A is for Affordance

1 01 2012

Last week I went for a walk with friends in the Swiss Alps – seven kms along a marked trail with panoramic views of mountains, lakes and mist down below in the valley. We were five people, and as we walked we talked, in different groupings and in different languages, stopping frequently, to rest, snack, and note interesting features of the landscape, such as the ripple effect in the snow from recent rain, the way the snowcap on a rooftop was slowly sliding off as it thawed, footprints of a fox (or some other animal) in an otherwise immaculate snowy field, and so on. But always talking.

It was the kind of conversation you don’t have sitting down.  Rather, it was a conversation that,  in the words of the poet,  se hace al andar – it was made walking. It was a product of its trajectory through time and space.

Which made me think: we invest a lot in the learning opportunities afforded by conversation (it’s a core tenet of the dogme approach, after all). Yet conversations in classrooms are necessarily constrained, both by the relative immobility of the participants and by the lack of the kind of stimuli you get simply by taking a walk.

In short, classroom talk (as Leo van Lier has frequently observed) is challenged in terms of contingency and affordances. By contingency, I mean a sense of connectedness – where everything that is said is connected both to what has already been said, and to the context in which it is said – taking context to mean everything from the ‘here-and-now’ to the ‘then-and-there’, i.e. the  knowledge and experience that the speakers have in common.

And by affordance, I mean (to quote An A-Z of ELT)

a particular property of the environment that is potentially useful to an organism. A leaf, for example, affords food for some creatures, shade for others, or building material for still others. It’s the same leaf, but its affordances differ, depending on how it is regarded, and by whom. The term has been borrowed from ecology to describe the language learning opportunities that exist in the learner’s linguistic ‘environment’…

And all this reminded me of something I wrote a while back about what I called ‘The Robinson Crusoe Method’ of language learning. If you recall, Crusoe meets and befriends the “savage” Friday on his island:

 I was greatly delighted with him, and made it my Business to teach him every Thing, that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful; but especially to make him speak, and under stand me when I spake, and he was the aptest Schollar that ever was…

Unfortunately, Defoe/Crusoe does not go into the details of what he did “to make him speak”, but it is not difficult to imagine how it evolved. As the two went about their daily business – hunting, fishing, gardening, exploring – conversations would splutter into being.    At first these conversations would tend to focus on the “here-and-now” and be mainly lexical, of the ‘Me Robinson, you Friday’ type.  But the continuous contact between “teacher” and “learner” would ensure optimal opportunities for interaction, feedback, and recycling, while the situated nature of the talk would guarantee comprehension. Repeated phrases would start to release their internal structure, and grammar would begin to emerge.  Over time – and propelled by their need to do things together  – their individual idiolects would align and merge (although the power imbalance would mean that Crusoe’s language would exert the greater attraction and, ultimately, predominate).

All in all, the Robinson Crusoe method, enriched and enlivened by the learning opportunities offered by real talk in the real world, must surely be the best language learning method ever devised.

So the question is: how can you replicate these conditions in a typical classroom? How can you turn the classroom into a hike through the snow, or a walk around the island? How can classroom talk achieve the degree of contingency that Crusoe and Friday achieved?

Is this perhaps where technology comes into its own? Can, for example, Second Life or video games offer a simulacrum of the mountain walk? Or are simulacra, by their very nature, insufficient?

Or is this  (yet another) argument for task-based learning, where the focus is on collaborative activity, with language, not as the goal, but the means?  Because, as van Lier (2002, p. 159)  notes, “when we design our lessons using activity as the focal unit, language becomes a constituent alongside movement, gesture, experiment, manipulation, focusing, planning, judging, and so on.  Language is naturally supported by and supportive of social activity”.

Or, in the end, is there no getting away from the fact that classrooms are just not good places to learn languages in?  And that, instead of flogging the present perfect continuous to death, it might not be better simply ‘to take a walk around the block’?


van Lier, L. 2002. ‘An ecological-semiotic perspective on language and linguistics’. In Kramsch, C. (ed.) Language Acquisition and Language Socialization: Ecological Perspectives. London: Continuum.

