W is for ‘wabi-sabi’

26 09 2010

In Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto

I’m in Japan at the moment, and I brought with me a copy of a book that made a profound impression on me when I was 16 or so (when I guess everyone is profoundly impressionable!). It’s called The World of Zen: an East-West Anthology, edited by Nancy Wilson Ross (Vintage Books, 1960).

In an extract called ‘Zen and the Art of Painting’, the great Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki identifies the concept of wabi as being a key component of the Japanese, and specifically Zen, aesthetic. “Wabi really means ‘poverty,’ or, negatively, ‘not to be in the fashionable society of the time.’ To be poor, that is not to be dependent on things worldly — wealth, power, and reputation — and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position: this is what essentially constitutes wabi” (p. 92). Wabi often combines with the related concept, sabi, which “consists in rustic unpretentiousness or archaic imperfection, apparent simplicity or effortlessness in execution, and richness in historical associations… The utensils used in the tearoom are mostly of this nature” (p. 94).

Tea ceremony utensils used on my last trip to Japan

A few months ago, in a posting on the Dogme discussion list, I invoked the principle of wabi-sabi as a counterbalance to the distracting clutter and noise associated with materials overload and unnecessary technology. I wrote: “Put another way, it is what we have been calling ‘a poor pedagogy’”. And I added: “I have absolutely no evidence that a pared-down, minimalist pedagogy is any better than an abundantly-resourced and hyperactive one. I just have a hunch. This kind of simplicity is a value I aspire to, both in education and in the way I live my life. At the same time, I readily admit that I am far from achieving it, both in education and in life”.

In a witty and well-argued response, Darren Elliot took issue with what he considered to be an unsavoury blend of orientalism and an overly-romanticized cult of poverty. He commented: “I love an analogy as much as the next man, and I can see the appeal of wabi-sabi. But as I live in ‘the orient’ I’m cautious about co-opting cultural concepts of the East… you can end up one step away from Madonna in a sari”.

Interestingly, Diarmuid Fogarty (not normally one to suffer posturing gladly) came to my defense: “Rather than glamourising poverty, I think dogme is about unglamourising wealth. At the heart of it is an ideological belief that stripping away the consumerism from language teaching enables more effective and more efficient teaching. It brings it back to individuals using their own language to mediate the world rather than relying upon the prefabricated language of others to help them mediate their world. Perhaps this is something that the Web 2.0 fans would like to pick up on?”

In eschewing consumerism and aspiring to a Zen-like simplicity, does Dogme glamourise poverty? More importantly, perhaps: is this Zen-like simplicity compatible with Web 2.0? (A kind of ‘webby-sabi’ perhaps?)

G is for Grammar McNuggets

18 09 2010

Photo: Frtiz Saalfeld

Stephen Krashen once said (only half-jokingly, I suspect) that, more important than having new ideas is giving old ideas new names. With that in mind, I was reminded recently that it was 10 years ago that I coined the term “grammar McNuggets” (in a talk at IATEFL Dublin in 2000). Essentially, there is nothing new in the view that grammar is artificially packaged into bite-sized chunks for the purposes of teaching: William Rutherford had used the term “accumulated entities” in a book in 1987, and who knows how long the term “discrete items” has been around? So, why “grammar McNuggets”?

What I wanted to capture was not just the discrete-item nature of the grammar syllabus, but the way that this is exploited, particularly by publishers, for the purposes of the global marketing of EFL. To do this, I drew on a construct, familiar to students of cultural studies, and first developed by Stuart Hall, called “the circuit of culture”. The circuit of culture is a construct for the analysis of cultural artefacts that has been applied to a range of objects, including the Sony Walkman. Du Gay (1997), for example, argues that

to study the Walkman culturally one should at least explore how it is represented, what social identities are associated with it, how it is produced and consumed, and what mechanisms regulate its distribution and use. (p. 3)

Applying this model to pedagogical grammar, I was curious to see how grammar is represented (e.g. in publishers’ catalogues), how it is produced — or better — reproduced, how it is consumed in the classroom, how it is regulated (e.g. by exam boards), and who identifies with it (e.g. what ideas and values are associated with an allegiance to grammar teaching).

