L is for Language arts

13 08 2017

language arts blackboardAt the very end of an intensive summer of methodology and language analysis, one of my MA TESOL students, who I will call Alice, confessed that it had taken her until that point to realize that TESOL is ‘different’. “You need to understand that I come from a language arts teaching background,” she told me. “It seems that teaching ELLs [English language learners] is not the same”.

On reflection, this insight explained a lot about the struggle Alice had been having, both in her practical teaching classes, and in her written assignments, especially those that required an understanding of how texts could be exploited in class. In her classes she had often used her energetic and engaging manner to focus her students’ attention on unusual or literary features of language, such as idioms and the use of figurative language – irrespective of her students’ level, and at considerable cost to their comprehension.  When her display questions elicited blank stares she seemed to assume it was because they lacked knowledge of the topic, not that they lacked the necessary language – particularly the vocabulary – with which to understand her or to respond. And, in her written assignments, she chose texts or topics for classroom exploitation that were way beyond an average ELL’s capacity to process.

Alice’s ‘epiphany’ made me think that perhaps we don’t do enough – at the outset of the program  – to distinguish between these two very different disciplines, i.e. language arts teaching and language teaching. Because they both involve language, and, specifically, the English language, it is tempting to assume that they share the same goals, methods, and learner profiles. And that the experience of teaching one would be ideal preparation for teaching the other.

But I would argue that there are more differences than similarities.

language arts free expressionTo start with the most obvious: students of language arts are, generally speaking, already fluent in the language of instruction, for most of whom it is their first language. What’s more, they come to class with a receptive vocabulary of several thousand words. They are equipped to understand most everything their teacher says to them, or gives them to read.

ELLs, on the other hand, are seldom already fluent (that’s why they have enrolled in classes in the first place), and have a limited lexicon: the average low-intermediate student may have a sight vocabulary of fewer than a thousand words. Apart from anything else, this makes reading and listening of anything but the most simplified texts an enormous challenge. Hence they need help – not in appreciating the writer’s style, or inferencing the text’s covert message  – but in cracking the code and releasing its literal (not literary) meaning. And they need a teacher who is able to grade her language appropriately to ensure understanding.

Moreover, the kinds of texts they will need to unpack are unlikely to be expressive or poetic ones, but utilitarian, even prosaic ones, such as instruction manuals, legal documents, academic abstracts, and so on. This doesn’t mean that there is no room for expressive and imaginative writing in the ESOL classroom, but that there is little point in having learners engage with ‘higher order’ texts until their basic reading strategies are in place.

language arts libraryLikewise, the goal of language production, whether speaking or writing, is first and foremost, intelligibility. Again, this will require a core vocabulary and a basic grammar – not a style-guide grammar (as in Never use the passive voice when you can use the active) but a nuts-and-bolts grammar (such as Adjectives generally always go before the noun and To make a question, invert the subject and the auxiliary verb).  And, of course, they will need pronunciation and spelling that are comprehensible even if they are unlikely ever to be native-like.

To sum up, then: here are some of the major differences between teaching language arts and teaching language. (Is this perhaps something we should introduce to trainee language teachers on Day 1?)

language arts chart

(This post first appeared on The New School MA TESOL blog Uncharted ESOL in September 2015).

I is for Intelligibility

28 05 2017

man on phoneI phoned my Spanish internet provider the other day and tried to explain a problem I was experiencing. Clearly, I was unintelligible because the operator immediately switched me to an English-speaking operator. Even then, I had trouble getting my message across, because I didn’t know how to say ‘tráfico de datos’ in English. Was I again being unintelligible, or simply incomprehensible?

This reminded me that, in a session on my MA TESOL course last summer, during a discussion on the goals of pronunciation teaching, one student mentioned the fact that she’d heard that there was a distinction between intelligibility and comprehensibility, and she asked me to explain the difference.

I volunteered an off-the-cuff explanation (as one does!), suggesting that intelligibility is a function of speakers (and particularly of their pronunciation), while comprehensibility (invoking Krashen) is a function of texts. Or, put another way, output is (to a greater or lesser extent) intelligible, while input is (to a greater or lesser extent) comprehensible.

