English Language Teaching: Art and Rationality


Alan Maley’s argument for distancing the activity of doing SLA research from the activity of English Language Teaching (ELT) is based on the very reasonable premise that while the former attempts to adopt a scientific method, the latter adopts a more imaginative, humanistic, creative, “arts” approach, as articulated by the likes of Earl Stevick, Mario Rinvolucri, John Faneslow, Adrian Underhill, Jim Scrivener, and indeed, Alan Maley himself. The suggestion is that teaching English as an L2, even more than teaching geography or history, for example, is a creative, imaginative endeavour, where a teacher’s ability to bring language to life; to contextualise it; to create situations where students engage with it; to get students to learn some key parts of it by rote or at least through frequent re-cycling; to create group dynamics and nurture group cohesion; to empathise with the doubts and fears of students, to manage conflicting needs, and also to design, organise and carry out a coherent plan of learning, are all as important (more so, indeed) than a critical appreciation of theories of SLA and the research they’re based on.


I’ve been lucky enough to attend workshops run by all the educators listed above except Scrivener, who I’m sure does a great job of helping teachers to hone their skills. I found all of these workshops useful, enjoyable and motivating, and I learned a great deal. The several courses I did with John Faneslow were the most memorable; John has a special ability to help teachers to see what they’re doing more clearly, and to reflect on their practice more openly. He’s primarily concerned with the effect of teaching on the learner, and with helping teachers meet learners needs. His other great concern is encouraging teachers to deliberately break the rules. Stevick’s courses are legendary, and rightly so because he was hugely inspirational and influential, like Faneslow, in encouraging a more learner-centred approach to ELT, but Underhill’s courses, especially perhaps those that help teachers with the tricky questions involved in teaching pronunciation, are just as inspiring and valuable.  No doubt others have their own favourite teacher trainers, those who influenced them most, those who brought their teaching to life and pushed them to expect more of themselves and their students. Such training has little to do with SLA research, but it’s unquestionably at the heart of ELT practice.


I did these training courses when I started teaching, which was before the coursebook took hold. At the school where I taught, ESADE Idiomas, Barcelona, there were 35 to 40 teachers, using an extraordinarily diverse range of methods, including grammar translation, audio-visual, direct method, community language learning (nothing like CLT, by the way, but very interesting), Silent Way, Suggestopedia, Natural Approach, Total Physical Response, and many others. A few teachers were fairly strict adherers to one method, but most of us dabbled in all of them, although there was quite an obvious division between those who emphasised grammar and those who didn’t. We did 100 hour courses at 7 different levels. There was a syllabus for each course with lists of grammar points for low levels and rather vague descriptions of levels of proficiency for higher levels. Providing that both the teachers and their students thought that good progress was being made, teachers could do what they liked. There were proficiency tests at the end of each course, but nobody took that much notice of them.

And that’s how things were in those days. In such an environment I would have gone along with just about everything Scrivener said in his response to Maley’s recent article, which I discussed in my last post.  Scrivener argues that teaching is about “tuning in to people and attempting, moment by moment, to help create a space where learning can happen”; and it’s “more a live, personal, creative, intuitive, human art than a measurable science”. Surely that’s as true now as it was in 1990; the trouble is that the rest of what he said is not. Things have changed: the practice of ELT has got worse and our understanding of SLA has got better. I might have agreed with Scrivener in 1990 that teachers use every kind of methodology and that “It all works. It all fails”, and I might have agreed with him that when ELT experts took contradictory positions on every topic “They are all right. They are all wrong”.  I know just what he means, it made sense to me back then, but I don’t think it’s a good way of viewing ELT practice today, when the coursebook exerts such a dominating  (and I’d say suffocating) hold on ELT, and when we know that the syllabus which coursebooks exemplify does more to constrain and hinder learning than to encourage and facilitate it.


By 1995, the spark, the energy, the creativity, the enthusiasm, that had characterised ESADE Idiomas had largely disappeared, and every teacher in ESADE Idiomas was using a coursebook. Correlation is not causation, of course; the coursebook was simply the outward manifestation of an underlying transformation of the institution from a school dedicated to teaching, to a business dedicated to profit. In the new environment, with its new vocabulary of placement incentives, follow-on schemes, drop-out avoidance measures, time management, customer satisfaction feedback loops, on-going teacher evaluation, can-do short-term objectives, etc., etc., there was no place for the unruly, anarchistic, hit and miss, give it a go approach to teaching which had flourished in the 1980s. The commercialisation of ELT required discipline and order; but most of all, it required the manufacture, packaging and marketing of easily recognised products. And what better way to package ELT than by offering a series of language courses where coursebooks provided both the form and content!


