boooooo! hurrah!

Penn and Teller‘s show ‘Bullshit was a favourite of mine. Every week they debunked commonly held beliefs from 12-step-programs to cryptozoology. In one particular episode they asked people to sign a petition to ban Dihydrogen monoxide -a substance found in ‘pesticides, baby food and the water supply’.

Hundreds of people signed up to demand the government ban H2O, more commonly known as water. So why would someone want to ban water? Probably because it was presented to them as a scary sounding chemical and ‘chemical’ is for many people a ‘boo’ word. 

‘Boo’ words, and their opposite ‘Hurrah’ words come from an old theory called Emotivism which holds that “ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes”. I’m not too concerned about the philosophical theory but I rather like the notion of boo and hurrah words. Put simply boo words are things that are just accepted as bad, and hurrah words, the opposite. When we hear ‘Chemical’ we mentally relegate it to the pantomime villain category and boo accordingly. 

So what are boo and hurrah words in education? Swan noted that:

the applied linguistic equivalents of democracy and motherhood – include ‘learner-centred’, ‘meaning based’, ‘holistic’, ‘discourse’, ‘discovery’, ‘process’, ‘interaction’, ‘negotiation’ and ‘strategy’. On the other side of the communicative fence, concepts related to ‘bad’ pedagogic attitudes felt to be discredited and undesirable include ‘teacher-dominated’, ‘form-based’, ‘discrete’, ‘sentence-level’, ‘transmission model’, ‘product’, memorization’, ‘repetition’, and ‘drill’. (2009:167). 

I would probably add ‘testing’ and ‘textbooks’ to this list. These words are often placed in ‘boo’ or ‘hurrah’ boxes and there they linger with little examination. And it’s not just ELT, as a comment on the now defunct ‘Web of Substance‘ blog wryly notes:

I am disappointed in you as well Harry. You should know by now that, in polite education society you label your OWN ideas as “authentic”, “innovative”, “Child-centred” and “21st Centruy” so that when anyone disagrees they are, essentially, arguing for a counterfeit, old-fashioned, child-hating, Victorian education. 

We often take our views ‘off-the-peg’, after all, none of us really have the time to go and read up on every single subject which may concern usWhat, for instance, is the link between wanting relaxed gun laws and thinking climate change is a hoax? Seemingly nothing, and yet (American) people with one of these views will often have the other. Have these people really reasoned out the pros and cons of each side, or have they adopted the views of the ‘tribe’ they most identify with? 

What this boils down to is ideology. Once we choose an ideology to follow, be it socialism, Islamism or environmentalism, we reshape reality to fit that frame. A petition to ban a chemical? Sure, where do I sign!


Is this a problem? As long as our chosen ideology is sound, the views that follow will also be sound, won’t they? Perhaps. But I’m uncomfortable, for two reasons. 

Firstly, our views are often unexamined. I can’t speak for other teachers, but I often find a lot of the TEFL discourse confusing because I can never sure the terms people are using mean the same thing to them as they do to me.  

Take for instance the discussion on PowerPoint on the Minimal Pair podcast. One of the presenters said something about trying to avoid using PowerPoint because they’re so ‘teacher centric’. Thassumption in this statement is that ‘teacher centric’ (whatever that means) is bad and should be avoided. I kept thinking, ‘are they teacher centric and if they are is that a problem?’ 

Secondly, we’ve seen this go wrong before. Learning styles rode an ideological wave to success. It is an appealing notion to imagine that every learner has their own special abilities and if we just teach them in the right way, tapping into their unique ‘intelligence’ they will flourish. It’s certainly more appealing than the notion that some people are just smarter than others and will do better than them no matter what we do. Learning styles is attractive, ideologically, but unfortunately its not true. 

