A reply to Andrew Walkley’s post on teaching a unit from the “Outcomes” Coursebook

My attempts to comment on Andrew’s post – Complicating the coursebook debate: Part 4 – were unsuccessful, and I wrongly assumed that I’d been the victim of censorship. Andrew has explained (see the Comments section below) that nobody tried to stop my comment being published on the website, and I conclude that I, not he, did something wrong; so I apologise to him for the false accusation. Here’s what I wanted to put as a comment on Andrew’s post.

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for this interesting account of how you’d teach the sample unit from your coursebook. You give every indication of being an experienced, thoughtful teacher and I’m sure your students appreciate you. When we get down to this level of detailed teaching procedures, all the particularities of context play a part in deciding between the options and the learning outcomes, as you repeatedly recognise.

Our disagreement centres on the key issue of synthetic versus analytical syllabuses. You use a synthetic syllabus, where the teacher or coursebook writer decides what bits of language are to be taught, and where most of the time is spent teaching students explicit knowledge about the language: grammar, lexis (lexico-gammar if you like) and pronunciation. I use an analytical syllabus where the learners’ needs determine what is to be taught, and where most of the time is spent on scaffolding students’ engagement in pedagogic tasks designed to help them to develop the implicit knowledge required to carry out real life tasks in the L2.

Your description of how you’d use your coursebook makes it clear how heavily you rely on explicit teaching.  It fits well with what you say in Teaching Lexically about the “6 principles of how people learn languages”.  I quote:

Essentially, to learn any given item of language, people need to carry out the following stages:

  • Understand the meaning of the item.
  • Hear/see an example of the item in context.
  • Approximate the sounds of the item.
  • Pay attention to the item and notice its features.
  • Do something with the item – use it in some way.
  • Repeat these steps over time, when encountering the item again in other contexts.

Leaving aside any inadequacies of this mechanistic “explanation”, what stands out is the scant importance given to stage 1: Understand the meaning of the item. You seem impatient to get on to the next stages ASAP, recommending translation as the easiest, most efficient way of getting “meaning” out of the way, so as to get to the real heart of the matter, namely teaching words.  You’re thus at odds with those who believe that giving students opportunities for implicit learning by concentrating on meaningful communication should be a guiding principle of ELT. Meaningful communication about things students have indicated that they need to talk about, the negotiation of meaning, finding their voice, expressing themselves, working out the illocutionary force of messages, catching nuances, compensating for inadequate resources, and all the sorts of things involved in implicit language learning should, for us, be what goes on most of the time in class, not something that’s allotted a ten minute slot here and there. Your plan for how to work through the sample unit involves spending a great deal of the time talking about English; there seems to me to be far too little time devoted to letting students talk in the language. Right at the end you say: “Finally, there is a conversation practice”. Finally! But even here, you add “This is an opportunity for students to re-use language that has been ‘taught’ over the previous sequence of tasks. In fact, we ask them to write the conversation, which allows them to do this more consciously”.

Language learning is not, I suggest, what you assume it to be, and ELT teaching is not best carried out by trying to teach thousands of “items”, especially when you can’t explain the criteria for their selection, and especially when Dellar insists on also teaching the curious, bottom-up grammar which attaches itself to so many of them.

10 thoughts on “A reply to Andrew Walkley’s post on teaching a unit from the “Outcomes” Coursebook

  1. If you check your email, Geoff, you’ll find that at 18:29 today I sent you the following message:

    Not sure why your post isn’t showing up Geoff.
    Could you try reposting?


    1. Hi Andrew,

      I’m afraid I didn’t read the email because I logged in with a gmail account that I don’t use every day. No fault of yours, of course.

      But I tried reposting anyway, twice, and each time it was removed. I saw a message saying “Hang on. Your comment is being reviewed” or something like that.


      1. Hello again Geoff –
        Are you sure you’re not doing something odd your end?
        it’s very odd, I have to say.
        When comments go for ‘review’, our site works the same as I suspect yours does: we get a notification of a comment pending, check it’s not spam and then clear it.
        We’ve had nothing come through at all in the last 12 hours, so . . .


      2. Hi Andrew,

        I’m afraid I can’t assure you that I’m not doing something wrong this end; in fact that I AM doing something wrong is the most likely explanation! I sometimes have problems when I log in via Google rather than WordPress. I’m sorry; I would have preferred to have discussed this with you on your blog.


  2. Also, I had started writing a reply but I find these things very time consuming as I seem to be far less fluent a writer than either you or Hugh. I’m afraid you will have to wait for that now as I have other stuff on, but I’ll post it here at some point. In the meantime, I would appreciate it, if you could make clear that we have not censured you either in the title or intro to the post. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Again, Andrew,

      I quite understand that you’re too busy to reply right now. By the way, I do lots of re-writes of texts, as does anyone who cares about writing.

      I’ll certainly fix the title & intro.


  3. This is a very long comment. If you feel it is too long to post. no worries. You have a reply even if your readers don’t.

