T is for Taboo

27 06 2010

What have the following got in common?

  • mother bringing sandwiches to father as he fixes the roof
  • father expressionless or relaxed in trying circumstances
  • mother comforting young children
  • modern Native Americans working on ranches, in menial jobs, or doing construction work
  • people in Africa wearing native dress or wearing westernised version of African costumes
  • Hispanic young people always working on second-hand cars
  • old ladies with twenty cats
  • modern Asian Americans wearing dark business suits and glasses

They are all images that a leading US publishing group advises its educational authors and illustrators to avoid, since they are likely to reinforce gender, racial and ageist stereotypes and thereby incur the wrath of government watchdogs.  Likewise, the following topics (among many others) are taboo in US textbooks: conflict with authority, controversial people (such as Malcolm X), creation myths, divorce, euthanasia, illegitimacy, and lying. This time, the prohibitions are motivated – not by a liberal multicultural agenda – but by right-wing attempts to promote and protect traditional American values. Either way, educational publishing is subject to massive self-censorship, due to a combination of “left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism”, according to Diane Ravitch in her (2003) book The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. Ravitch documents the way that

…by the end of the 1980s, every publisher had complied with the demands of the critics, both from left and right.  Publishers had imposed self-censorship to head off the outside censors, as well as to satisfy state adoption reviews. Achieving demographic balance and excluding sensitive topics had become more important to their success than teaching children to read or to appreciate good literature.  (p. 96)

In ELT publishing the ‘verbal hygiene’ that publishers impose on themselves is motivated less by a wish to assert multicultural values than by the need to avoid offending potential markets. ELT publishers do have strict guidelines aimed at promoting ‘inclusiveness’, especially with regard to their treatment of women, and of different ethnicities and cultures. Nevertheless, the marketing imperative “means that the progressive and ethical dimension is all too often undermined by the perceived need to sanitize content” , as John Gray (2002) points out. The sanitizing process is enshrined in the lists of taboo topics that publishers provide their writers, such as the so-called PARSNIP topics: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (such as communism or atheism), and pork. It’s this ‘parsnip policy’ that, arguably, imbues ELT books with a certain blandness – what Mario Rinvolucri once characterised as “the soft, fudgey, sub-journalistic, woman’s magaziney world of EFLese course materials” (1999, p. 14).

Of course, there are other reasons that publishers (and teachers) might wish to avoid controversial subject matter: for example, that it might disturb, annoy or distract the learners. This argument is typically advanced by those who argue that the language teacher’s job is to teach language, not content. There are others who, like Ravitch, might counter that any censorship of educational materials “should be abhorrent to those who care about freedom of thought, to those who believe that minds grow sharper by contending with challenging ideas” (p. 159).

Given the competing goals of values education, language teaching, and marketing – is the content of ELT coursebooks as good as it will ever be?


Gray, J.  2002. ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’. In Block, D., and Cameron, D. (Eds.) Globalization and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. 2003.  The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Vintage Books.

Rinvolucri, M. 1999. ‘ The UK, EFLese sub-culture and dialect’. Folio, 5, 2, 12-14

C is for Curriculum

20 06 2010

I’ve been co-teaching on a curriculum design course these last two weeks, and the question has inevitably come up as to what’s the difference between a curriculum and a syllabus. The A-Z has this to say:

The terms curriculum and syllabus are often used interchangeably, but it is useful to distinguish between them. The curriculum is concerned with beliefs, values and theory (all of which may be captured in some kind of “mission statement”). The syllabus represents the way these beliefs, values and theories are realised in terms of a step-by-step instructional programme. The curriculum is, therefore, both larger than the syllabus, and more general.

The distinction seems to be born out in the corpus data. A quick check of their respective collocations shows that (in US English) syllabus very often collocates with course, whereas curriculum hardly ever does. On the other hand, curriculum collocates with school much more than syllabus does. In British English, syllabus is often associated with particular subjects (language, mathematics, sciences) whereas curriculum collocates with national, core … and hidden (more on that one later).

