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

Kuhn famously 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.

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

  1. Great post Geoff again,

    I’m in total agreement–the overwhelming evidence, from the worlds of SLA and from the everyday world of well-qualified, experienced teachers, is that the ‘ELT status quo’ stands on pretty shaky foundations. Hence the need to constantly repeat ad inifinitum soundbites (which aren’t arguments) such as ‘some teachers like using coursebooks’, ‘coursebooks are all different’, ‘coursebooks can be used in different ways’ etc. This reminds me of the pro-gun lobby in the US–it’s a ridiculous discourse but it’s backed by powerful interests, so all that’s needed is to keep pumping out the soundbites on-message.

    Personally, I don’t teach with coursebooks, I learn German from a teacher who doesn’t use coursebooks and I wouldn’t pay another teacher to teach me a foreign language from a coursebook–would you trust a mechanic who only mended a car ‘with a manual’?

    But the question then remains: what would it take for things to change? It would take more than a paradigm shift–it would mean institutional change within ELT, and a shift of power. Powerful interests would have to see that there would be a) gains to be made moving to the new paradigm, and b) costs to staying within the old paradigm.

    The follow-on question would be how to create the formative culture where this new paradigm can develop–which to a certain extent is already happening on blogs and social media. This is the formative culture through which things are changing right now.

    The first stage of change is to unfreeze the status quo–and the heat’s been rising on this for a while now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for this. As you say, the question is what would it take for things to change? Actually, I don’t think Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shift is the best way to see the development of ELT over the last 70 years or so. While the change from behaviourism to cognitive science was a paradigm shift, and one which had a profound influence on ELT, it was really the huge rise in the demand for English, leading to a correspondingly huge market for materials and the eventual emergence of the coursebook which explains why ELT is the way it is today. All the institutions, like Cambridge Examiners, TESOL, the British Institute, IATEFL, etc., are either directly or indirectly (through the state and local education authorities) backed by the big publishing companies like Cambridge and Pearson. And all teaching institutions now have “the bottom line”, balancing the books or making a profit as the guiding mission. Of course, there are ebbs and flows in the strength of opposition to the status quo – radical elements flourish for a while here and there (Frere in Brazil, for example), and In confident, open capitalist societies (like the US and the UK n their prime) alternatives are tolerated. But right now, I think we have to be realistic and accept that the tendency is for more, not less, central control and conformity, where the status quo strengthens its grip and where the usual suspects run around the world telling everybody how great it is to work inside the flexible and invigorating constraints of the coursebook.

      I agree that opposition to all this should aim to create a formative culture where a new paradigm can develop and that this, to a certain extent, is already happening on blogs and social media. It’s very encouraging that Dogme has made such an impact (we should congratulate Scott and Luke for achieving so much), that the establishment is being forced to make concessions, and that there’s a growing interest in task-based learning, dynamic assessment, critical pedagogy and other aspects of a liberal education. Onward thru the fog!


      1. I am not sure how to understand how “all the institutions, like Cambridge Examiners,…are…either directly or indirectly…(state and local edu. authorities) backed by the big publishing companies like Cambridge and Pearson.” I don’t know how the press, testing, and the university get along. But it seems to me that publishing is not such a money making opportunity anymore. I suspect it is the other way around. It has become the poor cousin. Publishing has been under pressure due to (a paradigm shift, I suppose) the IT revolution and publishers are frantically trying to redefine their business. If I am not mistaken, Pearson has stopped producing paper books and I would think that this partially explains their push into testing. I suspect that margins are nothing like what you would find in other industries. Friends in the industry suffer existential crisis. I have seen a lot of downsizing. In fact, thanks to CUP we still have titles on theory, special interest. Also, I am not sure if books are such a heavy item in an institution’s budget. Payroll, labs and infrastructure must be much heavier posts. Controlling interests originate in other corners. I have found myself in the position where I actually had to fight to keep books in the classroom. I am still at heart a Luddite, and books fall on this side of the line. I have kept all my foreign language textbooks. They prove to be nice conversation pieces. I wonder what the world will be like if publishers sink. What comes next, publishing 2.0? We’ll blog and tweet and comment on each other’s page.


      2. Hi Thom,

        What don’t you understand about the connections between the organisations which run ELT and big business? Do you challenge the claim that coursebooks are the most important element in current ELT and that this is reflected in CELTA, DELTA and other official accreditation courses and exams; in conferences, in workshops, in on-going teacher training etc.?

