M is for Manifesto

25 06 2017

Blanchett as teacherIf you get a chance to see Julian Rosefeldt’s movie Manifesto, starring Cate Blanchett, do – if for no other reason than to see Blanchett at the top of her form, playing 13 different roles and as many accents, to often hilarious effect. (You can see the trailer here).

Originally conceived as an art gallery video installation, it has now been spliced together as an art-house movie. Each of its thirteen segments has Blanchett reciting and/or enacting a manifesto, or a cluster of related manifestos, that launched various 20th century art movements: Dadaism, Futurism, the Situationists, Surrealism, etc. The Pop Art manifesto, for example takes the form of Blanchett, with a broad Southern accent, saying grace in advance of a turkey dinner, while her long-suffering family roll their eyes at each successively outrageous pronouncement, taken verbatim from Claes Oldenberg’s 1961 text ‘I am for an art…’: “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum….I am for the art of punching and skinned knees and sat-on bananas. I am for the art of kids’ smells. I am for the art of mama-babble…’ and so on. And on.

But my favorite sequence has to be the one near the end, about film, in which Blanchett plays a primary school teacher with a pitch-perfect ‘teacherly’ voice, talking her class through the Dogme 1995 manifesto. Hovering over the kids as they complete an assignment, she gently corrects one of them: “Shooting must be done on location.” And another: “The camera must be handheld.”

dogme95The Dogme 1995 film manifesto, apparently drafted over a bottle of red wine by Lars Von Trier and a handful of his Scandinavian film-making buddies, was, of course, the stimulus for the Dogme ELT manifesto.  The scene in Manifesto prompted me to revisit both. Here, for the record, are four of the 10 ‘vows’ that adherents to the Dogme film movement were expected to comply with:

1.Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

2.The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot). […]

7.Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.) […]

10. The director must not be credited.

Motivated by a similar desire to ‘rescue’ teaching from the clutches of the grammar syllabus, as enshrined in coursebooks, and all the associated pedagogical paraphernalia that goes with it, I drafted an (intentionally provocative) Dogme ELT manifesto which clearly echoes both the style and spirit of the van Trier one, and takes the form of ten ‘vows’ (Thornbury 2001):

  1. Teaching should be done using only the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom – i.e. themselves – and whatever happens to be in the classroom. If a particular piece of material is necessary for the lesson, a location must be chosen where that material is to be found (e.g. library, resource centre, bar, students’ club?)

  2. No recorded listening material should be introduced into the classroom: the source of all “listening” activities should be the students and teacher themselves. The only recorded material that is used should be that made in the classroom itself, e.g. recording students in pair or group work for later re-play and analysis.

  3. The teacher must sit down at all times that the students are seated, except when monitoring group or pair work (and even then it may be best to pull up a chair). In small classes, teaching should take place around a single table.

  4. All the teacher’s questions must be “real” questions (such as “Do you like oysters?” Or “What did you do on Saturday?”), not “display” questions (such as “What’s the past of the verb to go?” or “Is there a clock on the wall?”)

  5. Slavish adherence to a method (such as audiolingualism, Silent Way, TPR, task-based learning, suggestopedia) is unacceptable.

  6. A pre-planned syllabus of pre-selected and graded grammar items is forbidden. Any grammar that is the focus of instruction should emerge from the lesson content, not dictate it.

  7. Topics that are generated by the students themselves must be given priority over any other input.

  8. Grading of students into different levels is disallowed: students should be free to join the class that they feel most comfortable in, whether for social reasons, or for reasons of mutual intelligibility, or both. As in other forms of human social interaction, diversity should be accommodated, even welcomed, but not proscribed.

  9. The criteria and administration of any testing procedures must be negotiated with the learners.

  10. Teachers themselves will be evaluated according to only one criterion: that they are not boring.

Re-reading it now, I realise how it was influenced (a) by the specific training context in which I was working, where elicitation sequences and the playing of barely audible cassette recordings were the order of the day, and (b) by my reading of Postman and Weingartner’s radical treatise, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1967) which similarly called for a moratorium on mandated curricula and formal testing. I still hold by that, but the final vow (about not being boring) is just plain silly.dogme_circle

The key vow is, of course, the first one, and its proscription on ‘imported’ materials. While the idea of taking students to the bar or library is clearly impractical, technology now allows us to bring the bar or library into the classroom, thereby realising Peter Strevens’ (1956) injunction that:

“Language is not a sterile subject to be confined to the classroom. One of two things must be done: either life must be brought to the classroom or the class must be taken to life.”