Even as I said this, I could see there were problems. Communication is by definition reciprocal, so is it possible to gauge either intelligibility or comprehensibility without reference to interlocutors – either listeners or readers? Moreover, whether listening to a speaker or reading a text, your degree of understanding is going to be experienced in a similar way: ‘I understand it a bit, a lot, or not at all.’

Since that awkward day (sorry, Autumn, my bad!), I’ve had a chance to research the difference.  For example, Munro, Derwing  and Morton (2006, p. 112), referencing earlier work by the first two authors, define intelligibility ‘as the extent to which a speaker’s utterance is actually understood’, whereas comprehensibility ‘refers to the listener’s estimation of difficulty in understanding an utterance’. (So I wasn’t entirely wrong, perhaps). They further distinguish both from accentedness, i.e. the degree to which the pronunciation of an utterance sounds different from an expected production pattern.’ And they add: ‘Although comprehensibility and accentedness are related to intelligibility, they are partially independent dimensions of L2 speech.  An utterance that is rated by a listener as “heavily accented,” for instance, might still be understood perfectly by the same listener.  Furthermore, two utterances that are fully intelligible might entail perceptibly distinct degrees of processing difficulty, such that they are rated differently for comprehensibility.’

On the other hand, and markedly differently, Nelson (2011), referencing papers by Smith (1992) and Smith and Nelson (1985), defines intelligibility as ‘word and/or utterance recognition, involving the sound system’, and comprehensibility as ‘word/utterance meaning, or locutionary force’. To further complicate matters, they introduce the term interpretability, i.e. ‘the meaning behind the word/utterance, or illocutionary force’.

MacKay (2002, p. 52) helpfully (?) unpacks these distinctions with an example:

If a listener recognises that the word salt is an English word rather than a Spanish word, English is then intelligible to him or her. If the listener in addition knows the meaning of the word, it is comprehensible, and if he or she understands that the phrase, ‘Do you have any salt?’, is intended to be a request for salt, then he or she is said to be able to interpret the language.

Put another way, if you’re having trouble understanding someone, it may be a case of not recognizing what they’re saying (likely their fault), or not knowing what they mean (probably your fault), or not knowing what their intention is (could be anyone’s fault). Going back to my exchange on the phone, I can sort of apply these distinctions, but I’m also wondering if accentedness was the reason why I was switched to the English-speaking operator, since the first operator made no attempt even to negotiate some sort of understanding. (Mercifully, in a subsequent conversation with yet another operator, I was actually congratulated on my Spanish – probably because, although heavily accented, I was intelligible. Or do I mean  comprehensible?)

cómo es carlosThis raises another issue related to intelligibility: that it is highly subjective. As Rajagopolan (2010, p. 467) argues, ‘No matter how one tries to define intelligibility from a neutral standpoint, the question that cries out for an answer is: “intelligible for who?”’ Why was I intelligible to one of my interlocutors but not to another? Was it, indeed, nothing to do with accent at all, but more to do with attitude? After all, it is not accents that are intelligible, it is people.  I never tire of quoting Bamgbose (1998) on the subject: ‘Preoccupation with intelligibility has often taken an abstract form characterized by decontextualised comparison of varieties. The point is often missed that it is people, not language codes, that understand one another” (quoted in Jenkins,  2007, p. 84). Thus, intelligibility may have as much to do with our overall impression of a speaker as it has to do with the intrusiveness of their accent (or lack thereof) – not dissimilar to the notion of ‘comfortable intelligibility’ (Kenworthy 1987) or ‘perceived fluency’ (Lennon 2000, cited in Götz 2013).

Either way, this doesn’t provide a lot of solace to those who have to assess a learner’s pronunciation, as in the kinds of oral tests favoured by many public exams nowadays, using descriptors such as these:

  • is easy to understand throughout; L1 accent has minimal effect on intelligibility
  • can generally be understood throughout, though mispronunciation of individual words or sounds reduces clarity at times

What are the chances that any two raters will agree?


Götz, S. (2013) Fluency in native and nonnative English speech. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Jenkins, J.  (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kenworthy J (1987) Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow:  Longman.

McKay, S. (2002) Teaching English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Munro, M.J., Derwing, T.M., & Morton, S.L. (2006) ‘The mutual intelligibility of L2 speech.’ Studies in Second language Acquisition, 28.

