An A-Z of ELT

8 12 2009

In 2006 I wrote An A-Z of ELT – an encyclopedia-dictionary of terminology relating to English language and English language teaching. As soon as it was published (by Macmillan) I was already planning an update. Hence this blog, which I used as a means both of revising and updating existing entries, and with a view to creating new entries.

I’m pleased to say that the new edition of An A-Z of ELT has now been published – called The New A-Z of ELT – informed in no small part by this blog. In anticipation of yet another edition, let the blogging continue!
I support the round
Some of the most popular posts on this blog have been re-worked in the form of an e-book, called Big Questions in ELT, which is published by The Round.

F is for Functions

20 08 2017

7th function of languageThere are not many novels whose theme is linguistics but the book I took to read on vacation is one of them. It’s called The Seventh Function of Language, and is by the French writer Laurent Binet (2015; English translation 2017). It’s a sort of whacky thriller that plays with the idea that the death of the French semiotician, linguist and literary theorist Roland Barthes (he was run over by a laundry van only hours after lunching with François Mitterand in 1980) was not an accident. It appears that Barthes had stumbled upon an as yet unidentified function of language – one so powerful that, in the wrong hands, it might wreak havoc.

In order to enlighten the lay reader, Binet recaps the six functions of language as identified by one of Barthes’ most important influences, the Russian-born linguist Roman Jakobson, and spelled out in a lecture Jakobson gave when assuming the presidency of the Linguistic Society of America in 1956.

These six functions map neatly on to each of the six dimensions of any speech event – the context, the addresser and addressee, the physical and psychological channel (or contact) between them, the language (or code), and the message itself. They are

  1. the referential function, i.e. the way language refers to the context, whether local or global, real or imagined, in which it is used – e.g. ‘It’s 35 degrees in the shade.’
  2. the emotive, or expressive function, i.e. the way that addressers encode their attitude, or their degree of commitment, to the message, e.g. ‘It’s too darned hot!’
  3. the conative function, where the focus is on the addressee, e.g. in the form of a command: ‘Why don’t you turn on the fan?’
  4. the phatic function, where language is being used to lubricate the channel of contact, irrespective of its content, as when we make small talk: ‘Hot enough for you?’
  5. the metalinguistic function, where language itself is the focus, as in ‘How do you say heat-wave in Swedish?’ and
  6. the poetic function, where language draws attention to itself – its form, style, and aesthetics – as in the playful use of rhyme in the line ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.’ Or, more sublimely, the cadences of Shakespeare’s song:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages…

Jakobson himself noted that ‘although we distinguish six basic aspects of language, we could, however, hardly find verbal messages that would fulfill only one function’ (1990, p. 73).  That is to say, any one utterance can encode different functions, just as one function can be realized by various linguistic means.

Laurent BinetThe Binet novel is a useful reminder as to how seminal a figure Jakobson was: arguably the most influential linguist of the 20th century.

Born in Moscow in 1896, he studied philology but, even at a young age, he was frustrated by the failure of linguistics to see beyond the ‘scattered parts’ of language, thereby ignoring how it functions as a whole. In 1920 he moved to Prague and helped form the ‘Prague Circle’ where he was able to pursue his interest in the way that the parts of language – specifically its phonemes – form an interconnected system, whereby the parts can only be described in relation to other parts. Because of this concern for the inherent systematicity of language, Jakobson aligns with the structuralist tradition dating back to Saussure. But it would be wrong to think of Jakobson’s linguistics as purely formal (in the American tradition of Fries and Chomsky) and that he disregarded meaning: his interest in the functions of language – a line of enquiry he further elaborated after moving to the US in 1939 – attests to his ‘bi-focal’ view of language. Indeed, as Waugh and Monville-Burston note, in the introduction to their edition of Jakobson’s works (1990, p. 14):

For the Prague Circle, functionalism and structuralism were inseparable. Jakobson himself described his theory of language as one in which function (language as a tool for communication) and structure (language as a lawful governed whole) are combined…: language is structured so as to be suitable for communication.

The pedagogical implications of this two-pronged view of language continue to reverberate – and to challenge teachers and course designers alike. How do you reconcile the fact that language is a tool for communication while at the same time it is a rule-governed system (of considerable intricacy and complexity)? The pendulum seems to swing both ways without ever finding a point of equilibrium.

