* Principles and Practice


As teachers, we often discuss how we do things – teach pronunciation, use lexical chunks, give feedback, do business simulations, run a chat room, prepare and select classroom materials, and so on – but we seldom discuss why we do them. Put another way: we rarely examine the methodological principles which underlie what we do. At present we teachers use an eclectic assortment of hit-and-miss methods which are based on unstated and often contradictory principles. In this post, I’d like to suggest that if we articulated the principles which underlie our teaching practices, we’d reveal the inadequacies of much of what we currently do. And if we were then given the chance to change our practice, we’d become better, more independent teachers.


Here’s a bit of evidence to support the claim that methodological principles are mostly ignored (on the grounds that the justification somehow speaks for itself).

* OneStopEnglish, MacMillan’s flagship website gives this summary of Communicative Language Teaching: “We’ve stepped back from the extremes of the totally communicative classroom, with its obsession about reducing teacher talking time to a minimum. …. A more balanced approach gives opportunities for structural input. …. Now there is an emphasis on more authentic contexts with example sentences being at least semi-authentic and potentially of communicative use”. Not a word is spent explaining why this “more balanced” approach recommends itself: “It’s obvious!”

* If you fancy the lexical approach, Hugh Dellar exhorts teachers around the world to “Keep it real”. “Teach what people really say in English, stick to typical contexts, focus on institutionalised sentences.” “Conversations must be given priority.” “Don’t teach single words.” Dellar tells us neither how nor why we should do as he suggests, but that’s because he thinks that once we shake off the tyranny of grammar-based PPP teaching, and realise that “language is grammaticalised lexis”, well the rest is obvious!

* Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener are so anxious to ensure that “Demand High” doesn’t get mistaken for just another method (it’s a meme, OK?), that it’s hard to pin down exactly what they think we should do as teachers; they seem in constant danger of disappearing into the mystic ether. But anyway, in one attempt to touch base, Underhill manages to give this more or less practical bit of advice: “The teacher can encourage the student to go back over what he is saying several times, integrating some new variable on each occasion .. until it sounds as if he has captured at least something of the spirit of the language”. How the teacher goes about such transformational encouragement we’re not told, and, once again, no explanation for why the teacher should bother trying is offered. Presumably Underhill thinks it’s obvious.

* The British Council website asks its readers “Did you know that you have to see a new word at least five times before you can usually use it and include it in your ‘active’ vocabulary?” This dubious piece of knowledge is followed by suggestions on how to make “a class word bag” to help learners learn new vocabulary. Yet again, the writer simply assumes that word bags are a good thing: “It’s obvious”.

But is it obvious? Should we assume that using example sentences which are at least semi-authentic, or never teaching single words, or helping students to capture the spirit of the language, or making word bags are examples of good ELT practice? The answer is, of course: No, we shouldn’t. We should ask ourselves why we do what we do and try to make explicit the principles which we teach by. Below are two examples of attempts to do this.


Methodological Principles of TBLT

In the elaboration of their task-based syllabus, Doughty and Long articulate ten Methodological Principles (MPs) which inform pedagogic procedures. While the principles are language teaching universals, the pedagogic procedures comprise the potentially infinite range of local options for realizing the principles at the classroom level. I’ve discussed these 10 MPs elsewhere, but let me just sketch a few of them here.

MP2: Promote Learning by Doing. Practical hands-on experience with real-world tasks brings abstract concepts and theories to life and makes them more understandable. New knowledge is better integrated into long-term memory and more easily retrieved if tied to real-world events and activities.

MP4: Provide Rich Input. Linguistically simplified input is impoverished. Controlling grammar, vocabulary and sentence length results in a more limited source of target-language use. The impoverished samples are worked and reworked in class and learners are expected to learn the full language on the basis of access to extremely limited data. Adult foreign language learners require not just complex input, but rich input . This will usually mean task-specific and domain-specific target-language use not typically found in commercially published language teaching materials.

MP6: Focus on Form Comprehensible L2 input is necessary, but not sufficient: periodic attention to language as object is needed. This is best achieved not by a return to discrete-point grammar teaching, or focus on forms, where students work on isolated linguistic structures in a sequence predetermined and imposed externally by a textbook writer, in conflict with the learner’s internal syllabus. Rather, during an otherwise meaning-focused lesson, learners’ attention is briefly shifted to linguistic code features in context, to induce “noticing”.

MP7: Provide Negative Feedback. Recasts are proposed as an ideal (but not the only) form of negative feedback in TBLT because they don’t intrude on the processing of meaning during task accomplishment and they don’t depend upon metalinguistic discussion of a language problem. Recasts are pervasive in child-adult discourse and in L2 classroom discourse.

