Is TEFL too nice?

Criticism can be hard to take. In the book “kindly Inquisitors” the author relays the story of Georg Cantor a mathematician who “lost his mind because of the hatred and animosity against him and his ideas by his teacher Leopold Kronecker: He was confined to a mental hospital for many years at the end of his life” (2014: 296) Kubota suggests that “The field of L2 education by nature attracts professionals who are willing to work with people across racial boundaries, and thus it is considered to be a ‘nice’ field”. But is TEFL too nice?

It might seem an odd question to ask, after all, how can people be too nice? For me, sometimes the desire to protect relations and be kind tips over into a kind of censorship. This happens when criticism is withheld or watered down to protect people’s feelings. Here are some personal anecdotes:

  • Before I gave a talk once, the organisers asked me to remove references to certain people in a talk they had invited me to give.
  • While writing an piece I was asked if I could remove references to authors who held the views I was criticising.

Maybe I was wrong in these situations, after all, it is entirely possible to criticise a position without saying who holds it. That said, when discussing the prevalence of neuromyths in ELT, for instance, might it not be important to note that prominent figures are promoting these things? Or is being discreet more important?

Personally I find it a little frustrating when reading an article that says something to the effect of “many believe that correction is not useful” or “some people disagree with this idea” and not seeing a link to who it is who is making these points. I would like to go away and read their work and see exactly what they say, but instead I just have to take the writer’s word for it.

Should we avoid giving this useful information for fear of offending? I tend to agree with Rauch who notes, “people who are hurt by words are morally entitled to nothing whatsoever by way of compensation. What is the right answer to the person who demands something because he is offended? Just this: ‘Too bad but you’ll live'”(80)

So am I for people saying whatever they want? Well, not quite…

Anything goes?

One of my ELT heroes is Mike Swan. His articles seem to cut through nonsense and provide a clear and fair examination of authors. At the same time he didn’t pull his punches and wasn’t afraid of frank criticism. However, if you’ve seen his collected works you’ll notice that the articles are prefaced with his current reflections on them. Before one of his most scathing articles he writes the following:

‘The tone of the articles was consequently excessively polemic, anti-academic, and at times downright rude. I now offer my belated apologies to the several distinguished scholars for whom I showed less respect for me certainly deserved.’ (2013:1)

Reading the essay that Swan is apologising for, I was struck by how mild it is compared to blog posts and tweets we can see daily. Swan, I suppose, belated recognised that criticism is hard enough to take without adding unnecessary venom. 

Another negative side effect of overly unpleasant criticism is that your critics can dismiss you very easily. “I don’t object to what you said, just the way you said it. Let’s discuss that instead.” This kind of tone policing has been examined by Andrew Old, who notes that the subjective nature of ‘tone’ means that “almost any style of disagreement can be objected to on this basis”. Notably though, he draws the line at insults, threats and rudeness and is quick to block those he feels crosses the that line.

An academic issue

Academic writing is often impenetrable, vague and dull. Language seem to be used at times with the purpose of confusing rather than elucidating. However, this dullness and cold objectivity can perhaps be used to temper the anger we might feel when reading a piece criticising something we have written.

Writing that someone’s view “does not seem to be supported by the evidence” might be easier to take than describing someone’s views as ‘crap’. Saying someone’s opinions are ‘moronic prattling’, while technically not insulting the person, is unlikely to lead to a productive debate. In fact, it is probably much more likely the other party will entrench their position rather than come round to your way of thinking. Sure, it’s great to get patted on the back after DESTROYING someone with FACTS and LOGIC but how much does this kind of rhetoric effect any actual change?

It can also create a rather toxic environment. If the discussion becomes increasingly extreme, only the extremeophiles thrive. Others will choose not to engage. We thus lose all but one type of voice and it becomes an intellectual cul-de-sac of sorts. 

The importance of criticism

“Controversy is good, it makes us think” Scott Thornbury,  IATEFL 2016 Plenary

Is it really a kindness to not criticise idea because you want to ‘nice’? Is it a good situation if everyone disagrees with you but is cowed into silence or should we encourage people to say what they think? What if what they think will effectively silence others? It’s not an easy question to answer.  I don’t know where the lines should be drawn and I don’t think people should have to put up with people being abusive to them. What I can say is that I think I’ve learnt far more from criticism than praise, no matter how hard it is to hear. To quote Kindly Inquisitors again “a no offence society is a no-knowledge society” (2014: 297).

What is acquisition and how is it measured?

In SLA research, one finding seems beyond reproach is that there is a set order in which students acquire grammar. This “internal syllabus” cannot be overridden and thus textbooks that present grammar unit by unit are pointless and worse ‘unnatural’, because students are unable to learn what is taught until they are developmentally ready.

The research that underpins these claims comes from three main sources. The first are the morpheme studies which attempt to emulate L1 research showing native speakers learn English morphemes in a fixed order. The second is Pienemann’s work which unlike the morpheme studies does not look at the order of acquisition of several forms but instead looks at the stages learners go through in acquiring a single form (questions for instance). The third are interlanguage studies.