Does anything else in the Dogme ELT manifesto strike you as worth retaining?


Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1967) Teaching as a subversive activity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Strevens, P. (1956) Spoken language: an introduction for teachers and students in Africa. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Thornbury, S. (2001) ‘Teaching Unplugged (Or That’s Dogme with an E)’. IT’s for Teachers, Issue 1 (February), 10-14.



G is for Granularity

3 05 2015

Granular is a buzz word in the discourse of publishing these days. With its vaguely breakfast cereal connotations it conjures up an image of learning content made palatable and wholesome.

For example, Knewton, the company that specializes in adaptive learning software, features a short video clip on its website, in which the presenter advises us that

“Publishers need to be looking at producing granular content. … no longer in the form of a big-package textbook, but broken down into small chunks that teachers, students, administrators can choose to use in combination or in a blend with any other content that they choose to use”.

Grains – chunks – blends: it’s making my mouth water.

Elsewhere on the Knewton site, we get this heady, but somewhat less appetizing stuff:

Within the adaptive learning industry, a shared infrastructure can benefit all existing educational apps by providing them with unlimited back-end content, granular and highly accurate student proficiency data, robust analytics, and more.


Differentiated learning can help each student maximize their potential by shaping the curriculum so that each student understands their proficiencies at a granular level and is given a direct path to improving them.

In a recent blog, they even show us what the granules (aka taxons) of second language acquisition look like:

Knewton taxons

Click to enlarge

But there are at least four major flaws in the way language learning has been granularized. These flaws long pre-date data analytics, but by bringing the power of industrial-scale computing to bear on data collection and analysis, companies like Knewton (and the publishers who enlist their services) are magnifying these flaws exponentially.

The first flaw – let’s call it the taxon fallacy – is that they have got their granules wrong. Notice that the so-called taxons in the Knewton graphic are the traditional ‘tenses and conjugations’ (present continuous, past perfect etc) – the same ‘tenses and conjugations’ that have been passed on like a bad gene from one generation to the next ever since the dawn of recorded time (or ever since the teaching of Latin) but which have little or nothing to do with how the English language is either used or internalized.

The units of language acquisition are not ‘tenses and conjugations’ (English has no conjugations, for a start). The units of language acquisition are words and constructions. Construction is a general term for any form-meaning association — whether a single word, a phrase, or a more abstract pattern — that has become conventionalized by the speakers of a language (see this related post).  Constructions are more than just ‘lexical chunks’ – they can also include morpheme combinations (e.g. verb + -ing) and syntactic patterns (e.g. verbs with two objects) – and they are much, much more than ‘tenses and conjugations’. They are not easily located in the syllabus of a standard coursebook – the type of syllabus which is still the default setting for data analysts such as Knewton.

The second fallacy – I’ll call it the proceduralization fallacy – is another legacy of a long tradition of transmissive teaching: it is the belief that declarative knowledge (e.g. knowing that the past of ‘go’ is ‘went’) automatically converts to procedural knowledge, i.e. that it is available for use in real-time communication. Hence, the assumption is that, if the learner is tested on their knowledge of an item (or granule) and found to know it, it follows that they will be able to use it. As teachers we know this is nonsense. Researchers concur: Schmidt’s (1983: 172) long-term case study of a Japanese speaker of English led him to conclude that ‘grammatical competence derived through formal training is not a good predictor of communicative skills.’ Counting the granules tells you very little about a learner’s communicative capacity.

Related to this fallacy is what is known as the accumulated entities fallacy, described by Rutherford (1988: 4) as the view that ‘language learning … entails the successive mastery of steadily accumulating structural entities, and language teaching brings the entities to the learner’s attention’. Since at least the 1980s we have known that, as Ellis (2008: 863) puts it, ‘grammar instruction may prove powerless to alter the natural sequence of acquisition of developmental structures.’ And Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997: 151), coming from a dynamic systems perspective, reminds us that

Learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings.