With regard to its (re-)production, I was drawn to this text on ‘McDonaldization’:

A perfect example of a simulated product is McDonald’s Chicken McNugget. The executives at McDonald’s have determined that the authentic chicken, with its skin, gristle and bones, is simply not the kind of product that McDonald’s ought to be selling; hence the creation of the Chicken McNugget which can be seen as inauthentic, as a simulacrum. There is no “real” or even “original” Chicken McNugget; they are, and can only be, simulacra. (p. 10)

To quote from the text of my talk: “Much of what is taught as pedagogic grammar is of equally doubtful authenticity. The skin, gristle and bones of language have been removed such that “grammar exists independently of other aspects of language such as vocabulary and phonology” (Kerr, 1996: 95). Moreover, the findings of corpus linguistics in particular suggest that pedagogic grammars only loosely reflect authentic language use and that “some relatively common linguistic constructions are overlooked, while some relatively rare constructions receive considerable attention” (Biber, et al. 1994, p. 171). An enthusiasm for compartmentalization, inherited from grammars of classical languages, has given rise to the elaborate architecture of the so-called tense system – including such grammar McNuggets as the future-in-the-past, and the past perfect continuous, not to mention the conditionals, first, second and third – features of the language that have little or no linguistic, let alone psychological, reality. While attempts have been made to restore authenticity to grammar, such attempts have generally fallen on deaf ears. If some more recent coursebooks are anything to go by, grammar syllabuses are becoming less innovative and even more derivative”.

That was ten years ago. Is it still true?


Biber, D., S. Conrad, and R. Reppen, 1994. Corpus-based approaches to issues in applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics 15/2, 169-89.

du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., MacKay, H. and Negus, K. (1997). Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony Walkman. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Kerr, P. 1993 `The role of language analysis on CTEFLA courses’ in Future Directions in Teacher Training: Conference Report International House, London.

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

Rutherford, W.E. 1987 Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. Harlow: Longman.

Z is for ZPD

12 09 2010


There’s no entry for Z in the A-Z of ELT (which means perhaps it should be called the A to Y of ELT!) but if there were, the strongest candidate would have to be ZPD as in the zone of proximal development. This is the concept most closely identified with the work of the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, but also, arguably, the concept of his that has been subject to the greatest number of interpretations.

Vygotsky himself defined it as:

“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving and adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (1978, p. 86).

That is to say, it’s that point where learning is still other-regulated, but where the potential for self-regulation is imminent – the moment that the child, teetering on her bike, still needs the steadying touch of her mother’s hand. Teaching is optimally effective, the theory goes, when it “awakens and rouses into life those functions which are in the stage of maturing, which lie in the zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1934, quoted in Wertsch 1985, p. 71).

It’s important to note that the ZPD is not the learner’s ‘level’ in the traditional sense in which we grade students, nor even the level just above, but that, as Gordon Wells puts it, it is “created in the interaction between the student and the co-participants in an activity… and depends on the nature and quality of the interaction as much as on upper limit of the learner’s capability” (Wells, 1999, p. 318). Because the ZPD cannot be gauged in advance, and is a property neither of the learner nor of the interaction alone, “from the teacher’s perspective, … one is always aiming at a moving target” (op.cit., p. 319).

These elusive, emergent, unpredictable, and idiosyncratic properties of the ZPD raise the question as to whether it has any pedagogical applications at all. If it’s not the student’s level (or level + 1), what is it? And how can it be manipulated for optimal learning?

Scholars in the sociocultural tradition have suggested that the way classroom talk is scaffolded (see S is for scaffolding), with the teacher providing only the minimal assistance necessary to enable the learner’s performance, can help orient the activity towards the learner’s ZPD and thereby influence its potential for learning. Optimal experience theorists (see F is for Flow) would also argue that the ZDP is situated at the point where challenge and skill are counter-balanced. Advocates of task-based learning likewise suggest that the judicious calibration of task conditions, such as preparation time and rehearsal, can provide the optimal balance between safety and risk-taking that is associated with the concept of the ZPD, and thereby lead to learning.

Jim Lantolf's workshop: JALT 2009

Others have tried to map the ZPD onto Krashen’s concept of input + 1 and Swain’s analogous concept of output + 1 (see P is for Push). When, during an engaging question-and-answer session at last year’s JALT conference, I asked Jim Lantolf (who, more than anyone, has championed Vygotsky’s relevance to SLA: see Lantolf, 2000, for example) if there were any grounds for making this connection, he was dismissive. “For a start, input + 1 and output + 1 describe qualities of language, not of cognition. Nor do they situate this language within the context of collaborative, interactive activity”. (In fact, Krashen’s Input Hypothesis rejects the need for interaction altogether). Kinginger (2002) is even more scathing, and argues that Vygotsky’s original concept – fuzzy as it was – has been shamelessly co-opted for ideological purposes, as a way of prettifying activities “that have always been done in classrooms where speaking activity takes place as a pretext for grammar practice, only now we are calling it the ‘ZPD’” (p. 255).

Despite all this fuzziness, the notion of the ZPD permeates current rhetoric on teaching. Is it just a fairly meaningless buzz word, or does it still have some currency?


