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. Here I will regularly post articles relating to existing entries, or with a view to creating new entries, should the A-Z be revised. You can help me, by posting responses or making suggestions as to topics that you think should be included or amendments that should be made to existing topics. I’ll be dealing with topics in no particular order, simply as the mood takes me!
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.

P is for Poverty of the stimulus

7 06 2015

plato_bustThe case for humans being innately and uniquely endowed with a ‘language instinct’ rests largely on the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument, or what is sometimes called ‘Plato’s problem’: How do we know so much when the evidence available to us is so meagre?

As Harris (1993: 57-8) elaborates:

‘One of the most remarkable facts about human languages – which are highly abstract, very complex, infinite phenomena – is that children acquire them in an astonishingly short period of time, despite haphazard and degenerate data (the “stimulus”). Children hear relatively few examples of most sentence types, they get little or no correction beyond pronunciation (not even that), and they are exposed to a bewildering array of false starts, unlabelled mistakes, half sentences and the like.’

Is this really true? Is the stimulus really so impoverished?

The quantity of the stimulus – i.e. the input available to a child –  is certainly not impoverished: it has been estimated (Cameron-Faulkner et al. 2003) that children hear around 7,000 utterances a day, of which 2,000 are questions (cited in Scheffler 2015). This suggests that in their first five years children are exposed to 12.5m meaningful utterances. At an average of, say, ten words an utterance this is larger than the entire British National Corpus (100m words), from which several hefty grammars and dictionaries have been derived.

What about the quality? While it’s true that the speech between adults often includes ‘disfluencies’ of the type mentioned by Harris above, studies suggest that ‘motherese’ (i.e. the variety that caregivers typically use when interacting with their children) ‘is unswervingly well formed’ (Newport et al. 1977, cited in Sampson 2005). In one study ‘only one utterance out of 1500 spoken to the children was a disfluency’ (ibid.).

Chomsky and his followers would argue that, even if this were true, the child will have little or no exposure to certain rare structures that, in a short time, she will nevertheless know are grammatical. Ergo, this knowledge must derive from the deep structures of universal grammar.

One much-cited example is the question-form of the sentence with two auxiliaries, e.g. The boy who was crying is sleeping now. How does the child know that the question form requires fronting of the second of the two auxiliaries (Is the boy who was crying sleeping now?), and not the first: *Was the boy who crying is sleeping now?, especially if, as Chomsky insists, the number of naturally-occurring examples is ‘vanishingly small’: ‘A person might go through much or all of his life without ever having been exposed to relevant evidence’ (Chomsky 1980: 40). The explanation must be that the child is drawing on their inborn knowledge that grammatical transformations are structure-dependent.

The_mother_of_JohnA quick scroll through a corpus, however, reveals that the stimulus is not as impoverished as Chomsky claims. Pullum & Scholz (2002, cited in Sampson op. cit), using a corpus of newspaper texts, found that 12% of the yes/no questions in the corpus were of the type that would refute the ‘invert the first auxiliary’ hypothesis. (It is significant that Chomsky impatiently dismisses the need to consult corpus data, on the grounds that, as a native speaker, he intuitively knows what is grammatical and what is not. Unsurprisingly, therefore, generative linguists are constantly, even obsessively, fiddling around with implausible but supposedly grammatically well-formed sentences such as John is too stubborn to expect anyone to talk to and What did you wonder how to do? [cited in Macaulay 2011]).

But even if it were the case that the (spoken) input might be deficient in certain complex syntactic structures, you do not need to hypothesize ‘deep structure’ to account for the fact that a question of the type *Was the boy who crying is sleeping now? is simply not an option.

Why not? Because language is not, as Chomsky views it, a formal system of abstract symbols whose units (such as its words) are subject to mathematical operations, a perspective that ‘assumes that syntax can be separated from meaning’ (Evans 2014: 172).  Rather, language is acquired, stored and used as meaningful constructions (or ‘syntax-semantics mappings’).  Children do not process sentences from left to right looking for an available auxiliary to move. (They don’t even think of sentences as having a left and a right). They process utterances in terms of the meanings they encode. And meaning ‘isn’t just abstract mental symbols; it’s a creative process, in which people construct virtual experiences – embodied simulations – in their mind’s eye’ (Bergen 2012: 16).