        That the publishing industry is going through a shake-up doesn’t mean they’ve lost their grip. ELT globally is still a multi-billion dollar business where coursebook writers at the top are millionaires*, where huge profits are made from standardised tests & exams, and where the leading lights in ELT, all earning 6-figure (dollar / euro) incomes, circle the globe promoting their own coursebook-driven approach to ELT, while the vast majority of teachers work for peanuts and have little say in decisions affecting how they teach.

        * A friend of mine asked a leading ELT coursebook writer recently “Is it true you’ve sold 2 million copies of your coursebooks in China?” “Actually, it’s 4 million” said the writer.


      3. Hi again,
        I tried to understand your comment. If you take it for what it says Cambridge publishing and Pearson would pay for Cambridge testing, the British Council, IATEFL, TESOL, etc. This is somewhat confusing to me. I argue that publishing is being redefined due to tech pressure and that it might not be a money making operation per se. I also think that the role of the coursebook is decreasing, and behold–selling tablets is at least as interesting. Depending on how you define the world of ELT, the coursebook is really not the main player. For example, where I live no public school can afford a commercially produced text. Few private schools do. Working adult students are accessing services offered over the web–textbooks are perceived as old fashioned.

        I agree that we suffer from a scaling up scheme where the top outshines the bottom 1000%. It’s the soccer evil all over. I am not familiar with Chinese education other than that I do not want it. Still, this is a phenomena of our liberal capitalist philosophy that has replaced any other options for the moment. I don’t think SLA will be strong enough to rock that boat.


    2. Hi there. Hmm. The analogies you use are rather interesting. How does SLA research show that language teaching is on shaky grounds? I would think that we are heads up compared to other disciplines. Thanks to the commercial interests in language teaching, English language teaching that is, Applied Linguistics has come into its own. We have come to see the messiness of language teaching/learning and there is an ever growing interest in SLA. It is a sign of the health of the discipline. Isn’t it? I asked my colleague in the math department, if there were any studies of math acquisition. He was a bit puzzled by the question and later sent me some papers about general learning theory. I am sure that there is specialized literature on the matter, but you need to look carefully. You are correct in pointing out that some of the answers in defense of coursebooks are no good. That’s why they should not be used as a straw-man in the debate. The reference to the Rifle Association is a bit too loaded, even when we discuss Headways, don’t you think so? About the mechanic and the manual. Do you think the analogy is correct? You must refer to the teacher’s edition when pointing out the manual aspect of textbooks. I often ignore the teacher’s edition and go with the student book. The teacher’s edition slows me down, and they are at risk of exceeding the weight one should carry. On paradigm shift. I think there is one under way in plain sight. The book, as format, is obsolete. As technology is has had its heyday and is soon out the door. I think there is greater worry in a world that can digitally track every move for good or for bad. And then I can volunteer another offer another dumb argument frequently cited in context that sees no danger in a gun as, they say, it is the use that makes it an ugly thing.


      1. Hi Thom,

        SLA research shows beyond any reasonable doubt that coursebooks are based on these 3 false assumptions:
        1.Declarative knowledge is converted to procedural knowledge by the presentation and practice of discrete items of grammar.
        2.SLA is a process of learning these discrete items one by one in an accumulative way.
        3.Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it.
        (BTW, substituting “lexical chunks” for “discrete items of grammar” does little to change this.)

        Using the coursebook in your own way rather than following the manual doesn’t make much difference unless you rip out all the pages and use them following some very different organising principle.

        If “the book as format, is obsolete” when do you think we’ll stop using coursebooks? Will we use the Headway Apps instead?


      2. Hi Geoff,

        I think I replied to this “I’m in total agreement–the overwhelming evidence, from the worlds of SLA and from the everyday world of well-qualified, experienced teachers, is that the ‘ELT status quo’ stands on pretty shaky foundations” (paulwalsh says:
        August 25, 2015 at 6:48 pm). What I try to say is that the language teaching profession is well served by a very productive SLA research tradition and that many practitioners in ELT are keenly aware of the fact that what we teach is not necessarily what students learn. I agree that in places we are still plagued with an understanding of learning that is linear and sequential, but I would guess that many teachers have by now a more sophisticated understanding of the learning process.

        Your points go back to your original comment on the disjuncture between the dynamic, non-linear, and complex nature of language learning (and one could argue–all learning) and the coursebook format / content.

        The raison d’être for course books must be a composite of many different factors.

        I do not think that SLA shows that coursebooks are based on any assumptions. If any assuming is done it’s entirely the writers’. I am pretty sure that most authors would agree with the understanding of language as chaotic system. I talked to some authors who threw in all tenses in one chapter in a beginner course with the assumption that students should get to see things early on–because it is not about mastering, but about exposing. I have heard others argue against PPP approaches to teaching and what alternatives to choose.