Alan Waters, who passed away recently, wrote several articles examining ideology in applied linguistics noting that “a good deal of its discourse promotes or proscribes language teaching ideas on the basis of ideological belief rather than pedagogical value.” A view supported by 40 years of learning styles promotion. Dana Ferris, who is perhaps the leading scholar in written error correction notes that, on largely ideological grounds “composition theorists have for decades ignored, minimized, or even openly disparaged any issues related to error treatment in writing courses.” (2011:61) And Hyland suggests that although process approaches to writing may be appealing there is little hard evidence that they actually lead to significantly better writing in L2 contexts.” (2003:17-8)

These examples make me wonder, what teaching practices we are currently being ignoring because they don’t fit our ideology. And likewise, what teaching practices are popular because they appeal to our world view? Is a teacher-centric lesson bad because it limits learning, makes students unhappy and is boring, or is it because it’s ‘authoritarian’ and ‘traditional’ while we are modern, democratic, freedom loving sorts? Is there a difference between claiming you teach in a ‘a learner-centric, communicative way using only authentic materials’ and say claiming that you only eat ‘organic, gluten free, locally sourced, food?’

Walters wrote several papers on this theme, taking quite an extreme position at times. He claimed, for instance that the EFL world engages in a kind of Orewelian ‘newspeak’ where unacceptable views are supressed  and only, “approved’ ways of thinking, such as in the use of the term ‘authentic’” are acceptable. (2015) He argued that getting rid of textbooks or advocating learner autonomy or ELF are not just pedagogical choices, but markers of right thinking people

And perhaps he has a point. Are textbooks disliked more because they present materials in pedagogically unsound ways or because they are written by large companies who make lots of money? Arguably it’s a bit of both. So how do we stop ideology slipping into our teaching? I think it’s important to carefully scrutinise our beliefs. The first step would be making sure we have a clear and accurate definition of what it is we’re talking about. Take autonomy for instance, most teachers would consider it a good thing but as Mike Swan noted at a recent talk, while autonomy can certainly be good, the logical end point of autonomy, is no teacher. 

Next, we need to examine our biases, -what would we like to be true. I correct my students mistakes in class. Therefore I hope that that helps them learn. If I found out it didn’t help them, -even hindered them, I’m likely to feel pretty bad about that. Therefore, I have a vested interest in trying to find data that back that view up. I’ll also fight harder against, and examine closer articles which contradict that view.

Lastly, we should ask ourselves what our beliefs about teaching are based on. Do you teach the way you do because it’s the way you were taught to teach, or because it’s how everyone else teaches? What reason do you have to believe the things you do and more importantly, what would it take to change your mind. If the answer to the former is ‘I just know’ or ‘common sense’ and the answer to the latter ‘nothing’ then what you are describing is dogma. 

A chemical like H2O may save your life or, like H2O2 it might be poisonous. Chemicals themselves are not inherently bad, and H2O2 is excellent for dying hair while water may drown you.  


Crystal Balls

About 2 years ago, before I first started this blog I was feeling a little disillusioned with EFL. I remember coming across an article by Michael Swan called “we do need methods”. No article I’ve read before or since has had such an effect on me. I downloaded every article I could find and read them all. Finally I wrote to him and was amazed and grateful to receive a lengthy thoughtful reply. The article is featured in his most recent work, ‘thinking about language teaching’ which is, by far, my favourite book on language teaching.

In my recent talk I made reference to an article in IATEFL issues (158) written by Swan back in 2002 which was in response to another article extolling the virtues of using ‘crystals’ for teaching. When I read the article, I was again excited to find someone who had described my feelings in such a concise and powerful way. Unfortunately, that article hasn’t been available online until now. I’m very pleased that the author has allowed me to reproduce it here. I hope you get as much pleasure from reading it as I did.

Crystal Balls

On first looking at the article ‘Crystals in the Classroom’, I thought it must be a very skilfully-written spoof. On a second reading, I realised that it was serious. At which point I began to feel very disturbed. Why (I asked myself) is a responsible language teachers’ journal giving space to a New Age disquisition about using moonlight to cleanse crystals, placing pieces of quartz on one’s solar plexus to gain relief from stress, generating ‘happy stones’, overcoming shyness with sodalite, and using jade to inspire wisdom? Has this got anything to do with language teaching?