V is for Visualization

26 12 2011

Pep Guardiola, coach of ‘the best team of the world’ [sic] describes how he prepares his players:

I ask the players what they are capable of doing so that, above all, they feel confident before they go out on to the pitch. This is what I did when I was a player: before going out I would see the game up here (he taps his brow). With my eyes shut I could see the game clearly. That way I had it all wrapped up, and I enjoyed it¹.

I was reminded of this last week on getting the following email from Zahid Sheik:

I’m writing to ask you about your thoughts on an idea that has recently popped into my head.  I’ve noticed that on several occasions, some of the best lessons that I’ve had were lessons where I simply jotted down a few cursory points about what I’m planning to do in class without going into the detail that’s often required on a typical lesson plan, followed by a brief visualization of the class in my “mind’s eye”.  I was wondering if any research has been conducted in relation to the benefits of visualization and lesson planning.  How do you feel about this phenomenon?

As can be seen by the Guardiola quote, in the sports world there’s a healthy tradition of visualization as preparation for performance. The story of the pentathlon athlete, Marilyn King, who, after a debilitating accident, ‘visualized’ herself back into Olympic-standard performance, is often cited in this respect.

Visualization has impacted on language learning too. Jane Arnold (e.g. 1999, 2007) has written extensively on this subject. She recalls that her interest in visualization in language learning was prompted by an account of “an American scholar who, before going to a conference in Europe, eliminated blocks about speaking French and Italian by working with imagery”.  After visualising himself travelling through these countries and speaking fluently to everyone he met “it was found that his fluency improved notably and with his Italian his accuracy did also” (1999, p.269).

More recently, visualization has attracted the attention of theorists of motivation, specifically those who argue that the (language) learner is driven by the need to reconcile his or her present self with some idealised, imagined future self. As Dörnyei & Ushioda (2009, p. 4) put it: “If proficiency in the target language is part and parcel of one’s ideal or ought-to self, this will serve as a powerful motivator to learn the language because of our psychological desire to reduce the discrepancy between our current and possible future selves”.

Accordingly, visualization has been recommended as a means of bringing into sharp focus one’s ideal self image – the better to realise it.  ‘The first step in a motivational intervention… is to help learners to construct their Ideal L2 Self, that is, to create their vision’ (Dörnyei, 2009, p. 33).

This might involve visualizing a situation in which you, the learner, are successfully using the target language for the specific purposes for which you have been learning it, whether social, business, academic, or whatever. The visualization is likely to have more motivational power if it is clearly and concisely elaborated, with details of time, place and people explicitly articulated.

Subsequent phases in the visualization process (as outlined in the literature) include: substantiating the vision, keeping the vision alive, operationalising the vision, and counterbalancing the vision. Of this last, Dörnyei says, “In language learning terms this would involve regular reminders of the limitations of not knowing languages” (p. 38).

Zahid’s email, (above), however, raises the intriguing question as to how visualization might apply to teacher development. Could it be a tool on a teacher training program, for example? Does it assume a degree of familiarity with lesson planning and classroom teaching that might preclude its use with novice teachers? Do the so-called ‘foreign language lessons’ on many pre-service courses (wittingly or unwittingly) offer newbie teachers a vision of their ‘ideal teaching self’?  To what extent are our ideal teaching selves modelled on charismatic teachers from our past – or even from Hollywood?

At a more pragmatic level, is it possible to imagine one’s way into a lesson, in the way that Pep envisions a successful football match? When I asked Zahid to expand on his use of visualizations as a planning strategy, this is what he said:

Basically, I visualize the different stages/activities that I cursorily wrote down on my lesson plan, what the students might respond with, and I keep going through the lesson with whatever comes to mind.  I see myself and my students in the classroom interacting etc… and I sometimes close my eyes to do this.  I’m pretty much picturing the whole lesson in my mind in its different (planned) increments and potential asides, the latter point being related to the “potential problems” section of the CELTA lesson plan.

Has anyone else experienced visualization as either a language learning or a lesson planning strategy?

¹Thanks to Jessica Mackay for this quote.


Arnold, J. 1999.  Visualization: language learning with the mind’s eye’. In Arnold, J. (ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arnold, J., Puchta, H., & Rinvolucri, M.  2007. Imagine That. Helbling Languages.

Dörnyei, Z. 2009. ‘The L2 motivational self system’. In Dörnyei & Ushioda (2009).