        To your points:

        1. “Declarative knowledge is converted to procedural knowledge by the presentation and practice of discrete items of grammar”
        I think there are three ideas fused together here. On the one hand there is the question of how declarative can become procedural. On the other we have a methodology practice (present-practice) and thirdly the idea of discrete items of grammar. To the first, I think declarative can become procedural and vice versa. Then, present and practice can be successful. I see problems with the last idea of discrete items of grammar. This is really very much a question of what one’s view on the nature of language is. Personally I think it is flawed to think in terms of grammar items as being the object of learning. This, of course, needs another discussion.
        2. Yes indeed. Very flawed notion if it does indeed inform coursebook construction. But then, do coursebook writers have this explicit or implicit view? Does coursebook design betray this position, once taught = once learned? I think authors revisit “items” (whatever we mean by that) and suggest the opposite. Maybe it could be realized more effectively.
        3. The teaching = learning fallacy has been talked about for some time now. I’d be surprised if authors could still live by it.

        Your comment on lexical chunks is interesting. Can we equate teaching lexical chunks with teaching grammar items? I would think not. When I teach a grammar item, I am actually trying to build up structural knowledge about the language as a system. Whereas chunks are face value instantiations of whatever the underlying structure might be. I guess this is the idea of emergentism that sees structure as a byproduct of concrete language items acquisition. Of course, I agree that the same fallacy of teach=learn applies to this kind of learning effort.

        Please forgive if my English sounds off at times, if it does. I am not writing in my first language.

        Thomas k.


      3. Hi Thom,

        You say “I do not think that SLA shows that coursebooks are based on any assumptions.” Of course it doesn’t: the assumptions that coursebooks are based on have to be deduced by examining them. My suggestion is that coursebooks assume that teachers will use them by starting at Unit 1 and working their way sequentially through the units. By doing so they will be presenting and practicing bits of grammar and lexis which has been chopped up and sequenced on the asssumption that going through these bits of content from simple to complex in a pre-determined order will allow learners to gain declarative knowledge of the stuff presented, and that this will be turned into declarative knowledge by practicing the bits presented in the ways laid down in the book, The results of SLA research strongly challenges such assumptions.

        You say “I think declarative can become procedural and vice versa”. Well good for you, but until you provide arguments and evidence to support your opinion, I’m unconvinced.

        If you base a coursebook on lexical chunks, then to the extent that it’s a pre-determined, product-based syllabus which is worked through in the normal way, it’s making some false assumptions too. I’ve never got a clear answer from HUgh Dellar about how he thinks learners learn lexical chunks, and while I’d like to see Dellar & Walkley’s Outcomes series, II cant get an inspection copy, and there’s no “Look” function on Amazon. I don’t know if he shares Thornbury’s enthusiasm for an emergentist approach to SLA, but IMO such an approach gives no grounds for thinking that learning lexical chunks gets you grammar for free as Thornbury once suggested, although I think he’s retreating from that position now.


      4. Hi Geoff,
        We push so many doors open here that I need to resist the temptation to try an answer on all. I understand the problems of synthetic syllabi. My own experience as a language learner, I was a lit. major and “acquired” English reading and discussing Conrad, and my later studies have always put me at odds with the view you have been describing. That is, a) we teach and students learn, b) we teach grammar, c) we build up language sequentially, linearly, d) we take language apart and student assemble.

        I think the ELT world is keenly aware of this. In a way Krashen’s Natural Approach tried to correct the malady (I have not read all your posts on Krashen, but I understand your main criticism that his assertions cannot be tested), and it seems that Krashen has been so popular with teachers because his claims “ring” true. Content based teaching, CLIL, Task-based, Focus on Form, even Michael Lewis and Hugh Dellar with their lexical teaching, I think, have been attempts to correct this. I am looking forward to reading your latest post on the negotiated syllabus.

        You asked me to back up my claim that there is an interface between declarative and procedural knowledge; declarative: “knowledge that can be explicitly expressed…such as a historical fact” versus knowledge that can only be performed…such as how to swim” (DeKeyser’s glossary in Practice in a Second Language). Procedural can only be demonstrated in aspects that can actually be performed. A historical fact does not have a procedural expression. Although I can imagine somebody could argue that critical thinking depends on background knowledge and that the very act of thinking, procedural, is enhanced by a rich stock of facts, historical and otherwise. I guess the question surfaces when we discuss skill and skills training. Musicians benefit from explicit processing of information about music. Reading music is declarative knowledge that leads directly to performance. I can pick up a tune and play going by hearing only. Even then one could observe that a person hearing the tune must notice pitch to reproduce the original. So, it is not entirely free of declarative aspects of knowing.

