A is for Aspect

20 03 2011

Following on from the discussion on backshift, in which I argued that the past tense had less to do with time and more to do with distance, I want to now turn my attention to aspect – or, at least, to the progressive aspect, initially.

F is for Focus on Form

13 03 2011

In his absurdist, mildly funny novel Nowhere Man (Picador, 2004), Aleksandar Hemon describes a scene where the protagonist, a Bosnian, has applied for a job as an English teacher (‘strictly out of despair’) in an ESL school in Chicago. He is given a tour of the school, and visits an advanced class where there is a discussion in progress about Siamese twins:

“I must say,” the man whom I recognised as Mihalka said, “that it is not perfectly pleasant when I watch them.”

“They are monsters,” said a woman in a dark, stern suit…

“They are humans,” Mihalka said, then lifted his index finger, enunciating an important statement.  “When I had been a little child, I had had a friend who had had a big head…. Every child had told him about his big head and had kicked him with a big stick on his head.  I had been very sad,” Mihalka said, nodding, as if to show the painful recoil of the big head.

“We are learning Past Perfect,” the teacher said to us, and smiled benevolently…

“I must know Past Perfect,” Mihalka said, and shrugged resignedly, as if Past Perfect were death and he were ready for it.

The scene nicely captures a number of the tensions that characterise interaction in the ESL/EFL classroom, not least the tension between, on the one hand, meaningful interaction (“Let’s talk about Siamese twins”) and, on the other, a focus on form (“Let’s use the past perfect”).

(Normally, of course, the focus on form is engineered by the teacher, not the learner. What’s interesting, in this case, is Mihalka’s dogged – if flawed – attempts to use ‘the structure of the day’. Is this because he is conscious that the teacher’s agenda is primarily form-focussed? Or is he the kind of learner who likes to try new forms out for size? Well, we’ll never know.)

Just to remind you, a focus on form “overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication” (Long 1991, quoted in Doughty and Williams 1998, p. 3). Typically, this might take the form of overt correction, or of gentle nudging, e.g. by asking for clarification, or by re-casting (or reformulating) what the learner has said. This incidental approach contrasts with the more traditional and deliberate approach, where teaching is based on a syllabus of graded structures (or forms), and these are pre-taught in advance of activities designed to practise them – what Long called (somewhat confusingly) a focus on formS.

A focus on formS (plural) entails the pre-selection and pre-teaching of discrete items of language (it is thus proactive), whereas a focus on form is essentially reactive, entailing “a prerequisite engagement in meaning before attention to linguistic features can expect to be effective” (Doughty and Williams, ibid. p. 3).   A focus on formS presumes a PPP methodology, where presentation of pre-selected and pre-graded items precedes production, and where it is assumed that fluency arises out of accuracy.  A focus on form, on the other hand, fits better with a task-based approach, where learning is driven solely by the need to communicate and where, as in first language acquisition, accuracy is late-acquired.

Focusing on the form of learner language that has emerged in classroom interaction is also a mainstay of the Dogme philosophy. As Luke Meddings and I point out (in Teaching Unplugged):

Focussing on learners’ lives means that the language that emerges in class will be relevant to them, but there is still work to be done if both you and they are to make the most of it. This is where a focus on form comes in (p. 60).

In our book, we offer some strategies as to how to exploit the language that emerges in classroom interaction so as to incorporate a focus on form, without sacrificing real communication. These include:

1.                  Retrieve what the learner has just said.  Otherwise it will just remain as linguistic “noise”. This might mean simple making an informal note during a speaking activity, or, at times, writing the learner’s utterance on the board.

2.                  Repeat it.  Repeat it yourself; have other learners repeat it – even drill it! Drilling something has the effect of making it stand out from all the other things that happen in a language lesson.

3.                  Recast it.  Reformulate the learners’ interlanguage productions into a more target-like form. This is not the same as correction. It is simply a way of indicating “I know what you’re trying to say; this is how I would say it”.

