualifications through linking test scores to levels on the CEFR scales.” He goes on

We now see stronger evidence for more intrusive collectivist policy emerging in calls for claims of linkage to the CEFR to be approved by a central body (Alderson, 2007), and the removal of the principle of subsidiarity from language education in Europe (Bonnet, 2007). If realized, these changes would lead to unaccountable centralized control of education and qualification recognition across the continent. (Fulcher, 2009, p.8).


Individualism and Testing

Enlightenment individualism claims “the right of each person to be free from control or oppression from a state that acquires too much power and begins to control the lives of citizens” (Fulcher, 2009, p. 9). Fulcher is quick to point out that “this is not a right-wing position” and that “attempts to summarily dismiss individualistic critiques of test use as right-wing reactionism by labeling them “Eurosceptic” (Alderson, 2007, p. 660) …fail to engage with the social consequences of test use and misuse” (p.10).

In societies that lean towards Fulcher’s individualistic political philosophy, the state has little say in what is taught, or how it’s taught, and the role of tests is to promote personal growth, or to provide individuals with new learning opportunities. Fulcher gives these examples of the uses of tests which are in keeping with individualism:

  • The original Binet tests, designed for the sole purpose of identifying children in need of additional help.
  • Diagnostic and classroom testing, loosely defined as “low-stakes formative assessment”. “Its purpose is to act as a way of providing individual learners with feedback that helps them to improve in an ongoing cycle of teaching and learning (Rea-Dickens, 2001). In such a context Dewey’s notion of personal growth as a validity criterion is echoed by current researchers, such as Moss (2003)” (Fulcher, 2009, p.11).
  • Dynamic assessment. “In DA [dynamic assessment], assessment and instruction are a single activity that seeks to simultaneously diagnose and promote learner development by offering learners mediation, a qualitatively different form of support from feedback” (Lantolf & Poehner, 2008a, p. 273).

According to Fulcher, the general characteristics of this “individualistic paradigm” are:

  • Classroom assessment is used to help individuals to develop their own potential.
  • Large-scale, high-stake tests are used to ensure that individuals acquire the key knowledge and skills they need to innovate in their own lives and participate in democratic societies.
  • Large-scale, high-stake tests can also provide access to employment through the assessment of critical skills where practicing without those skills would be detrimental to others.
  • Validity is assessed in terms of the success in helping individuals to achieve their goals and develop necessary skills.
  • External systems are never imposed upon teachers.
  • Teachers are involved in defining the knowledge and skills to be taught and assessed, or design their own assessments as part of the learning process.
  • One of the criteria for success is the empowerment of professional educators to make their own judgments and decisions in their own contexts of work.


Large-scale Testing versus Classroom Assessment

In my post about Harmer’s talks on testing, I said that classroom teaching should be 100% test-free, but that there was, surely, some place for testing.  When I said that, I had in mind Fulcher’s  distinction between the “collectivist” uses of standardized large-scale tests, and the “individualist” classroom assessment. I think there is a place for standardised large-scale tests inside the restraints of Fulcher’s individualistic paradigm, when they’re used as an index of proficiency and are intended to give test takers the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery in a range of skills and abilities so as to gain access to further education, jobs and other opportunities. Likewise, from the same perspective, I think classroom assessment is fine when it is used to make decisions about learning and teaching which result in further language proficiency.  Standardised large-scale tests should not be used by the state or other authorities to carry out political objectives, and should not influence normal language classroom practice, although, in my opinion, there’s a legitimate place for well-defined exam preparation courses.

The fundamental difference I want to make between standardised tests and classroom assessment is the one Fulchar makes between the uses to which the two are put. As a result of these different uses, while standardized tests must be fair to all who take them, classroom assessment need not concern itself with fairness, but instead concentrate on further growth. While collaboration in a standardized test is labelled ‘cheating’, in the classroom it is valued and praised. In standardized tests the score users are concerned with how meaningful the score is beyond the specific context that generated that score. Thus, score reliability (dependent on consistency of measurement, discrimination between test takers, the length of the test, and the homogeneity of what is tested) is of prime importance. But in a learning environment like the language classroom, we value divergent and conflicting opinion, and we often encourage it by dialogue and debate. “The only meaning we could ascribe to ‘reliability’ would be the extent to which the decisions we make for future growth are more appropriate than inappropriate” (Fulcher and Davidson, 2007, p.7).



In the 2015 TOBELTA Online Conference Luke Meddings reiterated his call to give tests a rest, supporting his argument with a few not particularly well-articulated, but nevertheless powerful objections to the over-dominant role that tests play in so many ELT environments. Jeremy Harmer’s response to Meddings was so poor that it provoked me to write a review of it, which in turn provoked Scott Thornbury to say that I should explain my own view. By attempting a brief summary of Fulcher’s views on those two issues, views which I completely agree with, I hope I’ve complied.

One question remains, and that’s the one Rose Bard raised concerning the Pearson Education company. In his IATEFL talk at Harrogate, Harmer said that tests were getting much better and he called the Pearson test of Academic English “bloody wonderful”, citing the “massive research” they’d done in support of this view. Rose begs to differ, and explains why in comments you can find under the now “stripped” post on Harmer. I think this deserves separate treatment, and I invite everybody to help me build a file on Pearson Education, prior to discussing their contribution to language testing and to ELT.