Thus, the child who is exposed to noun phrase constructions of the type the little boy who lives down the lane or the house that Jack built understands (from the way they are used in context) that these are coherent, semantic units that can’t be spliced and re-joined at will.  Is the little boy sleeping? and Is the little boy who lives down the lane sleeping? are composed of analogous chunks and hence obey the same kind of syntactic constraints.

What’s more, experiments on adults using invented syntactic constructions suggest that patterns can be learned on the basis of relatively little input. Boyd et al. (2009: 84) report that ‘even small amounts of exposure were enough (a) to build representations that persisted significantly beyond the exposure event, and (b) to support production.’  A little stimulus goes a long way.

daniel-everett-dont-sleep-there-are-snakes-life-and-langauge-in-the-amazonian-jungleIn the end, we may never know if the poverty of the stimulus argument is right or not – not, at least, until computer models of neural networks are demonstrably able to learn a language without being syntactically preprogrammed to do so. As Daniel Everett (2012: 101) writes, ‘No one has proven that the poverty of the stimulus argument, or Plato’s Problem, is wrong. But nor has anyone shown that it is correct either. The task is daunting if anyone ever takes it up. One would have to show that language cannot be learned from available data. No one has done this. But until someone does, talk of a universal grammar or language instinct is no more than speculation.’


Bergen, B.K.(2012) Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning. New York: Basic Books.

Boyd, J.K., Gottschalk, E.A., & Goldberg, A.E. (2009) ‘Linking rule acquisition in novel phrasal constructions.’ In Ellis, N.C. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (eds) Language as a complex adaptive system. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Cameron-Faulkner, T., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2003) ‘A construction based analysis of child directed speech.’ Cognitive Science 27/6.

Chomsky, N. (1980) various contributions to the Royaumont Symposium, Piatelli-Palmarini (ed.) Language and Learning: The debate between Jean Piajet and Noam Chomsky. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Evans, V. (2014) The Language Myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Everett, D. (2012) Language: The cultural tool. London: Profile Books.

Harris, R.A. (1993) The Linguistics Wars. New York: Oxford University Press.

Macaulay, K.S. (2011) Seven Ways of Looking at Language. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pullum, G.K. & Scholz, B.C. (2002) ‘Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments.’ Linguistic Review, 19.

Sampson, G. (2005) The Language Instinct Debate (Revised edition). London: Continuum.

Scheffler, P. (2015) ‘Lexical priming and explicit grammar in foreign language instruction.’ ELT Journal, 69/1.

 PS: There will be no more new posts until the end of summer and things calm down again.

A is for Accuracy

31 05 2015
from The Visual Thesaurus

from The Visual Thesaurus

Accuracy and fluency: it used to be the case that, of these two constructs, fluency was the one that was the most elusive and contentious – difficult to define, difficult to test, and only rarely achieved by classroom learners.

It’s true that fluency has been defined in many different, sometimes even contradictory ways, and that we are still no nearer to understanding how to measure it, or under what conditions it is optimally realized. See, for example F is for Fluency.

But I’m increasingly coming to the view that, of the two constructs, it is accuracy that is really the more slippery. I’m even wondering if it’s not a concept that has reached its sell-by date, and should be quietly, but forcefully, put down.

Look at these definitions of accuracy, for example:

  • “….clear, articulate, grammatically and phonologically correct” (Brown 1994: 254)
  • “…getting the language right” (Ur 1991: 103)
  • “…the extent to which a learner’s use of the second language conforms to the rules of the language” (Thornbury 2006: 2)

Correct? Right? Conforms to the rules? What could these highly normative criteria possibly mean? Even before English ‘escaped’ from the proprietorial clutches of its native speakers, by whose standards are correctness or rightness or conformity to be judged?

at the weekend

“[preposition] the weekend” from The Corpus of Global Web-based English CLICK TO ENLARGE