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

Illustrations from Hartley, B., & Viney, P. 1978. Streamline English: Departures. Oxford University Press.

V is for Voice setting

18 12 2011

A correspondent has reminded me of an article I wrote – ages ago – on voice setting (you can read it here):

I have just read your article ‘Having a good jaw: voice setting phonology’, and having noted the year in which it was published, I am interested to find out if you or anyone else, has conducted any studies on the exercises you suggested?

Never mind the mouth, check out the tash!

Just to remind you, voice setting – or ‘bases of articulation’ –  is the general term for those “general differences in tension, in tongue shape, in pressure of the articulators, in lip and cheek and jaw posture and movement, which run through the whole articulatory process” (O’Connor 1973:289).  It’s argued that voice settings vary from language to language, e.g.

“In English the lips and jaw move little, in French they move much more, with vigorous lip-rounding and spreading: the cheeks are relaxed in English but tensed in French: the tongue-tip is tenser in English and more used than in French, where the blade is dominant, and so on.” (O’Connor op.cit.)

Over the years I’ve collected  a number of non-specialist descriptions – from novels and poems, principally – that nicely capture voice setting characteristics. Here’s a selection:

“His voice rang like a metal clipper hitting a bucket and he spoke English. Proper English … he sprinkled ers and even errers in his sentences as liberally as he gave out his twisted-mouth smiles. His lips pulled not down… but to the side, and his head lay on one side or the other, but never straight on the end of his neck”. (Maya Angelou I Know How the Caged Bird Sings).

When you hear it languishing

and hooing and cooing and sidling through the front teeth,

the oxford voice

or worse still

the would-be oxford voice

you don’t even laugh anymore, you can’t …

(D.H.Lawrence: “The Oxford Voice”)

“Watching him twisting his mouth into that intelligently ironical shape that is necessary for the production of Dutch noises, I was reminded of how much I liked the semi-gargling sound Netherlanders make, brewing each word up at the back of their throats and then having to unpick it with their teeth.”  (Howard Jacobson: The Land of Oz)

What I was arguing (in the aforementioned article) was that accurate pronunciation at the segmental level (i.e. of individual sounds) is at least partly contingent on adjusting to the specific vocal setting for the language you’re trying to speak. That is to say, accent is as much an effect of top-down features as it is of bottom-up ones. Hence, it might repay teachers of pronunciation to start working on these top-down features first, in advance of fine-tuning for  phonemic distinctions.

To that end, I suggested an activity sequence that included awareness-raising activities such as watching videos of speakers with the sound off, in order to try and guess what language they are speaking, or role play activities where learners attempt to speak their own language with a marked English (RP or GA) accent, in the way that – for example – Brits or ‘gringos’ are portrayed locally in the movies. This might lead to some discussion as to what is actually happening – physically – when you ‘speak with an English accent’.

Read my lips

But, to answer my correspondent’s question, I don’t know of any follow-up to these suggestions, or, for that matter, of any research into the pedagogical applications of voice setting theory at all.  Besides, I’m wondering if – in this era of English as a Lingua Franca – is it really all that necessary to take such drastic steps to ‘nativise’ learners’ accents?


O’Connor, J.D. 1973. Phonetics. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Thornbury, S. 1993. Having a good jaw: voice-setting phonology. ELT Journal, 47/2, 126-31.

Illustrations from Jones, D. 1932. An Outline of English Phonetics (3rd edn.) Leipzig: Teubner.

F is for Forensic linguistics

11 12 2011

A while back I got the following email, signed by a friend (let’s call him Gary):

Hope you get this on time,sorry I didn’t inform you about my trip in Spain for a program, I’m presently in Madrid-Spain and am having some difficulties here because i misplaced my wallet on my way to the hotel where my money and other valuable things were kept. presently i have limited access to internet,I will like you to assist me with a loan of  1,500 Pounds to sort-out my hotel bills and to get myself back home.

I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the matter effectively,I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist me with,I’ll Refund the money back to you as soon as i return,let me know if you can be of any help.I don’t have a phone where i can be reached.

Please let me know immediately.

