A web site for the developing language teacher

April 2005 - issue 4/05


Welcome to the April Newsletter.

An interesting article about chidlren & synthetic phonics:

War of words

Learning to read happens like apparent magic for a few, needs effort from most, and is devilishly difficult for the unlucky minority. Reading schemes come and go but the thick tail of strugglers keeps wagging. Kids from disadvantaged homes fare badly and boys fare worst of all. The holy grail of reading would be to find something that would deal with all those problems and produce a nation of confident adults rather than one with 6 million functional illiterates.

There are many who will tell you that the grail has been found in Clackmannanshire. Three hundred Scottish children were taught to read over an intensive 16-week period as soon as they started school. Three different systems were used. One was a programme called synthetic phonics, which teaches children letter sounds and blends of letter sounds quickly so that they can begin to decode words from very early on.

To read the remainder of the article:,5500,1452044,00.html

This month three new article contributors join us on the site. Mark Lowe offers the first of three articles, this one about the 'Shibboleths of TEFL, or Sense and Nonsense in Language Teaching', Ron Sheen looks at the role of practice & Pierre Pinet looks at the younger learner & autonomy. Hope you find them all

More free Google GMail accounts to give away - if interested, get in touch.

Happy teaching.



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The Shibboleths of TEFL, or Sense and Nonsense in Language Teaching by Mark Lowe

A shibboleth is 'an old idea, principle or phrase, that is no longer accepted by many people as important or appropriate to modern life'. (Advanced Learners Dictionary). The discourse of Teaching English as a Foreign Language is riddled with shibboleths that distort our thinking and disrupt our teaching
methods. The aim of this paper is to expose the shibboleths, straighten out our thinking, and free our methods from obsolete and mischievous ideas.

Let us start with quotations from key language thinkers to provide some theoretical background - and ammunition - for the shibboleth hunt.

Wittgenstein (a key 20th century philosopher, and the pioneer of a philosophical view of language based on function and use rather than abstract system. He also pioneered the role of philosophy as 'language therapy', sorting out confusion in our thinking caused by muddles in language):

The meaning of a word is its use

Language is an instrument.

Speech... is part of the web of human life, interwoven with a multitude of acts, activities, reactions and responses

If a lion could talk, we would not understand him

Grammar is a free-floating array of rules for the use of language... It is not answerable to the nature of reality, to the structure of the mind or the 'laws of thought'. It is autonomous.

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language

Philosophy is a fight against the fascination which our forms of expression exert on us. We are struggling with language The aim of philosophy is to let the fly out of the bottle

Searle (a leading American contemporary philosopher of language, with special interests in speech acts, the social role of language, and the neuro-physiological foundations of language):

When we think about language, much of our vocabulary is obsolete and our assumptions are false.

Many of the currently fashionable views about language and the mind are inconsistent with what we know about the world.

Mental phenomena are caused by neuro-physiological processes in the brain.

In our skulls there is just the brain with all of its intricacy, and consciousness with all its colour and variety. The brain produces the conscious states that are occurring in you and me right now, and it has the capacity to produce many others that are not now occurring. But that is it. Where the mind is concerned, that is the end of the story. There are brute, blind neuro-physiological processes and there is consciousness, but there is nothing else. If we are looking for phenomena that are intrinsically intentional but inaccessible in principle to consciousness, there is nothing there: no rule following, no mental information processing, no unconscious inferences, no mental models... no language of thought, no LAD and no innate or universal grammar.

Halliday (leading applied linguist, a pioneer of functional language theory, and author of An Introduction to Functional Grammar, Learning How to Mean etc)

Language is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Language has evolved to satisfy human needs, and the way it is organized is functional with respect to those needs - it is not arbitrary. A functional grammar is essentially a natural grammar, in the sense that everything in it can be expressed ultimately by reference to how language is used.

The fundamental components of meaning in language are functional. All language is organized around two main kinds of meaning: (a) the ideational or reflective, and (b) the interpersonal or active. The first enables us to understand the environment, and the second to act on each other.

All the units of language - its clauses, phrases and words etc - are organic configurations of functions.

A language is interpreted as a system of meanings, accompanied by forms through which the meanings are realized.

Language is natural. It reflects experience, eg process = verb, and participant = noun.

Language is an evolved system, and not a designed one. There is congruence between language expressions and the facts in the world it reflects or relates to.

Linguistics is in the same condition today as Physics was in the 15th century

Let us summarise these ideas. The way of thinking about language that informs this article is based on insights from both philosophy and linguistics. It incorporates ideas from Searle's Theory of Mind, Halliday's functional linguistics, and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (which takes a basically functional view of language). It is critical of Chomskyan psycholinguistics and it follows Wittgenstein's own rejection of the ideas in his early Tractatus (which interpreted language as a logical system reflecting the 'logical' structure of reality). This view of language grounds our thinking in verified truth rather than in metaphysics, in science and not in myth.

So much for preliminaries. Now for the shibboleth hunt.

