Cracks in the Wall?

Recent tweets by the usual suspects – coursebook writers, teacher trainers, publishers, examiners and paid conference speakers – suggest that members of the influential UK-based ELT establishment are getting a bit defensive in the face of growing criticism. Publishers and trainers talk more about “flexibility”; examiners insist on the “validity”of their tests; everybody goes on about  “listening to the learner”.  Dellar tweets from IATEFL Peru:

You quickly realise how little the heated debates of the euro-centric #EFL blogosphere have do with most contexts here.

Jim Scrivener adds:

….or in most teaching contexts in most countries around the world.

You don’t have to be an expert in critical discourse analysis to glean that the heated debates of the euro-centric EFL blogosphere are starting to rattle the composure of at least some of the globe-trotting doyens of ELT. Still, these are small cracks in a very thick wall, and we need to widen the debate so that more people become aware of the mess ELT is in. Pace Dellar, the matters we raise are not euro-centric at all: the commodification of ELT affects teachers and learners everywhere, including Peru, of course.

As Kerr and Wickham (citing Robertson, 2006) point out in an essay that deserves careful reading, it was the 1999 General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) that heralded the transformation of education into a commodity which can be traded like any other in the marketplace. Kerr and Wickham also point out that the most visible manifestation of the commodification of ELT is “the current ubiquity of learning outcomes”. These ‘learning outcomes’manifest themselves most clearly in current ELT performance scales, of which the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is the most well-known. It’s been followed by the Cambridge English Scale and, most audaciously of all, the Pearson Global Scale of English, the GSE.

The GSE is “a granular, precise scale of proficiency” consisting of over 1,800 “can-do” statements that provide context for teachers and learners across reading, writing, speaking and listening”. Coursebooks aligned to these granular learning objectives, serving up tasteless, inoffensive (We Serve No PARSNIPS Here!)  warmed-through McNuggets of sanitised language,  plus placement, formative and high stakes tests aligned to the GSE, provide teachers with absolutely everything they need for modern day teaching. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the GSE wrongly assumes that its ‘can-do ‘abilities are

  1.  meaningful (what does “Can describe events, real or imagined” mean?), and
  2. develop in the way implied by the hierarchical structure of the scales.

Statistical and psychological unidimensionality are not equivalent, and the pedagogic notion of learners moving unidimensionally along the line from 10 to 90 is ridiculous. Learning an L2 is gradual, incremental and slow, exhibiting plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours.

Ridiculous as the GSE is, and despite the fact that it has been roundly condemned by experts in SLA, language teaching and language assessment everywhere, the mad Pearson project marches confidently on, buoyed by the knowledge that it has nothing to fear from the UK-based ELT establishment, who gratefully accept Pearson patronage and abstain from criticism.

Actually, it’s not that they abstain from criticism, it’s more that they abstain from reading or taking any notice of criticism. Scott Thornbury ‘s IATEFL talk this year reported on a small study he did of 6 authors of best-selling “How to teach English as a second/foreign language” books. He asked these influential members of the ELT establishment about the role they played as mediators between researchers and practitioners, and all of them, without exception, were happy to admit that they didn’t read or know much about academic, evidence-based research into language learning, teaching, or assessment. Penny Ur (who only last month, with no sense of irony at all, exhorted everybody to engage in more critical thinking) gave the most dismissive answers to Thornbury’s questions, including this gem:

it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.      

She doesn’t sound rattled, now does she!  How much more heated must our debates get, how much louder must we shout, before the wall of smug, anti-academic complacency defending current ELT practice is brought down and members of the UK-based establishment publically recognise that they are serving the interests of big business to the detriment of good teaching?  The evidence is there: teacher training, teaching methodology, teaching materials, and language assessment are all fatally flawed by their subservience to the industrialisation and commodification of education, as exemplified by Pearson’s GSE.

And what about the workers? To return to Kerr and Wicham’s article, they note that “the move towards privatization is accompanied by an overt attack on teachers’ unions, rights, pay and conditions”, and that “the drive to bring down costs has a negative impact on teachers worldwide”.  They cite Gwynt (2015) who catalogues “cuts in funding, large-scale redundancies, a narrowing of the curriculum, intensified workloads (including the need to comply with ‘quality control measures’), the de-skilling of teachers, dilapidated buildings, minimal resources and low morale”.  They also list the conditions of French teachers in the private sector which are shared by tens of thousands of ELT workers worldwide:

  • multiple employers,
  • limited or no job security,
  • limited or no sick pay and holiday pay,
  • little or no on-going training
  • low and deteriorating hourly rates of pay.

Kerr and Wickham conclude:

Given the current climate, teachers will benefit from closer networking with fellow professionals in order, not least, to be aware of the rapidly changing landscape. …. More generally, it is important to recognise that current trends have yet to run their full course. Conditions for teachers are likely to deteriorate further before they improve. More than ever before, teachers who want to have any kind of influence on the way that marketization and industrialization are shaping their working lives will need to do so collectively.


Gwynt, W. (2015) The effects of policy changes on ESOL. Language Issues 26 / 2: 58 – 60.

Kerr, P. and Wickham, A. (2017) ELT as an industry.

Robertson, S. L. (2006) Globalisation, GATS and trading in education services. Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1JA, UK. Available at

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