Why PPP makes no sense at all. A reply to Anderson




I made a comment on Jason Anderson’s Blog in reply to his post The PPP Saga Ends  It hasn’t appeared, so here’s an amended version.

Hi Jason,

An interesting journey, and it makes good reading. You make an impressive attempt to defend the indefensible, and there are lots of good references, even if you play fast and loose with what your sources actually say.

To the issues, then.

First, let’s establish what we know about the SLA process after 50 years of SLA research. Students do not learn target forms and structures when and how a teacher decrees that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Studies in interlanguage development have shown conclusively that L2 learners exhibit common patterns and features across differences in learners’ age and L1, acquisition context, and instructional approach. Independent of those and other factors, learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to mastery of target-language structures, or, as is often the case, to an end-state short of mastery.

Acquisition of grammatical structures (and also of pronunciation features and some lexical features such as collocation), is typically gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, the product broadly conforming to developmental sequences observed in naturalistic settings. They master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both.

That’s what we know. As a result this statement is plain wrong:

while research studies conducted between the 1970s and the 1990s cast significant doubt on the validity of more explicit, Focus on Forms-type instruction such as PPP, more recent evidence paints a significantly different picture.

It does not. No study conducted in the last 20 years has come up with evidence to challenge the established claim that explicit focus on forms such as PPP can do nothing to alter the route of interlanguage development. As Ortega (2009), in her summary of SLA findings states

Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.

Teaching is constrained by the learners’ own powerful cognitive contribution, and to assume that learners will learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it using a PPP paradigm is false.

These statements are also false:

  • we have no evidence that PPP is less effective than other approaches
  • writers in academia have neither evidence nor theoretical justification for criticising coursebook writers 
  • The research on which writers such as Michael Long have based their promotion of focus on form is scant

But let’s get to the heart of the matter, which is really quite simple. You base your arguments on a non-sequitur  that appears throughout your paper. It’s this:

There is evidence to support explicit (grammar) instruction, therefore there is evidence to support the “PPP paradigm”.

It’s generally accepted, a non-controversial opinion, that explicit instruction has an important role to play in classroom-based SLA, but it doesn’t follow that PPP is a good approach to classroom based ELT.  PPP runs counter to a mass of SLA research findings, and that’s that. There is nothing, I repeat nothing, in “recent evidence from research studies” that supports PPP as an approach to classroom teaching.  You appeal to evidence for the effectiveness of explicit grammar teaching to support the argument that students will learn what they’re taught in class by a teacher implementing a synthetic syllabus, based on the presentation, practice and production of a sequence of chopped up bits of the language, thus making a schoolboy error in logic.

The rest of your paper says absolutely nothing to rescue a PPP approach from the fundamental criticism that students don’t learn an L2 in the way it assumes they do. The paper consists of a series of non-sequiturs and unsupported assertions which attempt to argue that the way the majority of institutions go about ELT is necessarily the best way.

To say that the PPP approach is popular with students and that coursebooks are consumer-driven, and that PPP is attractive to low income countries, and that this is evidence to support a “PPP paradigm” is patently ridiculous. The remarks about low income countries are also patronising and arrogant. You make a naive appeal to an “apples and pears” group of factors that need to be carefully examined and distinguished. I won’t go into any proper analysis now, but, just for example, the multi billion dollar ELT coursebook industry is not so much driven by the opinions of the end users, as by the language teaching institutions, both public and private, that deliver foreign language courses to them. For these institutions, the coursebook is convenient – it packages the otherwise “messy” thing that is language learning.  Which is not to say that it wouldn’t be cheaper, better, more efficient, and more rewarding for everybody if the coursebook were abandoned in favour of locally-produced materials used in a more learner centred approach.

Likewise, to say in reply to Neill that

the notion of ‘linear progress’ is a reflection of a much wider tendency in curricula and syllabi design. Given that the vast majority of English language teaching in the world today is happening in state-sponsored primary and secondary education, where national curricula perform precisely this role, we can predict to a large extent that top down approaches to language instruction are going to dominate for the foreseeable future

is to give absolutely no justification for such top down approaches to language instruction. Yes, as a matter of fact, they dominate ELT today, but that’s no argument in their favour, now is it?

You fail to address the arguments for a learner-centred approach, or any version of the process syllabus suggested by Breen. Those of us who oppose PPP do so not only because it contradicts what we know about SLA, but also because it adopts a pedagogy where students are given no say in the decisions that affect their learning, where the commodification of education goes unchallenged, and where Friere’s “banking” view of education rules. To oppose the way ELT is currently organised is not unrealistic, any more than opposing the privatisation of education in the UK is; but it is difficult. Whatever ones’ views, the kind of faux academic baloney present in your paper really doesn’t help.

Finally, your long quote from Ur in reply to Neill is just one more example of argument by assertion. She’s good at this kind of stuff, and I’m not surprised that you like it, but it’s pure rhetoric. She says “such features as students’ socio-cultural background, relationships, personalities; motivation;” etc., etc,  “often actually have more influence on how grammar is taught, and whether it is successfully learnt, than any of those dealt with in research”. This ignores all the research that has been done into those features, and provides no evidence or arguments to challenge SLA research findings with regard to the development of interlanguages.


Ortega (2009) “Sequences and processes in language learning”. In Long and Doughty (2009) Handbook of Language Teaching. Wiley

7 thoughts on “Why PPP makes no sense at all. A reply to Anderson

  1. I wrote recently that these trappings for ELT like PPP and synthetic syllabi need to be seen not as content delivery mechanisms with the expectation that learners learn what you teach when you teach it but as game-like systems of goals. To take a Skinner Box as an example the purpose is not the button or the treat but getting the pigeon to exercise its neck. That said a trained teacher should have better ways to give the illusion of meeting short-term goals.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Students do not learn target forms and structures when and how a teacher decrees that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so.

    I’m glad I’ve read this sentence in your post because it expresses perfectly what I’ve long felt myself. There is an arrogant assumption in coursebooks and in the teaching practice of many teachers that BECAUSE I have broken this down into steps and BECAUSE it’s been set out in bullet point form possibly with a little cartoon to illustrate a concept that you as a learner really ought to just ‘get’ what I’m attempting to teaching you. Despite all protestations to the contrary this is still just transmission-teaching and pays no need to what we have learned about educational psychology, SLA as you said or indeed even how the human mind and brain work. To say that students learn when they are ‘ready’ to do so is entirely correct and the right way to think about learning.


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