Thus, for structuralist-influenced approaches, such as audiolingualism, the syllabus was unapologetically structural and the major focus of instruction was pattern practice – although it would misrepresent audiolingualism to say that it ignored communication entirely. Indeed, a key document in the audiolingual canon observes that ‘probably the best way to practice a foreign language is to use it in communicating with others. Thus, teachers should provide time for meaning-oriented practice’ (Krohn 1971, p. viii).

JakobsonOn the other hand, the communicative approach, in seeking to redress the prevailing structural bias by substituting a syllabus of functions or tasks, may have erred in the opposite direction. Besides, as Brumfit was one of the first to point out, (1978, p. 41), a functional syllabus simply replaces one set of discrete-items with another: ‘No inventory of language items can itself capture the essence of communication.’

The reversion to a grammatical syllabus that now drives most general English programs, although notionally ‘communicative’ in their allegiance, seems to have sent the pendulum swinging back again.

It is testimony to the greatness of Jakobson that he was able to bestride these two poles with enormous intellectual, cultural and linguistic authority. It’s only a pity that he had no advice to give us language teachers.

Meanwhile – is there a seventh function of language? Well, you will have to read Binet to find out!


Binet, L. (2017)The 7th Function of Language (translated by S. Taylor). London: Harvill Secker.

Brumfit, C.J. (1978) “‘Communicative” language teaching: an assessment’, in P. Strevens (ed.) In Honour of A.S. Hornby. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krohn, R. (1971) English sentence structure. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jakobson, R. (1990) On Language. Edited by Waugh, L. R. & M. Monville-Burston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

L is for Language arts

13 08 2017

language arts blackboardAt the very end of an intensive summer of methodology and language analysis, one of my MA TESOL students, who I will call Alice, confessed that it had taken her until that point to realize that TESOL is ‘different’. “You need to understand that I come from a language arts teaching background,” she told me. “It seems that teaching ELLs [English language learners] is not the same”.

On reflection, this insight explained a lot about the struggle Alice had been having, both in her practical teaching classes, and in her written assignments, especially those that required an understanding of how texts could be exploited in class. In her classes she had often used her energetic and engaging manner to focus her students’ attention on unusual or literary features of language, such as idioms and the use of figurative language – irrespective of her students’ level, and at considerable cost to their comprehension.  When her display questions elicited blank stares she seemed to assume it was because they lacked knowledge of the topic, not that they lacked the necessary language – particularly the vocabulary – with which to understand her or to respond. And, in her written assignments, she chose texts or topics for classroom exploitation that were way beyond an average ELL’s capacity to process.

Alice’s ‘epiphany’ made me think that perhaps we don’t do enough – at the outset of the program  – to distinguish between these two very different disciplines, i.e. language arts teaching and language teaching. Because they both involve language, and, specifically, the English language, it is tempting to assume that they share the same goals, methods, and learner profiles. And that the experience of teaching one would be ideal preparation for teaching the other.

But I would argue that there are more differences than similarities.

language arts free expressionTo start with the most obvious: students of language arts are, generally speaking, already fluent in the language of instruction, for most of whom it is their first language. What’s more, they come to class with a receptive vocabulary of several thousand words. They are equipped to understand most everything their teacher says to them, or gives them to read.

ELLs, on the other hand, are seldom already fluent (that’s why they have enrolled in classes in the first place), and have a limited lexicon: the average low-intermediate student may have a sight vocabulary of fewer than a thousand words. Apart from anything else, this makes reading and listening of anything but the most simplified texts an enormous challenge. Hence they need help – not in appreciating the writer’s style, or inferencing the text’s covert message  – but in cracking the code and releasing its literal (not literary) meaning. And they need a teacher who is able to grade her language appropriately to ensure understanding.

Moreover, the kinds of texts they will need to unpack are unlikely to be expressive or poetic ones, but utilitarian, even prosaic ones, such as instruction manuals, legal documents, academic abstracts, and so on. This doesn’t mean that there is no room for expressive and imaginative writing in the ESOL classroom, but that there is little point in having learners engage with ‘higher order’ texts until their basic reading strategies are in place.

language arts libraryLikewise, the goal of language production, whether speaking or writing, is first and foremost, intelligibility. Again, this will require a core vocabulary and a basic grammar – not a style-guide grammar (as in Never use the passive voice when you can use the active) but a nuts-and-bolts grammar (such as Adjectives generally always go before the noun and To make a question, invert the subject and the auxiliary verb).  And, of course, they will need pronunciation and spelling that are comprehensible even if they are unlikely ever to be native-like.

