S is for Substitution table

12 11 2017

H V GeorgeIn preparing the new edition of An A-Z of ELT, I had a slight altercation with my (wonderful) editor, who – on the basis of readers’ reports – queried my claim (in the first edition) that substitution tables ‘have fallen out of fashion’. She felt that, if anything, they were coming back into fashion, citing examples in a number of coursebooks. I disagreed.

Before I describe how we resolved this argument, a little bit of history.

The use of substitution tables to display the interchangeable items of a grammar pattern have, according to Kelly (1969), been around since the early 1500’s.  Here’s an example from a French course of 1534.substitution table 1534But, of course, they really came into their own with the advent of structuralism – the view that language (and not just language, but any cultural artefact) could be construed as a network of relationships. This view, in turn, goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure, who proposed that there are two ways in which language elements relate to one another: syntagmatically (as chains) and paradigmatically (as slots). Thus, in the table below (from George 1967),  cheaply reproduced is a syntagmatic relation (it forms a chain), while maps, charts, and diagrams share a paradigmatic relation (they fill the same slot).

George 1967 sub tableSubstitution tables, then, nicely display these kinds of relations, and can be used to generate a great many sentences based on a single pattern. As George himself wrote:

‘With these Substitution Tables you can speak and write many thousands of English sentences, without making a single mistake… After you have made a large number of sentences you will find that you have learnt the sentence pattern.’

Accordingly substitution tables featured prominently in materials that subscribed to an audiolingual methodology – i.e. one that was predicated on the belief that language learning involves internalizing the patterns of the language through processes of habit-formation, so that they might be reproduced accurately.

But substitution tables (as we have seen) pre-date audiolingualism. In 1916, Harold Palmer was already singing their praises, recommending that each sentence produced by the substitution table should be ‘examined, recited, translated, retranslated, acted, thought and concretized.’ There are more than enough suggestive ideas in this little (paradigmatic!) list to keep an imaginative teacher busy for many hours of productive classroom time. Let’s see.

Examined? Here’s how H.V. George suggests using his tables (having drawn one on the board or, nowadays, projected it):

‘The teacher starts by reading sentences from the table, choosing items which are easy to follow and reading slowly, but without halting at the columns. When most of the items have been used to the teacher increases the speed of begins to take items from widely separated positions. At this stage the teacher brings out a good student. As the teacher reads, the student points with a ruler at each item in turn. Following is not too easy if speed and range of items increase as the student becomes more proficient. One tries to keep the student under pressure without actually causing them to break down. Of course the other students are watching to see whether he does, and their interest is maintained. One or two students have a turn, then a student may replace the teacher, himself be replaced and so on.

A lively use of the table is for the teacher to point a ruler at one item in one column, at the same time reading aloud an item from another: and pointing to (or naming) a student anywhere in the room; the student having to form a sentence which includes both the spoken item in the one pointed to.’

Recited?  Jazz chants, of course. Substitution tables share some of the characteristics of song and verse: short, repeated lines, with minor changes. Think of

The knee bone connecka to the thigh bone;
The thigh bone connecka to the hip bone…etc

Translated and re-translated? Students in paired groups A and B: each translates sentences from a substitution table and sends them (written or spoken) to the other group, who translate them back again.

Acted? TPR, naturally. A student (silently) chooses a sentence from a substitution table (like the example below) and acts it out: the others guess what it is.

TPR subs table

Thought?  Have students construct their own table out of the jumbled elements (like a jigsaw puzzle), or out of a collection of sentences.

Concretized? Give the students a substitution table and get them to make as many sentences as possible. If this sounds too mechanical, insist they be true sentences. Or, ‘true for your group’.  Then for fun, the activity can be turned on its head, by the substitution of the word ‘false’. Or ‘funny’. Or ‘surreal’. And so on. A competitive element can be added by giving a time-limit: How many true sentences about your group can you produce in three minutes?