        I think becoming aware of things, when things fall into place, make sense, show the reverse move from procedural to declarative. When we say “it occurs to me” we somehow betray the subconscious presence of behavior or state before it is known. The feeling of hunger, anger, etc are present before they are verbalized. Meditation and reflection is an exercise of bringing to awareness behavior, states, attitudes, etc. Semantic reactions go the other way around. Your posts are a good example of this. The text you wrote on J.H. prompted behavior, attitudes, and almost a sense of indignation–declarative, talking about, leads to action.

        I think the initial dichotomy of declarative and procedural is not a very happy one. The same with implicit-explicit, conscious-subconscious, acquired-learned. I think they are not very helpful as they create abstract categories that misrepresent reality. Things get bad when applied to language. Here the candidates are clearly marked. We have declarative grammar know-how on the one side and on the other we have procedural communication. To me the idea that sees grammar as a learn-able object in language teaching in the first place plagues the profession like a mighty red herring. It distracts, and worse, reinforces the idea that language is basically a set of rules.



      5. Hi Thom,

        I didn’t express myself well. You said “I think declarative can become procedural and vice versa”. What I meant to reply was I’d like to see arguments and evidence to support an opinion on HOW one becomes the other. The 2 opposing constructs try to explain the SLA process, and to emphasise that language learning is not the same as learning geography, for example. Most SLA research indicates that SLA is predominantly a process of implicit learning, although learning about the language by giving explicit attention to rules and regularities, for example, can speed up the process. I’ve been through all this more than once (!) and the point of it is that coursebooks fly in the face of all this research by their insistence on focusing on the “What” of language learning, on cutting the content up into bits and on then presenting and practicing these bits in a sequential order.

        Of course both types of knowledge are involved in learning, and of course the distinction between the 2 is “abstract”; it’s just a way of trying to understand how we learn, memorise and use knowledge and skills. To take your music analogy, learning how to read music, studying the masters in whatever area of music you’re into, listening intensively to bits while reading the score in an attempt to analyse them (a Charlie Parker riff or Klemperer doing the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th) is important, but how do musicians become good at playing an instrument? Predominantly through (guided) practice. What would someone learning the violin think if she went to a class and spent most of the time not practicing? Can you imagine a coursebook-driven syllabus for intermediate violin players?


      6. Yes, agreed: practice has an impact on learning, as I try to think that declarative and procedural have an interface. And yes, apparently implicit learning is the modus oparandi of language acquisition. But HOW does this happen? I think asking me to come up with the answer is sending me into the woods with a pocket knife. Although I sympathize with Nick Ellis’ idea of connectionism and, understanding that you give little credit, I also think that Hoey’s priming is a good attempt at nailing down the acquisition “mechanism” at work when we refer to implicit learning. And yet, these are explanations are based on language abstracts. Like Aristotle’s rules of logic, they might be coherent thought models; but if I had to answer HOW from a neurological point of view, then I’d say we are still far off the mainland.

        What seems to be overlooked in this discussion is the fact that the mind, brain, or whatever “does” the learning, is rather indifferent to the things that figure in textbooks. That is, the mind does not take notice of any implicit syllabi format. Even if it is true that most textbooks err on the side of chopping up language, following a linear layout, mapping a sequence of incremental items, the mind is not aware of this. To use another analogy, if we think that syllabus structure has an impact on acquisition is like thinking that it is the circular water jet patterns of a sprinkler system that is responsible for daisies. I think that’s why we can say that students learn despite the teacher / book. It is the water that makes the grass grow green. As it is the classroom interaction that helps students develop language skills–regardless of what it is that students focus on. We agree that nobody can learn the tense system by talking about it. But, in the course of the talking, while the tense system stays happily out of reach, students still get to practice language. I am not arguing here that we therefore should stick to PPP and present before simple past before future modes of thinking. What I am saying is that the acquisitive process runs on a different wave length and the question whether language learning efforts are in sync with SLA principles are aiming at methodology, not content.


      7. PS:
        I did not carefully edit this reply. I hope the mistakes do not distract too much.
        “these explanations are based…”
        “to think that syllabus structure…”


      8. I forgot to answer your last question.

        I think coursebooks are indeed on their way out. I am fairly ambivalent about ed-tech. I can’t quite make up my mind if it is a) an iceberg, and b) if it has already struck us. But I think that coursebooks are far less potent in their use and abuse than ed-tech. So, we might find ourselves some years from now sitting in this place arguing over SLA output and the woes of big data.