Take my own variety of English for example: I was brought up to say ‘in the weekend’. I found it very odd, therefore, that the coursebooks I was using when I started teaching insisted on ‘at the weekend’. And then, of course, there were all those speakers who preferred ‘on the weekend’. It was only by consulting the Corpus of Global Web-based English (Davies 2013) that I was able to confirm that, in fact, of all the ‘preposition + the weekend’ combos, ‘in the weekend’ is significantly frequent only in New Zealand, while ‘on the weekend’ is preferred in Australia. OK, fine: as teachers we are sensitive to the existence of different varieties. But if a learner says (or writes): ‘In the weekend we had a barby’, do I correct it?

Moreover, given the considerable differences between spoken and written grammar, and given the inevitability, even by proficient speakers, of such ‘deviations’ from the norm as false starts, grammatical blends, and other dysfluencies –  what are the ‘rules’ by which a speaker’s accuracy should be judged?

In fact, even the distinction between written and spoken seems to have been eroded by online communication. Here, for example, are some extracts from an exchange from an online discussion about a football match. Ignoring typos, which ‘deviations’ from standard English might be attributed to the speaker’s specific variety?

>I don’t care about the goal that wasn’t given; I care about how bad we played particularly when under pressure. Base on the performance from last three games we will be hammered when we play a “proper” decent side!! People think we are lucky to aviod Spain and get Italy but lets not forget the Italian draw Spain so they are no pushovers.

> yes we was lucky, but all teams get lucky sometimes. thats football, you cant plan a tactic for good or bad luck.

> Devic was unlucky to not have the goal allowed and the official on the line needs to get himself down to specsavers but as Devic was offside the goal should not of counted anyway. Anyway I pretty fed up with all the in fighting on here so I am not bothering to much with these blogs for the foreseeable future.

> also on sunday night i will be having an italian pizza i think it will suit the mood quite nicely

I think that the point is here that nit-picking about ‘should not of’ and ‘base on’ is irrelevant. More interestingly, it’s virtually impossible to tell if the deviations from the norm (e.g. ‘the Italian draw Spain’;’ we was lucky’; ‘I pretty fed up’…) owe to a regional or social variety, or to a non-native one. The fact is, that, in the context, these differences are immaterial, and the speakers’ choices are entirely appropriate, hence assessments of accuracy seem unwarranted, even patrician.

Unless, of course, those assessments are made by the speakers themselves. Which one does. Following the last comment, one of the commenters turns on the writer (who calls himself Titus), and complains:

>Titus. Please, please, please go back to school. Have you never heard of punctuation? What about capital letters? How about a dictionary? Sentences? Grammar?

It’s as if Titus is being excluded from membership of the ‘club’, his non-standard English being the pretext. To which Titus responds, with some justification:

> didnt know this was an english class? i am very intelligent and do not need to perform like its a spelling b on here

Which is tantamount to saying: accuracy has to be judged in terms of its appropriacy in context.

All of this has compelled me to revise my definition of accuracy accordingly. Here’s an attempt:

Accuracy is the extent to which a speaker/writer’s lexical and grammatical choices are unremarkable according to the norms of the (immediate) discourse community.

Thanks to corpora, these norms can be more easily identified (as in my ‘in the weekend’). A corpus of ‘football blog comment speak’ would no doubt throw up many instances of ‘we was lucky’ and ‘should of won’. ‘Unremarkable’ captures the probabilistic nature of language usage – that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only degrees of departure from the norm. The greater the departure, the more ‘marked’.

