3 quick notes about TBLT

Before “unveiling” a version of a Task-based Syllabus, I want to deal with three matters raised concerning recent posts.

Acquisition Order

Russ Mayes sent me a note asking for a bit more information about the order of acquisition in SLA, which led me to include a section on it in the “Closer look at TBLT Part 1” post. Russ sent me a follow-up note asking how the term ‘grammar’ is being defined in the discussion of an acquisition order, and also commenting

“I can’t help feeling that this is all a bit narrowly constrained and the ideas extrapolated from it are too sweeping. For example, ‘acquired’, as you note, is not always clearly defined. And by ‘grammar’ we seem to be talking about for example, 3rd person ‘s’ or relative pronouns. To go from this to make the claim that ‘it’s pointless to teach grammar because students will only learn it when they’re ready’ and ‘down with the structural syllabus’ seems like a bit of a leap to me”.

How, then, is the term ‘grammar’ being defined? In studies of SLA, ‘grammar’ usually means descriptive grammar, i.e., the system and structure of a language, consisting of morphology, syntax, and phonology. I’d say that either Quirk et. al. (1985) or Huddleston (1984) can be taken as a good reference for ‘grammar’ used in this way. So we aren’t talking about prescriptive grammar (aimed at language learners and giving opinions about how the structure of a language should be used), or functional grammar (Halliday’s approach uses context as its guiding principle), or generative grammar (Chomsky’s UG being the most famous example). While some (Lydia White, for example) see the development of an interlanguage grammar as constrained by principles of UG, most SLA scholars don’t see interlanguage development as an “innate” process.

In any case, Russ reckons that the evidence for a putative acquisition order doesn’t warrant the conclusions drawn. I applaud Russ’ demand for evidence and, of course, I respect his verdict, which no doubt many will agree with. But let me say this:

1. While some studies in this area have adopted questionable operational definitions of “acquisition”, most studies can’t be dismissed on the grounds of poor methodological procedures.

2. The evidence consists of more than 3rd person ‘s’ and relative pronouns. As I tried to show in the post, evidence has been gathered over a 40 year period, covers morphology, syntax and pronunciation, and amounts, in the opinion of most, to persuasive support for the hypothesis that interlanguage development occurs in common stages with only minor differences due to learner age, L1, acquisition context, or instructional approach. I think the best summary of all this work is provided by Ortega (2009).

3. The suggestion isn’t that teaching grammar is “pointless”, just that some ways of teaching it are likely to be more successful than others. Just to be clear: evidence from SLA studies suggests that instruction can’t affect the route of L2 development in any fundamental way, but can have large positive effects on rate of development and on the level of ultimate attainment.

The Lexical Syllabus

A few people have written to me saying that they don’t think I’ve given the lexical syllabus a fair and balanced evaluation. I agree, I haven’t; but that’s because I haven’t attempted one. My posts on Michael Hoey, Michael Lewis and Hugh Dellar were devoted to a critique of their pedagogical “pronouncements”, and it’s their reluctance to explain how a lexical approach translates into a syllabus which has been the focus of much of my criticism. In my opinion it’s simply not good enough to say, as Hoey does, that “suitable input” is a sufficient condition for L2 learning. Furthermore, neither Lewis nor Dellar address what Thornbury calls the “selection-and-grading question”, i.e. they fail to make clear what this ‘suitable input’ is, and they fail to suggest how it should be organised. As I’ve already said, apart from saying “give them lots of real language”; “don’t teach single words”; “you must use conversation”; etc., Dellar should address the question of how he would organise a 100 hour course based on his understanding of a lexical approach.

Just by the way, I was interested to hear Scott say at one point during his enjoyable conversation with Mike Griffin at KOTEFL (see below for link) that he thought he’d gone a bit too far when he described Lewis’ Lexical Approach as “a journey without maps”. I hope Scott will explain this at some point.

The only lexical syllabus worth the name I know of is by Dave Willis, which was backed by Sinclair and others at Birmingham University involved in the Cobuild project. It sank like a stone! The syllabus highlighted the problems of using “real English” as the bedrock, and, perhaps most importantly (apart from the fact that it was generally regarded to be extremely boring), suffered from the problems inherent to a product / synthetic syllabus type.

