The Secret History of Methods

Curricular decisions – such as choice of textbook, teaching objectives, pedagogical approaches, and assessment instruments – are often made independently of one another, and this mismatch can create tensions further down the line, including resistance to change, on the one hand, or unprincipled adoption of the latest fad, on the other. Moreover, the different stakeholders – the learners, parents, employers, administrators, inspectors  - might have different and even conflicting views as to how their various interests can be reconciled. In this talk (and with particular regard to communicative language teaching), I consider ways that might help integrate these competing voices into a coherent curriculum,

Is 'language' a countable noun?
Revisiting the Lexical Approach
Teaching as a 'long conversation'
Just for fun 

I'm regularly asked "What's the latest method?", suggesting that the concept of method persists, despite recent attempts to bury it ("The method concept is dead!"). In this talk I  review the history of methods, both to critique it, and to draw some lessons from past methods, arguing (a) there is nothing new under the sun and (b) Dogme ELT is not a method!

'Storytelling is teaching': the value of narratives
EdTech: hype or hope? 
'Our language is different'
Teaching unplugged

What is grammar and how is it internalised in the mind? Is it symbolic code or is it neural connection strengths? Is it the sedimented trace of previous conversations or is it an innate human capacity? However we answer these questions obviously has an impact on the way we go about teaching second languages. In this talk I review some of the key models of grammar - often couched as metaphors - and look at their implications in terms of classroom practice. In so doing, suggest that models grounded in both sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics offer a more valid basis for teaching than do purely linguistic descriptions.

Most TESOL curricula have a prominent grammar focus, organised around a canonical list of discrete items. There is little evidence to show this is the most effective way of organising a program, yet my research shows that it persists because of inertia and a (mistaken?) perception of what learners expect. In this talk, I offer a number of reasons why this preoccupation with grammar teaching is flawed, drawing on current literature from such fields as SLA, corpus linguistics and general education. I then suggest that there are viable alternatives that offer a more balanced approach to the development of proficiency, including content- and task-based learning.

In the literature on second language acquisition, performance is typically contrasted with competence – with the implication that competence is a pre-condition for performance. I.e. we should learn the rules of language before applying them. This is a distinction that has been challenged more recently, in the light of so-called ‘usage-based’ views of language acquisition, which argue that using IS learning. ‘Performance’, of course, retains its original, non-specialist, senses of production, play and drama – not to mention ‘performativity’. I argue that these many meanings can be bundled together to create a truly performance-based methodology. 

How do methodology writers mediate what has been described as a ‘dysfunctional discourse’, i.e. that between researchers and practitioners? I interviewed a number of such writers in order to find out how they perform this bridging function. In this talk I’ll present and discuss my findings, and attempt to draw some principles that might guide others – such as teacher educators – who also mediate research and classroom practice.

It's been my privilege as teacher trainer, examiner and former director of studies to observe some really memorable classes. Let me share a few of these with you, and let's see if we can draw up some principles for good grammar teaching.

'Grammaring' activities

Traditionally, language teaching has targeted the three systems of phonology, lexis and grammar. But what about discourse, the system "beyond the sentence"? How systematic is it, and can it be taught? In this talk, I review the different senses of
"discourse" and show how they operate in some very simple classroom-friendly texts. I also demonstrate some ways that corpus linguistics can inform our understanding of discourse.

We take it for granted that there is language (the human capacity for verbal communication) and that there are languages (specific forms of this capacity tied to a particular locality, social group or race, such as Japanese, Swahili, Latin etc). But how do you separate (uncountable) language into (countable) languages? Where do you draw the lines? Who decides?  These questions may seem academic, but in fact they have an important bearing on the way we define, describe and prescribe English – among other languages. In this talk I problematize the notion of language, and argue that many of the decisions that we take for granted (e.g. what to teach, what to correct, what language to use in the classroom) have strong ideological underpinnings.

Grammar or Speaking (or both?)
'Words, words, words!' (And yet more words)
'Play it again, Sam!': The value of task repetition

Teachers, I argue, could learn a lesson from the Dogme 95 group of film makers, who have pledged to rid film-making of an obsessive concern for technique and to rehabilitate a cinema which foregrounds the story, and the inner life of the characters. In a similar spirit, I put the case for what is called "a pedagogy of bare essentials": one in which dependence on imported materials is reduced, and in which the learners’ texts and meanings  are foregrounded. I  look at practical ways of achieving these goals. 