Nelson, C. L. (2011). Intelligibility in World Englishes: Theory and Application. New York: Routledge.

Rajagopolan, K. (2010) ‘The soft ideological underbelly of the notion of intelligibility in discussions about “World Englishes”.’ Applied Linguistics, 31/3.

Smith, L. E. (1992). Spread of English and issues of intelligibility. In B. B. Kachru (ed.) The Other Tongue: English across Cultures (Second Edition). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Smith, L. E. and Nelson, C. L. (1985). ‘International intelligibility of English: Directions and resources.’ World Englishes, 4(3).

Illustrations by Quentin Blake from Success with English, by Geoffrey Broughton, Penguin Education, 1968.

S is for Speaking (2)

7 05 2017


setting up speaking activity

photo by Ahed Izhiman

Following on from last week, here are five more of my favourite speaking activities that I included (or planned to include) in my talks in Palestine. As in the last batch, they require minimal materials, promote a good deal of productive language use, and have elements of task rehearsal and repetition built in.


Find someone who… This is a classic and hardly needs describing, but there are some interesting variations. It involves learners walking around (space permitting), asking all the other learners questions with a view to completing a survey or finding someone whose answers most closely match theirs. For example, in order to find out how adventurous the class is, learners (either singly or in small groups) first prepare three or four questions that fit this frame:

Have you ever …?  Would you ever…?

For example, Have you ever been sailing? (And, if the answer is No) Would you ever do it? Have you ever eaten insects? Would you ever eat them?) etc. They then survey the rest of the class, making a note of the number of affirmative answers. This will involve the repeated asking of the question(s), but in a context that requires that learners pay attention, not only to asking the right questions, but also to the answers. It is this requirement, the enforced re-allocation of attentional resources, that – in theory – encourages memorization of the forms. Reporting to the class the results of the milling activity (e.g. Maxim said he would never dive off the high board; Olga said …) is also another way of providing repetitive practice where attention is not only on meaning, but, because of the public nature of the reporting, also on form – i.e. on getting it right. Variants involve choosing items from a grid – e.g. holiday destinations, hotels, and months – and asking questions in order to find someone who is going to the same destination, staying in the same hotel, and in the same month.

Show and tell. Another classic: in successive lessons, learners take turns to make a short (two to five-minute) presentation to the rest of the class, e.g. about an interest they have, a hobby, a favourite object, a book they have read or movie they have seen. It is important than the presentation is spoken – not simply written down and read aloud. This requirement, along with the public nature of the task, encourages preparation and rehearsal. A question-and-answer session at the end ensures spontaneous language use. Ideally, learners should have a chance to repeat the presentation, either immediately or at a later date, in order to incorporate any feedback. An alternative organization is to put the students into small groups to share their ‘news’, while the teacher circulates and assists. One person from each group then reports some of the more interesting findings to the class. This is a great way to begin a lesson, and, if done regularly, trains learners to prepare in advance.

Discussion cards. Students in small groups have a set of statements or questions about a specific topic on cards. These can be prepared by the teacher, but, better still, by the students themselves, whose discussion cards can then be exchanged with another group. One student takes the first card, reads it aloud, and the group then discuss it for as long as they need, before taking the next card, and so on. If a particular statement doesn’t interest them, they can move on to the next one. The object is not necessarily to discuss all the statements: the teacher should decide at what point to end the activity. Groups who have finished early can prepare a summary of the main points that have come up. These summaries can be used to open up the discussion to the whole class.

Describe-and-draw race. The teacher pre-teaches or revises nouns relating to geometrical shapes, such as line, square, circle, triangle, and rectangle, as well as prepositional phrases such as on the left, on the right, above, below, outside, inside, so that learners can describe a simple arrangement of shapes. (Alternatively, they could be easy-to-draw objects, such as fruit, items of clothing or of furniture).

To practise, the teacher describes an arrangement so that the learners can draw it correctly. The learners do the same to each other in pairs, and/or ‘dictate’ a picture to the teacher.

communicative activity

photo by Tamar Hazam


Now the game element is introduced. The class is divided into two teams, and the blackboard is divided in two by a line down the middle. Each team has a representative at the board, each with a piece of chalk, or boardmarker. In advance of the game the teacher should have prepared a dozen or so different designs incorporating the geometrical shapes, large enough to be seen by all the class. The teacher ensures that the two team representatives at the board can’t see the designs, and then selects one and shows it to the two teams. Each team attempts to describe the design to its representative at the board, and the first team to do this successfully, so that the design is replicated on the board, is the winner of that round. The teacher then selects another design and the game continues, with new ‘drawers’ at the board.