Unless a granular approach to data collection and analysis factors in these ‘peaks and valleys’, it will have nothing very interesting to say about a learner’s progress.

Finally, there is the homogenization fallacy: the view that all learners are the same, have the same needs, and follow the same learning trajectory to the same ultimate goals. This quaint belief explains why the designers of adaptive learning software think that it is possible to calibrate any single learner’s diet of granules on the basis of how 50,000, or indeed 50 million, other learners consumed their granules. Although software designers using data analytics pay lip-service to ‘differentiation’ and ‘personalization’, essentially they have a battery chicken view of language learning, i.e. that the same grains are good for everyone, even if they are meted out in slightly different quantities and at slightly different rates.

Contrast that view with the sociolinguistic one that no two people speak the ‘same language’: ‘You and I may both be speakers of language X but your grammar and mine at the descriptive level will not be identical … We both appeal to different sets of rules’ (Davies 1991: 40). Or, as Blommaert (2010: 103) writes, ‘Our real “language” is very much a biographical given, the structure of which reflects our own histories and those of the communities in which we spent our lives.’ It does not exist in someone else’s data-base, much less in granular form.

In the end, as Brumfit (1979: 190) memorably put it, ‘language teaching is not packaged for learners, it is made by them. Language is whole people’.

Ergo, it is not granular.


Blommaert, J. (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brumfit, C. (1979) ‘Communicative’ language teaching: an educational perspective. In Brumfit C.J, and Johnson, K. (eds.) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davies, A. (1991) The Native Speaker in Applied Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition’. Applied Linguistics 18/1.

Rutherford, W. (1988) Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London: Longman.

Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in Wolfson, N., & Judd, E. (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Photos taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Hada Litim, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

Note: Coincidentally, Philip Kerr has just blogged on this same topic, i.e. Knewton’s ‘Content insights’, here: Adaptive Learning in ELT

G is for Grammar syllabus

15 04 2012

A hobby-horse of mine, I know, but I thought I’d make a video this time, rather than write about it all over again.

Some relevant quotes and references (the numbers don’t correlate with my ‘8 issues’ but the order more or less does):

1. “Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those item”.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998) ‘Focus on form: Theory, research and practice’, in Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. (eds.) Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 16.

2. “In helping learners manage their insights into the target language we should be conscious that our starting point is the learner’s grammar of the language.  It is the learner who has to make sense of the insights derived from input, and learners can only do this by  considering new evidence about the language in the light of their current model of the language. This argues against presenting them with pre-packaged structures and implies that they should be encouraged to process text for themselves so as to reach conclusions which make sense in terms of their own systems”.

Willis, D. (1994)  ‘A Lexical Approach’, in Bygate, M., A. Tonkyn, and E. Williams, (eds.) Grammar and the Language Teacher, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall, p. 56.

3. “Materials used in the teaching of grammar have commonly been based on intuition… In fact, corpus-based research shows that the actual patterns of function and use in English often differ radically from prior expectations…  Some relatively common linguistic constructions are overlooked in pedagogic grammars, while some relatively rare constructions receive considerable attention.”

Biber, D., S. Conrad, and R. Reppen, (1994) ‘Corpus-based approaches to issues in applied linguistics’,  Applied Linguistics 15, 2, p. 171.

4. “Language learning is exemplar based…. the knowledge underlying fluent use of language is not grammar in the sense of abstract rules or structure but a huge collection of memories of previously experienced utterances”.

Ellis, N. (2002) ‘Frequency effects in language processing. A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition’, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, p. 166.

5. “Learning grammar involves abstracting regularities from the stock of known lexical sequences.”

Ellis, N. (1997) ‘Vocabulary acquisition: word structure, collocation, word-class’, in Schmitt, N., and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 126.

6. “Grammar is … simply the name for certain categories of observed repetitions in discourse…. Its forms are not fixed templates but emerge out of face-to-face interaction in ways that reflect the individual speakers’ past experience of these forms… Grammar, in this view, is not the source of understanding and communication but a by-product of it”.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent language’, in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure, Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 156.

