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.

W is for (language learning in) the Wild

17 09 2017

japanese hitchhikerYears ago, driving from the west to the east coast in New Zealand’s South Island, we picked up a Japanese hitch-hiker (pictured in the centre above) who, once settled in the back seat, proceeded to ply us with questions from a notebook he carried. ‘What’s your favourite snack?’ ‘When did you last go to the movies?’ Even: ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ It transpired that he had been studying at a language school in Christchurch and these were questions that his (prescient) teacher had encouraged him to formulate, in order to pursue his language learning experience ‘in the wild’.

The term ‘in the wild’ has recently been co-opted from cognitive science (e.g. Hutchins 1995) to apply to a series of projects in which a number of Nordic countries are participating. As their website describes it,

Language learning in the wild is about using the resources available in the second language life world of the newcomers to a language[i].

This, of course, is not an entirely new idea. As long ago as 1956, Peter Strevens argued that ‘language is not a sterile subject to be confined to the classroom. One of two things must be done: either life must be brought to the classroom or the class must be taken to life’ (1956: 69).

Arthurs Pass

The call of the wild

What is perhaps new in the way that this principle is being applied in places like Sweden and Iceland is that, not only are learners (or ‘newcomers’ as they are termed) being sent outside the classroom to perform certain routine tasks ‘in the wild’, but that they are encouraged to use their smartphones to record the interactions they have, as well as to collect any other linguistic data, such as signs, menus, etc, and bring these back to the classroom for analysis, discussion and strategizing for future encounters.

Moreover, many of their potential interlocutors (e.g. shopkeepers) have been primed in ways to ensure that these interactions provide optimal opportunities for learning. For example, they are encouraged not to switch straight into (global) English when interacting with the newcomer but to persist with the (local) target language. They also allow the newcomers to ‘hang out’ and watch the way the locals negotiate basic transactions.  In this way, learners learn to cope with the unpredictability of even quite routine operations, such as ordering a coffee. As Wagner (2015) explains,  ‘this means… that language experiences often are memorable and tellable, in a negative or positive sense’, such that, ‘in language encounters in the wild, newcomers create their own history of the second language and that history may linger for a while with new words and constructions’ (p.85). As Eskildsen and Theodórsdóttir (2017: 160) argue,

This, in effect, breaks with a long tradition of teaching language as a decontextualised object in classrooms and instead entails a mutually constitutive relationship between L2 speakers’ everyday practices and the classroom which then comes to be a pedagogically enhanced world in which a view of language as situated and locally contextualised is propagated.

Nevertheless, ‘long-term language learning in the wild is understudied’ (Esklidsen & Theodórsdóttir 2017, p. 160). One small study that does attempt to track the language development of such a learner over time (Barraja-Rohan 2015) reports how a Japanese-speaking university student in Australia improved her story-telling skills through repeated interactions with an English speaking fellow student. The researcher calls such interactions ‘conversations-for-practising’, which, essentially, is what our Japanese hitch-hiker was also doing. Barraja-Rohan (2015, p. 299) concludes:

Conversations-for-practising, centred on the participants’ needs to build social relationships rather than on curricular considerations, seem to be a valuable arrangement to bring the L2 speakers into situations of authentic, everyday social interaction and language use, i.e., into the wild.

She adds that such conversational  ‘affordances’ don’t normally occur in conventional classrooms. A pedagogy based on the conversations that emerge in meaning-focused activity might redress this lack. And especially if it was a pedagogy that – like my Japanese hitchhiker’s teacher in New Zealand – equipped ‘newcomers’ to become legitimate users of the local language.

Even so, I guess the question is: how do you provide ‘in the wild’ experiences – including socialization into an English-speaking community – for EFL-type learners studying in their home country and hence lacking the direct contact my Japanese hitch-hiker was able to exploit?

sea scouts oamaru

Where the wild things are


Barraja-Rohan, A-M., (2015) ‘“I told you”: storytelling development of a Japanese learning English as a second language.’ In Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (eds) Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. Mouton: De Gruyter.

Eskildsen, S.W. and Theodórsdóttir G. 2017. ‘Constructing L2 learning spaces: ways to achieve learning inside and outside the classroom.’ Applied Linguistics. 38/2.

Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Strevens, P. (1956) Spoken language: an introduction for teachers and students in Africa. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Wagner, J. (2015) ‘Designing for language learning in the wild: creating social infrastructures for second language learning.’ In Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (eds) Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. Mouton: De Gruyter.