4.                  Report it.  Ask learners to report what they said and heard in group work. Apart from anything else, knowing that they may have to report on their group work encourages learners to pay attention to what is going on.

5.                  Recycle it. Encourage learners to use the emergent items in new contexts. This may be simply asking for an example of their own that contextualises a new item of vocabulary, or it may involve learners creating a dialogue that embeds several of the new expressions that have come up.

I’m now wondering: in the case of Mihalka, in the ‘Siamese Twin’ lesson quoted above, which of these – if any – might have been the most effective strategy?


Doughty, C., & Williams, J. (eds.) 1998. Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. 2009. Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

B is for Backshift

6 03 2011

Last week the BBC website broadcast the following news item:

28 February 2011 Last updated at 18:08 GMT

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has told the BBC he was loved by all his people and refused to acknowledge there had been any protests in Tripoli.

Col Gaddafi said that his people would die to protect him.

Oddly, the printable version of the same story was subtly different:

28 February 2011 Last updated at 18:08 GMT

Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi has told the BBC he is loved by all his people and has denied there have been any protests in Tripoli.

Col Gaddafi said that his people would die to protect him.

Me and the Colonel

Notice the difference? In the webpage version the writer uses backshift (“…he was loved…”) whereas in the printable version he/she does not: “…he is loved…”

In fact, it was the “he was loved” that first attracted my attention, because of its (deliberate?) ambiguity. He was loved, but no longer? When I went to print the story out, I noticed that the text had been (deliberately?) disambiguated: He is loved.

And, in the same week, I received an email in which the writer wrote:

I picked up the phone and had the pleasure of surprising XXXX … it was soon enough established that he had not forgotten who I was – or should that be ‘am’? -

All of which reminded me of a promise I made to a reader of this blog, some time ago, to answer the following question:

There is this pattern in English that (go back one tense) of using a remote tense

a) if we want to be polite (from present to past)

b) if we want to move from reality and be imaginative (conditional one to conditional two)

c) in reported statements.

So, I was thinking how many different patterns (or grammatical structures), there are in English where one has to move back?

Let’s start with the last first, i.e. the use of backshift in reported speech. Here is how the rule is stated in one pedagogical grammar:

In indirect speech we do not usually repeat the speaker’s exact words.  Reporting usually takes place in the past, so the reporting verb is often in the past. As a result, the tenses of the reporting clause are usually ‘moved back’.  This ‘moving back’ of tenses is called backshift.  A useful general rule is ‘present becomes past and past becomes past perfect'” (Alexander, 1988, p.290).

This is one of those ‘rules’, though, that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, especially in spoken language, where there is a preference anyway for direct speech:

So he says, my people love me. They will die to protect me.

And even when indirect speech is used, there is often a tendency to ignore backshift:

He said that his people love him. And that they will die to protect him.

Tower Junction, Nagercoil: the deictic centre?

In written English, too, the backshift rule operates only if there is temporal distance. Take the sentence that begins a journal entry by Paul Bowles (‘Notes mailed at Nagercoil’  in Their Heads Are Green, 1963):

I have been here in this hotel now for a week.

How would we report that? If you were sitting a grammar test, you’d be wise to transpose it to:

He said he’d been in that hotel then for a week.

But what if the person doing the reporting is not only in the same hotel, but reporting the speaker’s utterance more or less at the time that it is uttered?

He said he’s been in this hotel now for a week.

In other words, reporting has to obey – not the grammar book rules –  but the rules that the context imposes. Even Alexander (1988) acknowledges the fact that “a speaker can choose to report a statement or a question using the tenses that match his viewpoint, based on the facts of the situation as he sees them at the time of speaking” (p.293). That is to say, if there is distance, mark it. If not, don’t.

Which, after all, is why we use the past tense to talk about the past, not so much because the past tense flags pastness, but because it flags distance.

His people love him (now).

His people loved him (then).