However, this distinction between the general and the specific, and between principles and practice, is not one that all writers on the subject adhere to.

David Nunan

David Nunan, for example, argues that the curriculum is the totality of what actually happens in an educational setting:

Traditionally “curriculum” is taken to refer to a statement or statements of intent – the “what should be” of a course of study. In this work a rather different perspective is taken. The curriculum is seen in terms of what teachers actually do; that is, in terms of “what is”, rather than “what should be.” (1988, p. 1)

According to this view, the curriculum is instantiated in classroom practice, whether or not this practice actually reflects the (often lofty) intentions of program designers and materials writers.   Douglas Barnes (1976) makes a similar point, with reference to mainstream education:

When people talk about ‘the school curriculum’ they often mean ‘what teachers plan in advance for their pupils to learn’. But a curriculum made only of teachers’ intentions would be an insubstantial thing from which nobody would learn much. To become meaningful a curriculum has to be enacted by pupils as well as teachers …  A curriculum as soon as it becomes more than intentions is embodied in the communicative life of an institution .. In this sense curriculum is a form of communication. (p. 14).

Applebee (1996) extends this line of thought to argue that we need to re-construe the concept of curriculum, not as disembodied ‘knowledge-out-of-context’, but  as  ‘knowledge-in-action’:  “A curriculum provides domains for conversation, and the conversations that take place within those domains are the primary means of teaching and learning” (p. 37). He adds: “If curriculum is approached in terms of the significant conversations into which students enter… the emphasis form the beginning will be on knowledge-in-action”. (p. 118).  This echoes Neil Mercer’s (1995) notion of teaching and learning as being a ‘long conversation’, as well  as being a key tenet of Dogme philosophy, i.e. that language teaching should be ‘conversation-driven’.

Nevertheless, the notion persists that a curriculum articulates an institution’s principles and goals, made operational through syllabuses, lesson plans, etc.  At this point you may be wondering what the curriculum of your own school or college is. Where is it written down? Is there a ‘mission statement’? Who wrote it? Who has access to it?  And, if there isn’t one, shouldn’t there be?

Of course, it is often the case that the curriculum is implicit.  In the case of public-sector schools, the curriculum of the school may simply be that of the education ministry itself, and it will be embodied in such things as acts of parliament, policy statements, and official bulletins. These in turn will determine the nature of public examinations and the way materials, such as coursebooks, are specified and prescribed.

In fact, examinations and officially approved coursebooks offer insights as to the real values that the curriculum designers espouse, irrespective of how these are actually articulated. This ‘hidden curriculum’ can often be inferred by “reading between the lines”. Thus the blurb on a coursebook – or the publicity for a language school – might profess a communicative methodology, but at the same time the small print will extol its ‘step-by-step grammatical syllabus’. Likewise, a school’s website might promote its internationalist and globalised values while elsewhere boasting that it employs only native-speaker teachers. The very fact that a school uses coursebooks at all might suggest that it subscribes to a reproductive, ‘delivery model’ of education, rather than a  critical or transformative one.   More insidiously, an institution may claim to be commited to educational excellence, but in reality be nothing more than a lucrative exam prep factory.

A useful exercise might be to ask your colleagues: What is our curriculum? That is to say, what is it that we value, and to what extent are our practices consistent with these values?


Applebee, A. 1996. Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning. University of Chicago Press.

Barnes, D. 1976. From Communication to Curriculum. Penguin.

Mercer, N. 1995. The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Multilingual Matters.

Nunan, D. 1988. The Learner-Centred Curriculum. Cambridge University Press.

I is for Identity

13 06 2010

In one of a series of moving articles in the New York Review of Books, the historian Tony Judt, terminally ill with motor-neuron disease and reflecting on his life and work, admits to a feeling of never having had a narrowly defined sense of identity —  whether geographical, political or religious.  There is no single social grouping that he strongly identifies with. But this is not a source of anxiety. On the contrary:  “I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another”.