The problem is, of course, in defining the discourse community. Consider these two signs, snapped in Japan last week. To which discourse community, if any, is the English part of each sign directed? Assuming a discourse community, and given its membership, are these signs ‘remarkable’? That is to say, are they inaccurate?

keep off from herewe have a maintenance


Brown, H.D. (1994) Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Davies, M. (2013) Corpus of Global Web-Based English: 1.9 billion words from speakers in 20 countries. Available online at

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A – Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Ur, P. (1991) A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

E is for English in the world

24 05 2015
soccer tavern

Photo: Christopher Collins

I’ve just completed a hugely enjoyable but challenging semester as instructor on a course I designed for The New School online MA in TESOL. It’s called English in the World, and replaces an earlier version of the course that was a casualty of some curriculum restructuring a few years back Here is the official description of the new course:

Throughout today’s postmodern, globalized and highly mobile world there are millions of students, both young and not so young, studying the English language. This phenomenon raises many questions, not only about the educational implications of teaching English as an International Language (EIL) – such as standardization – but also about economic, political and ethical considerations. In order to address these questions, this course will introduce basic concepts of sociolinguistics, including societal multilingualism and language contact and conflict, in order to contextualize the spread of English and its consequences. The relationship between language and culture, and language and identity, will also be explored, especially insofar as these issues impact on the fostering of intercultural communication. And, in response to charges of linguistic imperialism and the commodification of English, proposals for a socially-sensitive pedagogy will be explored, along with an examination of how English teaching might better serve the needs of societies in development.

Topics covered include:

  • Language variation and standardization
  • Multilingualism
  • The history of English
  • World Englishes
  • English as a lingua franca
  • Language and culture
  • Cross-cultural communication
  • Language and identity
  • The ideology of English in the world
  • A pedagogy for English in the world
  • English and development
vote signs

Photo: Christopher Collins

Given the somewhat disparate nature of the course content, readings come from a variety of sources: names often invoked include Sandra McKay, David Graddol, Zhu Hua, Ryuko Kubota, B. Kumaravadivelu, Claire Kramsch, Adrian Holliday, Jennifer Jenkins, Sureish Canagarajah, John Gray and David Block, and many others. Thankfully, the connections between these scholars, and their relevance to the topic of English in the World seemed to cohere. One student wrote (in his reflective journal) ‘Everything we learned in this class was interconnected.’ And he added, ‘Luckily this course wasn’t just theory. It gave us very specific answers on how to apply this theory into practice.’ Some other comments (from students’ journals):

‘My mind is a lot more open than it was just three months ago.’ ‘Throughout the roughly four months spent on this course I have undergone a transformative period of growth and self-evaluation.’ ‘The course … has challenged my preconceived ideas and philosophies about language and teaching.’+

One student homed in on this quote, which to her captured the essence of what the course was about:

“The broader social, cultural, political, and economic contexts in which [English language programs] occur have major implications for what occurs in the classroom, and what occurs in the classroom has great significance for the outside world […]  ELT is a controversial activity, and its implementation in any context is shaped by, and shapes, cultural politics at multiple levels” (Appleby, et al. 2002: 343).

Coursework included regular online discussions on such topics as ‘native speakerism’, cultural stereotyping, code-switching, the ELT global ‘industry’, standard English, and one on English in the linguistic landscape. To give you a flavor, here is my video feedback on this discussion:   Reference Appleby, R., Copley, K., Sithirajvongsa, S., & Pennycook, A. (2002) ‘Language in development constrained: three contexts.’ TESOL Quarterly, 36 (3).

Thanks to MA TESOL alumnus Christopher Collins for the photos.

D is for Dictation

17 05 2015

teacher Massé DixonIn my role as Handbooks editor, I recently had an interesting email exchange on the subject of dictation. Not about its value as a classroom activity so much as what exactly it is valuable for.

When I was a student of French at high school in New Zealand, la petite dictée was the standard opening activity of every lesson. And, in France it still is  – judging by the 2003 film Être et avoir. The film depicts the day-to-day life of a one-teacher school in rural France, where la dictée is clearly alive and well. The teacher, soon to retire, at one point calculates that he must have given more than 30,000 dictées over the course of his career.  What’s curious is that his technique – the somewhat pedantic delivery, sentence by sentence, of a short text – seems not to have changed in all the time he has been teaching. And it’s exactly the same procedure as was inflicted on us, in Hamilton, New Zealand, by Mr Bonny in the mid-sixties.

What was the point of it? Primarily to test knowledge of bottom-up language features such as spelling and punctuation, but also to test knowledge of the perversely imperceptible inflections of French grammar – whereby il parle sounds the same as ils parlent. (Does this account for the fact that dictation competitions are so hugely popular on French television?)