This is distance in time. But (as my correspondent noted) the –ed form is also used to flag distance in reality:

He wishes his people still loved him.

If only his people loved him now.

And, finally, the past form is occasionally used to establish social distance, i.e.  as a way of marking politeness:

I’m sorry, what was your name?

I was wondering if you have this in a smaller size?

All of which suggests that we might be better off following the example of a number of linguists (e.g. Lewis, 1986;Yule 1998, ) by referring to the –ed form, not as the past tense, but as the remote form.

And it also suggests that, when teaching reported speech, we should heed the advice of Mike McCarthy:

“Teaching speech reporting should not be over-obsessed with backshift and sequence of tenses with indirect speech at the expense of the rich variety of tense and aspect forms that real data throw up” (McCarthy 1998, p.172).


Alexander, L. (1988) Longman English Grammar. London: Longman.

Lewis, M. (1986) The English Verb. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

McCarthy, M.  (1998). Spoken Language and Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yule, G. (1998). Explaining English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

P is for Phonics

27 02 2011

A recent item on the BBC website (Reading test for six-year-olds to include non-words) reminds us that the debate about phonics continues to polarise educationalists and the public alike. The fact that a government-mandated reading test for six-year-olds is to include nonsense words, like ‘koob’ and ‘zort’, which the children are required to sound out, has incensed advocates of a more meaning- and context-driven approach to developing first language literacy: “It’s just bonkers!” The very mention of  phonics is guaranteed to elicit this kind of knee-jerk reaction in some quarters.

Just to remind you, phonics (to quote the entry from An A-Z of ELT)

is an approach to the teaching of first language reading that is based on the principle of identifying sound-letter relationships, and using this knowledge to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words when reading.

The analytic, bottom-up phonics approach contrasts with a more holistic, top-down approach to developing literacy skills that is called (in the US at least) whole language learning. Whole language learning is premised on the belief that, “in the development of both speech and writing, children begin with a whole and only later develop an understanding of the constituent parts… Parts are harder to learn than wholes because they are more abstract. We need the whole to provide a context for the parts” (Freeman & Freeman, 1998, p. 65).

Because so much is at stake (i.e. first language literacy, and hence access to all the ‘cultural capital’ that goes with being able to read and write) the debate between advocates of phonics, on the one hand, and of whole language learning, on the other, has become iconic – representing as it does the war between traditionalists (‘teach the facts’) and the progressivisits (‘nurture the child’). The former claim that there can be no learning without knowledge of the system (i.e. the rules), while the latter claim that the only real learning is self-directed, socially-situated, and experiential.

Supporters of the phonics position cite research studies that suggest that the best predictors of reading ability are good phoneme-identification skills (the ability to sound out a word like c-a-t) and a knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, enabling accurate decoding of the written word. In one of a series of studies, for example, Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley (1995) found that children who had been instructed in phonemic awareness in pre-school “were superior in nonword [i.e. nonsense word] reading 2 and 3 years later and in reading comprehension at 3 years” (cited in Grabe & Stoller, 2002).

Advocates of whole language learning, on the other hand, argue that learning to read emerges out of immersion in a world of texts. “Children growing up in literate societies are surrounded by print. They begin to be aware of the functions of written language and to play at its use long before they come to school. School continues and extends this immersion in literacy…” (Goodman & Goodman, 1990, p. 225). Krashen (1999) cites a number of studies that show that what he calls ‘free voluntary reading’ “profoundly improves our reading ability, our writing ability, our spelling, our grammar, and our vocabulary” (p. 54).

Is there a compromise position? In her fascinating book, Proust and the Squid, (Wolf, 2008), Maryanne Wolf argues that successful decoding is contingent upon “knowing the meaning”, and that “for some children, knowledge of a word’s meaning pushes their halting decoding into the real thing”. One clue to a word’s meaning is its context, and an understanding of context requires reading skills, such as predicting and inferencing, of a more global kind than simply knowledge of sound-letter relationships. And it also assumes the existence of an already extensive and well-connected lexicon: “The more established our knowledge of a word, the more accurately and rapidly we read it” (p. 153).