Despite the fundamental design faults of coursebooks, teacher training courses were increasingly adapted to incorporate their use, and by the end of the 20th century, coursebooks dominated every aspect of the rapidly expanding ELT business, now worth $2,000 billion a year.  At the same time, research findings in SLA were uncovering more and more about the development of interlanguages which can be said to characterise the process of SLA. These findings revealed that teaching does not affect the route of interlanguage development, and from this it followed that most coursebooks were asking teachers to do the impossible. Coursebooks were based on false assumptions about L2 learning; so when teachers led their students through a coursebook like Headway Intermediate, or English File Elementary, most of their students didn’t learn what they were taught most of the time. And when they finished a course, most students hadn’t made as much progress as they’d been promised when they signed up for it. But very few teachers were aware of the weaknesses of a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus;  very few of those running the ELT industry were interested in SLA research, especially if it posed a challenge to the neat and tidy way they had teaching organised; very few academics made the effort to tell ELT practitioners about their work, so the march of the coursebook continued.


I’ve stated my views on coursebook-based ELT  quite enough already, and I’ve explained how research findings from SLA research have influenced those views. The aim of this post is to recognise, and agree with, many of the points made by Maley and the fifteen respondents to his article, but to plead with them not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Teaching is, as Scrivener says, “a live, personal, creative, intuitive, human art”; and the academic community has as Thornbury says “disenfranchises teachers by (a) adopting an impenetrable and exclusionary discourse style; (b) equivocating on the relevance or practical application of their findings; and (c) rarely…” (not never, Scott) “engaging with the issues that most concern practising teachers in their classrooms”.  But, as a result of increasing commercial pressure in a neoliberal global economy, ELT practice today is too constrained, too regimented, too defined by coursebooks, and it would, in my opinion, be better if Maley and the others who run the ELT business recognised how far the commercialisation of ELT has gone, and accept that not all SLA research is tarred by the same brush. We need to change, and a good way to start is to give more serious consideration to the research* which suggests that using coursebooks based on a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus constrains and hinders L2 learning more than it encourages and facilitates it.

*A good summary of this research can be found in Long, M. H. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley BlackwellSee Chapters 2 and 10, particularly. Below are a few of the works frequently referred to:

Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part I. Language Teaching, 20, pp 81-92.

Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part II. Language Teaching, 20, 20, Issue 03.

Ellis, R. (1989) Are classroom and naturalistic acquisition the same? Studies in SLA, 11,3, 303-328.

Hong, Z. and Tarone, E. (Eds.) (2016) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Long, M.H. (2011) “Language Teaching”. In Doughty, C. and Long, M.  Handbook of Language Teaching. NY Routledge.

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

Meisel, J.M., Clahsen, H., and Pienemann, M. (1981) On determining developmental stages in natural second language acquisition. Studies in SLA, 3,1, 109-135.

Myles, F. (2013): Theoretical approaches to second language acquisition research. In Herschensohn, J. & Young-Scholten, M. (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. CUP

Ortega, L. (2009) Sequences and Processes in Language Learning. In Long and Doughty Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.

Pica, T. (1983) Adult acquisition of English as a second language under different conditions of exposure. Language Learning, 33,4,465-497.

Pienemann, M. (1984) Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. In C. Pfaff (Ed.) First and Second Language Acquisition Processes. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. 143-168.

Pienemann, M. (1989) Is language teachable? Applied Linguistics, 10,1,52-79.

Pienemann, M. (2011) Developmental Schedules, and Explaining Developmental Schedules, in Pienemann and Kessler, J. (Eds.) (2011) Studying Processability theory: An introductory textbook. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 209-231.


13 thoughts on “English Language Teaching: Art and Rationality

  1. Nice post, Geoff.

    It’s a big thing, this art versus science thing. Is it not closer to being both? Can you be more creative in your teaching with a sounder grounding in SLA? Can you be more sound in your teaching according to SLA (perhaps with regard to affect and learner disposition) with a creative bent? I wonder what you and others think. I was never particularly won over by some of The C Group stuff but certainly thinking about creativity in solving problems using language is likely to be quite realistic and also engaging.


    1. Hi Marc,

      Can you be more creative in your teaching with a sounder grounding in SLA? Can you be more sound in your teaching according to SLA? Yes, I think you can. The best example in my opinion of a sound approach is Mike Long’s (2015) SLA and TBLT, but there are others, including Meddings and Thornbury (2009) Teaching Unplugged. As for creativity, that’s up to the teacher and the institution. Once you’ve got the teaching based on sound pedagogical principles – helped a bit by SLA research findings – you have to invent your own local way of organising and implementing it all, and you have to help theachers be creative by encouraging them to experiment, break the rules, fly a kite. The great stuff that people like Underhill, Scrivener and Maley and all the rest of the inspirational teacher trainers do would help a lot if they would only do it inside a sound, principled framework like Long’s.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. You said “We need to change, and a good way to start is to give more serious consideration to the research which suggests that using coursebooks based on a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus constrains and hinders L2 learning more than it encourages and facilitates it.”