My initial reaction (“Wow, poor Gary!”) was quickly replaced by the suspicion that – despite having been signed by Gary and sent from his email address – this wasn’t Gary’s ‘voice’.  Although there were a number of expressions (such as ‘I don’t have a phone where I can be reached’) that, on an initial reading at least, lent a certain crediblity to the email, a closer analysis suggested that it may have been written by a non-native speaker: wordings such as ‘I will like you to assist me’ lack both idiomaticity and the appropriate degree of informality, while some collocations are just plain wrong (‘I hope you get this on time’; ‘my trip in Spain…’). Moreover, there are a number of orthographical features that are not typical of an educated native speaker (‘1,500 Pounds’, ‘sort-out’). All in all, I smelt a rat.

What I was doing was a form of ‘forensic linguistics’, i.e. using linguistic evidence in the identification (if not the solution) of a crime. To solve the crime using the methods of forensic linguistics, I would have needed to match ‘Gary’s email’ against a sample of texts written by likely suspects, looking for shared features of phrasing, word choice, and spelling.  In an excellent introduction to forensic linguistics, Olsson (2004, p. 116) notes that

“The aim would be to establish a norm of lexical similarity or identity between each text in each pair of texts: what percentage of words do the two excerpts have in common?  Previous experience suggests that two texts of approximately 250 words in length with 30 percent (or more) of lexical words identical to each other are unlikely to have been produced independently of each other”.

As it happens, a Google search for just one sentence from this fake email (“I will appreciate whatever you can afford”) produced around 33 million results.  It seems that this email – with local adaptations – has been doing the rounds for a few years now, and a surprising number of people have been fooled by it – see, for example, this site.

(It’s odd that no one has seen fit to tidy up the grammar and phraseology along the way).

My interest in forensic linguistics was first piqued by a paper by Malcolm Coulthard (1992) in which he recounted his role as an expert witness in the trial of the ‘Birmingham Six’. Coulthard was able to use linguistic arguments to show that a statement allegedly made to the police by one of the accused was in fact a fabrication: the police had simply cut-and-pasted chunks of a previous interview into a statement format.  Coulthard was subsequently to use the techniques of forensic linguistics to earn a posthumous pardon for Derek Bentley, wrongfully hanged for murder in the 1950s¹.

Since then forensic linguistics has matured into a discipline in its own right (you can now do an MSc in it) and it is regularly enlisted in cases of doubtful or disputed authorship such as wills, confessions, emergency calls, hate mail, suicide notes, blackmail demands, and literary plagiarism.

Given the public fascination both for crime and for language, it surprised me, at the time, that crime fiction seemed not to have produced a single detective whose specialism was forensic linguistics – a kind of Hercule Poirot of textual alteration. Accordingly, I set about trying to redress this lack, and drafted a few chapters of a novel whose protagonist was a laddish academic specialising in pragmatics at an unnamed London university who is recruited to solve a case of kidnap and extortion at a large private language school in Covent Garden. I duly sent it off to a number of publishers, adding an explanation as to the nature and importance of forensic linguistics. Result: I accumulated so many rejection slips that I seriously considered writing up a paper on their generic features. And still, ten years on, crime fiction cannot lay claim to a single forensic linguist – as far as I know.

If I am wrong, please let me know immediately. (But I don’t have a phone where i can be reached).

¹”Linguist Malcolm Coulthard showed that certain patterns, such as the frequency of the word “then” and the grammatical use of “then” after the grammatical subject (“I then” rather than “then I”), was not consistent with Bentley’s use of language (his idiolect), as evidenced in court testimony” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Bentley_case)


Coulthard, M. 1992. ‘Forensic discourse analysis’. In Coulthard, M. (ed.) Advances in Spoken Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge.

Olsson, J. 2004. Forensic Linguistics: An introduction to language, crime and the law. London: Continuum.

Illustrations by Quentin Blake, from Broughton, G. (1968) Success With English. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

T is for text-based curriculum

4 12 2011

Nigel Davies, who runs a school in El Prat de Llobregat, near Barcelona, wrote to me last week:

I’m doing an experimental kind of class here at the school, which, if you have time I would like to hear your thoughts on.