7. “From the perspective of emergent grammar … learning an additional language is about enhancing one’s repertoire of fragments and patterns that enables participation in a wider array of communicative activities. It is not about building up a complete and perfect grammar in order to produce well-formed sentences.”

Lantolf, J. and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 7.

8. “We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing”.

Brumfit, C. (2001) Individual Freedom In Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 12.

F is for Facts

19 02 2012

With all the hoo-ha surrounding the bicentenary of his birth, it’s worth recalling how comically, but also how ferociously, Charles Dickens ridiculed Victorian educational practices. Think of the irascible Wackford Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby, and his penchant for inflicting corporal punishment. And Mrs Pipchin, in Dombey and Son, whose approach to education was “not to encourage a child’s mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster.”

More extreme still is the unspeakable Thomas Gradgrind, the schoolmaster in Hard Times:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

Gradgrind’s obsession with facts and rationality is what might nowadays be called the culture of positivism.

Gradgrind "murdering the innocents"

Positivism (also known as logical positivism) is the philosophical viewpoint  by which “knowledge becomes identified with scientific methodology, and its orientation towards self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively” (Giroux 1997 p. 11). According to the positivist view  “knowledge … becomes not only countable and measurable, it also becomes impersonal. Teaching in this pedagogical paradigm is usually discipline based and treats subject matter in a compartmentalized and atomized fashion.” (p. 21).

According to its critics, an educational system based on positivist principles, such as the “new conservatism” presently operating on both sides of the Atlantic, works to “promote passivity and rule following rather than critical engagement on the part of teachers and students” (p. 89).

New conservatives have seized the initiative and argued that the current crisis in public education is due to loss of authority… For the new conservatives, learning approximates a practice mediated by strong teacher authority and a student willingness to learn the basics… (p. 95)

Not only to learn the basics, but to be regularly tested on them.

But what, you may be asking, has this got to do with ELT?

Coincidentally, this week I took delivery of the latest catalogue of a major ELT publisher. I couldn’t help noticing the number of books listed in the catalogue whose blurbs suggest an allegiance to a view of language as “self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively” (to use Giroux’s wording). For example:

  •  “It uses a step-by-step approach to help students build a clear knowledge of grammar and a solid vocabulary base”
  • “…a step-by-step approach with concise explanations and plenty of  practice of each grammar point”
  • “…step-by-step grammar presentations and carefully graded practice ensure steady progress”

Wackford Squeers

Contrast this view of language learning with a statement made by two researchers:

Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time … bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those items. As Rutherford (1988) noted, SLA is a not a process of accumulating entities.” (Long, M. and Robinson, P. 1998, p. 16)

If this is the case, then a positivist approach to language teaching rests on somewhat shaky foundations. While such an approach may be appropriate to the teaching of maths, say, it does not seem to fit comfortably with language.  Atomistic rules may be enlisted to (partially) describe language, but they cannot, it seems, cause its acquisition.

So why has such a view persisted for so long?  Possibly because it lends itself to the ideological formation that embraces standards, order, control and the maintenance of the status quo – a viewpoint that asserts the authority of the teacher, and, by means of constant testing, maintains the learner in a subservient, even colonised, position.  According to Giroux (op cit):

There is little in the positivist pedagogical model that encourages students to generate their own meanings, to capitalize on their own cultural capital, or to participate in evaluating their own classroom experiences. The principles of order, control, and certainty in positivist pedagogy appear inherently opposed to such an approach  (p. 25).

Mrs Pipchin

Back to Dickens: “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic”.

And if there’s one thing that language ain’t, it’s arithmetic.


Giroux, H. (1997). Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope: Theory, Culture and Schooling. Oxford: Westview Press.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998). Focus on form: Theory, research and practice. In Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

(Parts of this article first appeared as ‘Reading, Writing as Arithmetic’ in Modern English Teacher 9/4, October 2000).

I is for Input

8 01 2012

Question: where does the input come from in an approach like task-based learning, or Dogme, where there is no syllabus of forms as such, and in which any focus on form is incidental?