Distinguishing il parle from ils parlent relies, of course, on an understanding of the context: Il parle de ses parents vs. Ils parlent de leurs parents (‘he speaks of his parents’ vs. ‘they speak of their parents’). This is where dictations get interesting – where they are more than simply the encoding of sounds into words. In fact, given that any sequence of sounds is potentially ambiguous (hence the phenomenon of the mondegreen, the mishearing of song lyrics, so that ‘Gladly the cross I’d bear’ is heard as ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear…’) then dictation at anything above the phoneme level relies, to a greater or lesser extent, on the understanding of context.dictation

Because dictations involve processing of individual sounds or sound combinations, on the one hand, and of contextual information, whether lexical, syntactic or textual, on the other, their potential as integrative tests – that is tests of overall language proficiency, as opposed to tests of discrete items – was much feted in the 1970s and ’80s.  As Hughes (2003: 195) notes, ‘research revealed high correlations between scores on dictation tests and scores on much longer and more complex tests.’

Dictations also gave results similar to those obtained from that other nine-day testing wonder, the cloze test. (Think about it: doing a dictation is really all about filling in the gaps in a patchy mental representation). But, despite the ease with which they could be administered, problems of how to score dictations raised questions about their reliability. And, as with cloze tests, doubts as to exactly what was being tested raised questions about their validity. They do not, for example, test the test-taker’s communicative ability, so in what sense are they really integrative?

More problematic, it seems to me, is that, there is no agreed procedure for doing a dictation, which means that, depending on the length of the spoken segments, very different psycholinguistic processes are implicated.

teacher mexico 1923Think about it: what happens when we ‘do a dictation’? Acoustic information is first run through the brain’s phonological loop where it is matched against words stored in long-term memory. The loop has a capacity of roughly seven units of information. Unless rehearsed sub-vocally, these units ‘decay’ after around two seconds. But this is still enough time to do a dictation simply by ‘listening to the echo’, so long as the segments are very short (e.g. phrase length) and that they are either repeated or generously spaced, and that the material is familiar, and that enough contextual knowledge is available in order to disambiguate any ‘cross-eyed bears’.

Anything sentence-length or longer, however, is going to collapse the loop’s storage capacity. The material will have to be reconstituted and stored, not as individual words, but as mental imagery, which will in turn need to be retrieved and converted back into content words again, the gaps between them fleshed out with the appropriate grammatical ‘filling’ – a process that taps, not into echoic memory, but into the user’s current state of linguistic competence. This is why doing a dictogloss (i.e. a text-length reconstruction from memory, usually collaboratively) is such a different psycholinguistic process than doing a traditional dictation. It is also the reason why dictation may be a better test of aptitude than of learning, since the length of the loop, and hence the tipping point, seems to vary from learner to learner. In fact, the capacity to repeat sentences of increasing length has been used in placement testing. (I’m not sure if this is relevant, but the US Citizenship test also involves doing a (very short) dictation).

woman teacher 1950All of which brings me back to the discussion I had with my writer. What are dictations good for? If they are not reliable or valid tests, are they nevertheless worthwhile practice activities? Or is it the case that, as some writers have suggested, doing dictations is good practice only for doing dictations? Or, worse, that it is a form of crowd control?

Uncertainty as to what dictations are good for is indicated by the fact that writers of methodology texts never quite know where to include them (if at all). Wilga Rivers (1981), for example, puts them in her section on the writing skill. For Harmer (1991) dictation is simply a form of Practice. Ur (1996) puts them under Testing.

Others argue that, as intensive listening practice, dictation is a means of ear-training – developing the capacity to discriminate meaning from noise by strengthening the connections between the acoustic signal and mental representations. This may explain why the few studies of the subject (e.g. Kiany & Shiramiry 2002) indicate that doing dictations often correlates with gains in listening comprehension. I would argue, though, that it is more a form of ‘mind-training’ – developing the capacity to make informed guesses using a whole panoply of sources – phonological, lexical, syntactic and textual, not to mention the non-linguistic background knowledge that the learner herself brings to the process.