It’s a post CAE class mixed bag of wannabe one day proficiencies and other advanced students. I didn’t want to do an exam-based course, and couldn’t find a suitable high level general texbook, so someone suggested doing some Engl Lit, maybe one of the classics, which was a possibility, but not for a whole course, so I settled on one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. Do you know his work? I chose ‘Outliers’ a study of how people become successful, as it has lots of stories of different people in different situations to back up his central thesis, and there was lots of extra material on internet, both spoken and written.

What we do is varied ( I hope). We do lots of vocab work on the text, some grammar, various approaches to text comprehension, and compare clips of or about the various people involved with the written text. The students have to read sections of the book ahead of time, so that the material is fresh for discussion, and for closer textual work on gram or voc, I have them use the text in class to find examples. […]

They’re finding the material very interesting, and are managing to keep up with the reading load.  Still, as there’s no external ‘help’, I have to create all the activities and do a lot of extra research, which is very time consuming, if at times personally rewarding!!  […]

It would be interesting to know if you’ve ever run a course like this or what your thoughts are on using this kind of authentic material over a long period of time…

A number of thoughts were triggered by Nigel’s account:

Years ago I had a DELTA trainee who was in a similar situation, with a  group of women who had completed the Cambridge FCE the year before and wanted a break from exam-driven classes. They decided they would all subscribe to a women’s magazine, the choice being agreed mutually, and that this would provide the course content, in much the way that Gladwell’s book does for Nigel’s class. The experiment was rated a great success.

The idea of basing a second language curriculum on a single text has a long history. I’m currently reading Jacques Rancière’s (1991) account of how, in 1818, the French schoolteacher Joseph Jacotot developed an innovative method of teaching Flemish (of which he spoke not a word) by basing the whole course on one (bilingual) text, Fenelon’s Télémaque (1699), although – as the translator notes (p. 2), ‘In terms of Jacotot’s adventure, the book could have been Télémaque or any other’.  For Jacotot, “all the power of language is in the totality of a book” (p. 26).

Click to expand

In similar style, I own an 1872 edition of a textbook by a certain T. Robertson that is based entirely on the study of a single text, spread over 20 units. The first unit of the first course starts with the first sentence of the text (apparently a story from the Arabian Nights).

The text is first translated, word by word, and phrase by phrase, and this forms the basis of exercises that involve translating the text back and forth.  The course continues, a sentence at a time, through the complete story.

What are the pros and cons of basing a course on a  single text?

Obviously, one disadvantage would be the possible boredom that might set in, as learners tire of the same text. This, of course, could be off-set if the text were one that had been mutually chosen, and/or one that was relevant to their lives, study or work, and/or one where there was built-in variety (as in the case of the women’s magazine).

Another problem might be the relatively narrow lexical focus. What kind of word coverage do you get from a novel, for example? At the same time, this could be seen as an advantage, in that ‘narrow reading’ allows a greater degree of turnover of the same vocabulary items, optimising the chances of these items being learned. Coursebooks, that jump from topic to topic, are notoriously poor at providing the number of repeated word encounters that are considered necessary for incidental learning to occur. A course based on a single text might lose out on lexical range but score highly in terms of lexical retention.

To me, a real advantage of such an approach is that it is essentially meaning-driven, and that the language that the learners have to engage with, in order to understand the text, has not been pre-selected and pre-graded, and hence is more representative of language in the real world. Moreover, by virtue of its being both self-selected and authentic, such a text may offer a more engaging stimulus (than coursebook texts customarily do) for other, ancillary activities, such as discussion and writing.

Has anyone else out there tried this kind of approach to course design?


Rancière, J. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

G is for Gist

27 11 2011

A couple of weeks ago Patrick Huang, a teacher trainer in Toronto, wrote to me:

I was hoping you could help with this notion of ‘gist’ tasks, which I’ve always thought as helpful in the ESL classroom.  … A colleague in Seoul recently met Michael Swan, and he mentioned that Michael has reservations about the use or usefulness of gist tasks for students. I also seem to remember seeing an article along the same lines.

What’s your current view on this? Do you include / recommend this in your MA TESOL course? Would you be able to refer me to sources where I can do more reading on the topic? I might then be able to give my students and trainees more useful and helpful ideas and practice.