Well (you might reply) who am I to say it hasn’t? Teachers are creative individuals, and what doesn’t work for me may well work for someone else. We can only be the richer for listening carefully to each other. What right have I to dismiss an approach espoused by another practitioner, simply because it is remote from my own practice? Not everything in the world is a reducible to scientific method. Don’t professional journals have a duty to allow space for unorthodox opinions as well as mainstream views?

Yes, of course they do – provided the claims are properly backed up in the normal way by persuasive argument and/or reasonably convincing evidence. I’m not suggesting we should aim at the same standards of proof in our work as apply, say, to physics or history – rigorous proof is generally too much to ask for in the behavioural sciences. And what counts as good evidence varies from one situation to another, because language-teaching has one foot in science and the other in art. But this does not absolve our discipline from the normal professional requirement to provide adequate support for its claims. Assertions – in both science and art – always need justification: you don’t make things true just by saying they are.

If, say, I read a flat statement that definite articles are always learnt before indefinite articles, I need to know more so that I can evaluate the claim and make an informed judgement about it. How was the investigation carried out? How many learners were studied, from what language backgrounds? Has the study been replicated? Similarly, if you tell me that a colleague has obtained good results from getting her students to teach each other card tricks in English, I’m not unwilling to believe you, but I still need to be convinced. It would be unreasonable in this case to ask for research-based statistics, but other kinds of question are apposite. How was the card-trick activity organised, and what language did it generate? What is your colleague’s basis for claiming ‘good results’? Is she experienced enough to be able to compare reliably the results she gets from different kinds of activity? What confidence do you have in her judgement?

The more implausible an assertion, the more support is needed for it to be taken seriously. Keeping an open mind does not mean accepting uncritically whatever somebody says. If a writer tells us that conscious ‘noticing’ of grammatical structures is a necessary prerequisite for learning them, we have a right to demand very good evidence indeed for this remarkable claim. Equally, if Jones announces in the staff room that he has speeded up learning by a factor of seven by getting students to put their feet in buckets of water and balance birdcages on their heads, we will be unwise just to take his word for it, however popular his classes may be. We cannot prove that the buckets and birdcages method doesn’t work – it is almost impossible to prove a negative. But it is not our job to prove that it doesn’t work; the onus is firmly on Jones to come up with convincing evidence that it does.

Despite the many difficulties, we have an obligation to ourselves and to our students to ensure, as far as possible, that what we are doing in the classroom is genuinely appropriate to our aims and reasonably cost-effective. If we experiment with new techniques (as of course we should), then we need to keep a very critical eye on what we are doing. Have we really found a valid new approach; or does it just appear to work with our students because we have persuaded ourselves and them that it does?

And if we go public, and talk or write about our experiments, we have an equally important duty to our colleagues and to the profession at large to justify, as rigorously as we can, whatever claims we are making. The article in question, however, provides neither evidence nor supporting argument for the assertions about the alleged pedagogic and therapeutic value of using certain mineral crystals in the classroom. We cannot evaluate what the author says, because he has given us no basis for doing so. And so, regardless of the truth or otherwise of his beliefs, it seems to me that his paper is out of place in a professional language teachers’ journal.

 

This article has been slightly abridged at the request of the author.

Lessons in the bleeding obvious

I’m not allowed to go to IATEFL. 😦

Big department, quite a few people speaking and so sadly I will be manning the fort.

So don’t be surprised if the tone of this post is tinged with bitterness, jealousy and impotent rage.


anywho…

The “appeal to the masses” fallacy, also called the argument from popularity states that just because something is popular or widely used we should consider it valid, after all, everyone can’t be wrong, can they?