    Firsty, thanks for taking the time to comment on my original post and I appreciate your description of me as a teacher. Although, it’s not quite expressed in your comment, I take this as applying to Hugh too as we essentially share the same outlook. I should say that with that series of blog posts we are obviously trying to defend those who choose course books (not just those who write them!), but more importantly also trying to find shared ideas and not just difference. This was also the idea of the six ‘stages’ you quoted. It’s aim was to summarise elements which are common to many familiar approaches and was not intended as a rigid order. ‘Elements’ in fact might be a better word than steps – shame we didn’t say that at the time. Later in the introduction to Teaching Lexically we refer to these elements with regard to other approaches. For example I would see TBL as focusing more on the doing and meaning elements but there’s also going to be some focus on form / noticing and presumably recycling through new tasks. Our idea is that from these basic elements there is more than one way to skin a cat, but that there is some agreement that the elements are necessary. I think in our passion to defend teaching beliefs we can be guilty of reaching a point where we suggest that languages can’t be learned in any way other than our own. Anyway, that was our intention there – successful or not (not apparently!).

    In terms of tasks that are focused on meaning, students trying to communicate their own meanings and the value of conversation and scaffolding I actually think we are much closer than appears from your comment, which is somewhat frustrating. I don’t know if it is that we have perhaps different understandings of these terms or more fundamental differences or what.

    Firstly, with ‘conversation practice’ while I say “finally” I did also say you can start with this task and as I think I made clear I am not saying that either students have to use the language previously taught or that they will – merely that there’s an opportunity to do so. Would you prefer a ‘conversation practice’ unconnected to any previous listening students have heard or previous conversations they have had or tasks they have done? If the suggestion to ‘try to use language form these pages’ is the problem, then this seems a mountain out of a molehill. In the end, whatever the teacher may say, It is entirely up to the student themselves and the conversations they want to have. Having said that, we do believe that ultimately, whatever language the student is ‘taught’ or encounters implicitly or negotiates it will only become productive language, if they are firtsly given a need to use it and secondly make an effort to use it (or understand it if it’s in a text). I think that is an essential element / stage of learning. Do you disagree with that?

    I also still don’t quite get from your descriptions of ‘focus on form’, what you would actually focus on and how it would be different to what I described in my post in response to students output? The ‘teaching’ that I do in sections during and after student-speaking activities is not what I would call ‘just teaching words obsessively.’ Our whole thing is that we want to give all of what students say – whole sentences, dialogues even. Sometimes within that sentence we focus on words, sometimes it’s grammar. Sometimes the language is ‘new’, sometimes it’s language that I am helping to recycle from a previous lesson, nearly always within the context of some confusion/difficulty. Is the idea of recycling the problem?. Hugh would conduct his lessons in a similar way to what I described though in any one lesson we might make different choices on the specific amount, words or grammar we focus on in response to student output. We might also differ in how the lesson goes on to develop.

    You say the main difference between us seems to be in this idea of synthetic and analytic syllabus. I would question whether actually what our book and teaching represents is truly synthetic or that the way we approach the goal of a lesson is that dissimilar to a task-based one. I hope to do a post at some point on the materials development process but as I see it our agreement/disagreement is this:

    Like you, we actually think it’s a good idea to take as a starting point things in real life that people do with language. Unlike you, we believe that as teachers or course writers, we can make some guesses on what students may want and need to do at a certain level with their English. At this point, you would emphasise doing a needs analysis to identify particular things. We don’t have a problem with that and we have consistently encouraged people to write their own material and drop what they (or their students) don’t think as necessary in our books. However, one sometimes has the impression from your posts that everything in any coursebook is useless just by being printed in a coursebook. If that is the case, we certainly disagree. If it isn’t, well maybe our differences are not so large.

    The other part of this difference between synthetic and analytic is that it seems you think it is a complete waste of time to pre-teach any language before students attempt / fail / struggle to say it. My impresion is that though it might be good for them to hear / see a dialogue which they might sort of replicate in a task. All the focus on form would be post-task. Is that right? I don’t have a problem with that, I just still don’t quite see what language that ‘focus on form’ is and what happens next. In a recent post I read it was usggested to me that some TBLers use Murphy at this point others do boardword or on the fly worksheets. Is that your idea? Say the worksheet was about the present continuous. Would you do another worksheet on the present contiuous at a later date? Or would you create another task where Ss may need that structure or would you just let it lie. It just seems to me that while a focus on form may come after a breakdown of communication it will also always come before another task where the same breakdown will occur (because learning isn’t linear). That’s why we think think there is a value in some ‘pre-teaching’, It’s a kind of scaffolding. This is particularly in the case of vocabulary and to a much lesser extent with grammar, but in the end it doesn’t matter because we fundamentally agree with you that vocabulary and grammar interact in complex ways and that complexity cannot be taught. (that is what you think right?).