Although this research is often discussed, I have found the details are rarely forthcoming. I was curious to know two things about these landmark studies. Firstly, how was ‘acquisition’ measured, and secondly what do they consider to be ‘grammar’? In this post I will be looking at the morpheme studies.

1. what falls under ‘grammar’ and what does not?

In the morpheme studies, a set of roughly 10 morphemes are usually researched. These vary slightly such as when researchers separate articles into ‘the’ and ‘a’, or look at long and short plural sounds but in general they don’t differ much between researchers. The list of morphemes include such things as plural forms (dogs), Copula (is) (He is happy), auxiliary be (he’s coming), irregular past, regular past, articles and possessive -s (John’s cat).

There is a lot that teachers would consider ‘grammar’ that is not included. For instance:

  • I should play tennis. (Modals)
  • If you like it, then buy it. (Conditionals)
  • I’ve told you already (perfect forms)
  • What are you doing? (Questions)

2. How is acquisition measured?

In the morpheme studies, a test subject is said to have acquired a grammatical form if they can produce it correctly in a test. The test, called a Bilingual Syntax Measure (BSM), is usually carried out on children and involves showing cartoon like pictures and eliciting language from the subjects. A researcher will, for instance, say ‘here is a girl, now there are two of them. So there are two _____?’ this is known as an ‘obligatory context’ as students have to use the correct form to answer.

The next stage is that researchers score the learners depending on whether they produce the correct form or not. For instance (Dulay and Burt 1974):

  • totally correct ie. “she’s dancing” (2 points)
  • half right, ie. “She’s dances” (1 point)
  • wrong ie. “She’s dance” (0 points)

The scores of the entire group are then added up and plotted on a chart. The equation used was the sum of the whole group / the number of possible points x 100. If more learners correctly produce plural -s than produce possessive -s, then the researchers claim that plural -s is acquired before possessive -s.* In the morpheme studies a form was said to be ‘acquired’ if subjects produced it accurately when elicited 90% of the time.

What did they find?

Researchers seemed to find that all students acquired language in the ‘roughly’ the same order regardless of their L1. For instance Mitchell and Myles (2004: 43) argue that these results suggest ‘second language learners are guided by internal principles that are largely independent of their first language’.


The interesting thing to notice when looking at this table is that the orders found were not actually the same between researchers, which is a little surprising for a ‘universal’ order. That said some researchers seemed not to mind and grouped the morphemes into ‘sets’ which are acquired in order.

source Krashen in Larsen-Freeman and Long 1991: 90

The eagle-eyed among you will perhaps spot that there are still some outliers here such as “articles” appearing in stage 2 yet 1st in Dulay and Burt and 11th in Hakuta.

Issues with this research

I was interested to discover, that despite the ‘Holy Grail of SLA research‘ status that the morpheme studies have achieved, they have been under scrutiny for almost as long as the have been around. Some of the criticisms levelled at this research is as follows (apologies for not being able to properly source the origin of these).

  • morphemes with different meanings (a/the) were grouped together in some studies
  • What was classed as ‘grammar’ was a very limited number of morphemes
  • most of the early research was carried out on ESL learners, not EFL students
  • The orders vary in different papers, notably Hakuta 1974 (n-1)
  • students were all grouped together to obtain results, hiding individuals or national groups who may not have followed the “natural” order.
  • the studies did not look at acquisition over time but rather just took a snapshot
  • accuracy order does not necessarily mean acquisition order
  • Students’ overuse of the target morphemes was not counted
  • The “universal order” is more accurately thought of as the “Spanish student order”

(Note some of these criticism have merit and others less. Check Larsen-Freeman and Long 1991 for a more detailed explanation.)

Notably, the claim that the order is universal has started to look suspect as L1 does indeed seem to have some influence on L2 (something that will not surprise most teachers). Luk & Shirai (2009) have argued that researchers continue to promote the order as ‘universal’ ignoring the evidence that it seems to be affected by a students’ L1. Corpus research, for instance shows that students seem to acquire morphemes in a different order. For instance, Japanese has a possessive particle ‘の’ but no plural particle and Japanese students seem to learn possessive -s before they learn plural -S (Anecdotally, this chimes with my experience). Hakuta’s study had a similar results and interestingly, Hakuta found that articles, which do not exist in Japanese, were late acquired by the Japanese student he studied.

Luk & Shirai (2009) found that not only Japanese but Korean and Chinese learners (all of who lack plurals) generally acquired possessive -s earlier and both plurals and articles ‘later than is predicted’ by the ‘natural order’ hypothesis. Other authors have noted that salience (how easy it is to hear the morpheme in input) could also play a role in explaining the order. And another possible factor is frequency, which is ‘the second most popular of the suggested causes of the L2 functor acquisition order (after L1 transfer)’ (Goldschneider and DeKeyser 2002: 29)

So the ‘holy Grail’ seems to have a few cracks in it. One author who believes that the morpheme studies have been used to make claims that they could not support is Mike Swan, who notes:

We have no reason at all to believe that the learning of most grammatical items is constrained in this way: that for yet-to-be uncovered developmental reasons, students might need to learn comparatives before relative pronouns, dativizing verbs before quantifiers or infinitives of purpose before possessive ’s. To claim that learnability findings preclude the operation of a grammatical syllabus is a large and unjustified leap across a wide logical gap.

