P is for Predictions (part 1)

3 09 2017

I’m regularly asked to make predictions about the future of ELT: it’s one of the liabilities of being on a conference panel, for starters. I seldom feel comfortable in the role. Perhaps the safest prediction is of the order:  Any prediction that I make now about ELT in X years’ time will be laughably wrong when the time comes.

It came up again when I was guesting on a DELTA course recently: the teachers were understandably  anxious about the future of their chosen career. However, I decided to re-frame the question – not in terms of predictions (‘What will ELT be like in 10 years?), but in terms of identifying some of the on-going tensions in ELT, the outcomes of which (following a dialectic mode of thinking) will surely determine the shape of ELT in 5 or 10 or however many years’ time.

delta course

The IH Barcelona DELTA class: Teachers with a  future! (courtesy @sanchiadanielle)

These are some of the tensions I discussed:

  1. The tension between the local and the global

Incontestably, English is a global language (although its reputation may have taken some knocks recently – see E is for English). It therefore lends itself to the kind of commodification and marketization that we associate with other items of mass consumption – such as fast foods, trainers, and cell-phones. These processes of ‘McDonaldization’ (Ritzer 1998) are evidenced in the way textbooks are produced, marketed and distributed globally, and in the ‘branding’ of high-stakes exams – such that an English class in Thailand is likely to be using the same materials to prepare for the same exam as is a class in Chile.  Or Armenia. Or anywhere.

Countering this ethos of ‘one-size-fits-all’ is what Kumaravadivelu (2001, p. 538) calls ‘a pedagogy of particularity’, i.e. one that is ‘sensitive to a particular group of teachers teaching a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular sociocultural milieu.’ Because, as Pennycook insistently reminds us, English is a global language used locally: ‘Everything happens locally. However global a practice may be, it still always happens locally’ (2010, p.128).

Attempts to ‘particularize’ English teaching include the production of locally-authored, culturally-specific curricula and materials, implemented by means of an ‘appropriate methodology’ (Holliday 1994). Arguably, digital technologies have made the production of such home-grown materials a lot easier, while resistance to the uncritical importation of ‘Western’ methodologies is voiced frequently (e.g. Burnaby & Sun 1989; Li 1998). But it is not clear how the global vs local tension will play out.

  1. The tension between teaching and testing

Driven by the aforementioned globalizing forces, but also fuelled by the neo-liberal obsession with accountability and standardization, and lubricated by ever more sophisticated data-gathering mechanisms, high-stakes testing now dominates many educational contexts, English language teaching not the least. The numbers speak for themselves: the IELTS test, for example, was taken by nearly 3 million candidates in 2016 – at around $200 a go, this is big business. It is also a nice little earner for language schools, with the result that many teachers feel that they are now simply in the business of test preparation.

‘Teaching-for-the-test’ has also seen the rise of standards-based, or competency-based teaching (also known as mastery learning), where the syllabus consists of an inventory of bite-sized ‘competencies’, each one taught and tested in isolation, on the assumption that all these bits will magically coalesce into a whole. (These bite-sized learning chunks also lend themselves to [teacher-less] online delivery).  This has led to a culture of testing that is the despair of many educationalists, Diane Ravitch (2010, p. 16) being one of the more vocal: ‘How did testing and accountability become the main levers of school reform?  …  What was once an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy’. And she adds, ‘Tests should follow the curriculum. They should not replace it or precede it.’

Will the tide turn? Will teaching and learning reassert their rightful place in the curriculum? Don’t hold your breath.

  1. The tension between classroom instruction and self-study

Learners have always learned languages through self-study packages, whether by means of books (of the Teach yourself Swahili type); long-playing records, cassettes or CDs; video, in combination with any of the above, and, of course, more recently, online and via apps such as Duolingo. In July this year, for example, Duolingo was boasting an estimated 200 million ‘active’ users[i], although what constitutes ‘active’ is a moot point. Nevertheless, the availability, ease and low cost of many self-study tools (Duolingo is of course free) means that they constitute a real threat to traditional classroom teaching.

Their single biggest drawback is, of course, the lack of any real face-to-face interaction, including personalized instruction and feedback (where ‘personalized’ means ‘mutually intersubjective,’ not ‘individually customized by an algorithm’). That is what classrooms offer – or should. But, of course, such ‘human’ interactions come at a cost. Will language learning in the future be primarily app-mediated, with classroom teaching relegated to a high-end, niche status? And/or will classroom teachers be compelled to migrate en masse to call-centre-type facilities in order to provide the much-needed human interaction that these apps will offer as a premium add-on? Watch this space.

There are at least three other tensions, the outcome of which I suspect will shape our collective futures. But I’ll deal with those next week.