    This is why Hugh and I emphasise that meaning is, in a way, the smallest part of the aquisition process. The greater part will come from acquiring usage (though I think Widdowson calls what I have always called usage , use!). That will come from doing a variety of tasks which may provide opportunity for meaningful interactions; it’ll come from listening and reading and personally I think it’ll come from meaning focused language tasks. All of these will also need to happen outside of the class too. We believe the teacher may speed up this process, by consistently helping students to notice aspects of the language taught such as collocation, co-text, pron and ‘grammar’ etc. which may in turn encourage noticing outside the class. I’m not absoluetly clear if you agree on that – you seem to waiver a bit on it.. Some people may also call what we are describing as usage as meaning or ‘nuance’ – as I think you are (is that right?). We prefer not to because, personally, we think this can encourage teacher explanations or discussions about ‘meaning’ which basically can’t be transferred with any accuracy to production for the reasons that you give – that it’s all about the complexity of usage/implicit understanding. We would prefer to present more examples of realistic usage and perhaps draw attention to ‘form’. I guess our idea (partly in line with Patrick Hank’s book) is that you can’t separate meaning from pattrens of usage. Our advice on translation is partly based on having seen many teachers struggle to explain (or even worse ‘elicit’) vocabulary only for students to look it up in a dictionary. So we suggest getting to that initial base ‘meaning’ quickly which allows students to start on their journey of exploring and acquiring usage. For this reason we do also deliberately seek opportunities to recycle language in reading and listening texts in our books – if authetic usage is allowed . I guess students could implicitly acquire these from just doing the reading and listening tasks, but we believe (don’t you?) that the process could be sped up by giving students a basic meaning to begin with. I know Long and others don’t like this control of language, but as I understand it, that’s mainly because it twists how words and grammar would normally be used. I understand that, but I would say most of our texts have authentic use – largely becuase our primary concern is not to present grammar or words but a combination of both to enable conversations outside the class. You may feel that is not the case, but it’s something users frequently comment on (authenticity of examples).

    We seem to disagree on what tasks are meaningful or whether interactions between teachers and students could form a part of negotiating meaning. I would say that a task where a student (for example) talks about a time they felt guilty / down / pleased etc will include a great deal of opportunities for negotitaion of meaning and the implicit learning of language – although in one sense it is direct ‘language practice’. Would you disagree with that?

    I would also say that Outcomes, has many many speaking tasks that allow for meaningful interactions and allow for multiple encounters with both grammar and vocabulary across any one book and that the majority of the tasks are not linked to any one grammar point which has to be practised in isolation. Most tasks are personalised or reflect conversations that might take place outside the class. And of course, that’s not accounting for other tasks teachers may choose to do around the coursebook. Some task such as continuing conversations started in the book are maybe things you think are meaningless – you can tell me -. but my experience is that, while they are playful, they often give rise to spontaneous production of unexpected language and negotiation of meaning.

    As such, I do not see Outcomes or the way that I use it as exactly the synthetic syllabus you describe, though neither may it be exactly your analytic one – particularly, of course, because we didn’t negotiate the syllabus with specific students. I understand that you may see that as vital and I certainly wouldn’t say teachers shouldn’t do it, it’s just that it seems to me that any negotiated set of tasks will always be a tiny subset of what students may do with their language outside of the class and I personally don’t think it is necessary. This is especially true when you have a prepared syllabus of realistic conversation goals and tasks and you follow students’ discussions, interest and language in parallel with your coursebook – much as I laid out in my post. It seems you do not agree. In which case we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.

    The final thing to say is that – as many of our posts point out – not everything in the coursebook world is rosy. Different coursebooks are written under different principles and different strictures from the publisher. Grammar continues to dominate along with mad rules (though as the comment about Murphy above suggests, TBLers aren’t immune to this either). Teachers may focus too much on the books; they may extract the grammar and words themselves and ignore the tasks! What can you do?

    However, even if you are right about the theory – and I have outlined my queries – even if you were and TBL/Dogme is the only true path, I still think you hugely underestimate the effort, cognitive load and expertise required for teachers to do TBL: the needs analysis; the creation of the syllabus; the tasks; possibly writing materials and dialogues to scaffold tasks; running the class, hearing and noticing the issues that students are having – maybe seeking to recycle what came up. It’s a lot! And will the results be that different? Better obviously (;-)), but how much different? Teachers will make their choices and I don’t think they should feel guilty about it. There will always be the super dedicated teacher – maybe the TBLer, maybe you! – who goes that extra mile. And then there will be the ‘good enough’ teacher who may be thoughtful and interested in their students yet not quite go the whole way, who may make mistakes or choose a slightly easier path and make use of a coursebook (after studying it and choosing it with care). I actually think that for the teachers – and maybe even for the students – that’s a psychologically healthy attitude and should not be dismissed. I guess what it comes down to then is this, if your attitude to what we do is: it’s not quite as good as mine, then I am happy to accept that and continue the discussion while reminding people what we have in common not just what is different. If the attitude is these people are charlatans and what they are doing is complete crap, well I’m sorry I don’t see what’s to be gained, which is a shame.

    And just as really, really last note. Honestly, this thing has taken me hours to write when I absolutely should have been doing something else for which I actually earn a living (a modest and somehat insecure living at the moment I might add!!). Even if you do continue to direct your fire at us I would really appreciate it that when you don’t get replies to blogs or comments from us you write or imply that we are censoring or ignoring you because we have no answers or we don’t want to engage etc. We do try from time-to-time, but seriously, we have work, families to be with, parents to look after or visit, allotments, people to drink with, football to be played and watched. In short, a life. And life is short.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for your reply.

