Reflections of 2017, Part 1

Looking back on the posts during 2017, I notice that I started the year (ELT: Art and Rationality) by happily conceding that ELT 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 far more important than a critical appreciation of theories of SLA and the research they’re based on”.

Chomsky  (1995, cited in Gregg, 2006, p. 403) made a similar point when he remarked that we might well learn more about how people think and feel and act by studying history or reading novels than from empirical research, which, “outside of narrow domains has proven shallow or hopeless”.

Teaching English is still, despite all attempts to commodify education, an “arts and craft” activity, a job where experience counts a great deal, and where teachers who combine all manner of skills and knowledge and character traits, and who find themselves in the right place at the right time, can work wonders, making the difference between FonF and FonFs pale into insignificance. And yet, as I said in that post, things have changed from the time when Earl Stevick, John Fanselow Alan Maley and other master craftsmen (I’m afraid they were mostly men) shared their insights with teachers seeking awareness and inspiration. Since the widespread adoption of coursebooks, our freedom as teachers to express our individuality, inventiveness and creativity has shrunk alarmingly, while at the same time, research into the English language and into how people learn languages has greatly expanded. Despite these two decisive changes, we perversely persist in using syllabuses, methodological principles and pedagogic procedures that rob us of the freedom to pursue our craft, and that, at the same time, fly in the face of robust research findings.

My main argument throughout the year has concerned that enormous elephant in the room: ELT coursebooks. Pace the arguments of those who try to defend their use, coursebooks are not just “a symptom”; it’s not just a question of the way you use them, or that they put too much emphasis on grammar teaching, or that they’re tools of imperialism; or even that they’re stultifyingly boring. No, it’s that they have a huge, generally detrimental effect on the practice of ELT, including syllabus design, methodology, and testing. All the discussion of doing things better, of the role of  extensive reading, of what work to do in and outside classrooms, of how to use this or that bit of kit, of whether to teach vocabulary this way or that, of the best way to recycle work, of the efficacy of pronunciation teaching, of when to use the L1, of how to respond to written and spoken errors, and on and on, all take place against the backdrop of using a coursebook which imposes a restrictive and deforming framework on everything we do. We know that synthetic syllabuses, a PPP methodology and an incremental step by step view of progress are based on false assumptions about how people learn an L2, and yet, using the excuse of convenience and bowing to commercial pressure, we plod on regardless. To make matters worse, like politicians refusing to take climate change seriously, our stubborn refusal to face facts blights the future. The coursebook imposes its mistaken methodological principles and pedagogic procedures on teacher training, particularly the CELTA and Trinity College training courses, where learning to be a teacher of English to speakers of other languages is intricately bound up with learning how to use a coursebook.

In a number of posts this year, I’ve replied to those who have defended coursebook-driven ELT (see the Coursebook section of the menu on the right) and, in my opinion, no serious answers to the case against coursebooks have been offered. Penny Ur’s airy  dismissal of any criticism of them; her recent review of SLA research affecting teaching practice (see the Gagged post) where she made no mention of interlanguage research and ignored questions about the implications of interlanguage research for coursebook-driven ELT; and her continued reliance on the argument that the convenience of coursebooks outweighs all other considerations srikes me as typical of too many of today’s so-called ELT experts. Ur’s replies to Thornbury’s questions about the importance of research (“it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever”), her misrepresentation of the research on TBLT (“there’s no evidence that it works”); and her extensive use of the well-known fallacy that “inconclusive” evidence in support of a hypothesis is reason to believe it’s false, are hallmarks of the unreliable expert.

I suggest that we have a right to expect that those whose job it is to oversee the training and on-going professional development of teachers should take robust research findings about how people learn an L2, particularly those regarding interlanguage development, more seriously and make discussion of them part of their books and training courses. Why does Ur’s book A Course in Language Teaching so confidently promote the coursebook and so completely ignore 40 years of interlanguage research?  Why does Harmer’s magnum opus The Practice of ELT (see here for a review ) devote more pages to a discussion of classroom seating arrangements than to a discussion of SLA research? Why does nobody in the ELT establishment (except Scott Thornbury) speak out against all the harm being done by the domination of coursebooks today?

The most obvious answer is “Because ELT is a business” and coursebooks are the perfect way to package what could otherwise be a rather messy “product”.  But I can’t help feeling that a certain insidious complacency is also to blame, especially when I see Ur, Harmer, Dellar and the rest of them jetting around the planet giving teachers everywhere expert advice on how to teach, without ever initiating a serious discussion of the mounting evidence from SLA research which indicates that current ELT methodology is fundamentally mistaken. Dellar’s*** tweet in September from some exotic corner of the globe illustrates the ease with which doubts about current practice can be shrugged off by those who feel themselves to be really in the know: You quickly realise how little the heated debates of the euro-centric #EFL blogosphere have to do with most contexts …. he wrote. Ohers were quick to “Like”.

*** My sincere apologies to Jim Scrivener, to whom I wrongly attributed the tweet when I published this post.

An examination of conference talks given by the leading lights in ELT in 2017 reveals a general lack of awareness and critical acumen that many of us find shocking; and almost as shocking is that these conference talks go almost entirely unchallenged. The bombast and chutzpah of so many in the ELT establishment gels with the gullibility and docility of their audiences to produce a complacent culture lacking any healthy critical edge. This year, every time the twenty or thirty plenary speakers who presently dominate the global ELT conference circuit finished their presentations, they were met with polite applause. Until this is replaced with a cacophony of affronted catcalls, change won’t come; or at least it won’t come from rank and file action, though it might well come soon enough from technological change which makes both coursebooks and most teachers redundant.

In Part 2 I’ll look at some of the daft things our experts said in 2017, including these:

  •  If you encounter the pattern They man-doubled across the place, you know that man-doubled is some kind of way of moving.
  • In academia the established use of ‘native speaker’ as a sociolinguistic category comes from particular paradigmatic discourses of science and is not fixed beyond critical scrutiny.
  • English sometimes seems as if it is everywhere, but in reality, of course, it is not.
  • The NS-NNS distinction is absolutely central to the Chomskyan project.  
  • English migrated to other countries … such as the USA, Canada, New Zealand, … and many other corners of the globe. And it didn’t stop there. It has morphed and spread to other countries too.
  • The way I see it Scott is that ‘interlanguage’ is one of the uglier of many unnecessary neologisms invented by academics, presumably to give them a sense that they are forging a profession: there are plenty of plain English alternatives.
  • Have you read Evans’ The language myth. Why language is not an instinct ? Very good book. Quite an eye-opener.

After the rain came falling, 

And the truth was washed away, 

I called my brother on the telephone, 

Just to see what he would say

The last one is the first stanza of a song, a lament one could say, in response to Brexit. The song inspired the best comment of 2017 from John Clave:

“I experienced such vergüenza ajena I curled up in a ball and rolled under my bed”.


Gregg, K.R. (2006) Taking a social turn for the worse: The language socialization paradigm for second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 22: 413.

One thought on “Reflections of 2017, Part 1

  1. I need to repeat here my apology to Jim Scrivener for wrongly attributing Dellar’s September tweet mentioned in the text, to him. Sorry, Jim.


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