P is for Predictions (part 2)

10 09 2017

fortune teller 02In last week’s post I identified some of the tensions that characterize the current state of ELT, the resolution of which may determine the shape that the profession takes in the next decade or two.  Without daring to commit to an outcome, one way or the other, let me suggest two more dimensions along which the future of ELT may be inscribed.

  1. The tension between public and private

Most English language teaching, and specifically EFL, takes place in public institutions, such as state-funded schools or universities. In these contexts, ELT methodology is typically (but not always) constrained by such factors as class size, i.e. large numbers of learners often seated in rows; limited contact with the target language; teachers who are less that fully confident in their own command of English (even if they are expected to use it as the vehicular language in their classes); a lack of motivation on the part of the learners; and mandated curricula that are driven by exams whose focus is primarily on accuracy. Under such conditions it is not surprising that the favoured methodology is form-focused, teacher-fronted, choral, and bilingual – a variant, in other words, of grammar-translation.

In the private (or fee-paying) sector, however, things tend to be very different: with smaller class-sizes and (often) native-speaker teachers – or, even, only native-speaker teachers – albeit with minimal training. Learners may be there of their own volition, motivated by work, study, or leisure-related needs. Such an ‘ecology’ favours a more learner-centred, English-only and activity-based methodology – a variant, in other words, of communicative language teaching.

fortune teller 03It’s likely that this division will persist for the foreseeable future, particularly in developing countries, which do not have the means to support ongoing professional development of state-school teachers, but where the necessity of having ‘English’ somewhere on the curriculum will long outlive its utility. Meanwhile, attempts to redress the generally poor results in the public sector by introducing English-medium instruction (e.g. in the form of CLIL) will work only when both teachers and learners have a ‘critical mass’ of English language proficiency to support content-based learning without prejudicing the learning of the subject matter. In some contexts, this may still be generations away. Until then, any form of immersion is likely to be associated with the elite, private sector.

Indeed, the public-private polarity both reflects and intensifies existing inequalities and does not look like improving any time soon. As Bruthiaux (2002, p. 190) comments, ‘In most markets, the consumers of English language education are the relatively well-off, already far beyond the stage of mere survival. To the extent that the severely poor are aware of it at all, the global spread of English is a sideshow compared with the issue of basic economic development and poverty reduction.’

  1. The tension between ‘standard English’ and English as a lingua franca

For the original proponents of the communicative approach it was axiomatic that native-like competence was a less urgent and less realistic goal than communicative efficiency, particularly with regard to pronunciation. In theory, at least, a first language accent was tolerable so long as it was intelligible. Such generosity did not readily extend to other systems, such as grammar, which were still taught and tested according to some idealized notion of what a native-speaker might say or write. This ‘native speakerism’ was reinforced by the prestige still being bestowed on native speaker teachers, especially in the private sector (see above).  As long ago as 1999, Vivian Cook railed against this deficit model of instruction, arguing that ‘L2 users have to be looked at in their own right as genuine L2 users, not as imitation native speakers’ (1999, p. 195).

This view was given extra impetus by the realization that, for many users, English is a contact language between other English-as-an-L2 users, and that, therefore, different standards apply. The notion of English as a lingua franca (ELF) as promulgated by Jennifer Jenkins (2000) – initially in relation to phonology –  had the effect  (or should have had the effect) of moving the goalposts in the direction of the learner-user. Nevertheless, years of (often bitter) debate have not resolved the issue as to what the goalposts actually look like. Is there an emergent codifiable variety called ELF? Or is it simply an elusive social practice – a spontaneously negotiated communicative ‘dance’ involving a creative mix of pragmatics, paralinguistics, accommodation, code-switching, repair strategies and interlanguage?

fortune teller 01Either way, the effect has been to challenge, even subvert, the supremacy of the native-speaker ‘gold standard’. Will the steady penetration of English into all corners of the globe and at most levels of society, mediated by ever swifter, cheaper and more accessible technologies, do the rest?  Or will the need for some mutually intelligible ‘common core’ tip the argument in favour of retaining the Queen’s English (or a version thereof)? The jury is out.

I had promised to discuss three ‘tensions’ today, but I am already out of time. Will there be more Predictions? Place your bets!


Bruthiaux, P. (2002) ‘Hold your courses: language education, language choice, and economic development.’ TESOL Quarterly, 36/3.