So, do you use dictations? Why? How?


Harmer, J. (1991) The Practice of English Language Teaching (New edition). London: Longman.

Hughes, A. (2003) Testing for Language Teachers (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kiany, G.R., & Shiramiry, E. (2002) ‘The effect of frequent dictation on the listening comprehension ability of elementary EFL learners.’ TESL Canada Journal, 20/1: 57-63.

Rivers, W. (1981) Teaching foreign-language skills (2nd edition). Chicago. The University of Chicago Press.

Ur, P. (1996) A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(Thanks to Penny Ur for triggering this line of thought.)

I is for Innovation

9 05 2015

This is a dress rehearsal of my opening ‘mini-plenary’ for the hugely successful ELT Innovate conference, held this weekend in Barcelona  – on the subject, unsurprisingly – of innovation.

These are the books and articles I refer to:

Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969) Teaching as a subversive activity. Penguin Education.

Selwyn, N. (2011) Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, London: Continuum.

Selwyn, N. (2013) Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. London: Routledge.

Selwyn, N. (2015) ‘Minding our language: Why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it’, paper given to the ‘Digital Innovation, creativity and knowledge in education’ conference, Qatar, January 2015.

G is for Granularity

3 05 2015

Granular is a buzz word in the discourse of publishing these days. With its vaguely breakfast cereal connotations it conjures up an image of learning content made palatable and wholesome.

For example, Knewton, the company that specializes in adaptive learning software, features a short video clip on its website, in which the presenter advises us that

“Publishers need to be looking at producing granular content. … no longer in the form of a big-package textbook, but broken down into small chunks that teachers, students, administrators can choose to use in combination or in a blend with any other content that they choose to use”.

Grains – chunks – blends: it’s making my mouth water.

Elsewhere on the Knewton site, we get this heady, but somewhat less appetizing stuff:

Within the adaptive learning industry, a shared infrastructure can benefit all existing educational apps by providing them with unlimited back-end content, granular and highly accurate student proficiency data, robust analytics, and more.


Differentiated learning can help each student maximize their potential by shaping the curriculum so that each student understands their proficiencies at a granular level and is given a direct path to improving them.

In a recent blog, they even show us what the granules (aka taxons) of second language acquisition look like:

Knewton taxons

Click to enlarge

But there are at least four major flaws in the way language learning has been granularized. These flaws long pre-date data analytics, but by bringing the power of industrial-scale computing to bear on data collection and analysis, companies like Knewton (and the publishers who enlist their services) are magnifying these flaws exponentially.

The first flaw – let’s call it the taxon fallacy – is that they have got their granules wrong. Notice that the so-called taxons in the Knewton graphic are the traditional ‘tenses and conjugations’ (present continuous, past perfect etc) – the same ‘tenses and conjugations’ that have been passed on like a bad gene from one generation to the next ever since the dawn of recorded time (or ever since the teaching of Latin) but which have little or nothing to do with how the English language is either used or internalized.

The units of language acquisition are not ‘tenses and conjugations’ (English has no conjugations, for a start). The units of language acquisition are words and constructions. Construction is a general term for any form-meaning association — whether a single word, a phrase, or a more abstract pattern — that has become conventionalized by the speakers of a language (see this related post).  Constructions are more than just ‘lexical chunks’ – they can also include morpheme combinations (e.g. verb + -ing) and syntactic patterns (e.g. verbs with two objects) – and they are much, much more than ‘tenses and conjugations’. They are not easily located in the syllabus of a standard coursebook – the type of syllabus which is still the default setting for data analysts such as Knewton.

The second fallacy – I’ll call it the proceduralization fallacy – is another legacy of a long tradition of transmissive teaching: it is the belief that declarative knowledge (e.g. knowing that the past of ‘go’ is ‘went’) automatically converts to procedural knowledge, i.e. that it is available for use in real-time communication. Hence, the assumption is that, if the learner is tested on their knowledge of an item (or granule) and found to know it, it follows that they will be able to use it. As teachers we know this is nonsense. Researchers concur: Schmidt’s (1983: 172) long-term case study of a Japanese speaker of English led him to conclude that ‘grammatical competence derived through formal training is not a good predictor of communicative skills.’ Counting the granules tells you very little about a learner’s communicative capacity.