To sum up, then: here are some of the major differences between teaching language arts and teaching language. (Is this perhaps something we should introduce to trainee language teachers on Day 1?)

language arts chart

(This post first appeared on The New School MA TESOL blog Uncharted ESOL in September 2015).

P is for (Thomas) Prendergast

6 08 2017

Thomas Prendergast.jpgThe mention of Thomas Prendergast in my last post sparked a couple of enquiries. Who was he and what was his method?

For all his working life, Thomas Prendergast (1806 – 1886) was, like his father before him, a civil servant in the East India Company, during which time he learned at least two of India’s indigenous languages, Hindustani and Telugu. On retirement in his fifties, he returned to England where (now blind) he spent his remaining years developing what he called his ‘Mastery’ system, published in 1864 as The Mastery of Languages or, the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically, along with accompanying teaching materials in a variety of languages.

Essentially, his method involved the cumulative memorization of a set of exemplary sentences and the subset of sentences that can be derived (or ‘evolved’) from each of them. With remarkable foresight, Prendergast had observed that children seem to achieve fluency by memorizing entire sequences of words – what we would now call chunks or constructions. They are also able to combine and re-combine these elements in creative ways. Accordingly, Prendergast set about trying to identify the most frequent constructions, albeit only those that qualified as well-formed sentences. Prendergast’s sentences were not graded from the simple to the more complex. Rather, they were deliberately contrived to pack in as much syntax as possible, the test of their usefulness being the number of less complex sentences that could be generated from them. Because children are able to derive the grammar from constructions without explicit instruction, Prendergast was adamant that all grammar explanation was ‘prohibited’.

Prendergast’s Mastery system seems to have enjoyed some degree of success in its time and was adapted to the teaching of a number of languages. It was soon overtaken, however, by the arrival of the Reform Movement, and the kind of ‘direct method’ that was popularized by M. Berlitz.

Nevertheless, in many ways, Prendergast’s system prefigured developments in methodology that were way ahead of their time. One of these was the use of what later came to be known as substitution tables: i.e. tables that display the way that words and sentence elements can be combined. Also, his belief that mastery of a limited ‘core’ of structures and vocabulary could serve as a foundation for later proficiency contrasted with his contemporaries, for whom principles of selection or grading were largely ignored. But perhaps most remarkable was his insight that fluency, at least in part, results from having a memorized store of fixed and semi-fixed formulaic utterances. Unfortunately, by supposing that these ‘chunks’ consisted of whole, syntactically well-formed sentences, his method – in Howatt’s words – ‘turned the wrong corner’ (2004, p. 176). It would take another half-century before this misstep would be corrected, and the units of fluent production would be re-envisaged, neither as words nor sentences, but as ‘word groups’ (Palmer 1921).

Nevertheless, to give you a flavour of just how innovative Prendergast was, here is a selection of quotes:

On grammar

‘Although no one has ventured to maintain that the words “language” and “grammar” are synonymous, there prevails the notion that a knowledge of grammar is equivalent to a knowledge of the language to which it relates’ (1868, pp. 78-79).

‘Grammar is sometimes defined to be the law by which language is regulated; but in reality, grammar is deduced from language, and is not the regulator, but the regulatee’ (1864, p. 191).

‘No definition of the term “grammar” enables us to understand why that science should be studied first’ (1868 p.65).

‘The definition which styles it “the art of speaking correctly” has so little truth in it, that many persons who are well-versed in grammar are either incapable of speaking at all, or else, when compelled, are so embarrassed by the conflicting recollections of rules, exceptions, cases, tenses, moods, and genders, that they cannot help speaking incorrectly. The grammar itself is the cause of their speaking ungrammatically’ (1868, p.79).

‘Usage is the only law. Usage constitutes the whole code’ (1864, p. 203).

 Mastery title pageOn acquisition

Studying a language is not acquiring it’ (1864, p. 200).

‘Some say that we must think in a foreign language before we can speak it well … But it is not by thinking in a language, but by not thinking in it, that children speak it idiomatically and fluently’ (1868, pp. 233-4).

‘Illiterate people and children acquire the power of speaking the most difficult languages with fluency, by learning a very few practical sentences, and by ringing the changes on them’ (1864, p. 209).

‘Children and imbeciles succeed, in spite of their ignorance of grammar and books’ (1864, p. 209).

 On vocabulary learning and chunks:

‘[Oral] composition is not the compounding of sentences according to the prescriptions of the grammarian; but it is the putting together of idiomatic phrases by intelligent efforts of memory’ (1868, p.32).