Kinginger, C. 2002. ‘Defining the zone of proximal development in US foreign language education’. Applied Linguistics, 23/2. 240-261.
Lantolf, J. (ed.) 2000. Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wells, G. 1999. Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a Sociocultural Practice and Theory of Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wertsch, J. 1985. Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, MA.; Harvard University Press

L is for (Michael) Lewis

5 09 2010

(Continuing an occasional series of the type ‘Where are they now?’)

Michael Lewis and me: University of Saarbrücken

A reference in last week’s post (P is for Phrasal Verb) to the fuzziness of the vocabulary-grammar interface naturally led to thoughts of Michael Lewis. It was Michael Lewis who was the first to popularize the view that “language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar” (1993, p. 34). This claim is a cornerstone of what rapidly came to be known as the Lexical Approach – rapidly because Lewis himself wrote a book called The Lexical Approach (1993), but also because, at the time, corpus linguistics was fueling a major paradigm shift in applied linguistics (under the visionary custodianship of John Sinclair and his brainchild, the COBUILD project) which, for want of a better term, might best be described as ‘lexical’. Lewis was one of the first to popularize this ‘lexical turn’ in applied linguistics, and he did so energetically, if, at times, contentiously.

So, what happened to the Lexical Approach – and to Lewis, its primum mobile?

Well, for a start (as I argued in an article in 1998), the Lexical Approach never was an approach: it offered little guidance as to how to specify syllabus objectives, and even its methodology was not much more than an eclectic mix of procedures aimed mainly at raising learners’ awareness about the ubiquity of ‘chunks’. Moreover, Lewis seemed to be dismissive – or perhaps unaware – of the argument that premature lexicalization might cause fossilization. To him, perhaps, this was a small price to pay for the fluency and idiomaticity that accrue from having an extensive lexicon. But wasn’t there a risk (I argued) that such an approach to language learning might result in a condition of “all chunks, no pineapple” i.e. lots of retrievable lexis but no generative grammar?

In the end, as Richards and Rodgers (2001) note, the Lexical Approach “is still an idea in search of an approach and a methodology” (p. 138). Nevertheless, as I said in 1998, “by challenging the hegemony of the traditional grammar syllabus, Lewis… deserves our gratitude.”

Michael responded graciously to these criticisms, acknowledging them – although not really addressing them – in a subsequent book, Teaching Collocation (2000). There the matter rested. Until 2004, when I published a ‘lexical grammar’ – that is, a grammar based entirely on the most frequent words in English – and, in the introduction, paid tribute to my ‘lexical’ precursors, specifically Michael Lewis, and Jane and Dave Willis.

Michael was not pleased. When I next ran into him, at an IATEFL Conference a year or two later, he was still fuming. Apparently, by suggesting that his version of the Lexical Approach had anything in common with the Willis’s, or that my book in any way reflected it, was a gross misrepresentation. The sticking point was what Michael calls ‘the frequency fallacy’, that is, the mistaken belief that word frequency equates with utility. Much more useful than a handful of high-frequency words, he argued, was a rich diet of collocations and other species of formulaic language. I, by contrast, shared with the Willis’s the view that (as Sinclair so succinctly expressed it) ‘learners would do well to learn the common words of the language very thoroughly, because they carry the main patterns of the language’ (1991, p. 72). To Michael, ‘patterns of the language’ sounded too much like conventional grammar.

When we met again, a year or two later, at a conference at the University of Saarbrücken, we found that we had more in common than at first seemed. For a start, we sort of agreed that the chunks associated with high frequency words were themselves likely to be high frequency, and therefore good candidates for pedagogical treatment. And Michael was working on the idea that there was a highly productive seam of collocationally powerful ‘mid-frequency’ lexis that was ripe for investigation.

A few months later, at a conference in Barcelona, we had even started talking about some kind of collaborative project. I was keen to interest Michael in developments in usage-based theories of acquisition, premised on the view that massive exposure to formulaic language (his ‘chunks’) nourishes processes of grammar emergence – a view that, I felt, vindicated a re-appraisal of the Lexical Approach.

But Michael is enjoying a well-earned retirement, and I suspect that he’s satisfied in the knowledge that the Lexical Approach, his Lexical Approach, whatever exactly it is, is well-established in the EFL canon, and that his name is stamped all over it.

So, then, what’s the Lexical Approach to you?


Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach. Hove: LTP.
Lewis, M. 2000. Teaching Collocation. Hove: LTP.
Richards, J., and Rodgers, T. 2001. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd edition). Cambridge University Press.
Sinclair, J. 1991. Corpus, Concordance, Collocation. Oxford University Press.