Light Shines Through the Fog of 2016


For anybody hoping for some real change in ELT, 2016 hasn’t been a particularly good year, has it. The continued domination of the coursebook, the worsening conditions of so many language teachers who get paid a pittance and who have so little say in what and how they teach, and the unrelenting, entrenched conservatism of the establishment (witness, for example, the CELTA curriculum, the ELTON Awards, the conference plenaries, and all those ELT blogs proudly displaying their boring blue British Council badges) give little cause for cheer. But it wasn’t all bad; it never is. Here are a few good things which remind us that in the general fog there’s good stuff shining through. Monet’s splendid picture makes a good start.


The winner of the 2016 SAGE/ILTA Book Award was Glen Fulcher’s marvellously invigorating book on testing.


Fulcher, G. (2015) Re-examining Language Testing: A philosophical and social inquiry. London, Routledge.  

The book investigates why societies use tests, and the values that have driven changes in practice over time. Fulcher walks among the Enlightenment philosophers (those marvellous bunch of inspired thinkers who bravely, brilliantly fought for reason), and takes what he calls a “pragmatist’s view” within the Enlightenment tradition. Glenn and I differ a bit about pragmatism, but we’re united in our admiration of the great David Hume, whose dry humour, scepticism and logical rigour find voice in the book, which takes an essentially optimistic approach and leads to a progressive, tolerant, and principled theory of language testing and validation. Fulcher obviously had a good time writing this book, which is provocative, wickedly funny at times, radical, inspiring, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

As if winning the award wasn’t enough, Glenn actually won it jointly with another of his books: Fulcher, G. and Davidson, F. (2012). The Routledge Handbook of Language Testing. London and New York: Routledge.



Just to show how broad-minded I am, I’ll mention the winner of the 2016 AAAL Book Award.

Canagarajah, S. (2013) Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations. New York, Routledge.

The jury commended Canagarajah for providing “a highly original contribution that questions some of the traditional approaches in the study of multilingualism”. He uses the concept of “translingual practice” to show the expressive and creative potential of multilinguals, and he challenges academic gatekeepers “to reconsider linguistic power relations in teaching and in professional service work like peer review and editorial leadership”.

To be honest, I’m unlikely to read the book, which I suspect will be crowded with long, difficult to parse sentences, but whatever floats your boat, right?



The 2016 CriticElt Book Award goes to Mike Long’s superb, scholarly and persuasive major work on task-based teaching.

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

This is the best book about ELT I’ve read. Long’s comprehensive knowledge of theories and research of SLA, his equally thorough grasp of issues related to instructed SLA and task based teaching, and his commitment to liberal education, social justice and radical teaching practice come together in this truly impressive book. Take a look at the Table of Contents by clicking on the link in the title, and you’ll get an idea of the scope and depth of Long’s treatment of TBLT. As Peter Skehan says: “A major achievement — a research-based pedagogy for task-based instruction”.



Next, a book actually written this year.

Tomlinson, B. (Ed.) (2016) SLA Research and Materials Development for Language Learning.  London, Routledge

The blurb says it’s “the only book available to focus on the interaction between second language acquisition theory and materials development for language learning”. It consists of  “papers by experts in SLA, experts in materials development, researchers who have expertise in both fields, and introductions and conclusions by the editor”. I found a few of the chapters disappointing, but in general, it’s a good source for post-graduate courses, and a good book for anybody involved in materials production. Tomlinson himself, whose influence is noticeable throughout, is keen to point out the weaknesses of the coursebook and encourage writers to look for more principled alternatives.



Here’s another book published in 2016, and this one is a collection of articles arguing for a usage-based view of SLA. I’m a sceptic, but there’s some good stuff here, and the authors certainly makes a lot more sense than Larsen-Freeman does.

Ellis, N., Römer, U., Brook O’Donnell, M. (2016) Usage-Based Approaches to Language Acquisition and Processing: Cognitive and Corpus Investigations of Construction Grammar. London, Wiley-Blackwell.

The authors present the by now familiar view of language as a complex adaptive system that is learned through usage. What’s good about the collection, I think, is that in a series of research studies, they analyze Verb-Argument Constructions (VACs) in different ways – first and second language learning, processing, and use. As the blurb says: “Drawing on diverse epistemological and methodological perspectives, they show how language emerges out of multiple experiences of meaning-making. In the development of both mother tongue and additional languages, each usage experience affects construction knowledge following general principles of learning relating to frequency, contingency, and semantic prototypicality”.



Finally, a book I haven’t read, but one that’s caused a big stir.

Fries, P,H., Strauss, S.L. (2016) Reading- The Grand Illusion: How and Why People Make Sense of Print. London, Routledge.

This is from the publishers:

What is reading? In this groundbreaking book, esteemed researchers Ken Goodman, Peter Fries, and Steven Strauss, explain not only what reading really is but also why common sense makes it seem to be something quite different from that reality. How can this grand illusion be explained? That is the purpose of this book. As the authors show, unraveling the secrets of the grand illusion of reading teaches about far more than reading itself, but also about how remarkable human language is, how the brain uses language to navigate the world, what it means to be human. Each author brings a different perspective, but all share a common view of the reading process. Together they provide a clear and surprising exposition of the reading process, in which they involve readers of this book in exploring the ways they themselves read and make sense of written language while their eyes fixate on fewer than 70 percent of the words in the text.




First up, the 2016 ARAL which is devoted to task based language teaching.