‘[Children] import an idiomatic combination of words, together with the ideas belonging to it; they immediately begin to employ it for practical purposes without alteration; and they repeat it so often that it becomes stereotyped in the memory’ (1864, p.34).

‘Language is a tree which is propagated not by seeds, but by cuttings; not by words but by sentences’ (1864, p. 19).

On idiomaticity

‘Many adults live abroad for years without ever attaining this power of expressing themselves idiomatically; and many teachers are staggered by their most advanced pupils’ total incapacity in this respect. The failure arises solely from their not having committed idiomatic sentences to memory at first.’ (1868, p.44)

On memorization:

‘To reproduce sentences verbatim, is to speak idiomatically; and therefore the genuine colloquial knowledge of a language is attained by repeated efforts of the memory, not by vigorous exertions of the reasoning faculties’. (1864, p.48)

‘When a man has committed to memory a few well selected sentences, each containing different constructions, and has acquired the power of putting them together in all their variations, one rapid perusal of the grammar will suffice to convince him that he is already in possession of the whole syntax of the language’ (1864, pp. 209-210).

‘In learning anything by heart, repetitions are indispensable, and the more they are distributed throughout the day, the smaller will be the number required to impress the foreign phrases on the memory’ (1870, pp 6-7).

On task repetition:

‘It is useful [for the learner] to frequent public places as a listener; to ask several people in succession for the news of the day after having carefully read it all beforehand; […] but especially to engage strangers in conversation in subjects which he has previously discussed with others, in order that he may repeat his own questions and observations, with additions and improvements. These second-hand conversations are by far the most instructive. (1864, p. 93)

On partial competence:

‘A language learned in miniature … may seem, at first sight, to be miserably defective; but a vast reduction of labour is effected by this plan, and it creates a great facility for the beginner in supplementing all his deficiencies’ (1864, p. 131).


Howatt, A.P.R. (with H.G. Widdowson) (2004) A history of English language teaching (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Palmer, H.E. (1921) The Principles of Language-study. London: Harrap.

Prendergast, T. (1864) The Mastery of Languages, or the Art of speaking Foreign Tongues idiomatically. London: R. Bentley.

Prendergast, T. (1868) Handbook to the Mastery Series, New York: Appleton and Co.

Prendergast, T. (1870) The Mastery Series: French (new edition). New York: Appleton & Co.


W is for Women in ELT

30 07 2017

I’ve just written a book on language teaching methods, in which I revisit 30 different methods and their founding fathers. I use the term ‘fathers’ deliberately, since not a single method was designed by a woman – although it’s a safe bet that a good few women were involved in the actual teaching of these methods. Think about it: Thomas Prendergast, Wilhelm Viëtor, François Gouin, Lambert Sauveur, Otto Jespersen, Maximilian Berlitz, Henry Sweet, Harold Palmer, Michael West, Robert Lado, Charles Fries, and so on, and on. The one woman I wanted to include, Sylvia Ashton-Warner (see S is for Sylvia) was ruled out eventually, on the grounds that she was a teacher of first language literacy and never directly involved in second language teaching.

mens group

Where’s Wilga?

In anticipation of my critics, all I can say is that the androcentricity of ELT seems to be deeply inscribed in its history. For example, in a chronology of ‘recent and current trends between 1880 and 1980’ in Stern’s Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching (1983), the first woman to be mentioned by name is Wilga Rivers, whose book The Psychologist and the Foreign Language Teacher was published in 1964. Until then the field was completely male-dominated – white, middle-class male dominated, to be exact. This diagram, from Howatt’s History (2004) gives a flavor:

Howatt Phase 1

As far as I can tell, the only other woman apart from Rivers who gets a mention in Stern’s chronology, is Sandra Savignon, whose ‘seminal [sic] experiment on a communicative approach’ was published in 1972.  One hundred years of language teaching: just two women.

Of course, women are under-represented in the history of education generally. In a book called Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present, (Palmer 2001) only seven women are included (although, unaccountably, neither Maria Montessori nor Sylvia Ashton-Warner gets a look in).

But language teaching – and English language teaching – seems to have been exceptionally male-dominated. Why might this be the case?