(Swan 2018: 254)

*the research methods are actually a bit more complex than this and differed between researchers but I have simplified it for the purposes of the this post.

Evidence isn’t enough

Why do some people continue to believe that climate change is not a threat despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is?

One theory is that the people who reject the evidence for climate change are doing so because they are uninformed. The idea is that if they were only a bit more educated on science they would suddenly realise the error of their ways. This is called the knowledge deficit model.

Researchers have sought to investigate how accurate this model is. They tested the hypothesis that a lack of knowledge about climate change predicted thinking it was less of a risk. They tested subjects scientific literacy and compared that with views on climate change.

If their hypothesis were true we would expect to see that risk perception would rise with more knowledge. It would look a bit like this.

source here

In fact they found this. 

source here

There was no correlation between scientific literacy (as measured by a test) and belief that climate change was a risk. Some of those who believed climate change was a big problem knew a lot about science and conversely some who knew little about science thought the risk was great. In short, the knowledge deficit model was a bust.

However, when the researcher compared political affiliation with belief in climate change they found the correlation they were looking for. It seems that being left wing was a much bigger indicator of believing climate change was a risk and vice versa for being right wing and this was regardless of scientific literacy.

The researchers propose that when a subject, like climate change, becomes politically partisan, facts will do very little to alter opinions. David McRaney has dubbed this “tribal psychology“. When something becomes a matter of identity for your in-group, then the evidence ceases to matter very much.

Take something as simple as wearing face masks during a pandemic. A year ago it would have been hard to image people physically attacking each other over an issue like this, but here we are. McRany has an excellent Podcast on this subject. He notes that masks may now be a badge of group loyalty, like putting pronouns in your bio. These findings are especially interesting when thinking about research and teacher beliefs.

In education most people are already left wing, yet the battle between trad and prog teacher “tribes” rages on with almost daily outrages during which members can prove their group loyalty. Today, it’s language use in schools, before that it was exclusion and before that it was something else. Topics change, but the dance remains the same.

It’s very “natural” for people to pick a side and to stick to that side regardless. As McRaney notes, our evolutionary history as social animals means that group membership could have meant the literal difference between life and death. It’s also a very frustrating part of human psychology leading to irrationality, partisanship, class divisions, religious intolerance, and so on.

A large body of psychological research shows how when we form in and out groups we start to view those two sides very differently. Our side is hard done to, sensible, upstanding and decent. The other side is getting away with murder, idiotic, immoral and craven. If we make a mistake, it was an accident, if they do it was calculated. worst of all, McRaney notes that people would rather be wrong than out of good standing with their “tribe”.

If people’s identities are wrapped up in a certain sets of beliefs and if those beliefs form an in-group/out-group dynamic it is likely that everything will be viewed through that lens. it is also likely that, in this situation, no amount of evidence will change minds. A good example of this is phonics research, the results of which have been resisted for decades.

So here are some suggestions to try to avoid our natural tendencies towards “tribal psychology”. This advice is aimed mostly at myself, but if you find it useful, then great. I suggest these in the full knowledge I will probably be unlikely to follow them very well.

  • Try not to become too invested in any one side 

This is very difficult, but the more we see the other side as the enemy, the easier it is to start seeing everything through a partisan lens. Next, we may stop looking at the evidence all together and just side with our ‘tribe’.

  • Try to find things you can agree with  

Whenever possible and no matter how small it is, try to find points of agreement between you and people in your out group.

  • Try to stay agnostic where possible 

We would like the research to say “X” but it doesn’t exactly say “X”. Well, the best thing we can do is just not have an opinion. “I don’t know” is a valid opinion.

  • Be dubious of research that supports your world view

Paper finds thing I want to be true is wrong *scoff* “what was the sample size?” “Let me check the methodology section!” “This author is right winger!”

Paper finds thing I want to be true is true! RETWEET without reading! “OK the sample size isn’t ideal but it’s a promising piece of research!” “who cares what the author’s politics are?!”

  • Make appeals to people on their terms

Learning styles advocates never seem to get particularly fazed by the charge that the practice lacks evidence. They do, however, get upset by the idea that it pigeon holes students. My guess is learning styles advocates like the theory because it represents individualism and student centric learning. Questioning that claim resonates more than pointing out the lack of evidence.

Facts aren’t enough

Research tell us that the knowledge deficit model is flawed. If we can’t get people to believe in the threat of climate change despite the evidence, there is little hope of convincing them about anything else. A research based approach has to consider not only the facts that can be gleaned from research, but people’s feelings too. Bashing teachers over the head with research is unlikely to change minds but it may cause them to resent you. It’s then fairly easy for teaching experts to dismiss research as “irrelevant for teachers” and find a receptive audience.