2016 Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 

The issue contains a really good collection of articles which I’m sure will be widely cited in years to come. Among the best are these 3:

  • Peter Skehan: Tasks Versus Conditions: Two Perspectives on Task Research and Their Implications for Pedagogy.
  • Luke Plonsky and You Jin Kim: Task-Based Learner Production: A Substantive and Methodological Review.
  • Michael H. Long: In Defense of Tasks and TBLT: Non issues and Real Issues.



Next, a good article by Florence Myles and co-writer which acts as a kind of antidote to the more rabid claims made about the powers of formulaic language.

Myles, F. And Cordier, C. (2016) Formulaic Sequence Cannot Be an Umbrella Term in SLA: Focusing on Psycholinguistic FSs and Their Identification. Studies in Second Language Acquisition.

From the Abstract: “The first part of the article provides a conceptual framework focusing on the contrast between linguistic or learner-external definitions, that is, what is formulaic in the language the learner is exposed to, such as idiomatic expressions or collocations, and psycholinguistic or learner-internal definitions, that is, what is formulaic within an individual learner because it presents a processing advantage. The second part focuses on the methodological consequences of adopting a learner-internal approach to the investigation of FSs, and examines the challenges presented by the identification of psycholinguistic formulaicity in advanced L2 learners, proposing a tool kit based on a hierarchical identification method.”



Third, Plonsky again, this time with a co-author looking at the CALL-SLA interface through a meta-analysis of a wide range of studies.  I think this is useful for anyone doing a post-graduate paper on CALL, or whatever the new acronym their university uses these days.

Plonsky, L and Ziegler, N. (2016) The CALL–SLA interface: Insights from a second-order synthesis. Language Learning & Technology, 20, 2, 17-37. Click this for Free download of pdf version of the article

The article begins by describing the effects of CALL on L2 learning and examining different types of technology, such as CALL glosses and computer-mediated communication. “Results of the methodological review reveal wide variability overall and in several practices associated with rigor, transparency, and utility of meta-analytic reviews.”



Finally, a well-researched and well-conducted study on written feedback. This is the kind of work that we need to refer to before making silly sweeping generalisations about how research evidence “proves” the value of this or that type of error correction.

Eun Sung Park, Sunhee Song, Yu Kyoung Shin (2016), 20,6, To what extent do learners benefit from indirect written corrective feedback? A study targeting learners of different proficiency and heritage language status. Language Teaching Research, 20, 6. Click this for Free Download




From the man who brought us the Teachers As Workers SIG, we now get a fine new blog; well-presented, well-organised, very well-written, and full of meaty, engaging, interesting posts.

Paul Walsh: Decentralised Teaching and Learning

Here’s a quote:

“You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it” (Maya Angelou in interview with Dave Chappelle).



And a plug for a cause near home and one that I pledge to give more attention to nest year:

La Cooperativa de Serveis Lingüístics de Barcelona

Neil McMillan leads this great team of enthusiastic, innovative language teachers who “get together to lend and share materials, equipment and training in order to better ourselves professionally and economically. We also aim to distribute and market our work collectively. But by distribute we don’t only mean sell, as we are also keen to make our services available to NGOs and similar groups on a solidarity basis. Finally, an integral part of our vision is to advocate for equal opportunities and fair pay and conditions for all language professionals”. I’m now a member and look forward to working with the others in 2017, particularly on a project to build a materials bank.



ELT Research Bites

Anthony Teacher and Mura Nava, who both have their own fine blogs, have recently started this blog which offers “interesting and relevant language and education research in an easily digestible format”. They say

“Academic journal articles and research reports tend to be long, perhaps even long-winded. And rightfully so – there is a lot of theoretical and often statistical work that must be clearly explained and a journal article is the best place for that. We hope, with this new blog, to help all language teachers benefit from the insights gained through academic research, whilst not taking too much of their time away from where it is needed most – the classroom.

ELT Research Bites serves you the substance and context of the full article at the length of an abstract, with a side dish of practical implications! With these bite-size summaries of applied linguistics and pedagogy research, ELT Research Bites aims to offer a bridge to empirical or other published work which contributors feels deserve attention and which you can adapt and apply in your own language teaching0!”

It’s got off to a very good start and should prove to be extremely useful.



Ljiljana Havran’s Blog

Always fresh, always well-judged and well-presented, Ljiljana’s reflections on language teaching are engaging and thought-provoking, while her practical teaching suggestions are a great source of inspiration and help. I confess that I’m drawn, like the moth to the flame, to every new post, partly at least in the hope of reading something new about Belgrade, that wonderful, unforgettable city which I still miss so much. (The photo, taken by Ljiljana, is of Kalemegdan Park and the Statue of Victory in Belgrade.)




Scott Thornbury’s IATEFL Plenary 

Do yourself a favour; take an hour off, click on the link, sit back, relax, and watch Scott doing his inimitable stuff on a very big stage indeed. I reviewed this plenary and made a couple of comments, neither of which detract from the huge enjoyment one gets from being so intelligently and charmingly entertained.



Innovate ELT Conference, Barcelona.

Finally, my congratulations to ELT Jam & Oxford House for organising the second Innovate ELT conference, which, once again, was a tremendous success. It was a friendly, buzzy, animated, good-humoured, well-organised, event; very interesting topics were discussed and a good time was had by all. Well done everybody! If you click the link you’ll get a taste of the atmosphere, which, in my opinion anyway, was the “point” of the whole thing. Surely the main point of going to a conference is not so much to learn as to mingle with those bright sparks who challenge you to question things and to do something new. And to have fun. 🙂


10 thoughts on “Light Shines Through the Fog of 2016

  1. Many thanks for mentioning SLB – we’re delighted to have you on board and looking forward to working with you more in 2017!

    Bones festes I visca la cooperativa!

    Liked by 1 person

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