Reading for gist is conventionally associated with the idea of skimming, which, in turn, is typically mentioned in association with scanning. In An A-Z of ELT these terms are defined like this:

  •  skimming (skim-reading, reading for gist): rapidly reading a text in order to get the gist, or the main ideas or sense of a text. For example, a reader might skim a film review in order to see if the reviewer liked the film or not.
  • scanning: reading a text in search of specific information, and ignoring everything else, such as when consulting a bus timetable for a particular time and destination.

Setting skimming and scanning tasks in the language classroom rose to prominence with the advent of the communicative approach, and its promotion of the use of authentic texts. Authentic texts were considered to be more in tune with a functional (i.e. non-structural) view of language, and lent themselves to a task cycle in which different skills were integrated in order to achieve a communicative outcome. Arguably, the only way to deal with such texts – especially at lower levels – was to skim and scan them. “You don’t have to read every word!” the long-suffering students were exhorted.

Very quickly, skimming/scanning became an end in itself, and teachers were misled into thinking that, by having students skim or scan texts, they were developing the skill of reading. How often do you see this expressed as an aim in examined lessons: “To develop the sub-skill of skimming a text for its gist…”

This overlooks two basic facts: (a) most students already know how to skim/scan texts in their L1, and will transfer these skills to their L2, when faced with texts whose purpose  precludes a closer reading; and (b) the skimming and scanning of texts (in the absence of a more intensive reading) is a characteristic, not of good readers, but of poor ones.

(These, I suspect, are Michael Swan’s arguments too).

Of course, it’s true that students, faced with a text in class, tend to ‘park’ their L1 reading skills, assuming that the text is a linguistic object, rather than a communicative one, and adopt a one-word-at-a-time strategy. Setting gist tasks, initially, is one way of discouraging this tendency. Giving students a time-limit to identify what the text is about, who wrote it, to whom, and why, seems an excellent way of ‘peeling off the first layer of the onion’, as it were. But this is less a skill-teaching strategy than a text-attack one. And, unless it is followed up by a more detailed reading, including some kind of focus on the linguistic features of the text (e.g. its lexical, grammatical, or discourse features), it would seem to be a singular waste of time and resources.

It’s also true that L1 reading skills don’t transfer automatically to the L1 if the text is beyond the learners’ present linguistic competence – particularly if it contains a relatively high proportion of unfamiliar words. This is what is sometimes known as the ‘threshold effect’. As Catherine Wallace (2001, p. 22) puts it,

L2 readers need a minimum threshold level of general L2 language competence before they can generalise their L1 reading abilities into L2. Where proficient L2 learners are good readers in their L1, the consensus view (based on a wide range of research studies and teachers’ observation) is that reading abilities can, indeed, be generalised across languages even in the case of differing scripts.

This would suggest that, in order to optimise skill transfer, the teacher should either pre-teach the unfamiliar vocabulary, or choose (or create)  texts whose lexis is within the students’ present competence. Researchers suggest that familiarity with 95% or more of the words in a text is the cut-off point. (The Vocab Profile tool on the Compleat Lexical Tutor website allows a highly useful test – based on word frequency data – of a text’s readability).

But pre-teaching vocabulary or using graded texts is not ‘teaching reading’. It is simply allowing learners to transfer existing skills into their L2 reading.  Why do it, then? Because texts are a useful springboard into other activities, including speaking and writing, as well as offering the opportunity for a more detailed analysis of the text’s grammatical or discourse features. Failure to exploit texts in these ways, by simply skimming or scanning them, teaches nobody nothing.


Wallace, C. 2001. ‘Reading’.  In  Carter, R.,  & Nunan, D. (eds.) The Cambridge Guide to TESOL. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

M is for Metaphor

20 11 2011

As part of the interview process for candidates wanting to do the CTEFLA (now CELTA) course at IH Barcelona, we used to ask them to discuss the following question:

In your opinion, which of the following jobs would best prepare a person for language teaching? (Choose one only).

  •         sports coach
  •         actor
  •         social worker
  •         tour group leader
  •         lecturer
  •         sales person
  •         nurse
  •         driving instructor

What's your metaphor?