MP8: Respect Developmental Processes and “Learner Syllabuses” There is strong evidence for various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development. Acquisition sequences don’t reflect instructional sequences, and teachability is constrained by learnability . The idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, but wrong.

Equally well attested in the literature are the beneficial effects of instruction in such areas as accelerating passage through the sequences and extending the scope of application of grammatical rules and in generally improving accuracy, rate of learning, and level of ultimate attainment. The question, then, is how to harmonize instruction with the learner’s internal syllabus. TBLT does this by employing an analytic, not synthetic, syllabus, thereby avoiding futile attempts to impose an external linguistic syllabus on learners and, instead, providing input that is at least roughly tuned to learners’ current processing capacity.

Methodological Principles of Dogme

The second example is Thornbury (2013), who uses the Richards and Schmidt (2002) template to articulate the methodological principles of Dogme. Recall that the ELT version of Dogme was born from frustration at “materials-driven lessons” and from a belief that “teaching should centre on the local and relevant concerns of the people in the room”. Nothing should interfere with “the free flow of participant-driven input, output and feedback”. Here’s Scott’s summary:

“1.The nature of language: language is a resource for making meaning and is realised as discourse, either written or spoken, which is constructed from elements of varying degrees of conventionality (words, collocations, verb patterns etc);
2. The nature of second language learning: learning occurs when these elements are enlisted in discourse for the purposes of making meaning, and shaped and refined in response to implicit or explicit feedback and instruction;
3. Goals of teaching: to enable learners to become resourceful and self-directed language users, by providing the optimal conditions for discourse creation, and the linguistic means for doing this;
4. The type of syllabus to use: an emergent syllabus (of lexis, constructions, genres etc) that evolves as a (negotiated) response to the learners’ developing needs and abilities;
5. The role of teachers, learners and instructional materials: the teacher motivates and scaffolds interactions between learners, providing instruction at the point of need, using materials contributed or accessed principally by the learners themselves;
6. The activities, techniques and procedures to be used: these are not prescribed, but would need to be consistent with the above goals, contextually appropriate, and mutually agreed. They are likely to share features with the practices of task-based instruction or whole-language learning.”

So there they are: two rather different approaches to organising ELT. Both articulate basic principles of methodology, and in doing so, both take account of research findings in SLA. I personally think that they’re right to base their pedagogical procdures on methodological principles, and that they’re right to suggest that these principles call into question current ELT practice. The principles minimally outlined here suggest that we should reject our heavy reliance on coursebooks and commercially-produced ELT materials; reject any synthetic / product-based syllabus; reject grammar-based lessons; and reject the traditional roles of teachers, learners and materials.

What if?

What if we followed these suggestions? What if teachers in their own local communities got together to examine their methodological principles and, using the Richards and Schmidt (2002) template, articulated their own answers? What if they agreed that all product-based syllabuses offend the basic principle of respect for the learner’s own interlanguage development? What if they agreed that coursebooks act as straight-jackets; fail to provide the rich input their learners need; impose an eroneus view of grammar on teachers and learners; and are stuffed with cultural biases which reflect the need to sell in a global market where Western culture is assumed to be highly valued?

What if they agreed in Community X with Thornbury that “teaching should be driven by conversation”; or in Community Y with Doughty and Long that we should base teaching practice on practical hands-on experience with real-world tasks? What if they agreed to place more emphasis on a discourse-level rather than sentence-level approach to language? What if they adopted Dogme’s principles of interactivity (teachers and students must together build the course they participate in), of a pro-active approach to content (students must engage in the creation and discussion of content), of the construction of knowledge (learning is social and dialogic, knowledge is co-constructed ), and of learner-centred lessons where prime place is given to the learner’s voice? Or what if, instead, they decided to adopt a task-based approach based on the principles proposed by Doughty and Long?

If enough of us chose to substitute product-based syllabuses using coursebooks produced by major publishers for a process syllabus, based on either Dogme principles or the TBLT principles outlined anew by Long (2014), we’d revolutionise our profession. Alas, those who control the multi-billion dollar ELT industry make sure that such a choice is never offered to those who actually do the teaching.


Doughty, C. and Long, M. (2003) “Optimal Psycholinguistic Environments for Distance Foreign Language Learning” http://llt.msu.edu/vol7num3/doughty/default.html
Long, M. (2014) SLA and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley.
Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged. London: Delta.
Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (eds.) (2002). Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.) Harlow: Longman.
Thornbury, S. (2013) Dogme: hype, evolution or intelligent design? The Language Teacher 37.4.

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