M is for Method

28 11 2010

I’m moderating a Diploma course discussion on methodology this week, so, for a change I thought I’d post a short video of me going on about it.

Seven key quotes on the subject of method, some of which I refer to in the video:

  1. “Methods are of little interest”  Kelly, L.G.  1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, p. 2.
  2. “The development of language-teaching methods … has in fact been empirical rather than theory-directed. […] The fact seems to be that teachers have ‘followed their noses’ and adopted a generally eclectic approach to teaching methods…” Corder, S. P. 1973. Introducing Applied Linguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 135-6.
  3. “During the sixties and seventies several developments indicate a shift in language pedagogy away from the single method concept as the main approach to language teaching.”  Stern, H.H. 1983. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, p. 477.
  4. “The widespread dissatisfaction with the conventional concept of method has produced what I have called a postmethod condition.”  Kumaravadivelu, B. 1994. The Postmethod condition: (E)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28, p. 43.
  5. “Methods, however the term is defined, are not dead. Teachers seem to be aware of both the usefulness of methods and the need to go beyond them.”  Bell, D. 2007. Do teachers think that methods are dead?  ELT Journal, 61, p. 143.
  6. “I consistently use method to refer to established methods conceptualised and constructed by experts in the field ….  I use the term, methodology, to refer to what practicing teachers actually do in the classroom in order to achieve their stated or unstated teaching objectives.”  Kumaravadivelu, B. 2006. Understanding Languge Teaching: From Method to Postmethod. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 84.
  7. “The concept of method has not been replaced by the concept of postmethod but rather by an era of textbook-defined practice. What the majority of teachers teach and how they teach … are now determined by textbooks.”  Akbari, R. 2008. Postmethod discourse and practice. TESOL Quarterly, 42/4, p. 647.

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.

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.

C is for Coursebook (by Lindsay Clandfield)

16 05 2010


After six months’  blogging (28 posts, 870 comments) I thought it might be timely to hand over the reins  to someone else for a change. And who better than  my blogging ‘mentor’, the irrepressible Lindsay Clandfield! (You must know Lindsay’s Six Things blog by now – if not, give it a visit). Lindsay’s new course, Global (Macmillan ELT), has just been launched – so I thought it might be appropriate to ask him to blog on the subject of coursebooks.

Lindsay writes:

A cynic’s definition of a language coursebook might say something like the following: One of the most popular yet unnecessary tools for learning a language. This is true. But classrooms, schools and teachers are also unnecessary for learning a language. What is it, then, about coursebooks that provokes such negative feelings in our field?

After all, coursebooks are very useful tools in that they:

1 Provide a structure for teachers and students to follow. This can give a course a sense of security, of purpose and achievement as the class advances through the book.

2 Provide attractive, motivational, colourful and diverse content, which is increasingly multimedia (text, audio and video).

3 Provide graded content suitable for the learners’ level and a full syllabus that covers language skills and language systems.

4 Above all serve as a great timesaver for teachers, who are increasingly under the burden of administrative work already. Coursebooks represent great savings in terms of lesson and test planning time.

5 Provide a source of ideas and methodology. Modern teacher’s books come packed with extra ideas, tips and language explanations. This kind of material can help the teacher improve her teaching and knowledge of language lesson by lesson.

Arguments against coursebooks tend to fall into the following categories:

1 They all look the same. This perhaps isn’t so galling for students who do not, in general, spend as much time with a coursebook as a teacher does. Faced with teaching the same or similar material week in week out for years is not very motivating.

2 They all follow the same syllabus. Perhaps one of the contributing factors to a sense of similarity is that the majority of modern coursebooks follow a very similar grammar syllabus which forms, if not the backbone, then a very important strand of the course.

3 The grammar is wrong or misleading. Some arguments around coursebooks zero in on how certain grammar points are treated, and claim that these are either outdated, unclear or just plain wrong.

4 Texts serve merely as a pretext to teach discrete language items. Used in this way, the material stifles any real communication in the classroom.

5 Texts and topics are Anglo- or Eurocentric and/or promote a western consumerist ideology. This is the hidden curriculum, implicit or explicit, in the cultural makeup of a coursebook. The high number of good-looking, rich and famous people in coursebooks has also been criticized recently.

6 Texts and topics are safe, bland and vapid. Because they have to appeal to a wide audience, it is argued, coursebooks will tend to avoid more controversial topics. When the audience is very wide (e.g. international coursebooks), some argue that they are not suitable for certain national contexts.

7 Coursebooks are too big. One common complaint is that there is too much material to cover in an academic year. This complaint becomes more and more vocal with the additional material that accompanies most modern coursebooks.

The combination of these have led to calls to abandon coursebooks altogether, a posture well-known to readers of this blog. Most teacher training courses and key texts on teaching advise teachers to adapt the material that they use in class. Indeed, part of a language teacher’s professional development would seem to be developing a more critical view and use of published teaching material.

Coursebooks are intended to provide motivating material, ideas, a structure and cohesive syllabus to a language course. Some do this more successfully than others. The role of the teacher cannot be underestimated either. As the old adage goes, only a bad worker blames his or her tools. A good teacher can make even the most dire coursebook a motivational experience for learners and teacher alike.

From my point of view as a materials writer, having had to teach with and research lots of different kinds of coursebooks I would say that they have changed considerably over the years. Some of the arguments above are made citing examples from old and outdated books, a slightly unfair position to take. Any argument that begins with “all coursebooks are/do/have…” is in danger of being a reductionist overgeneralisation.

Many coursebooks are based on months, if not years, of research and feedback from teachers. Of the points above, #2 (the grammar syllabus) and #6 (too much material) may be valid but this is often in direct response to what users say they want. Attempts to do otherwise have often resulted in commercial failures.

Many of their “flaws” are not necessarily inherent to coursebooks. Some of the people who most read and follow the anti-coursebook arguments are coursebook authors themselves, or teachers who are working on an idea for a coursebook.  The best answer to these arguments, it would seem to me, is not: “drop the coursebook” but rather “try to make a better coursebook”.