Paper conversations. Not strictly a speaking activity, but one that simulates the real-time and non-predictable nature of spoken interaction, and therefore is useful preparation for it. Learners have a ‘conversation’ with their classmates, but instead of speaking, they write the conversation onto a shared sheet of paper. While the students are writing, the teacher can monitor their written ‘conversations’ and make corrections or improvements more easily than when students are actually speaking. The conversations can then be read aloud, using the ‘heads up’ procedure described in the previous post.

All these activities, and more, can be found in my book How to Teach Speaking (Pearson 2005).




A is for Accuracy

31 05 2015
from The Visual Thesaurus

from The Visual Thesaurus http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

Accuracy and fluency: it used to be the case that, of these two constructs, fluency was the one that was the most elusive and contentious – difficult to define, difficult to test, and only rarely achieved by classroom learners.

It’s true that fluency has been defined in many different, sometimes even contradictory ways, and that we are still no nearer to understanding how to measure it, or under what conditions it is optimally realized. See, for example F is for Fluency.

But I’m increasingly coming to the view that, of the two constructs, it is accuracy that is really the more slippery. I’m even wondering if it’s not a concept that has reached its sell-by date, and should be quietly, but forcefully, put down.

Look at these definitions of accuracy, for example:

  • “….clear, articulate, grammatically and phonologically correct” (Brown 1994: 254)
  • “…getting the language right” (Ur 1991: 103)
  • “…the extent to which a learner’s use of the second language conforms to the rules of the language” (Thornbury 2006: 2)

Correct? Right? Conforms to the rules? What could these highly normative criteria possibly mean? Even before English ‘escaped’ from the proprietorial clutches of its native speakers, by whose standards are correctness or rightness or conformity to be judged?

at the weekend

“[preposition] the weekend” from The Corpus of Global Web-based English CLICK TO ENLARGE

Take my own variety of English for example: I was brought up to say ‘in the weekend’. I found it very odd, therefore, that the coursebooks I was using when I started teaching insisted on ‘at the weekend’. And then, of course, there were all those speakers who preferred ‘on the weekend’. It was only by consulting the Corpus of Global Web-based English (Davies 2013) that I was able to confirm that, in fact, of all the ‘preposition + the weekend’ combos, ‘in the weekend’ is significantly frequent only in New Zealand, while ‘on the weekend’ is preferred in Australia. OK, fine: as teachers we are sensitive to the existence of different varieties. But if a learner says (or writes): ‘In the weekend we had a barby’, do I correct it?

Moreover, given the considerable differences between spoken and written grammar, and given the inevitability, even by proficient speakers, of such ‘deviations’ from the norm as false starts, grammatical blends, and other dysfluencies –  what are the ‘rules’ by which a speaker’s accuracy should be judged?

In fact, even the distinction between written and spoken seems to have been eroded by online communication. Here, for example, are some extracts from an exchange from an online discussion about a football match. Ignoring typos, which ‘deviations’ from standard English might be attributed to the speaker’s specific variety?

>I don’t care about the goal that wasn’t given; I care about how bad we played particularly when under pressure. Base on the performance from last three games we will be hammered when we play a “proper” decent side!! People think we are lucky to aviod Spain and get Italy but lets not forget the Italian draw Spain so they are no pushovers.

> yes we was lucky, but all teams get lucky sometimes. thats football, you cant plan a tactic for good or bad luck.

> Devic was unlucky to not have the goal allowed and the official on the line needs to get himself down to specsavers but as Devic was offside the goal should not of counted anyway. Anyway I pretty fed up with all the in fighting on here so I am not bothering to much with these blogs for the foreseeable future.