Thus, successful readers are able to marshall both bottom-up (i.e. phonics) and top-down (i.e. whole language) processes more or less simultaneously, drawing on the one when the other is less reliable. Effective teaching of reading, arguably, achieves a similar balance. In the Reading Recovery approach, as pioneered by Marie M. Clay, the child’s reading aloud is supported and scaffolded by the teacher, allowing both a bottom-up or a top-down focus, as appropriate. As Clay & Cazden (1992) observe:

This program should be differentiated from both ‘whole language’ and ‘phonics.’  It differs from most whole language programs in recognising the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print.  It differs from phonics in conceptualising phonological awareness as an outcome of reading and writing rather than as their prerequisite (pp. 129-130).

How does all this relate to second language learning? As I point out in An A-Z of ELT “the phonics debate is less of an issue [for us] since most adult second language learners are already literate”.  Nevertherless, the more fundamental argument – as to whether the parts should be taught in advance of the whole, or vice versa – is just as relevant to  language teaching as it is to literacy learning, and just as capable of inflaming similar passions.


Clay, M. & Cazden, C. (1992) A Vygotskian interpretation of reading recovery. In Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freeman, Y.,  & Freeman, D.  (1998).  ESL/EFL Teaching: Principles for Success. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goodman, Y., & Goodman, K. (1990). Vygotsky in a whole language perspective. In Moll, L. (ed.) Vygotsky and Education: Instructional implications and applications  of sociohistorical psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. (2002). Teaching and Researching Reading. Harlow: Pearson.

Krashen, S. (1999). Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They are Wrong. Portsmouth, NH.: Heinemann.

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain. Thriplow: Icon Books.

R is for Rules

20 02 2011

On the bus the other day I overheard three Spanish-speaking schoolgirls discussing their English homework, coursebooks open on their laps. The conversation went something like this:

A: ¿El ‘present simple’, qué es el ‘present simple’? (The present simple – what’s the present simple?)

B: Es para las cosas que siempre vas a hacer. (It’s for the things that you’re always going to do).

A: Pues, el ‘present continuous’ – ¿de qué se trata? (Well, the present continuous – what’s that all about?)

C: Es para las cosas que tu haces una sola vez. Por ejemplo, ‘Yesterday I going shopping’. (It’s for the things you do only once. For example [in English], ‘Yesterday I going shopping’).

B: Y ¿’will’? (And ‘will’?)

A: Es para hablar del futuro, como ‘yo voy a ayudar a mis amigos’. (It’s to talk about the future, as in [in Spanish] ‘I’m going to help my friends’).

These girls were in ther mid-teens, I guessed, and had probably been doing three or four years of English already – three or four years learning, and attempting to apply (but with such conspicuous lack of success) some of the most basic rules of English grammar. Which led me to wonder, what earthly good had these rules done them? And, more radically, what earthly good are rules at all?

I’m not, of course, disputing the fact that language consists of certain patterns and regularities. I’m simply sceptical of the value of teaching these regularities in the form of explicit rules. Especially when the rules have so little obvious utility. As Chris Brumfit (2001) wrote, “it is common to believe that teaching the descriptive rules is to teach the means of generating the behaviour itself” ( p 29.) Clearly, this was not happening to the girls on the bus.

And it’s not just schoolgirls who find grammar rules hard to get their heads around. Some of the best minds in the business are ‘grammatically challenged’. Take, for instance,  the eminent linguist Dick Schmidt, who recorded this classroom experience when learning Portuguese in Brazil:

The class started off with a discussion of the imperfect vs. perfect, with C [the teacher] eliciting rules from the class. She ended up with more than a dozen rules on the board — which I am never going to remember when I need them. I’m just going to think of it as background and foreground and hope that I can get a feel for the rest of it (Schmidt & Frota, 1986, p. 258).