In order to become popular you usually need to appeal to a lot of people which means being accessible and bland enough to not really offend anyone. All of which brings me to one of my most hated things, Study Skills. Now this may seem to have nothing to down with TEFL but anyone working in Universities, particularly teaching EAP or in-sessional classes has probably come across at least some study skills work. There is even a new book out targeting international postgraduates.

I’m currently reading the insanely popular study skills handbook by Stella Cottrell. A lot of teachers love this book and it’s piled high in our university bookshop. They’ve even recently released a Chinese language version (presumably to squeeze a few more drops from the UK’s current cash cow). The book has excellent reviews on Amazon (4.5 stars from over 100 reviews) is in its third edition, has sold over 500,000 copies. I hate this book. 
Allow me to explain:

It’s very very long

350 pages long to be precise. So before you can start reading your course books or writing your essays, you need to get through 350 pages learning how to read your coursebooks and how to write your essays. As reviewer ABZ notes on Amazon:

I think this book is rather pointless, You would be better studying your work in the time it takes you to read it

Of course, it’s a handbook so you don’t need to read it all, but some of it really seems excessive, and of the order of In order to read, first make sure you have eyes…’ Very useful.

Although no doubt containing some useful information, it’s also crammed full of incredibly obvious things written about in great detail. For £12 you too can learn  useful life lessons like:

IT enables you to store large files of information on CD or a memory stick
Abbreviations save time
If you have too much [information] you will need to leave some out
You need to research less, read less, note less, and write less for a 1,500 word essay than for a 3,000 word essay.

and my favourite

An essay is a piece of writing which is written to a set of writing conventions

There is even a six point guide to “searching on the web” including “type your chosen keyword into the search field” and “press the enter key”.  In the words of one Amazon reviewer:

It is filled with common sense extensively padded out by hollow psychobabble gibberish about personal development. Essentially, making good notes is good, revising is good; you don’t need this patronising text to realise this and be a good student.

The almost endless self-assessment tick boxes are also hugely irritating. You tick the boxes and then what? Whenever we did this kind of development in school; you tick these boxes “I’m good at X” and “I need to work on X” then your teacher reads it and says “oh, you need to work X” and you say “yes”, then this is all filed into your PDP folder until next year when you have to do it all again.

Accuracy

For someone who has written a book on critical thinking Cottrell drops some huge clangers. She encourages readers to find their learner style, she promotes the thoroughly discredited left brain/right brain myth encouraging students to use their “whole brain” (as if they had a choice) when studying, she promotes NLP (88), she claims drinking 8 glasses of water helps study and she repeats the myth that Einstein wasn’t good in school. Maybe these are only small things but shouldn’t an educator get these kinds of things right? This is the third edition after all. As one academic writes about the importance of evaluating evidence “check the source of your information” (Cottrell 2008:280)

One size fits all

Another worry I have with the book is the idea that doing X is a good way to study and only that will bring success, other approaches don’t work or should be avoided. An example of this is the section on reading (118) that advises students to read “with a relaxed upright posture” and “with the light from behind, sufficient to light the page but without glare”. another section advises “good note taking strategy” for three pages. Can’t students decide for themselves when and where to read and how to take notes? Is there really a right way to do this? We seem happy to make allowances for supposed “right-brain logical visual”  learners, can’t we also make room for “reading all your course books in bed” learners, like me?

Concern with the periphery

It’s hard to be too critical of study skills, and it feels a bit mean. I’m sure there’s a lot that’s good in this book and in teaching people to learn but there is a limit to this and there is a danger with taking it too far. Like strategies and reading skills, learning skills are compensatory strategies not a replacement for language teaching. In the same way that you can’t scan and skim your way to understanding a text, if you don’t have enough language all the skills in the world won’t help you.


