P is for Power

26 04 2015

What about ‘The English Woman’? Or ‘The Non-English Man’? (Language school in Barcelona)

The recent IATEFL Conference at Manchester has been generating quite a bit of heat on the social networks on issues that, to my way of thinking, relate to questions of power: specifically, who has it? who ought to have it? and who has earned it?

For example, in their presentation on the alleged invisibility of women in ELT, Nicola Prentis and Russell Mayne suggested that the predominance of a clique of (not quite) dead white males in ELT (all named and shamed!) has effectively blocked access to opportunities for aspiring writers and presenters, especially women. (I wasn’t there so I’m simply inferring the gist from what I’ve been reading on Facebook – I’m prepared to be corrected). Their concern echoes that of the Fair List, an initiative to encourage a higher profile for women speakers at ELT events, which had hosted an awards ceremony the evening before.

Where are the women in ELT? Well, while it may be true that women are underrepresented in the power structures of ELT (ignoring, for the moment, that the incoming and outgoing presidents of both IATEFL and TESOL are all women), the situation is probably healthier than in many professions. A quick check of a website where speakers from a whole range of disciplines (sciences, the arts, media, sports etc) advertise their wares shows that roughly nine out of ten speakers in all categories (Keynote, Celebrities, Motivational, Leadership etc) are men. By comparison, the ELT conference circuit seems relatively inclusive.  There is certainly room for improvement, but it does make me wonder if the gender debate isn’t distracting us from power issues that are much more pervasive and equally, if not more, pernicious.

Such as? Well, not one of the alpha males (in the list that Prentis and Mayne’s research identified) is a non-native speaker. Yet non-native speaker teachers comprise the vast majority of the teaching population worldwide – upwards of 95% by some estimates. This – more than the gender disparity – seems a much more serious indictment of the present state of ELT, and suggests that the ‘discourses of colonialism’ (Pennycook 1998) still permeate the profession, a situation in which, as Holliday (2005: 2) puts it, ‘a well-resourced, politically and economically aggressive, colonizing, Western ‘Centre’’ imposes its values, standards and beliefs on ‘an under-sourced, colonized ‘Periphery’.’ in class 1950

Ironically, these colonizing forces are particularly conspicuous at conferences in the so-called periphery itself, where the alpha (NS) males – myself included – really dominate. Is this a case of what Kumaravadivelu (2006: 22) calls ‘self-marginalization’? I.e.:

The TESOL profession is replete with instances where, in certain periphery communities, program administrators “require” or at least “prefer” native speakers to carry out teaching and consultancy, and teachers and teacher educators look up to native speakers for inspiration thinking that they have ready-made answers to all the recurrent problems of classroom teaching … By their uncritical acceptance of the native speaker dominance, non-native professionals legitimize their own marginalization.

As I’ve found, it’s very hard to persuade the head of a teachers’ organization in, say, Bangladesh or Armenia, that I have nothing of value to add to what the locals already know. TaW SIG

Meanwhile, a group calling itself TAW (Teachers as Workers) is lobbying IATEFL for Special Interest Group (SIG) status, on the grounds that it represents the interests of working teachers (‘pushing for the rights of ELT teachers in an era of precarity [sic]’), but, so far, with little success. It is a little odd, let’s face it, that a teachers’ organization (which is what IATEFL purports to be) can’t make room for a group that provides a forum for chalkface teachers. Teacher professional development, after all, is professional development, which surely includes issues of job security, working conditions, access to training, and so on. As Bill Johnston (2003: 137) writes:

I believe that all our talk of teacher professional development is seriously compromised if we ignore the marginalisation of ELT that is staring us in the face, that is, if we treat the professional growth of teachers as something that can be both conceived and carried out without reference to the sociopolitical realities of teachers’ lives. To devalue this central feature of work for huge numbers of teachers is to fail to grasp the significance of the drive for professional development. I believe that the ELT professional organisations have unwittingly colluded in this artificial separation of the professional and political. For many years, for example, the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Convention, the annual meeting of the TESOL organisation, was almost exclusively devoted to matters of classroom techniques and materials. These things are of course important and useful to teachers. What was lacking, however, was any sense of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted, or of its role in those contexts.

teacher ny 1920So, don’t be put off by the somewhat hectoring rhetoric of the TaW collective. Even if it is unlikely to prosper, their cause is a worthy one.