Education for Liberation

While discussing syllabus types, I noted that designing a task-based syllabus leaves open the question of the role of learners, and that, while Breen and White argue for an approach where the learner is central to decision-making, Long and Crookes (and Doughty and Long) seem to favour a more teacher-directed approach. Empowering the learner, I suggested, can be seen as adopting an “education for liberation” view, and I cited Paulo Friere’s work as an example of such an approach. I was hoping that Rose Bard would comment on this, and I repeat my invitation to her to do so, but, meanwhile, I’ve had a few emails about the role of learners, and I want to correct the impression I’ve given that Long takes a politically Conservative view of education.

In his latest, excellent book “SLA and Task-Based Language Teaching”, Mike Long devotes a chapter to describing and explaining “nine core principles that constitute TBLT’s progressive philosophical underpinnings”. He begins by saying “Education of all kinds, not just TBLT, serves either to preserve or challenge the status quo, and so is a political act, whether teachers and learners realize it or not”. The principles go under the umbrella heading of L’education Integrale, a term coined by the French utopian socialist Fourier, and developed by Proudhon, Bakunin, Paul Robin and others. It is closely related to the core principle learning by doing, and both concepts owe much to the belief, argued by Kropotkin, that the separation of manual work and mental, or intellectual, work ia a major cause of the inhumane social stratification found in so many countries. The other principles Long discusses are individual freedom, rationality, emancipation, learner-centeredness, egalitarian teacher-student relationships, participatory democracy, mutual aid and cooperation.

My only point here is that Mike Long supports education for liberation. I can’t possibly do any kind of justice to Mike’s text in this blog post and I urge you all to read it for yourself.


Huddleston, R. (1984) Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Long, M. (2015) SLA and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.

Ortega, L. (2009) Sequences and processes in language learning. In Long and Doughty Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford: Blackwell.

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

Scott Thornbury’s review of Lewis’ The Lexical Approach can be found here: http://www.scottthornbury.com/articles.html

Watch Scott’s conversation with Mike Griffin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CpkAuJNbPY

Willis, D. The Lexical Syllabus is now out of print, but available here: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/edacs/departments/englishlanguage/research/resources/lexical-syllabus.aspx

4 thoughts on “3 quick notes about TBLT

  1. Excuse the superficial comments, please Geoff. This is great stuff and very helpful.
    I recently had a conversation about Long and TBLT and I didn’t know as much I thought I did. Your posts have been fantastic as a refresher/reminder but also in sharing new information and framing it in a usable way. Thanks very much.


  2. Hi Mike,
    Thanks very much for this. I’m glad you found the info. useful.
    BTW, did you notice your gif on the right in Posts I Like? It’s the most, well, the only, dynamic bit of the entire blog!


  3. Hi Geoff,

    thanks for continuing to write about this (or perhaps humoring me?). I think I’m getting closer to ‘getting it’ but I’m not quite there yet.

    You wrote: ‘Just to be clear: evidence from SLA studies suggests that instruction can’t affect the route of L2 development in any fundamental way,’

    This only applies to L2 grammar development though, 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 evidence is, as you say, very powerful. I’m not one to ignore research like this, I’m just not entirely sure what it’s evidence of. As you write in your book (I think?) Some of the evidence showed Arabic speakers and Chinese speakers did about the same on 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.

    Also, how do these developmental stages occur in the following circumstances:
    the ‘stage’ doesn’t actually exist in the target language
    the L1 and L2 both have the target feature constructed in the same way.

    An example might be question formation in English Vs in 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 posses).

    You also note that most researchers reject the notion that this is somehow innate, 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?

    BTW -i like this format for your blog. ‘Geoff Jordan’ answers your Applied linguistics questions’ I think it’d be a great one for MA students.


  4. Hi Russ,
    I’ve replied in some detail in a new post, but I think the only realistic way to settle this is for us to find a quiet spot near the summit of Everest and sit round a large table with Long, Doughty, Ortega, Skehan, Pienemann, Bygate, DeKeyser, Nick Ellis, Mitchell, White, Norris, Robinson, Schmidt, and Uncle Tom Whatshisname, till you run out of questions or the mountain slips into the sea. 🙂


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