Non evidence based teaching tips

Here are a random collection of things which I think are really important but which are not really evidence based.

5. Deal with behavioural issues as soon as possible

If you’re like me, then having a student on their phone or basically doing something distracting will put you off your stride. I think most of the time, with adult learners there’s no malice, they are just thinking about their own problems.

If something is bothering you in class then deal with it as soon as possible. If a student is bothering you, then it’s likely they are bothering other students in the class. They suffer and you suffer. I usually ask to see anyone who is doing something they shouldn’t after the class. I don’t think this has to be a difficult conversation, just “don’t do X”. Setting clear rules on day 1 is a big help.

4. use coloured paper with wide margins and light ink when making cards

It might seem a bit “TEFL” for an EAP teacher but it really saves time. If you are producing cut-ups then pre-make a document which has side margins wide enough that you don’t have cut them at all. Make the spaces between the sentences as large as possible because there is nothing worse than chopping a few words off one set. Finally, print each set on different coloured paper to make them easy to sort.

3. Everything usually takes longer than you think

I have a compulsive fear of running out of materials before the end of the lesson and I know that I am not alone. I did have a tendency to over plan for a long time and end up not getting through the material. I’m better at this now, and there are some easy ways to control the time in the lesson. These usually relate to how you give the answers (just write them all up and let the students check themselves or nominate people and have others confirm the answers). You can also, – shock horror – do activities twice if you find you have too much time. It might seem lazy, but the students will probably benefit from the practice.

(I only actually ran out of material twice in 20 years, which isn’t bad.)

2. Learn student names

I’m not great with names but I make sure that I always do this in the first class. It’s really cringy by the third lesson to be pointing and saying “you” and I think it makes the classes less effective. If I can’t learn them because there are too many students, or because I will only see the group a few times then I give them a name plate of some kind.

  1. Do the damn worksheet

This is a cardinal rule for me and yet the one that I observe the least, much to my detriment. Do the damn worksheet yourself. It’s only once you are in class that you realise that Q3 isn’t actually possible in passive, or that you can’t explain something about the grammar point you are supposed to be focusing on, or you don’t actually know why “pain” is countable in “what a pain”, or how to explain the word “innovative”, or why “try” takes infinitives and gerunds while”trying” only takes infinitives, and on and on for 20 years. It is only when you try to do the worksheet that you realise the planned activity is not physically possible or that it would take 2 hours to complete. Do the damn worksheet!

What are your basic teaching tips?

Retraction in ELT

I am currently reading the new book, Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie. It deals with meta research (research about research) and outlines all the ways in which science is currently going wrong. In one section dealing with retraction, Ritchie notes that “1.97 per cent of scientists admit to faking their data at least once” and suggests that that number is probably an underestimate as people are unwilling to admit to things like this even when asked in anonymous surveys.

This number means that for every 50 papers published in ELT one is likely to contain faked data. Some of these cases have come to light in biology and psychology and this led me to wonder if there were many retractions in ELT. So I asked twitter.

Marc Jones instantly found two (here and here) both of which were retracted due to plagiarism. One was plagiarism of another scholars work and the other was self plagiarism (submitting the same paper for double credit). I also found one from The journal of Computer Assisted Language Learning retracted for (self) plagiarism. So far no fraud.

Stuart Ritchie pointed me to the retraction watch searchable database. I tried searching by journal and found a RELC paper published by Ivan Chong which was withdrawn for “significant data errors“. There was also The journal, System which had the misfortune to publish one article twicein the same issue!

The journals Applied Linguistics, ELTJ and TESOL Quarterly have apparently had 0 retractions to date. The database is not complete though and I was also sent this piece which was retracted from the prestigious “language learning” journal. It’s not that clear what went on here but it seems like one author noticed errors in the data and requested a retraction.

As an interesting aside, Richie notes that people continue to cite retracted articles even after they have been retracted. I was curious about this so I used google scholar to check citations of the 2003 Language Learning article. There were hits from 2018 and even from 2019. I don’t know the date of the retraction but I feel pretty confident it was well before these dates.

Out of thousands of papers in ELT I could find only two that were withdrawn due to data issues. So either ELT is a paragon of virtue or we haven’t got very good at sniffing out fraud yet.