      With regard to your 6 stages or elements of language learning, they appear on page 7 of Teaching Lexically, and that’s the only place in the book where views, principles, or theories of language learning are discussed. The problem is not so much that they suggest that languages can’t be learned in any way other than yours, but rather that they don’t really address the question of how people learn languages, and more specifically of how people learn a second language in instructional settings. You adopt Hoey’s views on priming without even discussing them, which strikes me as negligent, especially since Hoey is, after all, a scholar of linguistics, not of second language learning.

      The most important questions about second language learning are to do with the development of putative interlanguages and the role of implicit and explicit learning. If you don’t articulate your views on these, how can you discuss the pros and cons of synthetic and analytic syllabuses or of explicit and implicit teaching methods?

      I accept Pienemann’s (1987) argument (as do most SLA scholars) that teachability is constrained by learnability, and I also accept the widely-held view that implicit learning is the default way SLA takes place, with the important caveat that explicit teaching can help. Everybody learns their L1 or L1s implicitly and millions of people, many of them migrant workers, have learned an L2 to their own satisfaction and that of their employers entirely through implicit learning. On the other hand, millions of people who have done classroom-based courses in foreign languages based on explicit language teaching have failed to acquire the minimum level of proficiency needed to function in the L2. The implication of SLA research findings is that a methodology based on chopping the L2 up into bits (whatever criteria are used to decide on the bits) and then presenting and practicing them in a sequence (whatever criteria are used to decide on the sequence) is mistaken (i.e. based on false assumptions about language learning).

      Dellar says there’s no point in talking to me because I keep saying the same thing over and over and don’t listen to those who reply. That’s a typically ad hominen way of responding to criticism, but actually I listen carefully to those who try to defend coursebook-driven ELT. So far, I haven’t heard any logical, evidence-based defence against the view that is, I think, most forcefully argued by Long in his 2015 book SLA ad TBLT, and also argued well by Scott Thornbury.

      So much for the background. In regard to TBLT, it’s important to distinguish between using tasks, defined as activities that have outcomes, and TBLT based on working through pedagogic tasks that are derived from an analysis of target tasks. We may call it the difference between a soft and a hard approach to TBLT. An activity where a student talks about a time they felt guilty / down / pleased et. might lead to the negotiation of meaning and implicit learning or it might not, but if you spend most of the time talking about the language as an object, then there’s less chance that it will. The problem with saying that we can all agree on the value of giving students opportunities “to communicate their own meanings” and the value of “conversation and scaffolding” is that it doesn’t distinguish between methodologies that pay lip service to these principles and those that actually carry them out by devoting most of the time to it.

      As for ‘conversation practice’, I don’t think it’s best seen as an opportunity for students to use the language previously taught. You ask if I disagree with your belief “that whatever language the student is ‘taught’ or encounters implicitly or negotiates will only become productive language if they are firstly given a need to use it and secondly make an effort to use it (or understand it if it’s in a text)”. I don’t think all the language students learn is learned the same way. I agree with Long that adult SLA is maturationally constrained and that adults are partially “disabled” language learners. Some classes of linguistic features in adult SLA are fragile, and explicit learning is thus required to improve implicit processing. So, implicit learning is still the default learning mechanism, and a lot of the language students learn doesn’t need the 2 conditions you stipulate to become productive, but other parts do need attention paid to them. Which parts need attention can be partly predicted, but anyway are best dealt with when they’re encountered as students work their way through tasks.

      Focus on form involves various types of attention being given to errors that students make at the moment when they make them, as opposed to “Focus on FormS” which is what happens in a grammar-based coursebook like Headway. Other types of explicit teaching – vocabulary, including pre-fabricated language and lexical chunks, for example – will also come from noticed gaps, and the precise way that they’re carried out will depend on the context. A lot of your activities seem perfectly good to me; my criticism is that they’re either random or not based on well-argued principles, and that you spend far too much time on them.

      You say “Our whole thing is that we want to give all of what students say – whole sentences, dialogues even”. Why do you want to do that? Why do you want to teach them all of what they say? The evidence we have from SLA research shows that students don’t need to be taught all the things they say: given the right exposure to comprehensible input they’ll say their own things and learn lots of their own language without being consciously aware of what they’re learning – just by picking it up. If the tasks they’re asked to do are designed according to their needs, and if the tasks give them the chance to interact with each other and the teacher, then students will learn; most of the time you have to scaffold their own learning, not spoon feed them. Explicit teaching helps to accelerate the learning if it’s carefully focused, but too much of it stifles learning. That, of course, is my opinion, and of course it might be wrong.

      You say you believe that as teachers or course writers you can make some guesses on what students may want and need to do at a certain level with their English. Yes you can, but the problem is when those guesses get turned into a book where texts are vehicles for teaching bits of language in a pre-determined order. No matter how much you protest that teachers can start at the end if they want, skip this bit and substitute that bit, unless you get to the situation where the coursebook is no longer guiding the course at all, the coursebook provides the framework for the course and stipulates the sequential presentation and practice of bits of language which students might not be ready for, or interested in. Recycling does nothing to fix this fatal design flaw, a flaw that analytic syllabuses are free of.