Oh – and the argument I had with my editor? It seemed to me that she was conflating substitution tables with tables like this:

fake substitution table

which is not a substitution table at all, in the sense that you can generate new sentences by combining any of its elements: *Who is your sister singer? *Are your favourite married? ???  Moreover, what often look like substitution tables are simply tables of verb paradigms: I am. you are. he/she/it is etc. In the end we compromised, and rather than saying ‘they have fallen out of fashion’, I wrote ‘they are less common nowadays’. And I added, ‘but there are few clearer ways of displaying a structure’s parts, and – with a little ingenuity – they can also provide a model for creativity and personalization.’


George, H.V. (1967) 101 Substitution Tables for Students of English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

George, H.V. (1967) 101 Substitution Tables for Students of English: Teachers’ guide and advanced students’ guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kelly, L.G. (1969) 25 centuries of language teaching: 500 BC – 1969. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.

Palmer, H.E. (1916) Colloquial English, Part I: 100 Substitution Tables. Cambridge: Heffer.


R is for (Wilga) Rivers

15 10 2017

Wilga RiversI’m working on a book chapter about methodology texts, and the name Wilga Rivers comes up again and again. You may remember that she is the first woman to get a mention in Stern’s (1983) chronology of significant language teaching milestones in the previous century (see W is for Women in ELT). Stern describes her as ‘a writer on language pedagogy who has influenced the thinking of many language teachers for nearly two decades’ (p. 107). Me included.

Rivers is significant from a number of points of view: she was one of the first writers on language teaching methodology to really engage with the developing field of psycholinguistics. Her first book, in fact, was called The psychologist and the foreign-language teacher (1964). But the book of hers I am most familiar with is probably also her best-known: Teaching foreign-language skills. This was first published in 1968, and then edited for re-publication in 1981. The dates are significant, if you think about it. Somewhere in that period a major sea-change had taken place in language teaching methodology, namely the advent of the communicative approach. Rivers 2nd ednAs Rivers herself wrote (in the second edition): ‘Much water has flown under the bridge since the sixties’ (p. xiii). What is fascinating comparing the two editions (and interesting to me for the purposes of writing my chapter) is the way that Rivers not only embraces that change but, in some ways, was able to predict it. (Even in her 1964 book she had included a chapter suggesting ways that audiolingualism could be improved.)

Her readiness to abandon the narrow strictures of the audiolingual approach and its associated structural grammar found a fuller expression in Speaking in many tongues (first published in 1972 and then revised in 1976) in which she has a chapter called ‘From linguistic competence to communicative competence’,  and yet again in a subsequent book that she edited for Cambridge, Interactive language teaching (1987).  This begins with an article of hers titled ‘Interaction as the key to teaching language for communication’, in which she recalls her first teacher of French when she was 11:

We performed actions; we handled objects; we drew large pictures and labelled them; we sang; we danced; we learned poems; we read little stories which we acted out and improvised upon…

And she adds: ‘Collaborative activity of this type should be the norm from the beginning of language study’ (p. 4, original emphasis).

I met Wilga Rivers only once: in Barcelona at a TESOL Spain conference in 1989. By then she would have been nearly 70. She gave a plenary, made memorable by her writing on the projector screen in indelible pen, and by her still uncompromisingly strong Australian accent. She was born in Melbourne in 1920. As Claire Kramsch (writing on the occasion of Rivers’ retirement from Harvard) recalls:

She had never intended to come to America. What she really wanted was to be the best French teacher in the Australian school system. She wanted to strengthen Australian education according to her own educational beliefs. But her Australian frontier spirit was not meant to bloom at home. It found a voice in the United States, a voice that led her to become one of the first few women full professors at Harvard, a voice now familiar to foreign language teachers all over the world . . . including Australia (1989, p. 53)

Wilga rivers quoteI was teaching a Diploma course at the time of the TESOL Conference, and we were using several of Rivers’ texts, including one on motivation and another on vocabulary teaching. In the latter, she quotes the biblical line ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver’. One of my students on the course, Catie Lenaghan, engineered a gathering with Wilga over coffee during one of the breaks: Catie had written out the quote and asked Wilga to sign it (see picture) before presenting it to me.