This is the gist of the question sent to me a short while back by Anthony Elloway:

My concern about Dogme … is this – is the input rich enough?… My intuition is that, though there are advantages to working with student output, bringing more language into the class seems to be very valuable. And a coursebook – if given life by a teacher – might just do this job… Having an external syllabus/ coursebook does seem to provide a great deal of (organised) input for learners, perhaps more than the learners could produce themselves.

Good question. One possible answer is that the input comes – not just from the learners’ output – but from the texts that they (or the teacher) bring to class. Texts would certainly enrich the input quotient.

But the problem still remains that the form focus is incidental, in the sense that it is not necessarily pre-determined by a structural (or lexical or functional etc) syllabus.  And not just incidental, but – with teachers whose language analysis skills are still rudimentary – it’s more likely to be accidental.

Roy Lyster, in putting the case for ‘a counterbalanced approach’ (in a book referred to in a previous post), sees a similar danger in content-based teaching (i.e. of the CLIL type), and cites  research that suggests that, in content-based teaching, ‘attention to language is too brief and likely too perfunctory to convey sufficient information about certain grammatical subsystems and thus … can be considered neither systematic nor apt to make the most of content-based instruction as a means of teaching language’ (2007, p. 27).

It’s true: as teachers we know that, when a really good conversation is up and running, the last thing we want to do is wade in and correct errors or suggest better ways of saying the same thing. Yet it is precisely at these moments that, allegedly, corrective feedback is at its most effective.

Michael Swan (2005), in a withering critique of task-based learning, makes a similar argument to Lyster’s, but even more forcefully:

I suggest that naturalistically-biased approaches are, in important respects, pedagogically impoverished, favouring the development of what is already known at the expense of the efficient teaching of new language.

That is to say, where there is no pre-selected input, the existing ‘pool’ of language just goes round and round. He adds:

It is difficult to see how, in many classrooms, interaction can reliably promote the acquisition of new material during task performance. Unless the teacher is the interlocutor, task-based interaction may more easily uncover gaps than bridge them.

Of course, there is no reason why the teacher can’t be the interlocutor, and a Dogme approach has always argued for the teacher being a co-participant in the conversation. But, clearly, the teacher’s ability to provide optimal input is a function of class size, not to mention their classroom management and language management skills.

But can’t learners provide each other with input?  Swan accepts that there is some evidence that  learners can pick up new language items from one another, but rejects this as being a sound basis for a methodology: ‘If one was seeking an efficient way of improving one’s elementary command of a foreign language, sustained conversation and linguistic speculation with other elementary learners would scarcely be one’s first choice’.

Nor, for that matter, would being subjected solely to teacher-fronted grammar explanations be one’s first choice either, especially where the grammar being explained has been selected arbitrarily from a pre-established syllabus, and bears little or no relation to one’s communicative needs.

Hence Lyster’s argument for a counterbalance: ‘Both proactive and reactive approaches need to be counterbalanced in complementary ways’ (p. 137).

How? Lyster argues for the inclusion, within a meaning-driven approach, of more form-focused options. These would include explicit attention to form, through noticing and awareness tasks, plus practice activities for production, and explicit feedback on error.

Would the inclusion of form-focused interventions such as these circumvent the need for a coursebook and, by extension, a pre-determined syllabus of grammar McNuggets?  I hope so.  But, for those teachers who opt for a more experiential methodology, such as Dogme, a counterbalanced approach may require more rigour, and more finely-honed teaching skills, than are normally required either teaching from a coursebook or simply chatting with the students.

Or is the term ‘input’ itself a non-starter? Isn’t it a relic of a mechanistic, computational metaphor of the mind that is giving way to a more ecological one?  Shouldn’t we be thinking less of input as such, and more about the learning opportunities that become available in authentic language use – in other words, the affordances (for which see the previous post)?


Lyster, R. (2007) Learning and Teaching Languages through Content: A Counterbalanced Approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Swan, M. (2005). Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction. Applied Linguistics, 26 (3): 376-401.

Illustrations from Oxenden, C., and Seligson, P. (1996). English File 1: Students’s Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

S is for Subjunctive

12 06 2011

Il faut que nous allions!