> also on sunday night i will be having an italian pizza i think it will suit the mood quite nicely

I think that the point is here that nit-picking about ‘should not of’ and ‘base on’ is irrelevant. More interestingly, it’s virtually impossible to tell if the deviations from the norm (e.g. ‘the Italian draw Spain’;’ we was lucky’; ‘I pretty fed up’…) owe to a regional or social variety, or to a non-native one. The fact is, that, in the context, these differences are immaterial, and the speakers’ choices are entirely appropriate, hence assessments of accuracy seem unwarranted, even patrician.

Unless, of course, those assessments are made by the speakers themselves. Which one does. Following the last comment, one of the commenters turns on the writer (who calls himself Titus), and complains:

>Titus. Please, please, please go back to school. Have you never heard of punctuation? What about capital letters? How about a dictionary? Sentences? Grammar?

It’s as if Titus is being excluded from membership of the ‘club’, his non-standard English being the pretext. To which Titus responds, with some justification:

> didnt know this was an english class? i am very intelligent and do not need to perform like its a spelling b on here

Which is tantamount to saying: accuracy has to be judged in terms of its appropriacy in context.

All of this has compelled me to revise my definition of accuracy accordingly. Here’s an attempt:

Accuracy is the extent to which a speaker/writer’s lexical and grammatical choices are unremarkable according to the norms of the (immediate) discourse community.

Thanks to corpora, these norms can be more easily identified (as in my ‘in the weekend’). A corpus of ‘football blog comment speak’ would no doubt throw up many instances of ‘we was lucky’ and ‘should of won’. ‘Unremarkable’ captures the probabilistic nature of language usage – that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only degrees of departure from the norm. The greater the departure, the more ‘marked’.

The problem is, of course, in defining the discourse community. Consider these two signs, snapped in Japan last week. To which discourse community, if any, is the English part of each sign directed? Assuming a discourse community, and given its membership, are these signs ‘remarkable’? That is to say, are they inaccurate?

keep off from herewe have a maintenance


Brown, H.D. (1994) Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Davies, M. (2013) Corpus of Global Web-Based English: 1.9 billion words from speakers in 20 countries. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/glowbe/.

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A – Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Ur, P. (1991) A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

C is for CLT

8 03 2015

Having been trained in what might best be described as late-flowering audiolingualism, it was not until my second year of teaching that I became aware of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and how it represented such a radical shift from current methodology. I think it must have been the influence of the Strategies series (Abbs et al. 1975) but before long everything went functional-notional, information gap activities were the rage, and formal accuracy, along with error correction, went out the window. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! In fact, the advent of CLT coincided nicely with my own disenchantment with drilling and with the snail-like progress through the structural syllabus that seemed only to thwart the latent fluency of my (Egyptian) students.

Being communicative, Cairo 1976

So, what did we gain? The emphasis on language’s social function, including attention to appropriacy and register, was important, not least because – to practise ‘being social’ with language – we needed to include lots of interactive activities, such as role plays and ‘real’ conversations, into our classes. This in turn led to the idea that (perhaps, just perhaps) such activities, rather than being simply practice of previously presented language items, could be the springboard to learning itself: that is to say, that you could learn a language simply through using it. This, after all, was a core tenet of the ‘strong’ version of CLT and was an extremely powerful idea (captured in the term ‘fluency-first), influencing all my subsequent thinking on methodology.

What we lost, from the benefit of hindsight, was a ‘focus on form’. Even if you can learn a language by using it, you still need to have your attention directed to the language’s formal features, if only so that you are ‘primed’ to notice them in situations of real language use. That realization prompted my first ever IATEFL talk, which was called ‘No pain, no gain’.

But what we also lost was the communicative approach itself. I still believe that CLT was ‘betrayed’ in the mid-1980s by the revival of the grammar syllabus and the associated drift back to an accuracy-first methodology. (A subsequent talk of mine on this topic was called ‘Not waving but drowning’). I also believe that it is possible to combine a fluency-first methodology with a focus on form, so long as that focus is primarily reactive, not pre-emptive. I’ve been lucky enough to see this occur myself, in classes I’ve observed. And, of course, the view that language learning is both an emergent and scaffolded phenomenon is fundamental to what was to become Dogme ELT. Dogme ELT was really an attempt to inject new life into CLT.