The idea (fairly obviously) was to try and tap into their mental image of a teacher, on the grounds that the trainee teacher’s (often implicit) conceptualisation of teaching will impact on the extent to which they identify with the program’s goals. For example, the metaphor TEACHERS ARE LECTURERS clearly doesn’t sit comfortably with the more facilitative teacher role that the CELTA promotes. (Note that it is customary in metaphor studies to represent metaphors using the convention X IS Y).

This interest in teacher’s metaphorical representations dates from a task that was set on my MA at Reading: we were required to experience a series of foreign language lessons (in our case, Japanese) and then – both as a group and individually –  to draw some teaching implications.  Discussing the experience with my fellow ‘students’ , I was struck by the amount of metaphorical language we were using, such as:

“I don’t think the message got through there.”

“I got lost in the amount of information.”

“It was quite difficult to hold on to both structures.”

“You start to see how it falls into place.”

“I couldn’t process it.”                           ¦

“One should’ve focused on the bits of grammar.”

These metaphors became the focus of my assignment, which in turn evolved into an article (Thornbury 1991: you can read it here).  Put simply, I concluded that the metaphors that teachers use to construe learning offer a window into their belief systems, which, in turn, might impact on their teaching. If, for example, you employ the metaphor LEARNING A LANGUAGE IS CODE-BREAKING you may, as a teacher, focus more on the code than on communication, and, by extension, on the way that knowledge of the rules of grammar helps ‘crack the code’.  A recent talk of mine – 7 ways of looking at grammar – takes a similar approach to the history of methodology: the ‘big theories’ of grammar can be captured in different metaphors for the mind.

Other researchers have gone in pursuit of similar quarry.  In an article published in 2001, Rod Ellis used metaphor analysis to compare the way that language learners are construed by researchers and the way that language learners construe themselves. To do this he analysed a small corpus of academic articles on SLA, and found that two dominant metaphors were LEARNER IS A CONTAINER, and LEARNER IS A MACHINE, both of which ‘position learners as lacking control over what they do and how they learn’ (p. 73) . He then looked at learner’s metaphorical constructions of themselves (based on their diary accounts) and found that learners used metaphors of suffering, struggle and of journeying. These metaphors highlighted the affective nature of language learning that the somewhat de-humanised metaphors of the researchers seemed to overlook.

In another very small-scale study (Thornbury 1999) I used metaphors to access learners’ expectations of what a good lesson is like. Using the formula A good English lesson is like [a story, a symphony, a meal, etc)] because…. I found that A LESSON IS A FILM was a popular choice, one reason being that “in a good class there have to be changes of rhythm, it has to be agreeable, amusing, and it has to take place without you realising it. Another student opted for A LESSON IS A PLAY “because one moment you can be enjoying yourself and then at another you have to pay attention to how the play is developing.” I argued that these ‘performance genre’ analogies offer useful pointers to effective lesson planning.

Why is language learning is like ...ing?

All this suggests a useful classroom idea that might raise learners’ awareness about the language learning process: ask them to complete the sentence Learning English (or Japanese or Swahili etc) is like …… because…..  which they then discuss in small groups and in open class. Some picture prompts might help trigger their response.

Finally, as I argued in Thornbury 1991, metaphors offer a potent instrument for teacher development. By reconfiguring classroom practice in terms of novel metaphors, teachers might be assisted in re-imagining their craft.

Rather than, for example, asking “What would be the effect if I did this instead of that?” a more generative approach to problem-setting might be: “What would be the implications if I thought of learning as, say, empowering? Or mythologising? Or as the sonata form? Or as barter? Or as government? Or as dance?”

Dogme ELT represents just such an attempt. By construing learning as emergence, and teaching as scaffolding, teachers are encouraged to shift the focus from knowledge transmission to ‘assisted performance’ (Tharp and Gallimore 1988) with all the methodological implications that such a view entails.


Ellis, R. (2001). The metaphorical construction of second language learners. In Breen, M. (ed.) Learner Contributions to language Learning: New directions in Research. Harlow: Longman.

Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (1991) Metaphors we work by: EFL and its metaphors. English Language Teaching Journal 45/3: 193-200.

Thornbury, S.  (1999).  Lesson art and design. ELT Journal, 53, 4-11.

Illustrations from Granger, C., & Hicks, T. 1977. Contact English 1 Students’ Book. London: Heinemann Educational.