In an excellent article called “we do need methods” Swan talks about the “expanding periphery” of TEFL noting:

It seems clear that there is a real and substantial swing towards a concern with matters that are ancillary or peripheral to language teaching itself. These include learner characteristics and perceptions, societal needs, cultural contexts and personal development. (2012:169)

He goes on to suggest that a balance needs to be struck between ancillary concerns and the things they are ancillary to, namely, teaching. In the same way that teaching a man to fish will be more useful than giving him a fish, learner training and study skills can be useful, but there must be a balance between skills and language. What we don’t want is the fisherman spending three months in fishing college learning fishing skills from “the fishing handbook” and subsequently starving to death.

Enjoy IATEFL! 

Why we need evidence part 3: expert opinion

What do Rod Ellis, Michael Swan, Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury and Jim Scrivener all have in common?  Yes, they’re all white, native speakers and they’re all men in a profession which is largely female, non-white and non-native speaker. But that’s not what I was aiming for, no they are all TEFL “authorities”, and probably for whatever reason, the most recognisable names in TEFL/applied linguistics.

This isn’t a post attacking them. I happen to like all of them (though Swan is my fav!) but it’s more to question the authority that is afforded to them. Harmer for example is a teacher and a teacher trainer. Is he better or more capable than any other teacher trainer? -I have no idea and I have no idea how you would even work that out. Like Thornbury, Harmer has written a very influential book which means he’s certainly dedicated and driven, but is what he says any more reliable than a teacher who hasn’t written a book?

I have taken a lot of useful advice from Harmer’s practice of English teaching, as I’m sure many people reading this have. But I’ve also seen him recommend teachers test students to find out their learner styles in spite of the evidence he himself quotes against it. I’ve also seen him promote NLP, without a single word of criticism. though in this regard he’s no different from the British Council which seems to have no problem promoting either of these things.

Thornbury scores more highly in both these areas. He’s also refreshingly honest about some of ELT’s more entrenched practices which have dubious credibility. But one has to wonder about Dogme, criticised, -somewhat ironically perhaps, -by Harmer here.

I like both Harmer and Thornbury’s books, but neither men, as far as I can tell, are researchers. Their words should have just as much (or just as little) weight as anyone else’s. Even if they were researchers and leading researchers in their field, like Rod Ellis for example, it wouldn’t mean that their opinion on a given issue is necessarily the right one. For example Swan takes issue with Ellis’ whole approach to language teaching, -so which expert are we to believe?


In the world of evidence based research, opinion albeit “expert” opinion ranks dead last, (and sometimes doesn’t appear at all) -and for good reason. The whole purpose of research and the power behind the scientific method derives from the fact that people are often wrong, and often wrong about being wrong. The Nobel Prize winning Scientist Linus Pauling serves as an important cautionary tale:
After becoming convinced of its worth, Pauling took 3 grams of vitamin C every day to prevent colds. Excited by his own perceived results, he researched the clinical literature and published Vitamin C and the Common Cold in 1970. He began a long clinical collaboration with the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron in 1971 on the use of intravenous and oral vitamin C as cancer therapy for terminal patients (wikipedia)

I’ve highlighted a very important sentence in bold here. Pauling believed that vitamin C really really worked and thus ignored his scientific training. Other people may take this idea seriously because such a famous researcher said it. They may even use an authority figure’s opinion as evidence of a point they are making, -and I have documented cases of that here. This is often called the “argument from authority” for obvious reasons.

But how does someone become an authority? Well, you need to get people to listen to you. Imagine tomorrow I announced that I would be starting a new teaching method called “langology”. I laid out all the precepts and techniques and wrote a passionate call for teachers to use it. How many people would? I’m guessing the number would be zero. Yet there are others who could affect the way thousands of teachers teach, just by doing this, get books published off the back of it and even stir up controversy in the TEFL world. Yet the people who suggest new theories or give advice about best practice are really only giving you their opinions.

Of course, opinions may come in a range of probabilities depending on the claims being made, but we should never forget that they are, no matter how accurate they sound, just opinions. And as such, the opinion of say Dr. James Ascher (the Dr. appears on all the TPR stuff) that TPR is good for kinesthetic students, is exactly and entirely as valid as my saying that “langology” will not only make you fluent in any language in a matter of weeks but it will also make you more successful, handsome and probably slightly taller. And importantly should be given exactly that much weight. This is unlikely to happen though, but why?