“Damn the subjunctive!”  Mark Twain is alleged to have said.  “It brings all our writers to shame”. It’s not clear what Twain’s particular beef was – whether misuse, overuse or underuse.   But my question is this: is there a subjunctive?  Or is it simply a mythical beast?

Of course, anyone who has struggled with French or Spanish or Latin has struggled with the subjunctive. It is, after all, the iconic grammar McNugget. Here, for example, is Alice Kaplan (1993) on the subject:

The subjunctive has a schoolyard reputation for extreme formality since it’s the last verb form people learning the grammar sequence – second year.  I remember my feelings of expertise when I could rattle off my tongue, ‘Il va falloir que je m’en aille’ (I’m going to have to go now), and glide out of the room.  The subjunctive is really something else; realm of doubt, desire, fear and trembling before language  ( p. 146).

But is there a subjunctive in English? Conventional wisdom says that there is, but it’s a mere relic of its former self.  Carter & McCarthy (2006), for instance, have this to say: “The subjunctive mood is a non-factual mood and is very rare in English… The subjunctive occurs only in very formal style.  It involves the base form of the verb, with no inflections” (p. 307).  Which makes me wonder: if it is uninflected, is it eligible for a label at all – or is it simply a hangover from attempts to describe English grammar in classicist terms?

Crystal (2003) hardly deigns to acknowledge it:

In modern English, the examples which come nearest to the subjunctive occur in ‘hypothetical’ constructions of the type if she were going (cf. if she was going), in certain formulae (e.g. So be it!),  and in some clauses introduced by that (especially in American English, e.g. I insist that he go to town) (p. 442).

Just how rare is it? Mindt (2000) has the stats:

Subjunctives are most frequent in fictional texts (c. 0.2 cases per 1,000 words), less frequent in spoken conversations (c. 0.1 cases per 1,000 words), and extremely rare in expository prose (c. 0.02 cases per 1000 words).

Between 70% and 80% of all subjunctives are cases of were. Subjunctives represented by the base form be are very rare. (p.197)

By way of comparison, here (from the same source) are the stats – per 1000 words – for progressive forms and imperatives, compared with the subjunctive – which, remember, is represented predominantly by hypothetical were:

progressive forms imperatives subjunctive
fiction 4.8 2 0.2
spoken conversation 5.2 2.8 0.1
expository prose 2.2 0.8 0.02

In an earlier, corpus-based study, Charles Fries (1940) found that the subjunctive was used in fewer than 20% of the contexts in which it might be expected, and, even in American English, there was a preference for constructions with should: I insist that he should go, rather than I insist that he go. Fries concluded (70 years ago!) that “in general the subjunctive has tended to disappear from use” (p. 106).

All of which reminds me of a scene from the award-winning French film Entre Les Murs. Here’s how it is recounted in the English translation of the book (Bégaudeau 2009):

“And what is the imperfect of the subjunctive?”

They didn’t know.  I explained.  I wrote il faut que j’aille, and then il fallait que j’allasse. They all laughed.

“Oh lala, old-timey.”

“All right, it’s true that these days people don’t care much about the imperfect of the subjunctive.  You’ll come across it in books, and even then not very often. In spoken language, no one uses it.  Except very snobby people” (p. 172).

So, has the subjunctive in English suffered a similar fate? Not entirely. It still occurs in some coursebooks. Here, for example, is a panel form a U.S. published advanced text (Finnie, 2003 – click to enlarge):

When, if ever, did you last teach the subjunctive?


Bégaudeau, F. 2009. The Class. NY: Seven Stories Press.

Carter, R.  & McCarthy, M.  2006. Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D.  2003.  A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (5th edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Finnie, R. 2003. Grammar Booster 4. Boston, MA: Heinle ELT.

Fries, C. 1940. American English Grammar.  Tokyo: Maruzen.

Kaplan, A. 1993. French Lessons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mindt, D. 2000. An Empirical Grammar of the English Verb System. Berlin: Cornelsen.

A is for Aims

24 04 2011

Ready, aim.... (Vital Imagery Ltd)

“Yes, but what were your aims?!