    Can you point me to some of this research? I’d like to include it on Research Bites.


    1. Hi Anthony,

      I’ve added some references to the end of the post. Long (2015) pages 19 to 26 gives a good overview. Otherwise, Hong and Tarone has good up to date chapters.

      Hong, Z. and Tarone, E. (Eds.) (2016) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember when the first Cambridge English 1 came out and I first heard the term “teacher-proof” used. Was this also a time when EFL was expanding rapidly and schools were probably short of experienced or well trained teachers and delighted to have “fool-proof” coursebooks? Maybe this was when the coursebook became king.
    I should perhaps add that I enjoyed teaching with coursebooks in those days even though I always felt I needed to supplement and trim them. Later on, I enjoyed ignoring the coursebook as much as I could get away with and using and reusing my own database of materials as much as I could. Then that was no longer permitted and I was back to following the coursebooks, often unwillingly.
    To supplement them I used a lot of video which half the class saw and told the others about often recording themselves and giving me the recordings.
    Finally, English File Intermediate arrived and I was happy to use a coursebook again. The two things I liked about it were that the reading/listening/video material was easy to understand and interesting and so instead of using video series like Grapevine for genuine communicative retelling, I was able to use the material in the coursebook instead.
    I suppose like many I followed an adapted PPP approach but have never believed that what I was ostensibly teaching at the start would necessarily be used in the communicative tasks at the end of the class. Above all I was hoping for fluency.
    Like you, Geoff, I found John Faneslow’s breaking rules an inspiration to keep my passion for teaching alive through the years as with many of the other speakers at the pre-academic-year seminars organised by ESADE Idiomas, York House and Dublin School in the 70s and 80s.
    My teaching was always influenced more by input from sources like these than reading about theories of SLA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks for these interesting reflections. I remember the pre-academic-year seminars organised by ESADE Idiomas, York House and Dublin School very fondly.


  4. Very interesting post, as always. However, just a couple of questions:

    *”… the rapidly expanding ELT business, now worth $2,000 billion a year …”*

    That figure for the value of the ELT business is really quite extraordinary – what is your source for that amount and how was it calculated? “ELT business” is after all, open to a very wide interpretation. For example, if you include the monies paid over by students to landlords and host families on summer schools then, yes, the figure of the overall value of the business is going to start rising considerably. However, would including homestays etc. really be relevant to the case you are making here about learning, teaching and coursebooks?

    *”These findings [from SLA] revealed that teaching does not affect the route of interlanguage development, and from this it followed that most coursebooks were asking teachers to do the impossible. Coursebooks were based on false assumptions about L2 learning; so when teachers led their students through a coursebook like Headway Intermediate, or English File Elementary, most of their students didn’t learn what they were taught most of the time.”*

    Do these particular findings you are referring to distinguish between so-called productive skills like speaking and writing and so-called receptive skills like reading and listening?

    I mean, it’s a simple (and maybe simplistic?) example I know, but at home I have John Butt’s ‘Spanish Grammar’ – a compact book which very much does what it says on the tin – and from having read that there are forms I come across when reading (and sometimes when listening) whose function I can understand in context, but which as a producer of Spanish I couldn’t possibly hope to produce (this is a familiar experience to many, even at higher levels of proficiency – just look at Scott Thornbury’s post on “the demonstratives (eso, ese, aquella, etc)” here for instance: https://scottthornburyblog.com/2013/10/27/fatal-attractors/).

    The point I’m trying to make is that knowing about language may not be wasted if that knowledge helps students notice patterns well in advance of their ability to make free use of them in their use of the other language.

    A related question is that if coursebooks make promises about language acquisition that they cannot keep, how come you will find the same structures taught across many levels in the same series?
    Present tenses, simple and progressive, are taught at A1 but also at C1 – with different emphases, naturally, but still – the fact that this is a feature of coursebooks seems to suggest that they not only do not promise things that can’t be delivered, but that they acknolwedge up front that learning about something won’t necessarily mean the same as having completed the learning of it and being then able to use it widely. After all why would course book curricula revisit the same structures if they have apparently made a promise that by the end of the course students “will have learned” structure X or Y?

    *”In the new environment, with its new vocabulary of … can-do short-term objectives, etc., etc.”*

    Isn’t your real issue with The Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE)? They after all set the ball rolling with the can-do statements and it’s from the can-do statements that many of the language schools took their cue – and for which the coursebooks then provided material for.