I can’t really answer that question but I would guess that it has something to do with the Halo effect.  This is what makes us think a celebrity giving us insurance advice is worth listening to or what leads to better looking students getting higher marks for an essay. Also perhaps it relates to how easily we are convinced by authority figures. Either way, it’s something we should be on our guard against. The next time someone at work, round the water cooler, mentions that “Harmer is big on drilling!” or that Ellis doesn’t think contrastive analysis is useful,  remember that in the absence of evidence, this is just an opinion.

Prediction

Imagine an alternative universe in which a large number of teachers, experts and textbooks promoted a model of teaching which was untrue.  Imagine that despite ample evidence of the flaws of this approach,  in the form of books and journal articles, teachers and publishers just carried on teaching it, -all the time taking students money for this “education”.   Unfortunately, many EFL teachers live in that world where reading skills are concerned.  I’m hoping to write more about reading skills, but this entry will only deal with prediction.

Prediction is a popular EAP activity.  One of the key principles of reading listed by Harmer is prediction.  He notes that things like the title can help students to form opinions relating to the work before they begin reading (2007).  Grellet (1990: 56)  adds that, “reading is an activity involving constant guesses that are later rejected or confirmed”.  The British council note that ” Prediction is a valuable stage in…reading activities. It mirrors L1 skills use, where predictions form an important base for being able to process language in real time.”(online)  Prediction is an idea that comes from one model of reading, “this model of how people read is called the “psycholinguist guessing game model”(Grabe 2009:102). 

Grabe makes two important points about this model of reading.  The first is that it is very popular among “applied linguists” and the second is that “it has been proven wrong in its predictions by accumulating evidence for the past 20 years” (Grabe 2009:102).   Grabe hammers the point firmly home noting that this approach “has no empirical validity and is problematic”(Grabe 2009:103)  adding “One needs only to pick up a newspaper in an unknown language to verify that background knowledge and prediction are severely constrained by the need to know vocabulary and structure.” (1991: 380)  

 20 years of being wrong and we still use it?  Still teachers may not be familiar with articles in obscure second language reading journals and Grabes book only came out in 2009.    If only an article had appeared in something more accessible, like the ELTJ a little earlier, say around 1996…….if only!

In 1996, Amos Paran in an article called “reading in EFL facts and fictions” published in the ELTJ bemoans the use of the “psycholinguistic model” of Reading in EAP courses, noting that it “was never accepted as an important model in the first place “(1996:29) and adds:

                As a final point, it is important to stand back and think how the Goodman and Smith view of reading, with all the reservations LI reading researchers expressed towards it, has been able to hold sway over L2 reading models for such a long time. (1995:33)

A point made perhaps more worrying by fact the paper was first presented at IATEFL in 1992.  Despite this, I can still pick up textbooks, such as Oxford’s “well read” which include, in Swan’s words, “the standard battery of exercises designed to train students in ‘skimming’, ‘scanning’, ‘predicting’, ‘inferring’ and so forth, that one finds in textbook after textbook” (2008:266)

Swan, beating Paran by 8 years, noted another problem with this model, namely the assumption that non-native speakers lack the ability to predict.  With his usual finesse for cutting through bullshit he writes:



               One of the comprehension skills which we now teach foreigners is that of predicting. It has been observed that native listeners/readers make all sorts of predictions about the nature of what they are about to hear or read, based on their knowledge of the subject, their familiarity with the speaker or writer, and other relevant features. Armed with this linguistic insight (and reluctant to believe that foreigners, too, can predict), we ‘train’ students in ‘predictive strategies’. (For instance, we ask them to guess what is coming next and then let them see if they were right or wrong.) But I would suggest that if a foreigner knows something about the subject matter, and something about the speaker or writer, and if he knows enough of the language, then the foreigner is just as likely as the native speaker to predict what will be said. And if he predicts badly in a real-life comprehension task (classroom tasks are different), it can only be for one of two reasons. Either he lacks essential background knowledge (of the subject matter or the interactional context), or his command of the language is not good enough. In the one case he needs information, in the other he needs language lessons. In neither case does it make sense to talk about having to teach some kind of ‘strategy’. (Swan 1985: 8)