  2. 50% might be at least what teachers need to see that it is not as hard/difficult/scary as they might think. It’s hard for people to make radical changes. The first step out of the comfort zone is scary though. For me it’s been a 5-year journey… it takes time for you to make this shift. Certainly with a support things would move faster but still it requires time and patience as everyone is so used to the bank education… even those who rebels against it.

    Like you, I’m not optimist. Money talks… that’s a fact.

    I can’t even say education RIP because the type of education we dream of has never existed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Rose,

      Thanks very much for your comment. I think that my reservations about Luke’s 50% idea are probably misplaced and that it’s actually a very good strategy. You’re right to point out how hard it is for teachers to make such a radical change in their teaching.

      As for education RIP, I think we’ve seen flashes of the dream in practice throughout history – schools in Brazil where Frere’s principles were actually put into practice being just one example close to your heart. Animos!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Baby steps are probably a good idea. I wonder what qualifies in Meddings’ mind as “not using” the textbook though – if the textbook provides the first 2 Ps of PPP, does that count as not using the textbook for the final 33% of the class? That is probably already being done by a lot of teachers but doesn’t exactly mesh with the Dogme ELT principles I imagine Meddings is arguing from.


      2. Hi Mark,

        In Luke Meddings’ presentation, he argued not for leaving the book 50% of the time but leaving the prescribed product syllabus, therefore it would be much less than 50% book closed (one would hope).


  3. Interesting post. I like to entertain romantic notions such as this paradigm shift but then realise, as Rose says, it won’t make money except for extremely small-scale businesses.

    I think 50-Free is a pragmatist’s concession. We have bosses breathing down our necks and such. If we teachers pay lip service to the set product syllabus and then go about teaching to a process syllabus the learners get something rather than something for a while until you’re replaced by someone who bends to the will of management.


  4. 50% sounds realistic and less alienating when thinking of making changes. I like the idea of a syllabus built around the process and negotiated with learners, but I could are use some models or mentors when thinking about going that route.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did it by thinking about my learners. Interests, likely goals, stakeholder (parents, institutions) goals and picked a few topics. Not everything was superb but nothing was bad. When following the book I’ve had some terrible times with student frustration with grammar they understand but can’t use.

      When I design tasks I do bear in mind the grammar that needs to be (un)covered for exams. However, the language used in class doesn’t need to be the language in ‘the book’.

      No doubt naysayers would say “That proves he’s crap at teaching grammar!” but I can teach modality for speculation about the past as much as I like; until my students are ready to internalise it they won’t be able to produce it without crib sheets or prompts.


    2. Hi Laura,

      Of course we need models, frameworks, materials, ideas, etc. to put some version of a process syllabus into practice. Such things exist, but we need to publicise them, and maybe organise them better.


  5. Hi Geoff,

    I don’t have much experience of the “present ELT paradigm” except what I read about it on your and other blogs. Paul, Rose & Marc seem to agree with your analysis so I’ll take it as given.

    I’m more interested to have clarification on some of the characteristics you list in the rival view:

    – Texts (discourse) are the subject matter of EFL /ESL.
    Do you mean what the students themselves spontaneously say in class or texts previously created by students or others?

    – 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.
    How exactly is the syllabus negotiated? Through explicit discussions between students and teacher. For example: “Shall we talk about paradigm shifts?” “What text will we read for tomorrow?” “Can we watch this video in class?”
    Or in some other way?

    – The teacher implements the evolving syllabus in consultation with the students.
    How does the teacher consult the students?

    – The students participate in decision-making about course objectives, content, activities and assessment.
    What if students disagree? Do you vote to take decisions?

    – 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).
    Does “low-stakes” mean unstressful because it’s not graded and doesn’t count towards, for example, passing the course or getting a better job? Is the form of feedback different from standard summative assessment techniques? I mean the sort that are tests of knowledge often in the form of QCMs or Cloze tests. Or is the form of feedback completely different?


    1. Hi Glenys,

      Thanks for this. To try to answer your questions,

      1. When I say Texts (discourse) are the subject matter of EFL /ESL I mean that we should see language as discourse rather than a collection of sentences which obey grammar (syntax and morphology) rules.