Burnaby, B. and Sun, Y. (1989) ‘Chinese teachers’ views of western language teaching: context informs paradigms’. TESOL Quarterly, 23/2.

Holliday, A. (1994) Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Li, D. (1998) ‘”It’s always more difficult than you plan or imagine”: Teachers’ perceived difficulties in introducing the communicative approach in South Korea’. TESOL Quarterly, 32/4.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2001) ‘Towards a post-method pedagogy.’ TESOL Quarterly, 35/4.

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language as a local practice. London: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2010) The death and life of the great American school system: how testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.

Ritzer, G. (1998) The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and extensions. London: Sage.

[I] http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/business-directory/24390/duolingo-stats-facts/

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)


O is for Outcomes

10 02 2013
New campus, American University, Cairo

New campus, American University, Cairo

I have to say at the outset that I have an almost pathological horror of testing and assessment. All my worst teaching and teacher training experiences relate directly to issues of assessment.  I don’t mean assessment of me (although negative assessments of my capacity to teach may well have resulted from my incapacity to ‘do’ assessment effectively). I mean my assessment of my students. Things can be going along just swimmingly until the day of the test, or the day when I’m required to post a grade. Then all hell breaks loose. The cozy relationship I had built up with my class or with individual students is shattered irreparably. Often this has to do with failing a student, but just as often it has to do with a student not getting the A grade they had always got in the past. Or, worse still, not getting the one percentage point that will make the difference between continued funding or having to leave the program for good.

I don’t deny that testing – like death and taxes – is unavoidable. As Johnston (2003: 77) puts it, testing is a necessary evil. It is necessary because learners and other stakeholders need feedback on progress. (Or, arguably, they have a right to feedback).  And this is what testing does: it provides feedback, in accordance with principles of validity, reliability and fairness.

But, at the same time, testing is evil. Why?  Because it assigns a value to the learner, and, since the value is almost always short of perfection, it essentially de-values the learner. Worse, testing typically involves measuring students one against the other, thereby destroying at a blow the dynamic of equality that the teacher might have judiciously nurtured up until this point.

Testing is evil because it is stressful for all concerned, and because the conditions under which testing is conducted (separated desks, no mobile phones, etc) imply a basic lack of trust in the learners.

It is evil because it pretends to be objective but in fact it is inherently subjective. Why is it subjective? Because, as Johnston (op. cit: 76-77) points out, ‘the selection of what to test, how it will be tested, and how scores are to be interpreted are all acts that require human judgment; that is, they are subjective acts’. Ultimately, it is the tester – not the test-taker – who decides what counts as knowledge, and how you count knowledge.

And, finally, it is evil because the kind of knowledge implicated in language learning is uncountable. More on that later.

For all these reasons, I avoid, as much as I can, having to talk about testing, and have refused more than one conference invitation because the theme was in some way connected to assessment.

Dr Deena Boraie, Nile TESOL 2013

Dr Deena Boraie, Nile TESOL 2013

At the same time, I am fascinated by – and a little envious of – those conference presenters who seem happily to embrace the topic of testing – such as the indomitable, and utterly charming, Dr Deena Boraie of the American University in Cairo, who was one of the plenary speakers at the Nile TESOL conference last week (on the wonderful new AUC campus – see pics).

Deena presented a lucid, non-technical rationale for the need for ‘assessment literacy’ on the part of teachers and other stakeholders. This included some straightforward tips on how to achieve validity, reliability and fairness in teacher-designed classroom tests. With regard to test validity, Deena’s recommendation is that tests should be judged in terms of how faithfully they reflect curriculum goals, typically encoded as learning outcomes. If the desired outcome is vocabulary knowledge, this should be reflected in the test. If it is reading ability, ditto.

While this makes perfect sense, it does rather sidestep the fact that the very notion of outcomes is not an entirely unproblematic one. For a start, and as I suggested earlier, language learning does not lend itself to easily quantifiable outcomes. Johnston again: ‘Neither language nor competence in language is naturally measurable’ (op. cit: 83).  (He might also have added that teaching is not naturally measurable either – a conundrum for those of us who have to grade teachers). He continues: ‘The fundamental immeasurability of language competence lends a further moral dimension to our work in language assessment; the decisions we are forced to make about how competence will be assessed are always subjective and thus can only be rooted in our beliefs about what is right and good, beliefs which, we must always acknowledge, could be mistaken’ (ibid. emphasis added).

deena boraie 03That’s not the only problem with outcomes-driven testing. An obsession with pegging learning to preselected and minutely-detailed outcomes now pervades every aspect of education (as I am discovering at the moment at my own place of work). Where does this love affair with outcomes come from?