      Analytic syllabuses in their pure form use L2 as the medium of instruction – CLIL and some immersion courses are examples – and grammar teaching plays a small role, or no role at all. So pure analytic syllabuses rely completely on implicit learning and are thus unlikely to help students learn as fast, or reach as high levels, as syllabuses that give some attention to focus on form and to other types of explicit learning. In Long’s TBLT, in some adapted types of CLIL, in most ESP courses, and in my tentative outline of a process syllabus, there is provision for explicit attention to grammar, lexis, collocation, the 4 skills, and pronunciation, but there is no pre-planned teaching of any grammar, and the explicit attention to all parts of the language takes up much less time than you devote to it, and comes from what the teacher observes is needed and what the students ask for. Precisely how grammar work, vocabulary expansion, etc. is done depends on the context, and I think a lot of the activities you described have their place.

      Meaning might possibly be the smallest part of the acquisition process for vocabulary, but it’s when learners are engaged in meaningful communication with others, when their focus is not on the language as object, that most learning takes place. Vocabulary teaching should, I think, be a small part of any course of English, and Dellar’s almost non-stop presentation of “more examples of realistic usage”, whether he’s teaching students or training teachers, seems to me to be a good indication of just how much he over-emphasises it.

      The effort required to implement a strong version of TBLT, or any other viable alternative to a synthetic syllabus, is nothing compared to the effort needed to “change the chip” when it comes to thinking about ELT. Teaching the language as object is deeply entrenched in current ELT practice – it’s just assumed to be the way it’s done – and it’s supported by the hugely influential publishing companies that profit from the sales of coursebooks and other materials, by teacher-training bodies, and by examination bodies too. Not until we face the facts of research findings and the poor results of coursebook-based ELT, and finally admit that our approach to ELT is based on false assumptions, will we have any chance of facing the practical problems you mention. The practical problems of a radical shift in our approach to ELT can be overcome; at the moment, listing these problems just serves as a convenient excuse for carrying on in the same old way.

      I appreciate the effort you’ve made in this reply and I respect your honest attempts to deal with my criticisms. My apologies again for wrongly accusing you of censorship, and my best wishes to you.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Bloody hell! I think this one might be even longer than the last!

    First a correction. The section where we discuss TBL and Dogme starts on p12. I understand how this might be too limited for your liking or isn’t clearly enough about learning processes but there is some discussion.

    On implicit and explicit I do find this frustrating, because we have articulated this plenty of times though perhaps not using those specific terms But anyway:
    Implicit learning obviously is quite probably what has mainly taken place for a proficient user. in some cases it could be only this. Explicit learning can speed up the process of acquisition of grammar (but doesn’t seem to change the order – though there remains a question of what grammar). In the case of vocab, basic word meanings can be taught/studied and turned to a communicative purpose relatively easily (coffee want), but usage/use will be mainly acquired (i.e. collocations and all that it means to truly know a word), though some explicit focus can speed up the process. I would also argue that when teachers (or coursebooks) present authentic examples of words in context there may be some implicit learning of grammar taking place too. I don’t think I can be clearer. But even if this was not the case, the idea that someone CAN’T HAVE A VIEW on a issue seems somewhat arrogant and controlling, if you don’t mind me saying so.

    Pienemann. Yes I also basically accept what you say about him here as I have said in a previous post of mine (no obligation or expectation to have read it!;-)) But doesn’t Pienemann also make a distinction between developmental language – whose order of acquisition can’t be affected by teaching (but which can be sped up by explicit teaching) – and other non-developmental language (I think he may use a different term). I would put vocabulary in this second category of language as quite obviously no-one develops the same order of words. Furthermore in Piennemann’s analysis of the grammar that students used after the teaching phase, he discounted examples that had been learnt and then used as a phrase were examples of the structure being learnt. He doesn’t specify exactly what those phrases were, but one presumes it could be somethiong like how’s it going as an example of present continuous – in other words, chunks. Am I wrong about that?

    Are you really suggesting migrant workers in a native speaker setting and very high levels of consistent exposure to the language are comparable to a student attending a class in a non-native speaker country (usually at school, often with no need – present or future – to use English, and possibly with a teacher with a low level of language)? They seem entirely different scenarios and it’s, shall we say, not your strongest argument against using any coursebooks.

    Your section on activities essentially comes down to how much time is spent talking about the language. This is very dependent on the teacher and how long the Focus on form section in TBLT takes in comparison to the exercises of a coursebook. That’s an important discussion to have with teachers and it’s right it should be based on the principle you state. However we also have to recognize that what is ‘too much’ is unknowable in any precise way. I also actually suspect it would be difficult to say exactly what is talking about language and what is not. Hugh and I think of giving more examples instead of explanations as exposure to use, not talking about the language, but it seems you don’t agree. I’m not sure that can be resolved. I might add that, while it’s not something I especially favour, surely if talking about language is done in English, it is also a kind of meaningful interaction with some possibility of implicit learning (not the object of the discussion but the surrounding language). Wouldn’t that be the case?