The history of education, and language education not least, has been a history of competing metaphors, by means of which the often invisible processes of learning are conceptualized and modelled. Over time we have witnessed a shift from cognitive models to more socially-embedded – even ecological  – ones. Drawing on selected entries in The New A to Z of ELT (Macmillan 2017) I aim to track these changes and suggest their implications for the teaching of an additional language, whether foreign, community or heritage.

Terrence Rattigan’s popular comedy French Without Tears (1936) was named after a well-known textbook of the time. The title plays on the widespread longing for a language teaching method that is painless, pleasurable, and fast. Fun, in short. But can language learning really be fun? Isn’t it about effort, concentration and the long haul? In these two talks (All work and no play and No pain, no gain) I argue the case for and against foregrounding fun as a guiding principle in methodology and course design. 

Is there discourse in this course?
The learning body

In the year 2000 I coined the term ‘grammar McNuggets' so as to  capture the way that coursebooks deliver grammar in tasty, bite-sized morsels. To my way of thinking, this compartmentalization of language (an essentially shapeless and fluid phenomenon) reflected the way fast-food chains package, market and deliver their products – not so much as real food but as a simulation of real food. Twenty years down the line, ‘grammar McNuggets’ seem as entrenched as ever. In this talk I review and critique the way that grammar has been commodified, and I suggest alternative approaches to its teaching and ‘consumption’.

Despite a paucity of evidence to show that digital technology enhances language learning, the fever for new tools and apps continues unabated, creating a continuous cycle of ‘hype, hope, and disappointment’. The uncritical embrace of digital solutions has, of course, been fuelled recently by the global pandemic and the rush towards online or remote learning. To guard against the hype and to avoid disappointment, vigilant teachers need to ask: What is the problem for which this technology is the solution? In this talk I reduce language learning to six ‘problems’ and evaluate the solutions that technology offers.

Unpacking a text 

It is now a quarter-century since Michael Lewis proposed a ‘lexical approach’ to second language learning, in contradistinction to the prevailing grammar-dominated one. His original claim was that fluency is a function of having a large store of prefabricated lexical sequences (‘chunks’), and that language acquisition involves ‘item-learning’ rather than ‘rule-learning’. How have these claims stood up to the test of time? In this talk I address this question by reviewing both the evidence for, and the impact of, the Lexical Approach.

Conformity vs creativity in language teaching
Twenty years of 'grammar McNuggets'
My 10 favourite vocabulary activities


Stories have always played an important role in language teaching, although traditionally they were used mainly as vehicles for grammar practice or written ‘compositions’. In this talk I want to review these uses of narrative, while suggesting that stories can serve other key purposes as well, such as personalizing the content of the lesson and creating opportunities for genuine communication. I’ll share some of my favourite storytelling activities. I’ll also make the point that the stories we tell about teaching provide valuable material for teacher development, for, as Oliver Sachs said, ‘each of us is a biography, a story’.

It’s a truism that no single method is going to meet the needs of all teachers and all learners, either locally or globally. Hence, we now operate in what is called the post-method era. Yet methods formerly provided teachers with a certain sense of security, a role which perhaps coursebooks now fulfil. This security is illusory, though, if it is not grounded in some basic principles of learning and education, principles that I will attempt to identify, and which (I will argue) constitute a blueprint for a coherent approach to language teaching.   

The secret grammar of words

Teaching has been characterized as a ‘long conversation’, in which ‘talk is used to construct knowledge… so that the knowledge that is created carries with it echoes of the conversations in which it was generated’ (Mercer 1995). Using examples from English language classes, I will explore this concept, and attempt to answer the question: How can classroom talk be motivated and scaffolded so that learning opportunities are maximized?

P is for Performance

The acquisition of a functional vocabulary is the primary task of the second language learner. But what words, when, in what order and – crucially – how? In this talk I’ll review key research findings about vocabulary learning and discuss how they might be applied in the design and implementation of vocabulary learning activities, both in class and out of class – using some easily available and user-friendly technological tools.