A male domain

One reason may have been the long association between English and empire, and the way that English language teaching was, as Pennycook (1998, p. 9) puts it, ‘a crucial part of the colonial enterprise’. Teaching English was an extension of colonial rule, and, like all the machinery of empire, an exclusively male domain. Even as the empire was being dismantled, ELT tended to attract young adventurers, often just down from Oxford or Cambridge. As Howatt (2004, p. 241) describes it, ‘long-distance travel was still by sea for most people, so taking up an overseas post was a serious commitment and short-term visits back to Britain were unrealistic for anyone employed outside Europe.’ Many of the outstanding innovators in the British ELT tradition were ‘formed’ in such contexts: Palmer in Japan, West in India,  Halliday in China, and Widdowson and Brumfit in East Africa. The women who may have accompanied them and who no doubt helped sustain their professional activities go largely unremembered and uncelebrated, the one exception being Dorothée, Harold Palmer’s daughter, who collaborated with her father on a book on teaching English through actions. (According to Richard Smith [1999], she also published an annotated phonetic version of a play in three acts called The Mollusc, ‘complete with tone marks’).

Meanwhile, back in Britain, English language teaching was largely centered in London, the leading ELT institutions being the University of London, the BBC, and the British Council, none of which at the time were known for their gender inclusivity. You can’t help suspecting that an old-school-tie network effectively excluded women from anything but the most menial positions. A case in point was the novelist Olivia Manning, whose husband taught literature for the British Council in the 1940s, and whom she dutifully accompanied to Rumania, Greece, Egypt and Palestine, picking up whatever work she could.

peace corps teacher.png

Peace Corps teacher, 1960s

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that organizations such as the Peace Corps in the US and The British Council in the UK made it easier for women to launch their careers in ELT. As an example, in a recent autobiographical piece, Diane Larsen-Freeman (2017) describes how she taught with the Peace Corps for two years in North Borneo before returning to the US to study for a master’s degree in linguistics. She was among the many (notably North American) women, such as Evelyn Hatch, Elaine Tarone, Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada, who helped establish applied linguistics as a discipline in its own right.

Even so, when, in a recent survey (de Bot 2015), over a hundred leading applied linguists were asked to identify the leaders in their field, the majority of those named were men. ‘In addition, men tend[ed] to list more men than women as leaders, and women [did] the same’ (p. 40).

Hence, the greater visibility of women in recent years cannot disguise or excuse the fact that the discourses of ELT are still largely male dominated – for evidence of which one need not look much further than the comments on these posts!

(I am extremely grateful to Nicola Prentis, and the long conversation with her that inspired this line of inquiry).


de Bot, K. (2015) A history of applied linguistics: from 1980 to the present. London: Routledge.

Howatt, A.P.R. (with H.G. Widdowson) (2004) A history of English language teaching (2nd edn.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2017) Just learning. Language Teaching, 50/3.

Palmer, Joy. A. (ed.) (2001) Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present. Oxford: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (1998) English and the discourses of colonialism. London: Routledge.

Smith, R. (1999) The Writings of Harold E. Palmer: An Overview. Tokyo: Hon-no-Tomosha.

Stern, H.H. (1983) Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


E is for Emergence

23 07 2017

path.JPG“Out of the slimy mud of words … there spring[s] the perfect order of speech” (T.S. Eliot).

Eliot’s use of the verb ‘spring’ suggests that language emerges instantly and fully-formed, like a rabbit out of a hat. Historical linguists, sociolinguists and researchers into language acquisition (both first and second) suggest that the processes of language evolution and development are slower – and messier. To capture this messy, evolving quality, many scholars enlist the term emergence.

In what sense (or senses), then, does language emerge? There are at least three dimensions along which language, and specifically grammar, can be said to be emergent: over historical time; in the course of an individual’s lifetime; and in the moment-to-moment interactions in the language classroom.

Languages emerge over time. Pidgins, for example, emerge out of the contact between people with mutually unintelligible mother tongues. Creoles emerge when these pidgins are acquired as a first language by children in pidgin-speaking communities. English itself is the product of creolizing processes, as speakers of different local dialects came into contact with each other and with successive waves of invaders.  There are some that argue that ELF – English as a lingua franca – is yet another instance of an emergent variety.

Because, of course, English continues to evolve. The emergence of the future marker ‘going to’ is a case in point: in Shakespeare’s day, if you were to ‘going to meet someone’ you were literally moving in the direction of the projected meeting place. Over the course of a century or so, ‘going to’ became a metaphorical way of expressing a future intention. By the twentieth century it had further metamorphosed into the contracted form ‘gonna’. Such changes do not happen overnight nor are they ordained by some higher authority or by some genetic disposition. Arguably, everything we call grammar has emerged through similar processes, whereby lexical words become ‘grammaticalized’ to perform certain needed functions, and then, through repeated use, become established in a speech community. According to this view, ‘grammar is seen as … the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’ (Hopper 1998: 163).