Many years later, browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Boston, I was surprised to find a number of books with her (by now familiar) signature on the flyleaf (see picture below). I realized, with some sadness, that she must have recently died. Many of the books that had belonged to her dated from the pre-communicative era – books on habit formation and contrastive error analysis. Others, like the one I bought – Earl Stevick’s Images and options in the language classroom (1986) – were more recent.  It was sad to see what had presumably been an extensive library broken up and dismantled like this. It makes me look at my own library with a mix of pride and foreboding.

Wilga Rivers signature


Kramsch, C. J. (1989) ‘Wilga M. Rivers on her retirement.’ Modern Language Journal, 73/1.

Rivers, W. (1964) The psychologist and the foreign-language teacher. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Rivers, W. (1976) Speaking in many tongues. (Expanded 2nd edn.) Rowley, Mass: Newbury House.

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

Rivers, W. (ed.) (1987) Interactive language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stern, H.H. (1983) Fundamental concepts of language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stevick, E. (1986) Images and options in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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.

D is for Drills

8 12 2009

What happened to drilling?  Doesn’t anyone drill any more? Few teachers will admit to it. There’s something slightly unsavoury about drilling – like hairspray. Or bicycle clips. Drilling belongs to another era.


An era in which I was trained. When I was taught to teach, drilling was the quintessential – the ur-activity – in classroom practice.  Following the precepts of structuralist linguists and behaviourist psychologists, it was taken as axiomatic that “TO LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE ONE MUST ESTABLISH ORALLY THE PATTERNS OF THE LANGUAGE AS SUBCONSCIOUS HABITS” (Lado & Fries, 1943, 1979- emphasis in original!).  In the words of one pedagogue, “It is these basic patterns that constitute the learner’s task. They require drill, drill, and more drill, and only enough vocabulary to make such drills possible” (Hockett, 1959, cited in Richards and Rodgers 1986).


Accordingly, on my initial training, teaching practice required that you demonstrate the ability to perform a wide variety of drills – imitation drills, chorus drills, substitution drills, variable substitution drills, transformation drills, conversion drills, etc etc – with consummate skill, even panache! Six months into my first teaching job, I was so slick at elicit-and-drill it felt at times that I was on auto-pilot.


At the same time I was beginning to intuit a serious flaw in the elicit-and-drill methodology that I’d been trained in. In terms of fixing structures in memory, drilling worked great in the very short term – the length of a lesson, max. But beyond the lesson, it seemed that any pattern induction that might have resulted from all that excruciating repetition had simply evaporated. The minds of the students seem to march to the beat of a different drum. Proof of which was the occasion when – in the middle of a present-perfect-for-past-experience-in-indefinite-time drill – a student stopped to ask me a real question about my past-experience-in-indefinite time, but using the past simple!


Of course, similar doubts were being expressed at a more elevated level too. By the end of the 70s the theoretical basis of audiolingualism had been well and truly discredited, and its hallmark drills – and the language laboratories that were their technological incarnation – had been consigned to the dust-heap of methodology.  Where methodology texts, such as Wilga Rivers Teaching Foreign Language Skills (1968) had devoted whole chapters to structure drills, the new generation of manuals hardly mentioned them at all. Or if they did, they had a strong health warning attached. Thus, Harmer (1991) advises: “They should not be used for too long or too frequently” (p. 92). And Brown (1994) celebrates the fact that “Today, thankfully, we have developed teaching practices that make only minimal—or optimal—use of such drilling” (p. 138).


So, have drills really disappeared? And, if not, how can they be used “optimally”?



Brown, H.D. (1994) Teaching by Principles; An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. Prentice-Hall.

Harmer, J. (1991) The Practice of English Language Teaching. Longman.

Richards, J.C. and Rodgers, T.S. (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.