Having myself lived most of my life “on the edge”, one way or another, I share something of Judt’s preference for  rootlessness. I’ve lived twice as many years away from my country of birth as I ever lived in it. And, despite having been granted Spanish citizenship, I don’t feel a strong affinity for my elective new ‘home’. (The test may come if New Zealand and Spain face one another in the World Cup!)  On the downside, however, this reluctance to forge an alternative Spanish identity probably accounts, in part at least, for my less than native-like fluency in Spanish.

Because, as I point out in An A-Z, the notion of identity has now moved to the very heart of second language learning theory.  As Norton and Toohey (2002) argue: “Language learning engages the identities of learners because language itself is not only a linguistic system of signs and symbols; it is also a complex social practice in which the value and meaning ascribed to an utterance are determined in part by the value and meaning ascribed to the person who speaks” (p. 115).  Becoming a member of what Lave and Wenger (1991) term ‘a community of practice’ assumes the capacity – and willingness – to identify, and be identified, with the  members of the target group (and, by extension, to relinquish membership, even temporarily, of one’s own group).

In fact, a post-modern gloss of Tony Judt’s condition (and of mine) is not that we have no identity but that we have multiple – and often contesting – identities, and it’s the business of the second language acquisition project to find a match between an existing identity and the target one.  This at least is the thinking that underlies the concept of ‘the ideal L2 self’ as promoted by Zoltan Dörnyei in his compelling new theory of motivation: “If the person we would like to become speaks an L2, the ‘ideal L2 self‘ is a powerful motivator to learn the L2 because of the desire to reduce the discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves” (2009, p.  29). But being an ‘edge person’ means that this ideal L2 self is elusive.

In the absence of having the identity of a real or potential L2 user, one possibility might simply be to manufacture one. This strategy, at least, seems to underlie the practice, in Suggestopedia, of assigning learners new, L2 speaking, identities, including giving them new names and biographies.  Larsen-Freeman (2000) comments that this is based on the assumption “that a new identity makes students feel more secure and thus more open to learning” (p.82).

Olivetti Oh, my Second Life avatar

More recently, the construction of an idealised identity is at the heart of computer gaming and of virtual environments such as Second Life (SL). My avatar in SL (see picture), for example, allows me to interact there in ways that  – arguably – out-perform my ‘real life’ personality.  Does online identity creation offer advantages to language learners, then?

James Paul Gee would argue most emphatically that it does. In his book What Video Games have to Teach us about Language and Literacy (2007) he suggests that, by allowing gamers to customise their virtual identities, video games “encourage identity work and reflection on identities in clear and powerful ways” (p. 46). Such identity work is crucial, he claims, since “all learning in all semiotic domains requires taking on a new identity and forming bridges from one’s old identities to the new one” (p. 45). Video games and virtual environments would seem to offer learners the opportunity to design ‘ideal language-using selves’.  The question remains, of course, as to whether these games and these environments provide the kind of language-using opportunities that these ideal selves can usefully exploit.


Dörnyei, Z., and Ushioda, E. (eds.) 2009. Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self. Multilingual Matters.

Gee, J.P. 2007. What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2000. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2nd ed.) OUP.

Lave, J., and Wenger, E. 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. CUP.

Norton, B., and Toohey, K.  2002.  ‘Identity and language learning’.  In Kaplan , R.  (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics.  OUP.

G is for Gerund

6 06 2010

from Palmer's New Method Grammar 1938

I regularly rebuke my MA students for using the term gerund in their language analysis assignments, pointing out that in An A-Z, for example, there’s no entry for ‘gerund’. I am not alone, of course: neither Swan nor Murphy use the term in their various grammars, preferring, like me, the (somewhat ungainly) term ‘-ing form’. Most current coursebooks (e.g. Global)  follow suit.