So, is Dogme ELT the future of CLT? I doubt it, somehow. The commodification and marketization of education, including language education, continues unabated. Where the language English is just another curriculum subject, where it is viewed as knowledge to be learned rather than a skill to be activated, and where it is measured less by communicative competence than by the results of high-stakes testing, then there is not a lot of incentive for a fluency-first approach. In such an educational climate, concepts so fundamental to CLT as authenticity, fluency, discovery and collaboration seem outmoded, or, at best, ‘add-ons’ for those who can afford the luxury of small classes of communicatively-motivated learners. Given the appeal that still attaches to the word ‘communicative’, though, CLT will probably continue to prosper as a brand, even though its original ingredients may have long since been reconstituted.

Strategies smallReference

Abbs, B., A. Ayton, A., and I. Freebairn. 1975. Strategies: Students’ Book. London: Longman.

This was my ‘half’ of the conversation with Jeremy Harmer that we ‘performed’ at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate in April 2014, and which is written up in IATEFL 2014 Harrogate Conference Selections, edited by Tania Pattison (Faversham, Kent: IATEFL 2015).



And here is a video of the conversation when it was first aired, at The New School, NY, in July 2013:


The End

9 06 2013

So this is it, folks: I’m closing down the blog for the summer… and for good. After 3 years, 150 posts, nearly 7000 comments, and innumerable hits, visits, views, however you want to describe and count them, plus one e-book spin-off (but no sign of a second edition of An A-Z!), I think it’s time to call it a day.

But that’s not the end of blogging.  In the autumn (or in the spring, if that’s your orientation) I’ll be resuming with an altogether different theme and format, provisionally titled The (De-)Fossilization Diaries.  Watch this space!

At some point between now and then I’ll lock the comments on this blog, but it will hang around a little longer. If you think you might miss it if it suddenly disappeared, you could always buy the book! 😉

Meanwhile, thanks for following, commenting, subscribing, tweeting… I have so enjoyed hosting this blog, not least because of the active and widely-distributed online community that has grown up around it. Blogging is my favourite medium by far, and, despite claims to the contrary by some curmudgeons, it seems to be very much alive and well.

bunyolsNow, to give you something to chew on over breakfast, I’ve done a quick cut and paste of some of the one- (or two-) liners that capture many of the core themes of this blog. (You can hunt them down in context by using the Index link above).

1. If there are no languages, only language, what is it that we teach? … The short answer, perhaps, is that we would facilitate a kind of creative DIY approach – semiotic bricolage, perhaps – by means of which learners would become resourceful language users, cutting and pasting from the heteroglossic landscape to meet both their short-term and their long-term goals. (L is for Language)

2. The tension – and challenge – of successful communication is in negotiating the given and the new, of exploiting the predictable while coping with unpredictability. To this end, a phrasebook, a grammar or a dictionary can be of only limited use. They are a bit like the stopped clock, which is correct only two times a day. (M is for Mobility)

3. Creating the sense of ‘feeling at home’, i.e. creating a dynamic whereby students feel unthreatened and at ease with one another and with you, is one of the most important things that a teacher can do. (T is for Teacher Development)

4. A reliance on the coursebook IN the classroom does not really equip learners for self-directed learning OUTSIDE the classroom, since nothing in the outside world really reflects the way that language is packaged, rationed and sanitised in the coursebook.(T is for Teacher Development)

5. The language that teachers need in order to provide and scaffold learning opportunities is possibly of more importance than their overall language proficiency (T is for Teacher Knowledge)

6. A critical mass of connected chunks might be the definition of fluency. (Plus of course, the desire or need to BE fluent). (T is for Turning Point)

7. Education systems are predicated on the belief that learning is both linear and incremental. Syllabuses, coursebooks and tests conspire to perpetuate this view. To suggest otherwise is to undermine the foundations of civilization as we know it. (T is for Turning Point)

8. If I were learning a second language with a teacher, I would tell the teacher what I want to say, not wait to be told what someone who is not there thinks I might want to say. (W is for Wondering)

9. Irrespective of the degree to which we might teach grammar explicitly, or even base our curriculums on it, as teachers I think we need to know something about it ourselves. It’s part of our expertise, surely. Besides which, it’s endlessly fascinating (in a geeky kind of way). (P is for Pedagogic grammar)

10. Every language divides up the world slightly differently, and learning a second language is – to a large extent – learning these new divisions.(P is for Pedagogic grammar)