Cook, V. (1999) ‘Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching.’ TESOL Quarterly, 33/2.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

P is for Predictions (part 1)

3 09 2017

I’m regularly asked to make predictions about the future of ELT: it’s one of the liabilities of being on a conference panel, for starters. I seldom feel comfortable in the role. Perhaps the safest prediction is of the order:  Any prediction that I make now about ELT in X years’ time will be laughably wrong when the time comes.

It came up again when I was guesting on a DELTA course recently: the teachers were understandably  anxious about the future of their chosen career. However, I decided to re-frame the question – not in terms of predictions (‘What will ELT be like in 10 years?), but in terms of identifying some of the on-going tensions in ELT, the outcomes of which (following a dialectic mode of thinking) will surely determine the shape of ELT in 5 or 10 or however many years’ time.

delta course

The IH Barcelona DELTA class: Teachers with a  future! (courtesy @sanchiadanielle)

These are some of the tensions I discussed:

  1. The tension between the local and the global

Incontestably, English is a global language (although its reputation may have taken some knocks recently – see E is for English). It therefore lends itself to the kind of commodification and marketization that we associate with other items of mass consumption – such as fast foods, trainers, and cell-phones. These processes of ‘McDonaldization’ (Ritzer 1998) are evidenced in the way textbooks are produced, marketed and distributed globally, and in the ‘branding’ of high-stakes exams – such that an English class in Thailand is likely to be using the same materials to prepare for the same exam as is a class in Chile.  Or Armenia. Or anywhere.

Countering this ethos of ‘one-size-fits-all’ is what Kumaravadivelu (2001, p. 538) calls ‘a pedagogy of particularity’, i.e. one that is ‘sensitive to a particular group of teachers teaching a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular sociocultural milieu.’ Because, as Pennycook insistently reminds us, English is a global language used locally: ‘Everything happens locally. However global a practice may be, it still always happens locally’ (2010, p.128).

Attempts to ‘particularize’ English teaching include the production of locally-authored, culturally-specific curricula and materials, implemented by means of an ‘appropriate methodology’ (Holliday 1994). Arguably, digital technologies have made the production of such home-grown materials a lot easier, while resistance to the uncritical importation of ‘Western’ methodologies is voiced frequently (e.g. Burnaby & Sun 1989; Li 1998). But it is not clear how the global vs local tension will play out.

  1. The tension between teaching and testing

Driven by the aforementioned globalizing forces, but also fuelled by the neo-liberal obsession with accountability and standardization, and lubricated by ever more sophisticated data-gathering mechanisms, high-stakes testing now dominates many educational contexts, English language teaching not the least. The numbers speak for themselves: the IELTS test, for example, was taken by nearly 3 million candidates in 2016 – at around $200 a go, this is big business. It is also a nice little earner for language schools, with the result that many teachers feel that they are now simply in the business of test preparation.

‘Teaching-for-the-test’ has also seen the rise of standards-based, or competency-based teaching (also known as mastery learning), where the syllabus consists of an inventory of bite-sized ‘competencies’, each one taught and tested in isolation, on the assumption that all these bits will magically coalesce into a whole. (These bite-sized learning chunks also lend themselves to [teacher-less] online delivery).  This has led to a culture of testing that is the despair of many educationalists, Diane Ravitch (2010, p. 16) being one of the more vocal: ‘How did testing and accountability become the main levers of school reform?  …  What was once an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy’. And she adds, ‘Tests should follow the curriculum. They should not replace it or precede it.’

Will the tide turn? Will teaching and learning reassert their rightful place in the curriculum? Don’t hold your breath.

  1. The tension between classroom instruction and self-study

Learners have always learned languages through self-study packages, whether by means of books (of the Teach yourself Swahili type); long-playing records, cassettes or CDs; video, in combination with any of the above, and, of course, more recently, online and via apps such as Duolingo. In July this year, for example, Duolingo was boasting an estimated 200 million ‘active’ users[i], although what constitutes ‘active’ is a moot point. Nevertheless, the availability, ease and low cost of many self-study tools (Duolingo is of course free) means that they constitute a real threat to traditional classroom teaching.

Their single biggest drawback is, of course, the lack of any real face-to-face interaction, including personalized instruction and feedback (where ‘personalized’ means ‘mutually intersubjective,’ not ‘individually customized by an algorithm’). That is what classrooms offer – or should. But, of course, such ‘human’ interactions come at a cost. Will language learning in the future be primarily app-mediated, with classroom teaching relegated to a high-end, niche status? And/or will classroom teachers be compelled to migrate en masse to call-centre-type facilities in order to provide the much-needed human interaction that these apps will offer as a premium add-on? Watch this space.