But how easy is it to get a journal to retract a paper? While researching an article on learning styles, I came across a couple of very curious articles. The first was Hyland 1993, the second was Hyland 1994. While reading the 1994 article I got a strange sense of Deja Vu:

In essence, learning style research suggests that people make sense of the world in different ways and these ways are partly created by cultural experiences (Hyland 1994)

Learning style research therefore suggests that people make sense of the world in different ways, more importantly however, these ways are partly created by cultural experiences (Hyland 1993)


Eight Japanese universities participated in the survey with 265 undergraduate students responding. The questionnaire was also administered to 140 Japanese students at various English proficiency levels at a tertiary college in New Zealand to determine whether overseas study influenced modality and group preferences. (Hyland 1993)

Eight Japanese universities participated in the survey with 265 undergraduates responding. The questionnaire was also administered to 140 Japanese students at different English proficiency levels at a tertiary college in New Zealand. (Hyland 1994)


Essentially the concept expresses the simple idea that each learner has a clear and coherent set of learning likes and dislikes, but studies have addressed an enormously wide range of factors. (1993)

Learning style research expresses the simple idea that each learner has a clear and coherent set of learning likes and dislikes, but people differ in their learning styles in a number of ways and studies have addressed a huge range of factors. (1994)

Most of the later (1994) article is a verbatim copy of the earlier one with minor phrasing adjustments such as those shown above. This type of thing is usually known as either self-plagiarism (see the examples above) or, on a smaller scale, text recycling and is considered unacceptable in academic publishing. Many journals have rules against it, such as JALT itself:

Papers sent to JALT journal should not have been previously published, nor should they be under consideration for publication elsewhere.

I thought this was a bit strange and so I contacted JALT, the 1994 publisher, to make them aware of the issue. They told me that they take such matters very seriously and would investigate. After an investigation they informed me that this was all just an honest mistake, a bit of a mix up. The paper had been submitted to two journals by accident and and as a previous editor had dealt with the matter, it would be wrong to retract the article now.

How one accidentally submits the same article to two journals is, I must confess, a mystery to me. More mysterious was JALT’s reasoning. Regardless of what a previous editor had decided, a repeat publication is still in the literature with no indication that it is a repeat.

I wrote back suggesting that since I was unaware that it had all been resolved, as was the current editor and presumably future readers, it might be worth retracting the article, or at least adding a note to explain what had happened. They told me they were very grateful for my suggestion but no, they weren’t going to do anything. And so both articles remain in the literature.

It is also odd that Hyland himself, a incredibly respected editor and prolific author would not want the article to be retracted. In fact, until recently he continued to list both papers among his publications (his new blog, however, only lists papers from 2003). Not retracting the paper may be less embarrassing in the short term but it means that there is always the chance for some annoying blogger to bring attention at some point, to what was a mix up .

In truth, I’m not ‘that’ surprised that nothing happened here. Brendan O’Connor a student at the University of Leicester discovered that a well respected psychologist was “recycling” parts of papers into new publications to an alarming degree. Although O’Connor has documented this to an impressive degree, some journals were reluctant to do anything at all when confronted with these findings.

As whistleblowers, data sleuths and anyone else who’s contacted a scientific journal or university with allegations of impropriety will tell you, getting even a demonstrably fraudulent paper retracted is a glacial process – and that’s if you aren’t simply ignored or fobbed off by the authorities in the first place.

Science Fictions

Well quite.

EBEFL asks: should we use translation software?

I was recently presented with an almost flawless piece of writing from a students whose English level precluded her producing such an almost flawless piece of writing. Initially I thought, “oh no…we have to have *that* conversation”…

In her tutorial the student guilty confessed to using translation software. I told her I was surprised because google translate famously produces awful translations from Japanese to English. “ah” she said, “I didn’t use google”.

She directed me to a site called DeepL. I threw a bit of Japanese in from Wikipedia and this is what I got out.


Now this isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn good. For good measure I threw it into google translate and got a pretty good rendering too.

google translate

I was quite surprised at how good the Google Translate version was. But I shouldn’t have been . Sure, it was an endless source of comedy in 2004 when it produced weird and wacky sentences, but that was 15 years ago and technology moves on (in 2004 no one thought computers would beat humans at Go any time soon, that happened in 2015. There is an excellent documentary about it online). Google translate switched to using “Neural Machine Translation” around 2017 and this has reportedly led to much better quality translations.

So, is there any point in banning students from using translation software to write their essays anymore, particularly in EAP contexts? We wouldn’t mind them using dictionaries to translate words, and rather than just banning them, perhaps we could focus on getting them to use this tool more effectively? It certainly beats receiving a paid for or plagiarised submission.

Let me know your thoughts.


So after 8 years I have decided to move to WordPress. There are a few reasons for this but I won’t bore you with the details.

You have probably noticed that the name has changed slightly. I did this because although I don’t see anything wrong with the term “Evidence based teaching”, some people do and can get a bit stuck on the idea that evidence based means “dictated by the evidence only”. I don’t see it that way but I also don’t think it is an important enough hill to die on. My twitter account will remain EBEFL, but the blog name has changed.

All of the content from the previous site should still be here but a lot of the hyperlinks no longer work. If you see one that isn’t working and draw my attention to it then I will fix it. There are over 150 posts so it could take me a while to sort this all out!