      2. The process syllabus as defined by Breen is negotiated through a cycle of tasks. The teacher and learners make a plan of the first part (6 to 10 hours) of the course, choosing together from a bank of procedures, activities and tasks, and at the end of the cycle meet to evaluate what happened and plan the next part. I’ll suggest a version of this in my next post. I should say that others have different ideas. Mike Long, for example, thinks that the tasks need to be designed after an external needs analysis determines what is to be learned.

      3. How does the teacher consult the students? I’ve said how this is done in Breen’s process syllabus. In other alternatives to a product syllabus, such as Dogme and various forms of task-based syllabuses, the teacher holds periodic feedback sessions and works with the learners on developing their own materials and their own spoken and written texts.

      4. If students disagree you try to reach consensus. Sometimes votes are taken.

      5. “Low-stakes” means precisely that it doesn’t count towards passing the course or getting a better job. Yes, the form of feedback is different from standard summative assessment techniques. The feedback concentrates on decisions about how to move forward and reach the learner’s objectives.


  6. Hi Geoff

    While I am wholly convinced of the merits of the second of the approaches you describe over the first, I remain concerned, as I have said elsewhere, about the reasonableness of expecting new teachers to adopt it. You are not, after all, I feel sure I’m right in thinking, recommending ‘just chatting.’ Rather, if I’ve understood you, you favour judicious, reactive interventions, responding to learners’ linguistic needs as they arise. The advantages of this, as opposed to teaching whatever happens to be next in the coursebook, it seems to me, are not only supported by SLA research but also accord with the experiences of almost anyone (and this category includes, surely, the great majority of ELT teachers) who has made any serious efforts to learn a second language. Nonetheless, the unpredictability, especially to an inexperienced teacher, of just what linguistic needs will arise is surely a problem. In my experience, both as a trainer of new teachers and as a new teacher once myself, new teachers do their brains in trying to get to grips with the grammar, phonology etc etc that they find themselves being required to teach because it is what is next in the coursebook. To be ready to intervene effectively as linguistic needs arise they will need to know not just what the next page in the coursebook requires them to know but everything that any coursebook might require them to know. They will need to know, that is to say, everything that the coursebook writers’ know. At present it is perfectly possible for someone with no background in languages or linguistics to acquire, in four weeks, a basic teaching qualification that enables them to teach in many places around the world. Perhaps this is regrettable, but introducing further restrictions will of course mean that people who can presently access English language instruction will no longer be able to do so. What to do? On the subject of testing you referred me, following a recent post, to a Luke Meddings page in which he says this;

    ‘People still say that an approach rooted in human attention can only be attempted by exceptionally gifted and experienced teachers. Is that how much we trust our colleagues?’

    Is his second sentence here really an adequate response to the worry I am expressing? It feels to me like finger wagging where an argument is required. I’d like to assure Luke that my worry is not motivated by contempt for my more recently qualified colleagues but by an empathy borne of my keen recollection of the acute anxiety I experienced when I was in their position.


    1. Patrick, I see what you mean but even a ‘well, people usually say…’ is a decent enough intervention for a novice teacher.

      I’d also say that loads of the places I’ve worked in have only dictionaries and Swan’s Practical English Usage. I’d say there’s an argument to be made for a few more methodology/reference books in most teachers’ rooms.


    2. Hi Patrick,

      What makes a good EFL / ESL teacher? How much is it down to experience, learning on the job? How much depends on knowledge of grammar and pronunciation; on discourse and pragmatics and local culture; on SLA; on learning theories; on classroom management? And how much does empathy, emotional intelligence, personality, cultural sensitivity count? Whatever knowledge, skills and experience a good teacher needs, delivering an English course using a Dogme framework, for example, should be no more difficult than doing the course using a coursebook and doing the sort of things they teach you in a CELTA or DELTA course. If you reject the current paradigm and you have the freedom to teach differently, then you treat the subject matter differently, but more importantly, you give priority to the learning process and to involving the learners in decisions affecting how and what they learn.

      Of course new teachers will be very nervous and (a bit) lacking in confidence whatever syllabus they work with. But I think that with practice they’ll have a lot more fun, feel more satisfied, and get better results, if they persuade their bosses to allow them to throw away the coursebook and to teach in a different way. ,


      1. Well, I certainly hope so. Engaging with learners about what worries or interests them is certainly more fun and more fulfilling than simply teaching the next damn thing that happens fo appear in the coursebook. I’ve been trying to promote the sort of thing you recommend (hoping that I have correctly understood the sort of thing you recommend) at the college where I work. The response has been, er, less than overwhelmingly enthusiastic, even amongst teachers who do not have the excuse of inexperience.