Related to this fallacy is what is known as the accumulated entities fallacy, described by Rutherford (1988: 4) as the view that ‘language learning … entails the successive mastery of steadily accumulating structural entities, and language teaching brings the entities to the learner’s attention’. Since at least the 1980s we have known that, as Ellis (2008: 863) puts it, ‘grammar instruction may prove powerless to alter the natural sequence of acquisition of developmental structures.’ And Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997: 151), coming from a dynamic systems perspective, reminds us that

Learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings.

Unless a granular approach to data collection and analysis factors in these ‘peaks and valleys’, it will have nothing very interesting to say about a learner’s progress.

Finally, there is the homogenization fallacy: the view that all learners are the same, have the same needs, and follow the same learning trajectory to the same ultimate goals. This quaint belief explains why the designers of adaptive learning software think that it is possible to calibrate any single learner’s diet of granules on the basis of how 50,000, or indeed 50 million, other learners consumed their granules. Although software designers using data analytics pay lip-service to ‘differentiation’ and ‘personalization’, essentially they have a battery chicken view of language learning, i.e. that the same grains are good for everyone, even if they are meted out in slightly different quantities and at slightly different rates.

Contrast that view with the sociolinguistic one that no two people speak the ‘same language’: ‘You and I may both be speakers of language X but your grammar and mine at the descriptive level will not be identical … We both appeal to different sets of rules’ (Davies 1991: 40). Or, as Blommaert (2010: 103) writes, ‘Our real “language” is very much a biographical given, the structure of which reflects our own histories and those of the communities in which we spent our lives.’ It does not exist in someone else’s data-base, much less in granular form.

In the end, as Brumfit (1979: 190) memorably put it, ‘language teaching is not packaged for learners, it is made by them. Language is whole people’.

Ergo, it is not granular.


Blommaert, J. (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brumfit, C. (1979) ‘Communicative’ language teaching: an educational perspective. In Brumfit C.J, and Johnson, K. (eds.) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davies, A. (1991) The Native Speaker in Applied Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition’. Applied Linguistics 18/1.

Rutherford, W. (1988) Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London: Longman.

Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in Wolfson, N., & Judd, E. (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Photos taken from by Hada Litim, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

Note: Coincidentally, Philip Kerr has just blogged on this same topic, i.e. Knewton’s ‘Content insights’, here: Adaptive Learning in ELT

P is for Power

26 04 2015

What about ‘The English Woman’? Or ‘The Non-English Man’? (Language school in Barcelona)

The recent IATEFL Conference at Manchester has been generating quite a bit of heat on the social networks on issues that, to my way of thinking, relate to questions of power: specifically, who has it? who ought to have it? and who has earned it?

For example, in their presentation on the alleged invisibility of women in ELT, Nicola Prentis and Russell Mayne suggested that the predominance of a clique of (not quite) dead white males in ELT (all named and shamed!) has effectively blocked access to opportunities for aspiring writers and presenters, especially women. (I wasn’t there so I’m simply inferring the gist from what I’ve been reading on Facebook – I’m prepared to be corrected). Their concern echoes that of the Fair List, an initiative to encourage a higher profile for women speakers at ELT events, which had hosted an awards ceremony the evening before.

Where are the women in ELT? Well, while it may be true that women are underrepresented in the power structures of ELT (ignoring, for the moment, that the incoming and outgoing presidents of both IATEFL and TESOL are all women), the situation is probably healthier than in many professions. A quick check of a website where speakers from a whole range of disciplines (sciences, the arts, media, sports etc) advertise their wares shows that roughly nine out of ten speakers in all categories (Keynote, Celebrities, Motivational, Leadership etc) are men. By comparison, the ELT conference circuit seems relatively inclusive.  There is certainly room for improvement, but it does make me wonder if the gender debate isn’t distracting us from power issues that are much more pervasive and equally, if not more, pernicious.