Finally, while some are banging on the doors of IATEFL trying to get in, there are others who view IATEFL and similar organizations, not as the solution, but as the problem. From his bunker somewhere in Catalonia, Geoff Jordan lambasts IATEFL and all it stands for: “The IATEFL conference is about self-promotion, it’s held to justify IATEFL’s existence and to give the huge commercial concerns that run the ELT industry a chance to flog their shoddy goods.”

Whether you agree or not, this – like the other issues I have touched on – is clearly an issue of power: whose interests does IATEFL really serve? Does it kowtow to the publishers? What discourses does it privilege, e.g. those of professional development, or of social justice or of big business?

And, taking the wider view, is ELT still tainted with its colonial past? Does the centre still hold? Is it really all about ‘the English Man’? In short, how cognizant are we (to borrow Johnston’s phrase) “of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted”?  How is power distributed in these contexts? How could it be distributed more equitably?


Holliday, A. (2005) The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnston, B. (2003) Values in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006) ‘Dangerous liaison: globalization, empire and TESOL’, in Edge, J. (ed.) (Re)locating TESOL in an Age of Empire. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pennycook, A. (1998) English and the Discourses of Colonialism. London: Routledge.

M is for Mother tongue

19 04 2015

Berlitz frontispieceIn 1906 Maximilian Berlitz wrote, in the preface to his Method for Teaching Modern Languages:

“In the Berlitz Method, translation as a means of acquiring a foreign language is entirely abandoned. From the first lesson, the student hears only the language he is studying.”

The reasons for this (at the time) radical departure from established pedagogy included the following:

“He who is studying a foreign language by means of translation, neither gets hold of its spirit nor becomes accustomed to think in it; on the contrary, he has a tendency to base all he says upon what he would say in his mother tongue, and he cannot prevent his vernacular [i.e. his L1] from invading the foreign idiom [i.e. the L2].”

This view – that languages can and should be ‘kept apart’ because, if not, they will ‘invade’ one another – has underpinned second language teaching pedagogy ever since. Likewise, the folk wisdom that, unless languages are kept separate, learners will never learn to ‘think’ in the target language, has persisted until the present day.

What evidence is there (a) that languages are stored and accessed separately, and (b) that second language learners can be trained to ‘think’ in their L2?

Not a lot. The findings of neuroscience, based mainly on neuro-imaging technology, challenge the view that languages are stored separately in the brain. Instead, ‘current research suggests that the neural representation of an L2 converges with that of an L1’ (Green et al, 2006: 111) and that ‘each language affects the other and neither is identical to that of a monolingual’ (Birdsong 2006: 22). What’s more, ‘it would appear that the brain areas involved in L1 acquisition are very similar to those involved in L2 acquisition’ (Schumann 2006: 317).  In other words, languages do not develop separately, nor are they stored separately. Nor can they be: they are inextricably interconnected. Invasion, interference, transfer, leakage, competition – these are the facts of (psycholinguistic) life. Better, perhaps, to deal with them head on, rather than attempt to avoid them.

As for ‘thinking in English’: this seems only to occur in advanced learners who are committed to living their lives as part of the target language community. Studies of developmental changes in the way speakers gesture in their L2 (e.g. Gullberg 2008; 2011), for example, suggest that L1 cognitive structures persist even at quite advanced levels. Ellis and Shintani (2014: 243), reviewing the evidence, conclude, ‘it is clearly necessary to accept that the L1 will play a major role in most learners’ inner world’.