    When you say our activities are ‘random’ and ‘unprincipled’, at best you are missing the phrase I think or In my opinion … . It might be better to say ‘I haven’t read or seen enough of your work to judge the principles and choices at work here’. Users of our books certainly see the principles and understand they are not random – which is partly why they continue to use the books. Readers of your blog (if any are left by this stage of my reply!! 😉 are welcome to read our blogs, come to a talk, read the introductions to our teachers books, read Teaching Lexically, attend a course or talk to us to understand that our choices are neither random nor unprincipled. Whether they will agree with the principles or think those principles are always fully served is another matter. However, disagreement on principles shows respect, suggesting we lack any does not.

    More to the point, what are your principles for what you choose to focus on in your Focus on Form? I think we could say you list an equally ‘random’ selection of things there. How do choose what to focus on? How do you decide if students (all students in the class?) are ready to learn the elements of language you choose to focus on? How many different elements do you look at? Do you give extra examples of one or other? How many more examples? Do you give them a worksheet? You have talked about materials banks before. What are on those worksheets? And once any element has been focused on, is that the last time you focus on it? You never answer any of these questions. And until you do, then there can be no proper or fair comparison made between ‘your classes’ and ‘ours’.

    Your comment about my comment on ‘the whole of what students say’ is, if I may say, rather twisting the point. It was a response originally to your comment that we just teach words. All the previous blog posts in my series on coursebooks, clearly state that we can’t teach everything. That whole paragraph is purely rhetorical assuming a very literal interpretation of a phrase out of context and taking it to an absurd extreme in order to create a difference which doesn’t exist between our positions. It may be fun to do or satisfy some need to be right, but I wouldn’t say it is honest. I agree pretty much entirely with your comment from ‘most of the time we have to scaffold …”. But this then is a question of how much time and what you mean by carefully focused (see above).

    However, just to be crystal clear, when I hear a communication breakdown or ‘gap’ I note down the issue – or possibly deal with it at that moment. This will not be for all the students and certainly not for the whole of what a student has said/is saying. However, when I draw attention to the issue I don’t just focus on the word, I try to give the whole of what was being communicated around that word. Quite often this is also because, in fact, the whole sentence was not understood by another students but I had an understanding of what was being said, because I’m an expert foreign language listener. By giving the whole of that part of the communication both legitimises what the ‘failing communicator’ is saying and enables further conversation (- those are principles there!). Note also that the studets may occassionally feel I have misinterpreted and a discussion continues to get to a correct interpretation. Typically there may be three or four things after a bit of speaking. There could be more, depends how long the speaking was. Vocabulary is usually at the centre of this correction because in my experience grammar is rarely the unique cause of any communication breakdown. In many cases, non-native-like grammar, has no affect on the overall message which words carry. Maybe this is an important source of adults ‘disability’ to become entirely accurate users. I personally think that might be coupled with an adult having an established identity which means conforming to others language use is less vital. (That by the way is purely speculation and doesn’t claim to be evidenced-based). Perhaps there’s something biological too (failing hearing?).

    I understand and have some sympathy for your view that because TBLT starts from thinking about conversation, it should create more opportunities for speaking than one which starts with the aim of teaching grammar rules. But if it is compared to a book that starts by thinking about conversation and a teacher attuned to that, I’m not so sure. I have been to a conference talk where it was reported that some CLIL classes led to less interaction and more ‘lecturing’ than comparable monolingual classes (I think by Anthony Bruton). I’m afraid I don’t have any citations for that, but it seems conceivable. It’s also conceivable that, tasks in a TBLT lesson may not produce as much interaction as activities in a coursebook. Comparison of the relative success of CLIL / TBLT course and that of a coursebook-based one, could only be between classes that take place for the same amount of time. I don’t know if you know of such studies? It would also have to be a comparison with a coursebook/teaching with similar amounts of talking between students and between teacher and students. I’d think the validity would be hard to establish, but you never know and I’d read any if I can access them.

    For the paragraph beginning “you say you believe …” Until you explain what the exact choices on Focus on Form are and how you decide if one student is ready for the focus, let alone ALL the students in the class, then I cannot see how you can assert analytic syllabuses are free from the design flaw you point to. The only logically consistent view of this would be to have NO focus on form. However, I think you have argued that some explicit focus is good – because it can potentially speed up the ‘natural order’. One other logically consistent view would be to focus on non-developmental language, i.e. words, but you think should be a small part of a course. Perhaps the most logical would be to focus on words (an explain them) but give natural examples with grammar that is not explained, but left implicit!

    Thank you for the acknowledgement about vocabulary and meaning. In terms of the rest about meaningful engagement – again I don’t particularly disagree, but when students put words to use as in the example of talking about a situation when they felt guilty, that’s exactly what happens. Obviously we are more focused on vocabulary in our teaching than you are, but I think again your description of Hugh’s views on more examples (and mine incidentally) as ‘non-stop’ is a somewhat emotive way of creating a greater difference than there is in practice. Having said that, I think if you really feel we really do come across as being non-stop about it then it is a point of reflection for ourselves. Our classes contain a lot of talking – about students themselves, about texts they read and listen to, as well as doing useful things in English. If that doesn’t come through, and other teachers really do only hear ‘teach more words’, then that is a problem.