Woo Watch: speed reading

A friend recently forwarded to me an email from a BBC reporter (radio Leicester) making inquiries about speed reading. The email said:

The aim would be for someone to speed read the 50 page Government document that becomes available at approx. 3:30pm today and take us through the key points they managed to pick up along with giving us the time it took to do it.The aim would be for someone to speed read the 50 page Government document that becomes available at approx. 3:30pm today and take us through the key points they managed to pick up along with giving us the time it took to do it.

I wasn’t sure if this was a joke so I looked up the reporter on twitter and found the following:

BBC radio Leicester 

So they found someone! They found one “Anne Jones” who has a reading speed of around 4,000 WPM! Jones read a 50 page government document in 8.5 seconds according to Carpenter. I questioned this in a tweet saying, “this isn’t possible, is it?” Oddly his tweet disappeared shortly after that. 

Many people, including me, would like to be able to read faster and there are lots of people, like Anne Jones, running course or selling books to tell you how this can be done. 

One such person is Susan Norman who you may remember as the author of several books and articles on NLPNorman wrote The Speed Reading Bible with Jan Cisek an environmental psychologist and  Feng Shui expert (you can see him talking about Feng Shui for animals on the BBC here). 
I have only been able to get a sample of their book but it contains tips and hints about how to improve your reading speed. Some of these seem eminently sensible like “have a clear aim for your reading” and “Don’t think ‘reading’, think ‘finding information’”. The kind of advice we give to international students taking university courses. Others seem less convincing, such as the following:  

Speed up your brain with ‘super-duperreading’* Look quickly (1-4 seconds) down the middle of the page using your finger to guide you for about 10 pages or until you begin to make sense of some of the words. Then start reading with comprehension – but you’ll be reading more quickly because your brain is reacting more quickly.

Likewise the suggestion to trainees to “open your peripheral vision” is a curious one. 

So is speed reading possible? The short answer is “no”. Although it would be nice to read hundreds of books every week, sadly we are stuck with the roughly 300 words a minute that “average” native speakers read at. 

The longer answer is, it depends what you mean by “reading”. Speed reading is really just skimming, and skimming involves a necessary decline in comprehension. You can go through a text faster but you won’t be getting as much info, -you’ll just be missing bits out. 

it is unlikely that 400 words per minute can be easily surpassed as when reading, people subvocalise and therefore there is a physical limit to the speed they can read at. There is also a physical limit on how fast your eye can move across a page focusing on the words and 8 seconds for 50 pages is, I would guess, beyond that limit. 
Speed reading may sound “far out” but it actually looks quite tame when compared to a relatively new phenomenon, known as “quantum speed reading“. As with all things quantum and neuro, you are probably wise to be skeptical. The breathless blurb on the QSR website tells us that it is:

a completely new technique for reading books without looking at the pages. It was developed in Japan and has been taught to both children and adults there for the last several years. Astonishing as it may seem to most of us who learned only to read books by reading a page at a time they can in fact be read by simply flipping the pages

They don’t really just mean flipping pages though, right? Check the video. 

According to method creator Yumiko Tobitani, “after 72 classes, students can finish reading a 100,000-word book within five minutes” Although QSR doesn’t seem to have taken off in Japan, it has found some success in China.

Whether it’s learning a language in 10 days or in your sleep, humans will continue to look for short cuts to doing difficult things and there will always be those willing to offer a helping hand. In the case of Tobitani, this will only set you back $350

Woo Watch: The rise of Neuro

There are those in ELT who aren’t fans of  science and research. ‘It’s an art‘ they protest, ‘stop trying to measure everything!’ On the other side are those who grab science and embrace it wholeheartedly. Sometimes these hugs can be a little too hard, leaving science with broken bones and internal bleeding. The intention is good but the result is a squishy, science shaped mess. 

One example of this is the rise of “Neuro” in teaching. The Neuro crowd are not doubt well-intentioned but can sometimes seem to stray dangerously close to the “woo” side of the forceSatel and Lilienfeld note that neuroscience “is vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs who tout facile conclusions that reach far beyond what the current evidence warrants”. 

Neuroscience is a legitimate science which offers many promising insights but as Dorothy Bishop, Professor of developmental neuropsychology notes, the attempts to link it to education are often misjudged. And she is not the only one. Daniel Willingham has written that Neuroscience applied to education is “mostly unimpressive“, stating that there is “definitely a lot of neuro-garbage in the education market.” As the authors of “Brainwashed” note, there are many educational enterprises that seem to “merely dress up or repackage good advice with neuroscientific findings that add nothing to the overall program.

“Neuro” is popping up increasingly in ELT. For instance, in a recently published piece by Cambridge University Press on “neurolearning” the author argues that “neurolearning” is useful for creating a “brain-compatible environment”. The article goes on to use language like “Homeostasis” and “Hypothalamus” in order to suggest rather ordinary things like keeping the classroom at a good temperature. The author published another article saying that “no matter the target language, try to think about activities that will appeal to the different learning styles – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.” and “a brain-compatible environment can only be created by a passionate teacher”. Unfortunately, after some online criticism, the page seems to have been removed. Exactly what the word “neuro” adds to any of the approaches suggested in article, is not clear. 