Which he did – by heading out into the street and trying it on with the locals. The fact that some learners, at least, dispense with rules should give us pause. After all, if we take the view that, as Ellis (2007) puts it, “language is not a collection of rules and target forms to be acquired, but rather a by-product of communicative processes ” (p. 23), then surely communication is the name of the game.

But what about accuracy? The argument that – without knowledge of rules – accuracy will suffer doesn’t hold much water either. As J. Hulstijn (1995) remarks, “It is perfectly well possible to focus learners’ attention on grammatical correctness without explicitly teaching grammar” (p.383). That is, after all, the function of feedback and correction.

And yet part of me can’t entirely dismiss the value of rules – or of some rules, at least – if for no other reason than for their mnemonic value, like the mantra-like spelling rules we learn as children and still invoke as adults: “i before e, except after c“. In support of this view, cognitive scientists have studied the role that such memorised rules play in ‘self-scaffolding’ learned routines, the frequent practice of which “enables the agent to develop genuine expertise and to dispense with the rehearsal of the helpful mantra” (Clark, 2011, p. 48).

Moreover, taking a socio-cultural perspective, might not grammar rules serve as a kind of symbolic tool, providing learners the means to regulate their own performance – a form of ‘private speech’, as it were?

Indeed, Lantolf & Thorne (2006), acknowledging the importance that Vygotsky himself credited “to well-articulated explict knowledge as the object of instruction and learning” (p. 291),  describe a number of studies of second language learners for whom self-verbalization of quite sophisticated grammatical concepts seemed to assist in their subsequent internalization.

If this is the case, my three schoolgirl companions – immersed in the process of jointly constructing knowledge out of explicit rules of grammar: were they on the right track, even if a long way from their desired destination?


Brumfit, C. (2001). Individual Freedom in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, A. (2011). Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, N. (2007). Dynamic systems and SLA: The wood and the trees. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10/1.

Hulstijn, J. (1995). Not all grammar rules are equal: Giving grammar instruction its proper place in foreign language teaching. In Schmidt, R. (ed.) Attention and Awareness in Foreign Language Learning. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Lantolf, J., & Thorne, S. (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt. R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner. In R. Day (Ed.). Talking to learn: Conversation in a second language. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Illustrations from Carpentier-Fialip, P. & Carpentier-Fialip, M. (1931). L’Anglais Vivant: Classe de sixième. Paris: Hachette.

D is for Dreams

13 02 2011

“I have a recurring ‘teaching dream’, usually on the night before a new teaching semester. I am required to teach a class, but arrive there to find that it is not a square classroom but an L-shaped one, so that I can’t see all the students. Those around the corner are of course doing something else and I am helpless to stop them”.

An article in the New York Times, about dreaming in different languages, reminded me of some data I collected a few years back on the nature of teachers’ dreams – particularly teachers in training. The example above (‘The L-shaped classroom’) is typical.  The (somewhat informal and never published) research was prompted by the following comment in a trainee teacher’s journal:

“Throughout the whole night I dreamt I was making lesson plans, teaching, practising etc. I don’t know if it’s normal, or if I’m going a bit nuts”.

Having had plenty of teaching dreams myself (these days I have conference dreams!), I decided to investigate, and collected a number of dreams, both from trainees on pre-service courses at IH Barcelona, and from the wider world, via online teachers discussion lists.

The study – if you can call it that – subscribed to an ethnographic research tradition that legitimates personal narratives as a means of accessing how student and novice teachers experience and cope with change. As Donald Freeman puts it, “The notion of teachers’ stories is useful and powerful in considerding what teachers know and how their knowledge develops over time” (Freeman 1996, p. 101).  It was also predicated on the belief that, in Kagan’s (1992) words, “the practice of classroom teaching remains forever rooted in personality and experience and that learning to teach requires a journey into the deepest recesses of one’s self-awareness, where failures, fears, and hopes are hidden” (p. 163). Teachers’ dreams seemed but one way of accessing these ‘deeper recesses’.