    The section on the analytic syllabus compared to my description of one coursebook and its use,(let’s call it semi-synthetic) finally comes down to a question of motivation. I appreciate your recognition that coursebooks can have good activities and be re-organised. However, your assertion is that ANY analytic / negotiated syllabus will motivate (all?) students all of the time, whereas no coursebook, however it used, won’t. This seems to me to be another overstatement. Surely any analytic syllabus depends on how well the negotiating of the syllabus went, how well the tasks were chosen, how well they were scaffolded, how engaging the teacher is – or if even they are liked! There are also all kinds of reasons within each class that at least some students might not be engaged to begin with or become disengaged – for example, like a teacher ‘popping out’ to photocopy the essential worksheet, but then jamming the copier and losing ten-minutes of the class, and not having the worksheet. And this is also why the level of expertise and time needed for TBLT is an issue. While your paragraph is pure assertion, by the same token I should say that I am obviously not saying a pure analytic syllabus couldn’t be more motivating than the type of coursebook and coursebook use I advocate. All I’m saying is, it’s not guaranteed. And for that reason, for many teachers it is a reasonable and principled to choose an ‘easier’ route to a similar outcome for their students. I’d actually say that would be a reasonable and principled choice even with good pay and conditions.

    And finally, finally. Both in Teaching Lexically and in our talks and in our training courses we do actually consistently suggest that students should be the source for ‘teaching’ of language (focus on form if you prefer). We value what TBLT and Dogme advocates have to say (though I fear that may have got lost too!) and understand principles behind them, but I believe that current research on teacher cognition suggests that imposing theories and practice that don’t take account of teacher’s current beliefs (or just trashes them!) actually doesn’t lead succesfully to change. Those teacher beliefs are indeed deeply entrenched, but many of those beliefs come not from ELT publishers originally, but from wider society. I don’t know if you have children who did Castellano classes at school but there you have plenty of talking about language – or actually not talking but rather doing exercises an memorising facts about language! Sadly, recent ‘reforms’ in the UK are pushing English in primary schools in the same direction. I’m sure Spain and the UK are not unique in that matter. You also have to think that students / governments are not prepared to pay more for lessons, and for schools to survive you have poorly paid and poorly qualified teachers, or very large classes, or small classes for rich people. For all these reasons and others, while we would like to see more tasks and speaking and ‘dogme’, we feel that a first step is to start to encourage teachers to use their coursebooks in ways that allow more space for students. We also think that developing different ways to use a coursebook can give opportunities to build teachers expertise and confidence in dealing with language as it comes up. I understand that you may think this might may not be the best way to proceed, but what I would hope is that you could show a bit more recognition of our similarities rather than make nuances out to be huge obstacles or a sign of a lack of any principles. Otherwise, it’s a bit like ‘there’s only one group the People’s Front of Judea hate more than the Romans and that’s the Judea People’s Front! And let’s face it, we both have a similarly small number of people who agree with us!!

    I would be interested in specific replies to the questions raised, but I think this will be the end of my current discussion at this point. Hope you understand.

    Best wishes,

    Andrew (not Anthony!!)


    1. Argument 1: In order to discuss the pros and cons of synthetic and analytic syllabuses, and of explicit and implicit teaching methods, you need to address the issues of interlanguage development and implicit versus explicit learning. Teaching Lexically does not address these issues adequately, or give any proper account of the principles of language learning on which it is based. I didn’t suggest that you CAN’T have a view on these issues, just that the views you express are badly-informed.


      1. You say “Implicit learning is quite probably what has mainly taken place for a proficient user…in some cases it could be only this”. Very unlikely – implicit learning typically stops short of proficiency, hence need for some explicit teaching.

      2. We agree that explicit teaching can speed up L2 learning in certain areas. We also agree that implicit learning can take place during coursebook-driven lessons. The argument is about using a synthetic syllabus and paying so much attention to explicit vocabulary teaching.

      3. Pienemann’s early work claimed that all the children and adult learners of German as a second language in a very big study adhered to a five-stage developmental sequence. Later work by his group and others in the 1990s established an acquisition order for morphemes, negation, questions, word order, embedded clauses and pronouns. Al this work leads to the claim that there are various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development which are impervious to instruction, in the sense that stage order can’t be altered, or stages skipped: acquisition sequences do not reflect instructional sequences, and thus teachability is constrained by learnability. The acquisition of vocabulary and lexical chunks has been extensively studied, and the latter has been found to be an area particularly resistant to explicit instruction. This, and the huge number (thousands) of such chunks that need to be learned, and the fact that there’s so much more involved in becoming a proficient L2 user, call into question your approach to ELT.

      Argument 2: Since SLA research shows that implicit learning, when the students are concentrating on meaningful communication, is the default learning mechanism for L2 learning in any environment, classroom based courses should spend only a limited time on explicit attention to the language as object, and devote most of the time to scaffolding the students’ engagement in pedagogic tasks designed on the basis of needs analysis.


      1 No, I wasn’t suggesting that migrant workers learning an L2 was the same as student attending a class in a non-native speaker country. I was suggesting that the evidence of children learning their L1s and migrant workers learning an L2 indicates that implicit learning is the default learning mechanism.