      2. Hi Patrick,

        I rather overdid the negotiation bit of an alternative to the coursebook and I’ll try to rectify this next week in another post. I think asking learners to join in the decision-making process needs careful specification if it’s to mean anything at all – otherwise it sounds like you’re saying to learners “What do you want to do?” and abrogating responsibility. In order to encourage teachers to throw away coursebooks we have to provide a realistic, attractive, practical alternative and spell out how it works. Dogme do this well, and Mike Long’s done it very thoroughly. I need to follow through!


  7. Hi Geoff,

    Like some of the other folk who are commenting on your post I cannot see this paradigm shift happening any time soon. It seems to me that the alternative you present could not work under capitalism, simply because it demands far too much from teachers (and students).

    It is well known that many English language teachers experience shockingly poor pay and working conditions in an industry which is pretty exploitative (I see you have a TaWSIG badge on your blog so I imagine you agree!). The institution where I work pays me little more than the minimum wage. It is from writing (much-derided) course books and digital materials that I earn the bulk of my income.

    My ESOL students turn up to night classes exhausted after spending their days grafting (in fish factories and building sites and the local supermarket) for meagre amounts of money. They don’t have the energy to negotiate the content of their lessons with me – they want to be presented with a nice, glossy spread with ready-made grammar and vocabulary notes to take home with them. I reckon it’s not uncommon for second language learners (apart from very rich and privileged ones) to be in this situation.

    It seems understandable to me that teachers are unwilling to sacrifice their personal life (hobbies, relationships etc.) for an industry which fails to remunerate them sufficiently. Negotiating syllabi and consulting with students takes time. If one was to attempt to adopt the paradigm you suggest, their workload would surely double.

    I’m not suggesting for a minute that I like this state of affairs: simply that change would need to come from above and when I say that, I don’t just mean from the upper echelons of the ELT world. Capitalism itself would need to be overthrown. And what are the chances of that?

    Thanks for an interesting post,



    1. Hi Genny,

      I ‘m sorry to hear that you are so badly-paid, I’m sure your comments express the opinion of lots of teachers and they’re quite reasonable. I don’t want to play down the difficulties involved in making the radical changes to teaching practice advocated by Breen, Crookes and others, but allow me to suggest with all respect that unless the changes I’m supporting here are simply blocked by the boss of the school you work for, they are feasible. When advocating a new approach to teaching, one is often met with a series of “Yes, buts” which indicate that there’s an understandable resistance to any kind of change. I only ask that you keep an open mind and give these new ideas a fair hearing.

      That your ESOL students turn up to class exhausted doesn’t mean that they want to sit back, relax and be taught, because, as you know, language learning isn’t like that. Learner-centred teaching that dispenses with a coursebook and involves learners in the process is energising and if you get them to do a 5 minute stretching and moving session they’ll be ready to make the effort necessary to achieve their goals – after all, just turning up to class shows how keen they are to learn.

      Negotiating content and al that doesn’t take long: most of the time, when the learners arrive you can get straight on with whatever you’ve got planned.

      Rejecting a product syllabus doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your personal life: teaching without a coursebook need involve no more class preparation than teaching with one. If you use a coursebook, you have to take the trouble to read the damn thing very carefully, go through all the listening and video materials, the texts, the grammar work, the activities, and so on; then you have to decide which bits are just too completely daft to use, which bits you have to adapt a bit, which bits you’ll concentrate on, and then you have to think about what else to do in order to break the tedium of it all. In a materials-light session where you use conversation about topics that really matter to the group, problem-solving tasks which they have participated in designing or selecting from a bank of materials, and focus on form as the need arises, you might very well feel that the whole thing is a delightful walk in the park.

      While I agree that change must come from the top, teachers at the grass roots voicing their disagreement at the current state of affairs and getting into local organisations where they encourage one another to press for improved conditions and for change is also important.

      Thanks for your comments and good luck with the writing 🙂 .

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Hi Geoff, as always I think that you make some very salient observations. I think teacher training and continual professional development are what lacks in a lot of teaching jobs that I or friends have had. As an extreme example, I worked in Taiwan and to my knowledge there are no (perhaps very few) CELTA/DELTA type courses in the entire country. All of the course-based self-development that I’ve done has been through distance learning. To be honest though, when I finished my CELTA six years ago, I still didn’t feel very prepared when facing the prospect of teaching young learners in Jakarta.

    I think a feather in the cap of the ELT industry as a whole is the wide-scale accessibility of a lot of high-level industry professionals. As you say, through the use of blogs and Youtube, a lot of good content is available to the teacher if they know where to look.