This must be one of the most frequently voiced questions in the discussion that follows an observed lesson. The trainee – with little or no idea of how language learning is managed – is pitted against the trainer, convinced that learning can be manufactured according to precise specifications, and with the reliability of a Swiss watch.  It’s all about planning, anticipating, predicting and pre-empting.  Hence, the need for aims, and hence, the kind of advice on lesson planning of which the following is typical:

“To write an effective plan the teacher needs to think carefully about what exactly the aim of the lesson is. What will the learners learn?” (Watkins, 2005). 

Yes, but what will the learners learn? Will it be someting entirely new or simply consolidation of existing knowledge – in which case, will the improvement be perceptible? Will all the learners learn the same thing, and at the same pace? And what does ‘learn’ mean here? Is this conscious or unconscious learning? Are we talking about the acquisition of inert, declarative knowledge, or is this knowledge available to be proceduralised, and, if so, how can such proceduralization be realistically achieved in the space of a 45-minute lesson? And how, in the end, do you measure it?  How do we know when someone has learned something? And so on and so on.

The concept of aims seems to be based on the fallacy that language learning is the incremental accumulation of discrete-items of linguistic knowledge. But, as Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997) reminds us, “learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings” (p. 18).

Not only that, the classroom – being essentially a social organism –  is a complex dynamic system, where small effects may have unintended consequences, and where major interventions may produce only trivial results. As Dick Allwright (2005) points out “What learners get from a lesson is not predictable merely from what is taught in that lesson and certainly not just from the teaching points covered… We cannot now sensibly measure the overall success of a lesson simply in terms of the percentage of teaching points successfully learned because the learners may have learned little from the teaching points and a lot from everything else that happened in the lesson” (p 12).

Hence, it might be better to start with the assumption that learning cannot be programmed, in any deliberate sense, and that, as Leo van Lier puts it “it might be a good idea to design … lessons as if they formed a small organic culture (or an ecosystem) in themselves, where participants strive to combine the expected and the unexpected, the known and the new, the planned and the improvised, in harmonious ways” (van Lier 1996, p. 200).

What advice should we give trainee teachers, then? Allwright suggests that we should not abandon the idea of planning, but that we should replace the notion of ‘teaching points’ with that of ‘learning opportunities’: “I see planning as crucial to language teaching and learning,  but planning for richness of opportunity and especially for understanding,  not planning to determine highly specific learning outcomes” (op.cit, p. 10). That is, rather than defining the aims in terms of pre-specified outcomes (typically grammar McNuggets), trainees should be encouraged to think in terms of the desired learning opportunities, or what van Lier calls ‘affordances’.

Moreover, evidence from research into expert teachers’ planning decisions suggests that effective teachers seldom start their planning processes with a clear conception of an ultimate aim. Rather, they start with a somewhat fuzzy notion of what will feel right, for this class, at this stage of their learning, at this time of day, and given such-and-such contextual factors – what I call ‘fit’.  I now tell my trainees to try and esatablish a ‘fit’ for their lesson, and work from there, while at the same time incorporating plenty of elasticity into the design. And I tell them to be prepared to adapt or even abandon their plan in light of the response of the learners.

A coursebook

Such an approach, of course, sits uncomfortably with the ‘teaching point’ culture imposed by coursebooks. But coursebooks (mercifully) consist of more than simply a syllabus of teaching points. They include topics, tasks and texts – all of which, with only a little ingenuity, can be usefully detached from the teaching point that might originally have motivated them. If trainees can be encouraged to see the ‘affordance potential’ of coursebook tasks, for example, they may be some way towards designing lessons that maximise learning opportunities, even within a coursebook-driven paradigm.

In the end, as the man said, we cannot cause learning; we can only provide the conditions in which it may occur. And maybe, therefore, we should learn not to fear unpredictability, even to celebrate it. As Stenhouse put it, a long time ago now, “Education as the induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable” (1975, pp. 82-3).


Allwright, R. 2005. From teaching points to learning opportunities and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 39, 9-32.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 1997. Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics 18.

Stenhouse, L. 1975.  An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.

Watkins, P. 2005. Learning to Teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Addlestone: Delta Publishing