Berltiz prefaceMoreover, from a sociolinguistic perspective, it is quite likely that the L1 will play a role in the learners’ outer world as well – even in predominantly English-speaking contexts. Purely monolingual societies have probably never been the norm, but are less so now than ever. As Rampton (1995: 338) observes: ‘The idea that people really only have one native language, that really monolingualism is the fundamental linguistic condition, … underlies a widespread failure to recognise new and mixed linguistic identities’. This is even truer now than it was in 1995: in a globalized world, there is increasing use of, and greater tolerance of, ‘code-switching’ and ‘code meshing’ by multilinguals, and this needs to be reflected in pedagogy. Learners are probably not learning English to join a single monolithic discourse community but are ‘shuttling between communities’ (Canagarajah 2005: xxvi) – hence there should be a pedagogical focus on multilingual and multicultural practices, practices in which the learners’ mother tongue is not proscribed but legitimized.

Nevertheless, current methodology still seems heavily predicated on Berlitz’s ‘English only’ principle. Teacher education is directed, not at exploiting the learners’ L1 as a resource for learning and communication, but at compensating for many teachers’ lack of knowledge of their learners’ L1, and at producing learners who are simulacra of monolingual native speakers. Worse, this ‘native speakerist’ mindset seems to have ‘infected’ many NNS teachers, who feel guilty if caught using the L1 in the classroom.

In the Cambridge English signature event at the IATEFL conference in Manchester last week, I argued that the Cambridge English Teaching Framework, a rubric for the assessment of teachers’ effectiveness, should not only NOT proscribe L1 use, but should include a section that validates L1 knowledge. Adopting the categories of the existing five competencies (which includes Language ability, but only insofar as this applies to the target language, i.e. English), it might look like this:

L1 competence Cambridge Framework

It was gratifying to receive this response (from Karima Gikar) to my not entirely frivolous proposal:

The suggestion you made concerning the modification of the [CET Framework] as to make it compulsory for NS teachers to know their students’ L1 is bloody daring! If your suggestion came to be taken more than seriously (which I hope) and implemented in internationally recognised tests like CELTA, DELTA and TESOL, it would be a huge boost for NNS teachers who have long been made to feel less capable or even deficient only because they happen to be non natives. Turning the knowledge and use of students’ L1 into an asset rather than a setback will undoubtedly make teachers who have been put off by discriminatory attitudes and practices regain trust in the profession.


Birdsong, D. (2006) ‘Age and second language acquisition and processing: a selective overview,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Canagarajah, S. (2005) ‘Introduction’, in Canagarajah, S. (ed.) Reclaiming the local in language policy and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ellis, R. & Shantini, N. (2014) Exploring language pedagogy through second language acquisition research. London: Routledge.

Green, D.W., Crinion, J., & Price, C.J. (2006) ‘Convergence, degeneracy, and control,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gullberg, M. (2008) ‘Gestures and second language acquisition’, in Robinson, P., & Ellis, N. (eds.) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Abingdon: Routledge.

Gullberg, M. (2011) ‘Thinking, speaking and gesturing about motion in more than one language,’ in Pavlenko, A. (ed.) Thinking and speaking in two languages. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Rampton, B. (1995) Crossing: Language and ethnicity among adolescents. London: Longman.

Schumann, J. S. (2006) ‘Summing up: some themes in the cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

M is for Model

12 04 2015

modellingmodel n [C]: someone you should imitate because of their good qualities or behaviour [Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English]

Today, at IATEFL, I’m taking part in a debate, hosted by Cambridge English, which celebrates the publication of a new volume in the Studies in Language Testing series, called Assessing language teachers’ professional skills and knowledge (edited by Wilson & Poulter). One of the papers in this collection, ‘Teachers’ language competence: issues of appropriation and appropriacy’ by Jenny Johnson and Monica Poulter, reports the results of a survey in which teacher trainers worldwide were asked (among other things) about the level of English required for acceptance on to CELTA (i.e. pre-service) courses. One respondent replied:

‘The key, for me, is that they should be a good model for students. I wouldn’t want candidates to be teaching incorrect things to students’ (p. 187)

This more or less echoes the views of the majority of respondents, it seems, and in turn chimes with Cambridge English’s own assessment criterion (2d), viz. [the candidate should be seen to be] ‘providing accurate and appropriate models of oral and written language in the classroom.’