Maybe it’s time to stop wasting our students’ time?

references

British Council (2012) Prediction.  In teachingEnglish. Retrieved July 6 2012, from http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/knowledge-database/prediction

Grabe, R (2009) reading in a second language Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Paran, A. (1996). Reading in EFL: Facts and fictions. ELT Journal, 50(1), 25-34

Grabe, W. (1991) Current Developments in Second Language Reading Research TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 25, no 3, 375-406

Grellet, F. (1990) Developing reading skills Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Harmer, J. (2007a) How to teach English Essex: Pearson Education Limited

Swan, M. (2008) Talking Sense about Learning Strategies RELC Journal 2008 39: 262 261-273

Swan, M (1985) a critical look at the communicative approach 1 (1), ELT Journal 39/1, pp.2-12

"the rising tide of bullshit"

I was recently pleased to get an email reply from Michael Swan (he of learner English and practical English usage fame). He is something of EFL hero, and while I don’t agree with everything he says, he makes a lot of good points and no one writes as well as he does.  He is particularly adept at cutting though the bullshit prevalent in our profession. If you find yourself overwhelmed with “autonomous communicative negotiated schemata skills” or the like, then have a look at some of his articles, many of which are available free on his website. Even if you don’t agree with what he says, as far as articles go, they make quite entertaining reading.  I’ve included a few snippets at the bottom here. 


“Meanwhile the students – or at least, the conscientious ones – write down hundreds of pieces of new information in those overfilled notebooks that someone once memorably called ‘word cemeteries’.”

“We need to face the sobering fact that language teaching won’t usually get very good results. Languages are hard to learn, and there is never enough time to teach them properly.”

Two out of three ain’t enough: the essential ingredients of a language course

(IATEFL 2006 Harrogate Conference Selections, pp. 45–54)


(talking about if he were a student)
“I do not want to be taught reading skills.  I have reading skills.  What I want is some Hungarian to deploy them on.”

contemporary applied linguistics volume 1


“Teachers usually feel guilty about something: translating, or explaining grammar, or standing up in front of the class and behaving like teachers, or engaging in some other activity that is temporarily out of favour”

 “We actually know hardly anything about how languages are learnt, and as a result we are driven to rely, in our teaching, on a pre-scientific mixture of speculation, common sense, and the insights derived from experience. Like eighteenth-century doctors, we work largely by hunch, concealing our ignorance under a screen of pseudo-science and jargon.”

A critical look at the Communicative Approach 2

 For the sake of argument, let us imagine that an international team of burglars (Wilberforce, Gomez, Schmidt and Tanaka) are busy doing over a detached suburban house. Wilberforce is on watch. A policeman comes round the corner on the other side of the road. Wilberforce reports this to the others. Schmidt, who learnt his English from a communicatively oriented multi-media course in a university applied linguistics department, interprets this as a warning and turns pale. Gomez and Tanaka, who followed a more traditional course, totally fail to grasp the illocutionary force of Wilberforce’s remark. Believing him to be making a neutral comment on the external environment, they continue opening drawers. Suddenly Wilberforce blurts out, ‘The policeman is crossing the road’, and disappears through the back door, closely followed by Schmidt. Gomez and Tanaka move calmly to the wardrobe. They are caught and put away for five years. Two more victims of the structural syllabus.

A critical look at the Communicative Approach 1


p.s. A friend sent me thisVery funny.  I suppose these are meant as jokes, but I actually think quite a few of them are true.