Such as? Well, not one of the alpha males (in the list that Prentis and Mayne’s research identified) is a non-native speaker. Yet non-native speaker teachers comprise the vast majority of the teaching population worldwide – upwards of 95% by some estimates. This – more than the gender disparity – seems a much more serious indictment of the present state of ELT, and suggests that the ‘discourses of colonialism’ (Pennycook 1998) still permeate the profession, a situation in which, as Holliday (2005: 2) puts it, ‘a well-resourced, politically and economically aggressive, colonizing, Western ‘Centre’’ imposes its values, standards and beliefs on ‘an under-sourced, colonized ‘Periphery’.’ in class 1950

Ironically, these colonizing forces are particularly conspicuous at conferences in the so-called periphery itself, where the alpha (NS) males – myself included – really dominate. Is this a case of what Kumaravadivelu (2006: 22) calls ‘self-marginalization’? I.e.:

The TESOL profession is replete with instances where, in certain periphery communities, program administrators “require” or at least “prefer” native speakers to carry out teaching and consultancy, and teachers and teacher educators look up to native speakers for inspiration thinking that they have ready-made answers to all the recurrent problems of classroom teaching … By their uncritical acceptance of the native speaker dominance, non-native professionals legitimize their own marginalization.

As I’ve found, it’s very hard to persuade the head of a teachers’ organization in, say, Bangladesh or Armenia, that I have nothing of value to add to what the locals already know. TaW SIG

Meanwhile, a group calling itself TAW (Teachers as Workers) is lobbying IATEFL for Special Interest Group (SIG) status, on the grounds that it represents the interests of working teachers (‘pushing for the rights of ELT teachers in an era of precarity [sic]’), but, so far, with little success. It is a little odd, let’s face it, that a teachers’ organization (which is what IATEFL purports to be) can’t make room for a group that provides a forum for chalkface teachers. Teacher professional development, after all, is professional development, which surely includes issues of job security, working conditions, access to training, and so on. As Bill Johnston (2003: 137) writes:

I believe that all our talk of teacher professional development is seriously compromised if we ignore the marginalisation of ELT that is staring us in the face, that is, if we treat the professional growth of teachers as something that can be both conceived and carried out without reference to the sociopolitical realities of teachers’ lives. To devalue this central feature of work for huge numbers of teachers is to fail to grasp the significance of the drive for professional development. I believe that the ELT professional organisations have unwittingly colluded in this artificial separation of the professional and political. For many years, for example, the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Convention, the annual meeting of the TESOL organisation, was almost exclusively devoted to matters of classroom techniques and materials. These things are of course important and useful to teachers. What was lacking, however, was any sense of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted, or of its role in those contexts.

teacher ny 1920So, don’t be put off by the somewhat hectoring rhetoric of the TaW collective. Even if it is unlikely to prosper, their cause is a worthy one.

Finally, while some are banging on the doors of IATEFL trying to get in, there are others who view IATEFL and similar organizations, not as the solution, but as the problem. From his bunker somewhere in Catalonia, Geoff Jordan lambasts IATEFL and all it stands for: “The IATEFL conference is about self-promotion, it’s held to justify IATEFL’s existence and to give the huge commercial concerns that run the ELT industry a chance to flog their shoddy goods.”

Whether you agree or not, this – like the other issues I have touched on – is clearly an issue of power: whose interests does IATEFL really serve? Does it kowtow to the publishers? What discourses does it privilege, e.g. those of professional development, or of social justice or of big business?

And, taking the wider view, is ELT still tainted with its colonial past? Does the centre still hold? Is it really all about ‘the English Man’? In short, how cognizant are we (to borrow Johnston’s phrase) “of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted”?  How is power distributed in these contexts? How could it be distributed more equitably?


Holliday, A. (2005) The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnston, B. (2003) Values in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006) ‘Dangerous liaison: globalization, empire and TESOL’, in Edge, J. (ed.) (Re)locating TESOL in an Age of Empire. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pennycook, A. (1998) English and the Discourses of Colonialism. London: Routledge.


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