Which set me thinking: isn’t there something a little superannuated about the role of teacher as ‘model’? Do teachers have to be ‘someone you should imitate’? And what exactly are these ‘incorrect things’ that they might be imitating? Doesn’t this all have a vaguely behaviourist ring to it? And a ‘native-speakerist’ one, at that?  By whose standards, for example, is ‘correctness’ judged?

It’s certainly a view that has a long history. E.g.:

‘It is a sad thing to think that all over the world teachers are busily teaching incorrect pronunciation to thousands of children daily! … Yet it is within the power of nearly every teacher of English to achieve a level of speaking which is a very close approximation to the natural speech of a native speaker of English who speaks carefully and enunciates clearly’ (Gurrey 1955: 14-15).

salle de classeI once had a trainee on a Diploma course who confessed to the fact that, in an earlier life, he had been an art teacher – not by choice, since he can’t draw. But he said that this wasn’t actually a handicap. If you’re a good teacher, you can teach anything – he argued. But you don’t have to model it.

Couldn’t the same be said about second languages?

Isn’t the teacher’s main role to provide the conditions of learning? And isn’t a key condition of language learning language using? Imitating a ‘good model’ is hardly using the language – compared, say, to authentic communication. And, anyway, if it is exemplars that are needed, we now have the technology to provide any number of samples of a huge range of accents, registers and speaking styles. Not to mention writing. Moreover, these exemplars can be selected so as to match the learners own needs and aspirations. After all, the ‘model’ that a learner aspires to, or can realistically achieve, may not be the teacher’s.

And, crucially, if the teacher’s role is construed less as a model to imitate and more as a facilitator of learning, the invidious distinction between NS and NNS starts to collapse. NNS teachers need no longer feel that they are somehow deficient, simply because they can’t simulate a native speaker. Why should they? As Vivian Cook (1999: 194) argues, “People cannot be expected to conform to the norm of a group to which they do not belong”.

So, is it time to inter the notion of ‘model’ once and for all?


Cook, V. (1999) ‘Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching’ TESOL Quarterly, 33/2: 185-210.

Gurrey, P. (1955) Teaching English as a foreign language. London: Longmans.

P is for Pecha Kucha

20 01 2013

What is PechaKucha 20×20?

PechaKucha 20×20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images.

(from the official Pecha Kucha website)

Strategies kitchen reduced

Cooking, Strategies style (1975)

Pecha kuchas have become regular events at ELT conferences, ever since Lindsay Clandfield introduced the genre at the IATEFL Conference in Exeter in 2008, and where I had the dubious honour of being one of the presenters. My 20 times 20 seconds of fame was called Eating for Specific Purposes, and dealt with the way that food, and specifically recipes, have been portrayed in ELT coursebooks over the years. That gives you an indication of the kind of (often fairly frivolous) topics that are the subject of pecha kuchas, which are typically staged as an evening entertainment, not unlike a Victorian parlour game.

But when I was asked to do a pecha kucha at the KOTESOL conference in Seoul last October, I chose a topic that was a little more ambitious: a sort of potted history of second language acquisition (SLA) theory in alphabetical order (a nod both to the book, An A-Z of ELT, and the eponymous blog). I also wanted to reduce the amount of text on the slides to a minimum: in my experience 20 seconds a slide doesn’t allow for a whole lot of cognitive processing, especially when the presenter is talking nineteen to the dozen, as one tends to do.

Well, this is the result, kindly made available by KOTESOL. What do you think?

B is for Blogging

18 09 2011

It seems appropriate to resume blogging, after a short break, by blogging about blogging.