Another example of the rise of “neuro” is “neurolanguage coaching®“, which is a mix of coaching and neuroscience. It’s creator claims that:

Neurolanguage Coaches are trained in the practical application of neuroscientific principles, relating to how the brain learns, functions and reacts, in particular in relation to emotional triggers when learning a language, drawing Krashen´s affective filter into the scientific evidence arena.

Similarly, in Japan, ‘neuro’ has taken off! The Japanese Language Teaching association (JALT) has a special interest group know as the “mind brain and Education” sig. The sig promotes something called NeuroELT. The group began as a charity project after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and went on to hold a series of conferences called the FAB11

I don’t know much about these approaches and don’t particularly have any bones to pick with either, but in both cases, as with neurolearning, it’s a little unclear as to what precisely the role of “neuro” plays, other than to provide a slightly scientific veneer to otherwise ordinary educational practices. Is there that much to be gained by knowing that the prefrontal context “lights up” when students play Hangman? 


Another curious side-effect of the rise of Neuro are the endless pictures of colourful brains accompanied by effusive explanations that this proves that X or Y is the case:

Here’s a spot that lights up when subjects think of God (“Religion center found!”), or researchers find a region for love (“Love found in the brain”). Neuroscientists sometimes refer disparagingly to these studies as “blobology,” their tongue-in-cheek label for studies that show which brain areas become activated as subjects experience X or perform task Y. (link)

These images can be surprisingly effective. It has been shown that brain images of the type neuroscience produces, actually helps to make research seem more believable. However, when even a dead salmon in an FMRI scanner can produce exciting looking blobs, we should proceed with caution. 

This current “neurophilia” is not completely without precedent in ELT. The 90s saw a rise in popularity of Neuro-linguistic programming. NLP, which has very strong pseudoscientific elements became so popular that it made appearances in a number of respectable people’s work. And what concerns me is that people who might have previously been previously swept up in various “brain-based” approaches might now be getting swept up in the “neuro” craze. 

For example, I recently discovered that the “language teacher“Journal had had an NLP special edition (volume 21, no. 2) and one of the contributors to this special edition, an advocate of educational hypnosis and a proponent of NLP, is also a founder of the JALT Brain, Mind and Education sig. Other founders have also published articles on, for example, the Kolb model of learning styles, the learning pyramid (a theory which must surely be on life support at this point) and a study into the VAK learning styles of over 30,000 dental students. 

These articles are fairly old and it is possible that the authors no longer buy into these kinds of practices. Evidence for this can be seen in that the group has a handy neuro myths website and the NeuroELT website explicitly warns readers to watch out for neuromythsThe creator of “neurolanguage coaching®” has, likewise, explicitly distanced herself from NLP (her upcoming conference, however, does feature one speaker who is an NLP practitioner.)  All of this is reassuring, but  I am still left with a linger sense of unease about the prospects for “neuro” in ELT. 

One area where ‘Neuro’ has already ‘contributed’ to education is in the proliferation and acceptance of many neuromyths. Lethaby and Harries have shown that, as in other areas of education, many ELT teachers believe that people only use 10% of their brains or that there are left brained and right brained learners. But the prevalence of neuromyths and experts warning about giving too much attention to the “neuro” prefix seem to falling on deaf ears. No doubt neuroscience can bring interesting and useful findings to education, but the rush to embrace this new toy could also end badly. 

Is the end of Erasmus Nigh?

While working in Leicester University I had a few classes teaching Erasmus students.These were always an interesting change from a lot of the other EAP classes we used to teach and although the students could be a bit challenging at times, they were a memorable bunch of students. I was a shocked earlier this year to see “Erasmus” trending on twitter and a large number of accounts mourning the (imminent) loss of the program. But are Eramsus’ days really numbered? Here is Dan Jones from the University of Leicester to try to explain what’s going on.

For the last two years I’ve had a Google Alert set up for the combined key words of Brexit and Erasmus. Every so often, but not too often, I get a ping telling me about a Brexit/Erasmus news story. I’ve learnt that either the Google Alert algorithm or the UK government isn’t working. I get surprisingly few pings. 

If you’re not familiar with Erasmus, here’s the quickest of summaries. Firstly, as an acronym it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s the EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. Students can select up to 4 modules a semester, basically the same ones as the undergraduate students but they can choose from across departments. Some come for just a semester and some for the whole academic year (yes all seven months of it). We currently have students from Spain, France, Germany and Italy. The outbound British students get all the attention in the UK press (as we’ll see a lot of them grow up to be journalists), but the other half of the story is the students from other EU countries who come to study in the UK. 

It’s centrally funded through the EU and runs in 7-year blocks. The current one ends this year and therefore the UK can’t keep putting off signing up for 2021-2027 much longer. Each 7 years has seen the budget and remit expand. The current programme’s budget is 14.7 billion euros. The new programme is notable for its budget of 30 billion euros.