Some would argue that it comes from the world of business, from what has been dubbed the ‘marketization of education’. As Gray and Block (2012: 121) gloss it, ‘In such an educational climate, students are increasingly seen as customers seeking a service and schools and teachers are, as a consequence, seen as service providers. As this metaphorical frame has been imposed… the semantic stretching of keywords from the world of business… has become commonplace. Thus terms such as “outcomes”, “value added”, “knowledge transfer”, “the knowledge economy” and above all “accountability” have become part of the day-to-day vocabulary of education’.

In an invigorating swipe at the culture of accountability, Frank Furedi, a sociology professor in the UK, condemns outcomes-driven education as ‘a technique through which a utilitarian ethos to academic life serves to diminish what would otherwise be an open-ended experience for student and teacher alike.’ And he adds, ‘Its focus on the end product devalues the actual experience of education. When the end acquires such significance, the means become subordinated to it’.

The means become subordinated to the ends. Isn’t this, finally, the real problem of testing?

AUC Campus 04References:

Gray, J., & Block, D. (2012). ‘The marketisation of language teacher education and neoliberalism: Characteristics, consequences and future prospects,’ in Block, D., Gray, J., & Holborow, M., (eds) Neoliberalism and Applied Linguistics, London: Routledge.

Furedi, F. (2012) ‘The unhappiness principle’, The Times Higher Education Supplement,


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

V is for Vocabulary size

3 10 2010

Paul Meara, of Swansea University, in Barcelona

How many words do you know? How many words do your students know? How do you count them? Is it important?

These and similar questions came up during a fascinating series of lectures given this week by Paul Meara (“the world’s leading researcher in modelling vocabulary knowledge” according to Paul Nation), at the Pompeu Fabra University here in Barcelona.

Paul Nation at the MASH Equinox Event in Tokyo, last month (Photo: David Chapman)

Traditionally, estimates of vocabulary size have been based on the number of words that subjects could define on a list taken at random from a dictionary: if the list represented 10% of the total words in the dictionary, the number of known words would then be multiplied by ten to give the total. But the method is fraught with problems, not least ‘the big dictionary’ effect: “The bigger the dictionary used, the more words people are found to know” (Aitchison 1987, p.6).

More sophisticated, and more sensitive, tests have since been designed, including Paul Nation’s widely used and very reliable Vocabulary Levels Test (described in Nation 1990), which targets five levels of word frequency (including a university word list) and involves matching words with simple definitions.

Meara himself has devised a number of vocabulary size tests, including the EVST (originally commissioned as a placement test by Eurocentres). Elegantly simple and very easy to administer, this checklist-type test requires takers simply to say which words they recognise in a sequence of frequency-based lists. But, as a way of controlling for wild guessing – or shameless lying! – the lists also include ‘pseudo words’, such as obsolation and mudge.

All the above tests are tests of receptive vocabulary knowledge. Testing a user’s productive vocabulary is more problematic. One approach is the aptly-named ‘spew test’, where test-takers are asked to produce as many words they can that share a common feature, e.g. that start with the letter B. Taking a somewhat different tack, Meara reported on some intriguing research he has done, matching frequency profiles of learner texts with statistical models of different vocabulary sizes. A student writes a text and a profile is generated in terms of the relative frequency of its words; the program then searches for a best match (a bit like the way that fingerprints are matched up), which in turn yields a fairly exact estimate of the learner’s vocabulary size. Magic! (You can check the program out for yourself at Paul’s _lognostics website. It’s called V-size).

But what does vocabulary size mean? And does size matter? Certainly, it seems that having a big vocabulary is a prerequisite for reading (and presumably listening) ability. As Bhatia Laufer (1997) puts it, “By far the greatest lexical obstacle to good reading is insufficient number of words in the learner’s lexicon. [In research studies] lexis was found to be the best predictor of success in reading, better than syntax or general reading ability” (p. 31).

Paul Meara in action

More than that, vocabulary size may be a reliable predictor, not just of reading success, but of overall linguistic competence. Certainly, in first language acquisition, the processes of vocabulary development and grammar development are closely intertwined, with the former possibly driving the latter. Tomasello (2003), for example, cites research that shows that “only after children have vocabularies of several hundred words [do] they begin to produce in earnest grammatical speech”, which suggests to Tomasello “that learning words and learning grammatical constructions are both part of the same overall process” (p. 93).

If this is the case in first language acquisition, does it not also suggest that – for second language learning – the learner needs to assemble as big a lexicon as possible, and as soon as possible – even if this means putting other areas of language learning ‘on hold’?

Aitchison, J. 1987. Words in the Mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon. Oxfrod: Blackwell.
Laufer, B. 1997. ‘The lexical plight in second language reading” in Coady, J. and Huckin, T. (eds.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: A Rationale for Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nation, I.S.P. 1990. Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.
Tomasello, M. 2003. Constructing a Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.