I recently got a request from an MA TESOL student at Durham University, who is writing her dissertation on blogging in ELT:

My focus will be on the question of how teachers and academics use blogs to push forward their ideas. I have been following your blog for a while now and would be interested in analysing it for my work. In order to get a detailed understanding of ELT blogs and blogging practices in general, it would be really helpful if I could get more information about your blog and blogging practices.

Here is my response to five of the questions I was sent.


My thanks to Kerstin Müller for initiating this discussion.

P is for Profession

30 01 2011

Hard times?

In a leading Spanish daily a couple of weeks ago, there was a feature on an up-and-coming actress, in which she recounted her years of ‘penury’ before achieving stardom. This is how it was reported (loosely translated): “Her career has suffered fits and starts. [She recalls,] ‘I worked as an ice-cream seller, a mime at Ikea, a teacher of English, and a teacher of drawing…'” The newspaper comments: “These are the privations that many of her actor friends have had to put up with, grabbing whatever they can …”

And in the 1995 edition of The Cambridge International Dictionary of English the following citation appeared under the entry for end up: “After working her way around the world, she ended up teaching English as a foreign language”.

This perception of English language teaching as being a slightly disreputable last resort, or, at best, a gap-year option, is one that is endlessly perpetuated, and is a source of both embarrassment and indignation on the part of many dedicated English teachers.

One way of redressing this negative stereotype has been to claim professional status, arguing that language teaching, being highly skilled, requires (or should require) extensive training and rigorous gate-keeping. In this spirit, organisations such as IATEFL and TESOL make it their mission “to develop and maintain professional expertise in English language teaching” (as the TESOL website puts it).

But is TEFL really a profession? Is teaching even a profession? In his seminal book, School teacher: A sociological study, Lortie (1975) suggested that — compared to the prototypical professions like law, medicine or engineering — maybe it is not. Why? Because, unlike doctors, lawyers, architects, etc:

  • teachers continue to be employed subordinates who are employed in organizations where those that govern do not belong to the occupation;
  • there is no consensual base of professional knowledge;
  • membership is not carefully screened by the occupational group itself;
  • entry to teaching is eased by society, as compared to other professions: entry requirements are relatively lacking in rigour and length and the decision to enter can be made at almost any age.

Whether or not this is true for mainstream teaching, it certainly does seem to reflect the reality on the ground for much of TEFL, and accounts for the relatively low levels of professional self-esteem, often exacerbated by poor pay and long hours.

"The technology model"

What is to be done? As I wrote a few years back (Thornbury 2001), “those working in EFL who are concerned by this implied lack of status have responded by attempting to construe EFL in terms of one of two distinct models” (p. 392). These I labelled the academic model (aimed at establishing ‘a consensual base of professional knowledge’, through, for example, research and publication), and the therapeutic model, where, by enlisting certain new-age discursive practices, the somewhat mundane activity of teaching is re-invented  as a form of healing. (I am less convinced, now, that the therapeutic model has as extensive a following as it did in the 1980s and 1990s. If anything it has been eclipsed by the technology model, whereby respect is conferred by donning a lab-coat and swearing allegiance to the doctrine of Vorsprung durch Technik. Meanwhile, the academic model is stronger than ever, judging by the number of MA TESOL programs on offer – on one of which – declaring an interest – I teach).

As an alternative (to the academic and therapeutic models), I argued that teachers might achieve a measure, not just of self-respect, but of personal and professional excitement, by acknowledging the fact “that they occupy a privileged space on the frontier between languages and hence on the frontier between cultures, and that they are uniquely situated to mediate contact through dialogue” (p. 394).

A dialogic model of pedagogy, grounded firmly in an educational tradition, as opposed to an academic or a therapeutic or a technocratic one, still seems to me to offer the best way forward. As Claire Kramsch puts it: “A dialogic pedagogy is unlike traditional pedagogy… it sets new goals for teachers – poetic, psychological, political goals that … do not constitute any easy-to-follow method. .. Such a  pedagogy should better be described, not as a blueprint for how to teach foreign languages, but as another way of being a language teacher” (Kramsch 1993, p. 31).