My 10 favourite grammar lessons

Teachers have mixed feelings about repetition: on the one hand, teachers know, intuitively perhaps, that language learning involves repetition; on the other hand, repetition is negatively associated with mindless pattern practice drills. How do we square the circle? i.e. How do we rehabilitate repetition without making it boring?

Seven ways of looking at Grammar

The relatively recent history of second language acquisition (SLA) research has produced a small number of case studies that have an almost iconic significance in the literature: you only have to mention Alberto or Wes or Nora, and scholars will know exactly what feature of language acquisition you’re talking about. In this talk I briefly review these figures in the SLA ‘Hall of Fame’, and suggest that they still have relevance to today’s classrooms.     

Texts -  especially authentic texts – are treated somewhat superficially, on the principle that ‘you don’t have to understand every word’.  Yet each word in a text opens a little window into the language. In this talk I show how texts can be exploited for their (often hidden) linguistic and textual features.  To do this, think of a text like a package, with different things inside that need to be ‘unpacked’. Or like an onion – and that exploiting a text means peeling off each layer of the onion successively.

As teachers we can only teach a fraction of the words that learners will need: but we can arouse their interest in learning words themselves. In this talk I will describe and demonstrate 10 activities that promote vocabulary acquisition  - and I will briefly discuss the principles that underpin them.

A number of my talks are listed below: edited versions of the PowerPoints of some of them are

available to download in PDF format

Seven things beginning with M
The SLA Hall of Fame

As we emerge from the pandemic and face the road ahead, you may – like me – feel we have been forced to take a long and often unpredictable detour along the path of online teaching. And you may be enjoying – or looking forward to – a return to the well-trodden road of face-to-face teaching. In this talk, I want to extend this metaphor and explore some other ‘less-travelled’ roads we might have taken, or might yet take, and the kinds of choices we are faced with, as language educators, as we stand at the fork in the road. 

Over a century ago, Karl Breul emphatically stated that ‘Modern languages should not be taught in the same way as the ancient tongues.’ Sadly, the advice seems to have gone unheeded in many instances (TEFL is no exception!) and a truly communicative methodology is often sidelined by a focus on grammatical form and phonological accuracy. The excuse is sometimes offered that ‘Our language is different.’ While such a view must be respected, the fact is that all living languages share the same or similar contexts of social and embodied use: they are acquired as first languages under these conditions and – I argue – these are the necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for their learning as additional languages.

In 1991  John Sinclair wrote: “Learners would do well to learn the common words of the language very thoroughly, because they carry the main patterns of the language.”  What are these words? And what are these patterns? And how, as teachers, can we help reveal this ‘secret grammar’?

The separation between mind and body -- a fundamental 'truth' in modern Western thought -- is succumbing to a view that thinking, and hence learning, is 'embodied', i.e. that the mind extends beyond the grey matter of the brain, and is realised, at least in part, through gesture, movement, and physicality. What might this mean for (second) language learning? In this talk I review developments in this exciting new field, and (very tentatively) suggest some applications.

Towards an integrated curriculum: squaring the circle

Can you learn to speak without grammar? Can you learn grammar without speaking? Is there a special grammar of speech? What's the best way to learn speaking? In this workshop I address these questions and demonstrate ways that speaking and grammar can be integrated.

We can think of grammar as rules. Or we can think of it as a process – a process for shaping and refining meaning, where ‘the direction of processing is from lexis to grammar:  grammar emerges as a product of the learner’s choices’ (Batstone 1994). I will share with you some activities designed to activate grammar processing – or ‘grammaring’. You can easily adapt these to your own classes.

The persistence of grammar
Writing methodology texts: bridging the theory - practice gap
The road less travelled by

Ever since languages were first taught there has been a tension between conformity, on the one hand, and creativity, on the other. That is to say, learners need to conform to the systems of the language that they are learning – the grammar and phonology, etc; at the same time, they need to be able to use these systems as a resource to express original meanings: they need to be creative. In the end, these two strands – creativity and conformity – should be interwoven into the curriculum – whatever the language being taught. In this talk I demonstrate how.

Seven things beginning with A