Language emerges, too, in the course of an individual’s lifetime, primarily their infancy, as argued by proponents of usage-based theories of language acquisition – those theories that propose that linguistic competence is the product of an individual’s innumerable experiences of language in use.  As Nick Ellis (1998, p. 657) puts it:

Emergentists believe that simple learning mechanisms, operating in and across the human systems for perception, motor-action and cognition as they are exposed to language data as part of a communicatively-rich human social environment by an organism eager to exploit the functionality of language, suffice to drive the emergence of complex language representations.

path 01.JPGThese ‘rule abstraction’ processes have been modelled using connectionist networks, i.e. computerized simulations of the way neural pathways are sensitive to frequency information and are strengthened accordingly, to the point that they display rule-like learning behaviours – even when they have no prior grammatical knowledge (Ellis et al. 2016).

In other words, the system continuously upgrades itself using general  (rather than language-specific) learning faculties, a view that challenges ‘innatist’ theories of language acquisition, as argued by – among others – Steven Pinker in The language instinct (1994).

From a complex systems perspective, the emergent nature of language learning is consistent with the view that, as John Holland (1998, p. 3) puts it: ‘a small number of rules or laws can generate systems of surprising complexity,’ a capacity that is ‘compounded when the elements of the system include some capacity, however elementary, for adaptation or learning’ (p. 5). While humans have this capacity, they are also constrained in terms of how information (in the form of language) can be processed in real time, and these constraints explain why languages share common features (so-called language universals) which, as Christiansen and Chater (2016) argue, are simply tendencies, ‘rather than the rigid categories of [Universal Grammar]’ (p.87).

Finally, language emerges in second language learning situations, especially when learners are engaged in communicative interaction. The learner talks; others respond. It is the scaffolding and recasting, along with the subsequent review, of these learner-initiated episodes that drives acquisition, argue proponents of task-based instruction, with which Dogme ELT is, of course, aligned. ‘In other words, the emphasis shifts from the traditional interventionist, proactive, modelling behaviour of synthetic approaches to a more reactive mode for teachers – students lead, the teacher follows’ (Long, 2015, p. 70). Or, as Michael Breen (1985) so memorably put it: ‘The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process.’

A recent book that attempts to unify the different dimensions of emergence – the historical, the biographical and the moment-by-moment – enlists a felicitous metaphor:path 02

 ‘The quasi-regular structure of language arises in rather the same way that a partially regular pattern of tracks comes to be laid down through a forest, through the overlaid traces of endless animals finding the path of local least resistance; and where each language processing episode tends to facilitate future, similar, processing episodes, just as an animal’s choice of a path facilitates the use of that path for animals that follow’ (Christiansen & Chater, 2016, p. 132.)

Is teaching, then, simply a matter of guiding the learners to find the tracks laid down by their predecessors?


Breen, M. (1985). The social context for language learning – a neglected situation? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7.

Christiansen, M.H. & Chater, N. (2016) Creating language: integrating evolution, acquisition and processing. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Ellis, N. (1998) Emergentism, connectionism and language learning. Language Learning, 48/4.

Ellis, N., Römer, U. & O’Donell, M.B. (2016) Usage-based approaches to language acquisition and processing: Cognitive and corpus investigations of construction grammar. Oxford: Wiley.

Holland, J. H. (1998) Emergence: From chaos to order. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent language’ in M. Tomasello, (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Long, M. (2014) Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

C is for Commodification

16 07 2017

cocacola(Or P is for Profit)

Let’s say you identify a large and untapped market for a product that you manufacture. Unfortunately the market is in one of the world’s most economically depressed areas. In order to capture and monopolize the market you need to be able to deliver your product at the lowest possible cost to the maximum number of consumers. The smaller the unit of sale, but the more of them, the better. Aggressive marketing will be needed, of course, to persuade a sceptical and precarious client-base to sign up – and stay signed up. And those who are delivering the product should be paid as little as you can get away with: if they are relatively untrained, so much the better.

Soft drinks and cigarettes have been marketed to developing countries like this for decades. Now it is the turn of education. A recent report in The New York Times describes how a chain of low-cost private schools called Bridge International Academies has co-opted the practices of commodification to profit from the dire state of education in many parts of the developing world. As The Times reports:

It was founded in 2007 by [Shannon] May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, along with a friend, Phil Frei. From early on, the founders’ plans for the world’s poor were audacious. ‘‘An aggressive start-up company that could figure out how to profitably deliver education at a high quality for less than $5 a month could radically disrupt the status quo in education for these 700 million children and ultimately create what could be a billion-dollar new global education company,’’ Kimmelman said in 2014.