See Fulcher, G. (2009) Test Use and Political Philosophy. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 29, 3–20 for all references except:

Fulcher, G. and Davidson, F. (2007) Tests in Life and Learning: A deathly dialogue. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40, 3. 407-417.

Harmer on Testing (A PC Version of 2 Previous Posts)

I’ve revised the 2 posts on Harmer’s presentations, trying to avoid anything that can be seen as a personal attack.

In this post, I’d like to suggest that Jeremy Harmer’s public pronouncements on testing fail to say anything new or interesting and demonstrate a regrettable lack of knowledge of the matters discussed.


First Presentation

At the 2015 IATEFL conference, Harmer gave a talk which you can see by clicking its title here: An uncertain and approximate business? Why teachers should love testing. Harmer’s basic thesis is that teachers should love testing because it’s a necessary part of their job, but it’s an opinion that’s brashly asserted rather than a proposition that’s reasonably argued. Harmer begins by listing objections to testing:

  • Tests don’t measure creativity.
  • Chomsky says “testing is an anathema.”
  • Some people on Facebook don’t like testing.
  • Testing 4 year olds is weird.
  • Testing is only a snapshot.
  • Some people are good at testing, some aren’t.

Note that none of these points is developed and that no coherent argument is attempted.

Harmer then gives reasons why teachers should love testing:

  • He got a Grade 1 in playing the tuba because there was a test, and he performed badly in a concert because there wasn’t a test. Testing is thus a powerful motivator.
  • Neurosurgeons and pilots must be tested. So we need tests.
  • Tests tell us where students are. ”A test if it’s well done will tell you how well your students have done.”
  • Tests are getting better. “The Pearson test of academic English is bloody wonderful. I’m saying that because I believe it, not just because they pay me.” The designers claim that their speech-recognition software evaluates speech “as reliably and accurately as any human being can. And I have no reason to doubt that, because the research behind it is er.., er.., massive.”
  • Lots of tests are bad. If you want to change testing you can moan or do something; so learn about tests and do something. .

I suggest that this talk makes no worthwhile contribution to our understanding of language testing and that we should expect more than this from a presentation held at prime time in the biggest room in the entire conference centre, and streamed live on the conference website.


Second Presentation

Harmer’s second presentation was a videoconference given as part of of the 2015 TOBELTA Online Conference. This is something of a volte-face, since here Harmer asks “Should teachers love tests or hate them?” and begins by confiding that the question is so knotty that it drives him “to schizophrenia”. Harmer devotes the first 20 minutes of his talk to saying that while he agrees with Luke Meddings that testing is badly-affected by big business, and that the commodification of language is a bad thing, he still thinks that neurosurgeons and pilots should be properly assessed. Harmer spends the rest of the hour variously stating the view that teachers need to become “test literate” experts in the field of testing. At one point Harmer says that teachers need to know about concepts of validity, reliability, and test item types, and at another point he says that knowledge of the two “profound concepts” of content validity and construct validity is vital if teachers are to “get inside the test.” One other point that can be identified in the talk is that teachers and students should explore testing together. Students should be asked what questions they would include in a test, and students and teachers should “discuss together what it is they need to do and want to do with the full understanding of how a test works.”

Harmer concludes:

How do you stop a huge corporation dominating the testing world? How do you stop tests being designed that are absurd and ridiculous? And, guess what? I have no easy answer to that… but I know perfectly well that there’s no merit in, or virtue in complaining about this in private, and, by the way, I say this absolutely genuinely, the reason why listening to Luke and others is so important is that it was not a private event, it was a public event and the more of us who are public about what we think, the greater the opportunity is that, er, things might change.

I suggest that we should expect more than these empty words from an invited speaker at an international conference. The presentation is poorly-structured, seriously lacking in coherence and cohesion, and very low in substantial content. Watching the video, it becomes clear that Harmer doesn’t have a good grasp of even the basic vocabulary of testing, and that he’s unable to offer anything informative or well-considered to a discussion of the uses and abuses of language testing.

Jeremy Harmer

Harmer’s Website

Finally, Harmer’s website offers some thoughts on testing in the post Testophile or Testophobe? I leave it the viewer to decide on its merits.



To seriously address the question of the pros and cons of language testing, we have to look not just at how tests are designed, but at how they’re used, an area which Harmer hardly mentions. I would argue that classroom teaching should be 100% test-free, while the use of large-scale tests should be carefully restricted. As Fulcher (2009) says, large-scale testing is a social tool used to ration limited resources and opportunities, and it’s currently being used “to carry a larger social burden than it can reasonably bear.” It should not, for example, as Fulcher (2011) argues, be used to implement immigration policies, to evaluate teachers, or to rank order schools. A place remains for testing, of course, but, on the basis of his latest offerings, Harmer is unlikely to be of much help in deciding what that place might be.


The 2 references to Fulcher can be found on Glenn Fulcher’s excellent website here: http://languagetesting.info/gf/glennfulcher.php Scroll down 4 pages till you come to “Selected Papers”. I particularly recommend his 2009 article “Test use and political philosophy” which you can download from his website. At the end of the article, Fulcher proposes an “effect-driven test architecture” which he hopes can serve “as a method for testers to proscribe unintended uses of their tests.”