      2. How much time a teacher spends talking about the language is not “unknowable”: just put a small camera in Dellar’s classroom the next time he does a 70 to 100 hour course, and count. You say it’s difficult to say exactly what talking about language is. I disagree. giving more examples instead of explanations is still talking about the language, and I dare to say that the vast majority of those who study instructed SLA would agree with me. And to claim that we must allow for the possibility that talking about the language as object leads to some implicit learning is not to answer the criticism that the time could be better spent.

      3. When I said your activities are ‘random’ and ‘unprincipled’, I was referring, not as clearly as I should have, to the language used in activities described in Teaching Lexically and those you refer to from Outcomes Intermediate. All you do here is assert that “our choices are neither random nor unprincipled” without explaining what criteria and principles inform them. As I’ve said a few times before, Teaching Lexically gives no explanation of how you choose what bits of language to present and practice. You mention frequency, but you don’t explain how frequency informs your choices, and when I look at the language you work with, it certainly seems pretty randomly chosen to me. By “random”, I mean, precisely, not organised according to any discernable governing principles. What I see is language chosen and organised according to Dellar’s peculiar, subjective ideas about what bits of language students will find useful, “Bandem was once dubbed the Paris of the East”, and “I’ve been on my feet all day; I haven’t even had time for a break” among them.

      4. The principles I use for choosing what language to focus on in any course I run are: start with a needs analysis based on the tasks students have to perform in the L2 and use relevant gestalt samples of the L2 as the starting point for the design of pedagogic tasks. Modify authentic texts when necessary according to the proficiency level of the students and work on areas of the language (grammar, vocab., pron., etc,) that are identified as you work on the tasks.

      In reply to your questions:

      • How do I decide if students are ready to learn the elements of language I choose to focus on? I don’t decide to focus on anything more than the task to start with; I react to problems as they arise.
      • How many different elements do I look at? I’ll tell you when the course has finished. Looking back at courses, I see that dozens of elements (if I understand how you’re using the word) have been looked at, some more extensively / deeply than others.
      • Do I give extra examples of one or other? Sorry, I don’t understand the question, but I do give more examples of particular bits of language.
      • Do you give them a worksheet? Yes. In the context of TBLT, the worksheets can be parts of the task, or they can be working on parts of the language.
      • Once any element has been focused on, is that the last time I focus on it? No, I might well focus on it multiple times.

      Once again, I repeat that I’m not against explicit teaching. My criticism is that you deal with artificially cut up bits of language; that the bits aren’t selected according to properly articulated principles; that the bits are presented and practiced in a pre-determined sequence that doesn’t respect learners’ internal L2 development routes; and that you spend too much time on the explicit teaching of vocabulary.

      Replies to other points:

      I protest at your interpretation of my comment on your stated desire to teach “the whole of what students say”. I wasn’t trying to twist your words and I certainly wasn’t trying to have fun at your expense in order to prove myself right. I thought the remark of yours actually said a lot about your approach to ELT. If you’re saying here that you didn’t mean what I interpreted you to mean, of course I accept that.

      The amount of time students spend on communicative interaction in a CLIL course obviously depends on its design and implementation, as it does in any course. I don’t know of any studies on time spent on communicative interaction in different types of course, but let me ask you: in the last course you did using Outcomes Intermediate, what proportion of the time did students spend on communicative interaction?

      Analytic syllabuses which pay no attention at all to focus on form are obviously free from the design flaw I pointed to, as you say. And yes, I argue that some explicit focus is good, based on Long’s argument, which is that the teacher should occasionally and relatively quickly draw the student’s attention to something he or she has said while focused on meaning.

      My assertion isn’t that analytic / negotiated syllabuses are more motivating than coursebook-driven syllabuses: . motivation is not determined by syllabus type! As you say, any type of syllabus will depend for its degree of success on the way it’s implemented,

      As for teacher beliefs, I quite agree that they’re not likely to be changed by simply telling them that those beliefs are wrong. But I think those of us involved in researching instructed language learning, and in teacher training, and in blogging about ELT, have to recognise that the current domination of coursebooks leads to English as an L2 being taught in a way that flies in the face of what we know about how people learn and is therefore much less efficient and efficacious than it would be if a different approach were taken; specifically, one that respects learners’ interlanguage development and that is based on talking in the language about things a needs analysis has shown are relevant to them, rather than talking about bits of language that someone somewhere has decided are relevant.

      I appreciate your plea for me to show a bit more recognition of our similarities, and I’m more than happy to recognise that, like me and probably a lot more successfully than me, you’re trying to change things, move away from grammar-based PPP, and generally improve ELT. But I’m afraid I think it’s important to stress our crucial differences, as I have done in this blog. I disagree strongly with Dellar’s arguments and the way he expresses them, and I’ve explained why in a number of posts. I’ve found our discussion far more enjoyable, but I don’t think that using courseboooks differently is the answer, or even a good first step, and I don’t think your heavy emphasis on teaching vocabulary represents a balanced way of going about ELT. So we’ll have to continue the ding dong, hopefully amicably, and surely with a break after this mini marathon. Have a good weekend, Andrew.

      Liked by 1 person

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