The UK’s involvement may now come to an end. What follows is a short Brexit story where nothing very much happens.

From 24th June 2016 until December 2018 nothing very much happened. In universities, the plan was ‘wait and see’. The government offered to underwrite the current programme, which was nice, but nobody believed them, so universities had to give their own separate guarantees (e.g and e.g.).

The government advice on Erasmus up until 8th December 2018 started with “A scenario in which the UK leaves the EU without agreement (a ‘no deal’ scenario) remains unlikely given the mutual interests of the UK and the EU in securing a negotiated outcome.” By December, it became clear that the May strategy of running down the clock and calling everyone’s bluff was a long shot and wasn’t going to work. Without making a fuss, on the 23rd December 2018, a civil servant updated the advice to “Delivering the deal negotiated with the EU remains the government’s top priority. This has not changed. However, the government must prepare for every eventuality, including a no deal scenario.”

Just to repeat: NOTHING HAS CHANGED 

At a government level it wasn’t clear what preparing for every eventuality actually meant. But by January 2019 it meant hanging the universities out to dry “UK organisations may wish to consider bilateral arrangements with partner organisations that would enable their projects to continue.”

At a university level, all they could do was publish a reassuring strategy statement (e.g), but as everyone was fond of saying you can’t start doing new deals until you’ve left the old one. At a course planning level, how exactly do you prepare for every eventuality? Do you both plan and not plan all the modules, allocate and not allocate hours to teachers, book and not book rooms? So we decided to wait and see. 

This period of limbo gave journalists the opportunity to reflect on what the UK might lose. This and this being the most recent. Essential elements are 1) Facebook just reminded me I was an Erasmus student. 2) I had a lot of fun, 3) That was the year I found myself, 4) It wasn’t all about the drinking. 

From my experience of hungover and sleep-deprived students, there’s some truth to the partying aspect. I can’t say about the finding yourself. But as all these articles quite rightly go on to say, Erasmus students get to experience living somewhere else, and from an academic point of view, they get to study modules at degree level outside of their specialisation. Our Shakespeare and literature modules are taken by students from all academic backgrounds. We have students doing a TESOL module who had previously not given a thought to teaching, let alone teaching English (though admittedly, that doesn’t sound too different to the usual route into teaching English). 

If you were in the UK in 2019 you won’t need reminding that, politically, it went a bit mad. In the run up to the original Brexit deadline of 29th March, El Pais was reporting that Spanish universities were discouraging their students from applying to the UK. At my university, 20% of our Erasmus students are from Spain. But otherwise it was more ‘wait and see’. 

A survey published in April 2019 of prospective students painted a more complex picture. When asked about whether they were more or less likely to study in the UK due to Brexit, 36% of EU students were less interested, 6% more interested. For non-EU international students it’s 10% less interested and 14% more interested. The proportion of ‘more interested’ might seem surprising, but it seems that some students see that a weakened UK pound will give them more spending power and a weakened UK HE will give students more leverage in getting into a higher ranked programme and university. 

Of course it’s the majority in the middle that are neither more nor less interested and fortunately they just carried on as usual, and when we got to the start of term, the numbers held up quite well. We even have Spanish students. The El Pais article was either inaccurate or the students ignored the advice. For most students, the only thing that will stop them applying is taking down the application form. 

In November 2019 Universities UK published “A ‘NO DEAL’ BREXIT: IMPLICATIONS FOR UNIVERSITIES AND MINIMISING RISK” They left the caps lock on as it’s directed at the government and it’s full of specific advice on what should be done. After years of vague technical notices, this is refreshingly readable (for a report on education policy). 

Over the last week, there’s been a bit more pinging from my Google Alert than usual. Firstly, the Liberal Democrats tabled an Erasmus amendment to the withdrawal agreement bill. And when it was inevitably voted down, it was reported in the most pessimistic terms: U.K. Parliament Vote Casts Doubt On Future Of Erasmus Study Abroad Scheme and Fears over future for Erasmus international student exchange scheme after Brexit. (This second of these has this great celeb filler: “Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James was among those taking to social media to denounce the outcome, which she branded disgraceful”. Well if EL James says it’s disgraceful…). But as each of these reports goes on to concede, this doesn’t actually mean anything. With the exception of last year’s madness, opposition amendments don’t get voted for by the government.

In fact, there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, saying we’ll probably stay in but if we don’t then we’ll make our own, at least suggests an engagement with the issue. It does raise the question, why would you make your own when there’s a perfectly good one that we’re already using? But it’s not unprecedented, Switzerland withdrew from Erasmus in 2015 as part of a move to limit immigration. The result was the Swiss-European Mobility programme.

At this point I’m as miserable as the next person on this rain sodden island, but I seem to be a bit more optimistic about Erasmus. Once we get past 31st January I think there will be a flurry of mini deals and Erasmus will be one of them. And anyway my most recent Google Alert tells me that Boris Johnson has just said flat out, we’re staying in Erasmus. Now, if we can’t trust the Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s Government then who can we trust?