11. The meaning of the term student-centred has become too diffuse – that is to say, it means whatever you want it to mean, and – whatever it does mean – the concept needs to be problematized because it’s in danger of creating a false dichotomy. (S is for Student-centred)

12. There is a responsibility on the part of teachers to provide feedback on progress, but maybe the problem is in defining progress in terms of pre-selected outcomes, rather than negotiating the outcomes during the progress. (O is for Outcomes)

13. Language learning, whether classroom-based or naturalistic, whether in an EFL or an ESL context, is capricious, opportunistic, idiosyncratic and seldom amenable to external manipulation. (P is for Postmodern method)

14. I have no problem with the idea of classes – in fact for many learners and teachers these can be less threatening than one-to-one situations – but I do have a problem with the way that the group learning context is moulded to fit the somewhat artificial constraints of the absentee coursebook writer. (P is for Postmodern method)poached eggs nov 2012

15. The idea that there is a syllabus of items to be ‘covered’ sits uncomfortably with the view that language learning is an emergent process – a process of ‘UNcovering’, in fact. (P is for Postmodern method)

16. This, by the way, is one of [Dogme’s] characteristics that most irritates its detractors – that it seems to be a moving target, constantly slipping and sliding like some kind of methodological ectoplasm. (P is for Postmodern method)

17. The ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied, … and so on. (M is for Mind)

18. 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’? (A is for Affordance)

19. If automaticity is simply the ability to retrieve memorised chunks, this may result in a repertoire that is fast and accurate, but functional only in situations of the utmost predictability. Fine, if you’re a tourist – just memorise a phrase-book. But for a more sophisticated command of language – one that is adaptable to a whole range of situations – you need to be able to customise your chunks. In short, you need to be creative. Hence, creative automaticity. (A is for Automaticity)

20. Technosceptics, like me, happily embrace technology in our daily lives, but are nevertheless a little suspicious of the claims made, by some enthusiasts, for its educational applications – claims that frequently border on the coercive. (T is for Technology)

21. As edtech proponents tirelessly point out, technology is only a tool. What they fail to acknowledge is that there are good tools and bad tools. (T is for Technology)

22. Another bonus, for me, of the struggle to dominate a second (and third, fourth etc) language has been an almost obsessive interest in SLA theory and research – as if, somewhere, amongst all this burgeoning literature, there lies the answer to the puzzle. (B is for Bad language learner)

23. ‘Fluency is in the ear of the beholder’ – which means that perhaps we need to teach our students tricks whereby they ‘fool’ their interlocutors into thinking they’re fluent. Having a few well rehearsed conversational openers might be a start…. (B is for Bad language learner)

24. I’ve always been a bit chary of the argument that we should use movement in class in order to satisfy the needs of so-called kinaesthetic learners. All learning surely has kinaesthetic elements, especially if we accept the notion of ‘embodied cognition’, and you don’t need a theory of multiple intelligences to argue the case for whole-person engagement in learning. (B is for Body)

25. I agree that learners’ perceptions of the goals of second language learning are often at odds with our own or with the researchers’. However, if we can show [the learners] that the communicative uptake on acquiring a ‘generative phraseology’ is worth the initial investment in memorisation, and, even, in old-fashioned pattern practice, we may be able to win them over. (C is for Construction)

26. How do we align the inherent variability of the learner’s emergent system with the inherent variability of the way that the language is being used by its speakers? (V is for Variability)

27. The problem is that, if there is a norm, it is constantly on the move, like a flock of starlings: a dense dark centre, a less dense margin, and a few lone outliers. (V is for Variability)

28. Think of the blackbird. Every iteration of its song embeds the echo, or trace, of the previous iteration, and of the one before that, and the one before that, and so on. And each iteration changes in subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, ways. But the net effect of these changes may be profound. (R is for Repetition [again])

29. Diversity is only a problem if you are trying to frog-march everyone towards a very narrowly-defined objective, such as “mastering the present perfect continuous.” If your goals are defined in terms of a collaborative task outcome … then everyone brings to the task their particular skills, and it is in the interests of those with many skills to induct those with fewer. (E is for Ecology)

30. Teaching […] is less about navigating the container-ship of the class through the narrow canal of the coursebook/syllabus than about shepherding a motley flotilla of little boats, in all weathers, across the open sea, in whatever direction and at whatever speed they have elected to go. (P is for Postmodern method)


A is for Automaticity

26 02 2012

Class photo: thanks to Lucy Bodeman

I have a debt to repay.