    I’m not saying ALTE is beyond criticism, but you seem to lay the blame for this firmly at the door of neoliberalism and commercialisation whereas really, it seems to me, the coursebook culture if you like is a response to the need created by the language policy and planning decisions of the Council of Europe.

    Again, I’m suggesting ALTE or the Council of Europe should be beyond criticism, but it does seem to me to be that these are your real target, not coursebooks or the people who publish them.

    *”there was no place for the unruly, anarchistic, hit and miss, give it a go approach to teaching which had flourished in the 1980s.”*

    I am not doubting that you yourself were a dedicated or excellent teacher, but you must appreciate that what is missing from your account is all those students for whom “the unruly, anarchistic, hit and miss, give it a go approach” was not so satisfying or enjoyable an experience – and certainly not when being done on their coin.

    For the record, I agree with much of what you say about the importance of humanism and of creativity in teaching, but I think there does need to be an acknowledgement that managers of schools would prefer to offer a more or less consistent experience for the money they charge students than a casino style gamble that you could end up with an absolutely fantastic teacher or … well, the polar opposite of that.

    What path do you think a school manager should follow to avoid that particular problem (i.e. where two students pay the same money but go into different classes with different teachers and as a result get a very widely differing quality of experience for exactly the same money)?

    A market-based solution to that particular problem – which all school managers experience at one time or another – would be to charge higher rates for study with some teachers more than others so that students can pay more for an experienced and popular teacher but less for a novice one?

    Presumably, you would be against such a system (I know I would!) – but what then is the better alternative?


    1. Hi Nicholas,

      The source for the figure of $2,000 billion a year is Pearson’s “Raising Standards” document, which you can download from here: https://www.english.com/blog/global-framework-raising-standards . Actually, I think the figure they give is $1,970 billion. Obviously coursebook sales only make up a fraction of that figure; my point is that ELT is a huge business and that coursebooks play a key role in it.

      Research on interlanguage reveals how learners build their own version of the target language, which is a develping system with an interim structure which continuously evolves and goes through various recognised stages. The claim is that learners create rules which determine both their comprehension and production of the target language, and that these rules go through stages of development. As you probably know, Selinker, Krashen, and others think knowing about language is largely a waste of time, while others disagree. But all researchers agree that the route of interlanguage development is impervious to teaching.

      I didn’t say that coursebooks make promises about language acquisition that they cannot keep, I said that language schools and other educational institutions selling EFL/ESL courses to the public tell students that they’ll make more progress than most of them actually do, and I suggested that using coursebooks is one reason why many students don’t make more progress. Coursebooks wrongly assume that declarative knowledge is a necessary first step in L2 learning, and that declarative lnowledge becomes procedural knowledge with practice. Re-cycling the same structures across many levels in the same series could be seen as recognition that students don’t learn what they’re taught, and as repeating the same mistake over and over again. Coursebook writers would presumably say that re-cycling stuff is at the heart of their skills-acquisition view of learning.

      My reference to “can do” statements was a rather off-hand jibe at the promotional jargon used in the mid 1990s to sell language courses; it didn’t have anything to do with coursebooks. The use of can do statements for assessment purposes, in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for example has, rightly in my opinion, come under a hail of criticism, see Glenn Fulcher’s website http://languagetesting.info/gf/glennfulcher.php

      As for my nostalgic eulogies of “the unruly, anarchistic, hit and miss, give it a go approach to teaching which flourished in the 1980s.”, I take your point.

      Finally, how school managers should balance the need to make a (modest) profit with the need to give the best possible ELT courses, is an excellent topic, but for another day, although let me say quickly that I’d certainly be against charging higher rates for study with some teachers more than others.

      Thanks very much for your comments.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks for the detailed reply and the link to the source – I was aware that ELT was a significant;y sized business, but had no idea that it was quite that big.

        Thanks for clarifying that point about coursebooks – when I had read: “Coursebooks were based on false assumptions about L2 learning; so when teachers led their students through a coursebook like Headway Intermediate, or English File Elementary, most of their students didn’t learn what they were taught most of the time.” in your original post, I had taken that to mean it was they (rather than “language schools and other educational institutions selling EFL/ESL courses”) that had been making promises that couldn’t be kept.

        And I hope you didn’t think I was having a go at you regarding the nostalgic reminiscence – I was more trying to make a genuine point in defence of why school managers sometimes make such seemingly daft decisions.

        Anyway, thanks again for your response and for this blog.


    1. How are you distinguishing ‘scientific’ and ‘humanistic’ in this context?

      How (other than comparing one class’ reading scores with another’s in a different school) would you justify your position that DI is a superior means of teaching?

      Which points, specifically, do you think were great, and why?


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