I concluded my article by suggesting that:

as a profession we should worry less about what other people think of us and concern ourselves more with what we are good at: being out there, at the front, in the firing line, on the edge. Few jobs can offer as much. The lightness of EFL is dizzying. But we need to guard against respectability. As Auden wrote: “The sense of danger must not disappear” (p.396).

Ten years on: is the craving for respectability still as strong as ever?


Kramsch, C. 1993. Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lortie, D. 1975. School teacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chcago Press.

Thornbury, S. 2001.The unbearable lightness of EFL. English Language Teaching Journal, 55/4, 391-6.

C is for Coursebook writing

23 01 2011

I recently got the following email:

I’m writing to ask if you could steer me in the right direction towards writing an ELT student’s book. … I have eight years’ teaching experience and the Cambridge DELTA. I’m presently coming to the end of my master’s degree … I will very much appreciate any suggestions you are able to provide.

As you can imagine, I was amused on two counts. Firstly, isn’t the writer aware of my less than coursebook-friendly reputation? And, more to the point, isn’t it a little naive to think you can just break in to this highly competitive field without so much as a by-your-leave?

Gathering dust (good title for a coursebook?)

However, the request got me thinking. It’s not unreasonable, after all, having taught a bit and having got as qualified as you can get in this field, to consider a move into some related area such as training or materials writing. It was more or less the point that I was at, when I first got into writing. In fact, it seems to me, on reflection, that my own experience might be instructive here. (At the same time, the world of publishing, and of ELT publishing in particular, has changed enormously since I first started writing 20 years ago. So I’m not sure if any advice I can offer is as apt now as it might have been then).

So: it’s 1991. I have just finished my MA and I am asked, by a leading publisher, if I will review a new coursebook series that is in production. (The connection is not entirely fortuitous, I have to admit, since the writers are both friends of mine, all of us having worked and studied together). I write the review, and this leads to my being asked if I’d be interested in submitting a proposal to write the first workbook of the series. My proposal is accepted and thus begins my apprenticeship into ELT publishing. (I was lucky to have an extremely patient editor who was able to curb my enthusiasms without destroying my confidence).

One thing led to another: I wrote the two other workbooks for the series, and then was approached by another publisher with a view to my ‘finishing’ a coursebook series that the existing writer was too busy to complete. Again, I had to learn how to adapt my own ideals to the constraints imposed, not only by the publishers and their reporters ‘on the ground’, but also to the other writers in the series and their particular vision. One thing you learn is how to bite the bullet, but not at the cost of a fair amount of agonising, and copious phonecalls and meetings. (To my shame, my pig-headedness on an issue of syllabus sequencing reduced one editor to tears).

A teacher’s guide assignment led to yet another coursebook project – this time a co-written one (the first that was mediated almost entirely by email, as it happened). And so on. The rest is NOT, as they say, history. I was starting to realise that the tension between my own principles – as developed in my teacher training – and the demands of mainstream publishing had reached breaking point. But that’s another story…

Nevertheless, I think there are some pointers to be gleaned from this account:

1. Don’t expect to start ‘at the top’. Materials writing involves a fairly prolonged apprenticeship, usually doing a lot of the spade-work that the coursebook writers themselves don’t want to sully their hands with.

2. Make yourself known to publishers, by offering to report on new projects, trial material, and write supplementary materials (tests, resource packs, online content, etc).

3. Give presentations at conferences, where you might just get noticed by a passing publisher, and asked to submit a proposal.

4. Don’t waste your time writing the complete draft of a project and sending it off to the publishers: find out what it is that they want first; write a pre-proposal, summarising the gist of your project, and, if the response is positive, prepare a more fully-developed proposal (with some sample materials).

5. Curb your enthusiams! Publishers respond positively to energy and vision, but not to off-the-wall, totally unmarketable ideas. The EFL equivalent of The Naked Lunch will never fly!

Any other tips from you coursebook writers out there?