Sometime in the late eighties I attended a talk given by Stephen Gaies (the then editor of TESOL Quarterly) at the North American Institute in Barcelona. The topic was fluency. Apart from being an excellent speaker with a good line in personal anecdote, Gaies made an indelible impression by outlining, and demonstrating, a set of criteria for the design of activities that target ‘creative automatization’.

Automaticity (and I’m using automaticity in preference to automatization only because it’s marginally easier to pronounce) is defined in An A-Z of ELT as the ability to perform a task ‘without conscious or deliberate effort’:

In language speaking terms, this automatization process means being able to draw on a set of memorised procedures in order to take part in real-time interaction. Without these procedures (or routines) you would have to assemble each utterance from scratch, word by word, at the obvious expense of fluency.

Notice that I talk about ‘memorised procedures’ rather than ‘memorised chunks’. Because if automaticity is simply the ability to retrieve memorised chunks, this may result in a repertoire that is fast and accurate, but functional only in situations of the utmost predictability. Fine, if you’re a tourist – just memorise a phrase-book. But for a more sophisticated command of language  – one that is adaptable to a whole range of situations – you need to be able to customise your chunks. In short, you need to be creative. Hence, creative automaticity.

In his workshop, Stephen Gaies put a strong case for activities that were communicative – in the sense that there was a genuine desire to communicate – but that were also narrowly focused and formulaic – in the way that old-fashioned pattern-practice drills used to be.

As an example, he described the ‘Class photo’ activity, in which the students take turns to ‘pose’ the group, requiring the use of such ‘partly-filled constructions’ as V, stand next to W; X, stand behind Y;  Z, kneel in front of V, and so on. Once posed, the class photo is taken.

Sonia Omulepu and her class

The language that the task generates is communicative, in the sense that it is purposeful and reciprocal,  but also formulaic, while allowing a degree of creativity within relatively tight constraints. Moreover, there is lots of built-in repetition.  Gaies added that, by timing the class photo just ten minutes before the end of the lesson, an extra element of urgency is added, which is also conducive to the development of automaticity.

I was so taken by this idea, and the principles on which it was based, that I failed to register who first thought of it, assuming it was Gaies himself. The five criteria for creative automaticity became a staple of my teacher training sessions, and worked their way, re-phrased and unattributed, into the section on fluency in How To Teach Grammar. These criteria are:

Activities [that promote creative automatization] should be …

1. genuinely communicative  i.e. require students to make use of utterances as a result of a task-related need, rather than simply for the purpose of saying something.

2. psychologically authentic i.e. require students to allocate attentional resources to both the encoding and decoding of language, and to the effect of that language on events.

3. focused i.e. organised around one or a few functions and notions so as to establish particular utterances as characteristic exponents of particular functions/notions.

4. formulaic i.e. utterances must be short, memorizable, and multi-situational.

5. inherently repetitive

Ever since, I have been ‘collecting’ activity types that match these criteria. The classic Find someone who… is an obvious candidate, as are many guessing games, such as What’s my line? or What kind of animal am I? (“Do you have four legs? Can you fly? Do you lay eggs?” etc).

Going native, Cairo 1976

It was only last week, to my shame, that I accidentally discovered who originated these principles, including the ‘class photo’ idea. It appears in an article by Elizabeth Gatbonton and Norman Segalowitz, published in the TESOL Quarterly in 1988. As editor of that journal, Gaies would surely have mentioned this fact, but I was too dim to notice. Hence the debt I need to repay.

Over 20 years later the article still stands the test of time. The challenge of devising tasks that develop automaticity through the rehearsal and real-time deployment of memorised procedures is still as topical as ever – maybe even more so, as increasing credence is given to the view that fluency involves the seamless interweaving of both the second-hand and the new, of the formulaic and the creative, of phrase and grammar.


Gatbonton, E. and Segalowitz, N. (1988) ‘Creative automatization: Principles for promoting fluency within a communicative framework’, TESOL Quarterly, 22, 3.