What I was particularly interested in was the extent to which teachers’ dreams reflected the concerns of both novice and experienced teachers as documented in the literature on teacher development.  Fuller and Bown (1975), for example, found that the concerns of preservice teachers are typically

early concerns about survival. … They are concerned about class control, their mastery of content to be taught, and evaluations by their supervisors. They wonder whether they will ever learn to teach at all. This is a period of great stress (p. 38).

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my ‘dream corpus’ displayed similar anxieties. These I categorised as

1. Problem-setting dreams, as when the dreamer dreams incessantly about lesson planning;

2. Rule-breaking dreams, when the dreamer realises he/she is behaving delinquently;

3. Loss of control dreams, where the teacher is incapable of maintaining order; and

4. Role mis-match dreams, where the dreamer’s identity as a teacher is ambiguous or confused, as in this example:

“I dreamed that I was talking to this girl who I was in highschool with, I told her I was going to be a teacher and she just started laughing (What? You! A teacher?) and tried to talk me out of it”.

More experienced teachers also have loss-of-control dreams, but, more typically, dreams about not being prepared, as in this example:

“I suddenly remember that I will begin to teach a class in a few hours that I have totally forgotten about. I have done no preparation at all. I enter the classroom and see a roomful of hostile looking students. They glare at me and begin to chant ‘Teach me teach me’ over and over. I try to come up with an appropriate idea to explain. I explain it and then stare at them. I begin to sweat, and stutter. I can see that they are unimpressed by my ideas.  I usually awaken at this point”.

Other common dream types include dreams about institutional constraints, including getting to class on time:

“I discover that I’m one hour late for class and then I can’t remember which building it’s in, or I’m in the wrong building across campus, or I suddenly realize that classes started the day before and I missed a whole day”.

And, very occasionally, teachers’ dreams are not about their fears at all. Just as the principle underlying the invention of the sewing machine was reputed to have been conceived in a  dream, some dreams are actually creative, as in this example:

“One feedback session, [the teaching practice tutor] made a general suggestion that I incorporate mime into a warmer for a lesson I was preparing. The idea struck me as being interesting, and it burbled around in the back of my mind all that evening. I planned my lesson, and inserted a mime item in the warmer.  As I drifted off to sleep, mimers and mime ideas drifted along with me [and] I woke with the clearest vision of what to do with mime in the warmer. I followed these new ideas in my lesson, and that part of the lesson went like a dream”.


Freeman, D. 1996. ‘Redefining the relationship between research and what teachers know’. In Bailey, K., & Nunan, D. (eds.) Voices from the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fuller, F.F., and Bown, O.H. 1975. ‘Becoming a teacher’. In Ryan (ed.) Teacher Education: The 75th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education Part II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kagan, D. 1992.  ‘Professional growth among preservice and beginning teachers’. Review of Educational Research 62:2, 129-69.

Illustrations from Alexander, L. 1968. Look, Listen, Learn! London: Longman.

C is for Core Inventory

6 02 2011

"I've got a little list!" (Gilbert & Sullivan)

Here’s the scenario: a group of scholars, drawing on their own intuitions, on their collective classroom experience, and on the syllabuses of current bestselling coursebooks (but not on any corpus data), compile an “inventory of sentence patterns and grammatical structures”, organized into six levels of language proficiency, and designed as an aid, among other things, “in the planning of curricula and syllabuses for particular needs…, [and] for prospective practicing teachers of English, so as to give them a survey of the grammatical part of the field”.

The inventory “is not intended to be a comprehensive description of English grammatical structure. On the contrary, it is meant to be limited and selective. Nor is it textbook, though the authors hope that will provide source material for textbook writers.” It provides exemplar sentences and related lexis typically associated with the structures it lists. But the authors caution that “as a general syllabus, it is bound to need adaptation for particular circumstances.”