There are at least three other tensions, the outcome of which I suspect will shape our collective futures. But I’ll deal with those next week.


Burnaby, B. and Sun, Y. (1989) ‘Chinese teachers’ views of western language teaching: context informs paradigms’. TESOL Quarterly, 23/2.

Holliday, A. (1994) Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Li, D. (1998) ‘”It’s always more difficult than you plan or imagine”: Teachers’ perceived difficulties in introducing the communicative approach in South Korea’. TESOL Quarterly, 32/4.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2001) ‘Towards a post-method pedagogy.’ TESOL Quarterly, 35/4.

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language as a local practice. London: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2010) The death and life of the great American school system: how testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.

Ritzer, G. (1998) The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and extensions. London: Sage.


M is for Masters

27 08 2017


role play

MA TESOL at The New School

Now that many of us – either as faculty or alumni – are about to embark on the fall semester of a Masters in TESOL (or other closely related discipline), it’s perhaps worth asking why? Not which Masters, or when, or in what mode (e.g. on-site, online, or blended), but why do a Masters at all? What benefits will accrue – professional, academic or financial – that couldn’t be obtained by some other, less costly or time-consuming means? And, crucially, is the teacher with a Masters any better – and hence, more deserving – than one without?

I’m asking these questions partly in response to a letter I received a few months ago from a teacher in New York City. She had attended a talk I gave at The New School on whose Masters program I teach. She was interested in enrolling in the program but wondered if the outlay in terms of fees and time would ever be recuperable. And, as a teacher of some experience, she was also voicing a sense of injustice at the fact that teachers like her, without a post-graduate degree in TESOL, were being passed over for teachers straight off Masters programs. Here’s what she said:

‘While I naturally respect my colleagues in the teaching field who do posses an MA TESOL, I nevertheless feel quiet resentment towards their getting 30-45 hours a week at $45 an hour, when they are fresh out of an MA program and by their own admission had/have never taught before. … Is it really the be-all and end-all?’

And she adds, ‘I feel quite strongly that an English degree, a teaching degree, a CELTA, a MA in English combined with international experience trumps an MA TESOL with no experience or previous background in English. Naturally, this position may well be construed as professional (or unprofessional) resentment or worse, envy. However, given the chance, I think it is one students would also hold.’

teaching practice group work 02.JPG

Teaching practice, New School

There are a number of assumptions here that might be challenged, e.g. that those taking MAs in TESOL have no previous teaching experience, or that they don’t get lots of practical experience when they are actually doing the course.

On this latter point, a quick trawl around university websites where MA TESOLs are offered, demonstrates how markedly the length of the practicum (if there is one!) varies. For example (from US-based programs only):

  • University of X: TESOL Practicum. This course involves 48-60 hours of student/teaching contact time, regular peer and instructor class observations and coaching sessions, and weekly seminar-style meetings during the semester.
  • University of Y: Third semester requires 3-credit Practicum: “This is a language teaching course that provides students with an opportunity for supervised teaching experience in ESL or foreign language classes. This course can be completed during the school year or the summer.
  • University of Z: Practicum: The Portfolio includes documentation of 70 practice hours, with a minimum of 15 hours in each of the following areas:
    • Tutoring
    • Observing ESOL classes
    • Practice teaching
  • Another University: Practicum: Core courses include ‘TESOL Practice teaching’; plus ‘Culminating Experience’: includes a service project of 30 hours of ESL teaching.
  • Yet Another University: Teaching Internship, (2 months; 6 credits) Two months teaching under supervision in the United States or abroad.
  • And One More University for Good Measure: Elective. Practicum in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Practical teaching experience for preservice teachers of English as a second language. Enrollment limited to AL/ESL graduate students whose schedules permit them to observe and participate in the practicum supervisor’s ESL course.
matching task MA TESOL.JPG

MA TESOL, New School

So, I guess my question is: do MA programs equip inexperienced teachers with the requisite teaching skills any better than, say, a pre-service certificate course would, and, indeed, should they – i.e. should they be accepting inexperienced teachers on to their programs at all? And if they don’t measure up, then should their graduates be given preferential treatment in the job market – if that is, in fact, the case?




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.