Why this antipathy to the poor old gerund?  How else, after all, can we distinguish between the very different functions of -ing words, as in (1)  I went running (where running is more verb-like, hence a participle) and (2) Running keeps you fit (where running is more noun-like, and hence a gerund)?

Well, if only it were that easy. In fact, there seem to be a whole range of -ing form uses that cover a spectrum from total verby-ness to total nouny-ness (not to mention total adjectivey-ness), and with lots of  instances that are somewhere in between.  Consider these examples (from the British National Corpus) and you tell me which are gerunds and which are participles:

She remembers running up the aisle

a £17,000 flood after the royal taps were left running.

A HUSBAND and wife were convicted yesterday of running a brothel

I knew that my horse was capable of running well

We love running, so why not save on wedding cars?

Running a large application on a PC is fine

Mary waited and watched her running down the road.

Tomorrow Mr Foggerty is taking them running

there was a running battle between police and conservationists

accusations that its trains have suddenly started running late

“The only way you’re going to hurt me is by running away from me,”

The sort of things they do in the wild, running , jumping, pirouetting

As  Swan (2005) notes: “The distinction between ‘participles’ and ‘gerunds’ is not always clear-cut, and it can sometimes be difficut to decide which term to use” (p. 270).  While for Close (1981) the difference doesn’t really matter: “Whether the – ing form of the verb is what is traditionally called a present participle or a gerund is often an academic question, of no great importance.”

(By way of an aside, the difference did once matter, according to Sweet (1892). Historically there were two distinct forms for what we now call the present participle and the gerund: e.g. OE bindende and bindan, both meaning “binding”. By the Late Middle period changes in the suffix had narrowed the difference to bindinge and binding, a difference that effectively collapsed in the early Modern period, although the gerund still required an article: He thanked me for the binding of the book.)

Of arguably more importance, from a teaching point of view, is this: What is the rule that governs the choice of verb form – either -ing or infinitive – after particular verbs? Most grammars assume that there is none, that it’s simply an issue of collocation. Palmer (1938), in comparing these two sentences:

1. He begins to speak.

2. He stops speaking.

asks  “Why do we have to use the infinitive in one case and the gerund in the other?  Well, nobody knows what the real reason is, so we shall not try to find it”  ( p. 173)!

There are other grammarians who are less timid. Yule (1998), for example, argues that the choice is semantic, and that the to form (as in He begins to speak) connotes more verby-ness than nouny-ness, while the -ing form is just the opposite. In short, he distinguishes between ‘noun-like events’ and ‘verb-like acts’.  Thus, in the sentences:

1. He  considered going to the beach.

2. She suggested going to the museum.

the occurence of the verbs with an -ing complement “may be explained by thinking of the object of consider and suggest as an event (something more noun-like) than as the performance of an act” (p. 218). Whereas, in:

3. She told him to go without her.

4. He wanted her to go too.

“the focus is on the go act, and not on the event. The agency or performer of the act, is also mentioned in each case” (p. 219). Yule goes on to show how the following pairs exhibit the above  semantic differences:

5. I like to box/to dance/to swim/to ski.

6. I like boxing/dancing/swimming/ skiing.

“In [5], the speaker has to be talking about herself as agent performing the acts indicated in the complement. In [6], it is the event, not the act, that is the focus of attention, with the possibility existing that the speaker herself is not a performer in the events mentioned” (p. 220).

What do you think of Yule’s rule? Does it hold up over a range of verbs? And, more to the point, is it teachable?


Close, R. 1981.  English As a Foreign Language (3rd edition). George, Allen & Unwin.

Palmer, H.  1938.  The New Method Grammar. Longman, Green and Co.

Swan, M. 2005. Practical English Usage (3rd edition). Oxford University Press.

Sweet, H. 1892. Short Historical English Grammar. Oxford University Press.

Yule, G. 1998. Explaining English Grammar. Oxford University Press.