Notice the key collocation that captures the essence of the business model: ‘to profitably deliver…’

The way they do this is to employ untrained teachers, give them a crash course, pay them less than public school teachers to work longer hours (which include recruitment drives among the local population), and then ‘deliver’ them their lesson plans by means of e-readers – lesson plans which are written by teams of content writers in the US who have never been near the local context. As the NYT describes it:

The e-reader all but guarantees that every instructor, despite his or her education or preparation level, has a lesson script ready for every class — an important tool in regions where teachers have few resources. But scripts can be confining, some teachers told me. And in some of the 20 or so Bridge classrooms I observed, pupils occasionally asked questions, but Bridge instructors ignored them. Teachers say that they are required to read the day’s script as written or risk a reprimand or eventual termination, and they do not have time to entertain questions. Bridge says that ‘‘teachers are required to reference the day’s teachers’ guide and to diligently work to ensure all material is covered in each lesson.’’

The Times correspondent was lucky enough to witness a lesson (reporters are discouraged from entering Bridge schools):

Inside the Bridge school in Kiserian, an hour’s drive from central Nairobi, students wore the same green uniforms and sat at attention behind the same rough wooden desks I saw in Kawan­gware. In front of a blackboard, a preschool teacher, Gladys Ngugi Nyambara, a thin woman also dressed in bright green, held a Bridge ‘‘teacher computer’’ that contained a recently downloaded lesson script on recognizing the ‘‘F’’ sound in common English words. Nyambara held up a picture of a fish and saw these words on the e-reader’s screen: What is this? (signal) Fish.

She gestured toward the class with the picture and delivered the line as precisely as she could. ‘‘What is this?’’ She snapped her fingers. ‘‘FEESSH.’’ She surveyed the 26 expectant faces in front of her. Her eyes went back to the script on the gray rectangular tablet. Listen. Say it the slow way. FISH. She followed the prompt. ‘‘Listen, class. This is a FEESSH.’’

There was a pause, and the teacher leaned over the e-reader. Our turn. Pupils say it the slow way. (signal) Fish. ‘‘Class, your turn.’’ She snapped her fingers again. ‘‘What is this?’’

After some uncertainty over whether to use ‘‘this’’ or ‘‘that,’’ the children began to dutifully respond. ‘‘This is a FEEEESH.’’

Nyambara pressed on, repeating the call-and-response five more times. ‘‘This is a FEESH. Now class?’’ Snap. ‘‘This is a FEESH,’’ responded the children, their voices moving from uncertainty to singsong, pleased to be catching on.

Needless to say, the delivery model has attracted some major corporate players who are already heavily invested in the economics of digitally-mediated commodification, Bill Gates, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Pearson being just a few. As The Times notes, ‘the company’s pitch [is] tailor-made for the new generation of tech-industry philanthropists, who are impatient to solve the world’s problems and who see unleashing the free market as the best way to create enduring social change.’

Hands Up

Contrast this with a project that is the polar opposite of Bridge in spirit, intent and educational philosophy, but which also addresses the needs of children (without disempowering their teachers) in very difficult circumstances. Nick Bilbrough’s initiative to use simple technology (Skype, Zoom) – not to deliver commodified lesson ‘MacNuggets’ at a price – but to freely create opportunities for learners to interact and be creative using English, supporting them and their teachers in such deprived situations as the Gaza Strip and Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, is called the Hands-Up Project.

Because it is not designed to make a profit, it has not attracted the attention of Bill Gates or Pearson, needless to say. But watch any of the videos that Nick has posted on his blog and you cannot help but be moved by the level of engagement – not to say the level of English – of these children.

How can we enlist more support for this project, without ‘unleashing the free market’ and the forces of commodification, I wonder?