If you have been following the development of the “core inventory” by the British Council, in association with EAQUALS, all this will sound familiar. But in fact what I have just described is not the British Council/EAQUALS project. It was actually a book called English Grammatical Structure, published in 1975, and jointly authored by Louis Alexander, W. Stannard Allen, R.A. Close, and Robert O’Neill.

Now, in exactly the same fashion, using the same procedures, and for – ostensibly – the same purposes, but with considerably more hoopla, The Core Inventory of General English (North et al, 2010) has burst on the scene. It takes the six levels of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and maps on to these “the different aspects of the language that need to be mastered for progress to be made”, these “different aspects” being primarily grammatical structures, plus functions, vocabulary areas, discourse markers and topics. And, as its compilers repeatedly insist: “It is a description, not a prescription” (North, 2010). “The Inventory is not telling teachers what to teach; rather it is describing what teachers are teaching with the intention of informing discussion and providing teachers and syllabus writers with guidance” (Sheehan, 2010).

So, why do we need another inventory? Well, presumably so as to put flesh on to the bones of the CEFR, by “providing a practical inventory of language points that should be part of a balanced course at each level of the CEFR” (North, et al. p. 3, emphasis added).

But why do we need an inventory at all, especially one that is derived only from coursebooks and intuitions, rather than from, say, corpus data? Why do we need to ‘hold up a mirror’ to current practice? What is so great about current practice that suggests it should be codified in this way?

And how – more to the point – will this inventory be used? The writers disingenuously warn against its use as a template for course design or testing. But what else could it be used for?

In short, while I recognise that the attempt to flesh out the CEFR descriptors is well-intentioned, I’m a little sceptical of the value of the BC/EAQUALS core inventory (or of any inventory, for that matter, that is not compiled on the basis of a thorough and ongoing analysis of the learners’ specific needs).

Specifically, these are the problems I have with it:

  • Not being based on actual usage, e.g. on corpus data, it cannot be a reliable reflection of what specific CEFR competencies entail, nor does it necessarily reflect the relative frequency of the items listed;
  • By drawing (in part) on coursebook syllabi, it perpetuates a predominantly ‘verb tense’ view of grammar (see p. 40, for instance), and is biased towards written, rather than spoken, grammar;
  • It seems to be based on an idealised native-speaker model of competence, rather than on what a successful L2 user might be capable of (see Cook 1999);
  • By describing competence in terms of ‘language points’, it implies that language learning is the incremental acquisition of discrete entities, and that language use simply involves their bottom-up assembly and delivery;
  • By the same token, it fails to problematise notions like ‘mastery’ and ‘progress': mastery in whose terms? progress towards what? etc;
  • It claims to be a ‘core’ inventory, yet its users are encouraged to be selective when using it;
  • And, finally, it claims to be purely descriptive, but the temptation to base syllabi and exams on it will be irresistable.

To my way of thinking, the real virtue of the CEFR is that it doesn’t specify linguistic content. Instead, it simply identifies key communicative competences. In this sense, it is entirely compatible with a communicative and task-based approach: teach for the communicative objective, not the ‘structure of the day’. Dressing the CEFR up in grammar McNuggets leads us, yet again, back into the dark ages.

Or am I missing something?


Alexander, L.G., Stannard Allen, A., Close, R.A., & O’Neill, R.J. 1975. English Grammatical Structure. Harlow: Longman.

Cook, V. 1999. ‘Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching’. TESOL Quarterly, 33.

North, B. 2010. ‘A CEFR Core Curriculum’. EL Gazette, December 2010, Issue 371, p. 6.

North, B., Ortega, A., & Sheehan, S. 2010. A Core Inventory of General English. British Council/EAQUALS.

Sheehan, S. 2010. ‘Reflecting good practice, not setting rules’. Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 9 November 2010.


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