    I don’t really think that a paradigm shift will occur. I think that there is too much money at play. Teaching young learners as I do, parents expect to see a course book taken home every now and again and see that their kids are completing language tasks and I guess appreciate the illusion of progress that product syllabuses provide. I can’t find anything that I would disagree with, in terms of your ideas surrounding interlanguage development, but such an abstract concept is difficult to explain in school reports.

    I also appreciate the work of Scott Thornbury, Luke Meddings and all of the other people that you have mentioned that support going beyond the coursebook. Unfortunately, I just think that for a wide-range of teachers to move past a syllabus defined by the coursebook we really need to apply a lot of context-specific training. In order to do this, in my job in a language centre in Thailand, we’d need to spend a lot of money training staff and I just think that the powers that be would rather keep their money in their pockets.

    From what I can tell all that a lot of the research has done in ‘changing’ coursebook design has been to change the terms used in advertising and blurbs. A coursebook our centre uses now claims to be CLIL friendly and all it means is that they’ve inserted a few more reading passages at the end of pre-existing units.

    I don’t really know where I’m going with this, so I’ll stop ranting. I just think that a lot of accountability needs to taken by the people at the top of the industry and money put forward to helping teachers better learn their craft if something as exciting as Dogme ELT is really going to take off. Personally, I don’t favour the idea of ditching the coursebook completely but being trained how to would be brilliant. I think teachers need options and abstract or unfamiliar terms and definitions do little to help inexperienced teachers unless they can be based in practical training and supported development.

    Thanks for reading and any response would be greatly appreciated. Sorry for rambling and thanks for this informative blog. Guilty secret though, and don’t hate me for this, I’m a bit of a Hugh Dellar fan.




  9. Hi Lee,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree, of course, that teachers need more help than they usually get in terms of professional development. At the same time, I don’t think flying in experts from the UK or USA to do “How to…” sessions with the locals is the best way to help. A locally-organised series of workshops; on-going cooperative-based teacher training courses; on-line discussions and forums; anything “bottom-up” is surely better than this “top-down” model where Taiwan teachers are told what to do by members of the ELT establishment .

    I understand your pessimism, but really, “for a wide-range of teachers to move past a syllabus defined by the coursebook” isn’t an impossible dream: if you and your fellow-teachers had enough belief in the advantages of an alternative approach, you could quickly make important changes. You could meet and talk about how part of the classroom time could be used with the coursebook closed. You could discuss how learners could be involved a bit more by asking them to do things (like make presentations, or organise a debate about a local problem, or suggest bits of video or tv or film or written texts to look at together), by holding feedback sessions; by organising a class forum on the web; and so on. You could also discuss how to approach the bosses. Politely, carefully, tactfully you can together ask the bosses to loosen things up a bit, to help in the creation of a materials bank; to allocate some space in the building to a meeting / study / events area, to allow a local, cheap teacher training programme; etc.. If you can show the bosses that your ideas make learners more appreciative, that more people come more often to class, that the school or institute will grow and they’ll make more money, then they’ll be willing to help. Give it a go!


    1. Hi Geoff,

      At my centre, we have focus group meetings once a week and share ideas before planning our lessons with other teachers covering the same material as us. This is helpful, but I’m not sure that it is as impactful as a series of well thought out workshops conducted by a highly-trained professional. We also share teacher-generated materials but thanks for that suggestion.

      I think one difficult thing about implementing “bottom-up” teacher development is that alongside our teaching duties and admin etc. we don’t really have enough time to plan effective sessions (and many of us are inexperienced in doing so) so that the quality of the workshops suffers. I also think that teacher motivation to attend peer-run workshops at our centre is low. It also becomes less of an incentive when there is no impending sense of reward attached to running such a session, either motivationally or financially.

      Regardless, thanks for the ideas. I discussed this with one of my colleagues this morning over a cup of tea and he shared similar sentiments to me. Our students always come to class as we are based in a school setting (a language centre partnership that runs extracurricular classes).

      Again, I don’t to sound overly pessimistic but I think that working conditions and the reality of daily teaching often place restrictions on what are fundamentally excellent ideas on your part. I think part of my pessimism, if that is how my reflections are perceived comes from the fact that a work for the same company as a top industry professional that seems to be very busy ‘demanding high’ on the conference circuit that he doesn’t have enough time to help us train our managers to develop their skills as trainers.

      Thanks again for your input. I don’t intend to sound overly pessimistic but feel that my observations are grounded in realism in my teaching context.




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