I is for Interdisciplinarity

9 07 2017

cage concert governors islandIt’s probably not surprising that two shows I went to in New York this month were serendipitously connected. One was an outdoor performance of a piece by John Cage for prepared piano. The other was the current Robert Rauschenberg exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (see link here).  I say not surprising, because both artists lived and worked in New York at some point in their trajectories. (In fact, Cage taught at The New School where I am currently based). More significantly, both taught and collaborated at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the early fifties, a collaboration which is celebrated and documented in the MoMA exhibition. The famous but unrecorded Theater Piece No. 1 that they both mounted in 1952, in collaboration with other Black Mountain stalwarts, such as the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, the poet Charles Olson and the pianist David Tudor (playing on a prepared piano), is generally credited as being the precursor of the ‘happening’.


prepared piano

a prepared piano


Black Mountain College was an independent residential school set up in 1933, staffed by, among others, a number of artists and intellectuals fleeing fascism in Europe. It offered an experimental liberal arts education that was inspired in part by John Dewey’s notion of experiential learning; (Dewey himself served as an advisor for a time). There was no predetermined curriculum – students were encouraged to design their own courses –  and equal weight was given to both the sciences and the arts.

As Lehmann (2015, p. 102) describes it, ‘Experimentation served not only as the dominant method of learning and teaching, but also as a means of developing artistic skills, which were explicitly held to be learnable by everyone’.

One of its most influential teachers was Josef Albers, its professor of art, who has previously taught at the Bauhaus in Berlin: his pedagogical approach is what we might now call task- or activity-based, i.e. an approach that begins with experimentation and where the teacher intercedes only at the point of need. Asked what kind of teachers he envisaged, he replied, ‘I would like to have professors of carpentry but I would say ‘Let the freshmen make all the mistakes and then let the professor of carpentry show him how to do it!’… Give them freedom first.” (quoted in Blume et al, 2015, p. 140).


rauschenberg's goat

Rauschenberg’s goat

Fundamental to the Black Mountain experience was its cross-curricular philosophy, i.e. its interdisciplinarity, a tradition inherited from the Bauhaus, whose mission was ‘to abolish the institutionally calcified separation between creative disciplines’ (Eggelhöfer 2015, p. 111). One way that the distinctions between subject areas were elided was through collaborative projects which drew on a multiplicity of skills. Theater Piece No. 1 was a case in point. (A recent exhibition on Black Mountain College at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin was called Black Mountain: An interdisciplinary experiment.)


The interdisciplinary and task-based approach to education pioneered at Black Mountain survives – or has been revived – in two very different contexts, as reported recently in the press and social media.

In Finland, a major reform of an already highly-rated educational system involves a transversal approach to curriculum design, whereby interdisciplinary projects require students to draw on a range of subject areas in what is called ‘phenomenon-based’ education. Contrary to some press reports, this does not mean dismantling the subject-based curriculum entirely. As one Finnish educator describes it:

What will change in 2016 is that all basic schools for seven to 16-year-olds must have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, phenomenon-based teaching and learning in their curricula. The length of this period is to be decided by schools themselves.

The rationale is spelled out thus:

What Finnish youth need more than before are more integrated knowledge and skills about real world issues, many argue. An integrated approach, based on lessons from some schools with longer experience of that, enhances teacher collaboration in schools and makes learning more meaningful to students.

Presumably, the learning of foreign languages such as English, is a candidate for such integration.

Also in Europe, but in a less privileged context, a public primary school in Barcelona attracted media attention recently after winning a prestigious prize for its pedagogical approach. The Joaquim Ruyra School in a predominantly working-class suburb, and where 9 in every 10 students are the children of immigrants, has been outscoring local schools, including some upmarket private schools, on tests in a range of skills, English language being just one. Its approach is essentially activity-based: groups of students work through a cycle of tasks over one lesson, each group working on a different task for twenty minutes before moving to the next. The teacher, working with volunteers – mostly family members – supervises the tasks, and elicits an evaluation of each task’s outcomes. Tasks typically involve collaborative problem-solving and guided discovery, and, while the traditional division between subjects hasn’t been collapsed, the tasks (I imagine) involve deploying a far wider range of cognitive and linguistic skills than do the more mechanical exercises associated with testing delivery-style modes of teaching.

Joaquim Ruyra classroom El Mundo

The Joaquim Ruyra school (from El Mundo)


Both the Finnish and Catalan experiments are consistent with the Black Mountain College principles that challenge traditional curricular structures – specifically the tight division into subjects, and lockstep, transmissive teaching.

As far as I know, there was no language teaching at Black Mountain. Had there been, I wonder what it would have been like?



Blume, E., Felix, M., Knapstein, G., and Nichols, C. (eds) Black Mountain: An interdisciplinary experiment 1933-1957. Berlin: Spector Books.

Eggelhöfer, F. (2015) ‘Processes instead of results: what was taught at the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College,’ in Blume, et al (eds).

Lehmann, A. J. (2015) ‘Pedagogical practices and models of creativity at Black Mountain College’, in Blume, et al. (eds).