1. Acquisition and Learning

No word in our field is more laden with ideological baggage than acquisition. The definition of the word that has bewitched TEFL comes from Krashen and Dulay's Language Two, in which acquisition is sharply differentiated from learning. 'Acquisition' is said to take place in the intuitive right hemisphere of the brain, while 'learning' is said to take place in the analytic, language-controlling left side of the brain. 'Acquisition' activates the universal grammar hard-wired into the LAD (Language Acquisition Device) of the brain, while learning is an entirely separate process, unrelated to language acquisition. In other words, we pick up language unconsciously, while we study (or learn) language consciously. Acquisition is natural, while learning is unnatural.

All this is myth. There is no universal grammar, no LAD, no language hard-wired into the brain, no unconscious learning, and no 'acquisition' in the sense claimed by Krashen and his followers. Of course, we do pick up languages through use, through enjoying songs, through conversation, through reading books etc. However, the true explanation for this process is not Krashen's acquisition theory, but the normal process of learning and mastering new things. We learn what we are interested in and what matters to us, whether languages or music or how to play games or science or whatever. This 'picking up' is no different in principle from learning. We explore this idea in more detail later (see especially the section on Inductive and Deductive reasoning.

Halliday recommends that we drop the loaded terms 'acquisition' and 'learning' and adopt the neutral term 'language mastery' instead. Our profession would do well to follow this excellent and timely advice. A methodology based on the idea that language acquisition takes place through letting the intuitive right hemisphere of the brain do all the work is a mischievous illusion. 'Acquisition' in this sense is our first shibboleth.

2. Deep and Surface Structures

There are 'hard' and 'soft' versions of this theory. In the hard Chomskyan version, deep structures are hard-wired into the brain. They are manifestations of the universal grammar that is thought to be common to all mankind. They generate surface structures - a process that can be depicted through tree diagrams. Deep structures are still language structures - they are part of the whole system which makes language possible. The soft version, on the other hand, sees 'deep structures' as part of our general mental universe (ie including features other than language), rather like Freudian subconscious drives. For instance, the surface structure of Hamlet deals with power and jealousy, while the deep (and hidden) structure is concerned with the Oedipus complex (in one celebrated reading). The soft version sees so-called deep structure as psychological rather than linguistic. This is the version that electrified a million cocktail parties a generation ago. It is an interesting, useful and valid idea.

The thinking behind this paper leads us to the conclusion that whereas 'soft' deep structures are a valid concept, hard Chomskyan deep structures are chimeras. They are our second shibboleth.

To view the article

If, after having read the full article, you would like to respond to Mark's ideas, please post in the forums at this dedicated topic:


The role of practice in foreign and second language learning by Ron Sheen

Understanding the form-meaning relationships of a foreign language is necessary but not sufficient to enable learners to become both fluent and accurate speakers. This end can best be achieved by organising class exercises to provide learners with frequent practice in both understanding and producing the newly- learned forms. This article proposes a means of doing so.

A major influence in foreign and second language teaching since the 70s has been communicative language teaching (CLT). There have been a variety of exponents ranging from what is called strong CLT (SCLT) which discourages all grammar teaching to an approach which tries to combine CLT with traditional grammar instruction (Spada 1987). Nevertheless, the general perception of CLT in teachers' minds is one of an approach which gives priority to creating activities which encourage learners to communicate rather than to activities designed to enable students to produce language accurately - in other words, various versions of SCLT.

As with all innovations, SCLT being no exception, they bring with them assumptions about the nature of language learning. In the case of SCLT, several of these have sprung from the belief that there is a strong similarity between the acquisition of one's first language and the learning of a second language. I consider this an unsafe assumption to make. Unsafe, because it encourages teachers to adopt strategies compatible with that assumption but which have not proven to be the most effective option. In the 70s, for example, it was assumed that learners needed only to be exposed to vocabulary in context in order to acquire it - just as first language learners do. However, substantial research in the 80s and 90s demonstrated that this strategy needs to be complemented by the various traditional options such as paired word lists and the use of translation equivalents - providing that learners understand that though the L1 word and the L2 word may have equivalent meanings, they also have important differences.

Another false assumption of the 70s has continued to be accepted as valid even today. That is the assumption that teachers do not need to devote separate sessions to enable learners to practise using what grammar they have learned (Lightbown 2000). This anti-practice philosophy results largely from negative reaction to the stultifying rote repetition and memorisation of the audiolingual period of the 60s which ignored the necessity of understanding the meaning of what one is practising. However, just as this audiolingual approach was narrow and unjustifiably restrictive, the continuing rejection of the necessity for practice, ignores the fact that the learning of any skill (which is what language learning is) requires the acquisition of knowledge and practice in using it. (Ellis 2002)

To view the article


Young Learners : step by step on the road to autonomy Pierre Pinet

Foreign language learning has been part of the French primary syllabus for the last five years. All 8 to 11 year-olds are concerned, 80% of them choosing English. The Communicative Approach is adopted with an emphasis on oral skills.

Many teachers feel obliged to "flood" the classroom with speech and the result is learner confusion: too much can be counterproductive. A regular "dripping tap" together with a lot of feedback is more coherent in primary school life (two 45- minute periods a week): the clearer the signposts guiding the learner, the quicker he progresses on the road to autonomy.

The teacher needs to think long and hard about the progression of a lesson so that his learners feel comfortable and step from the easy to the difficult, from the known to the unknown. Out of respect for official recommendations, he should also keep in mind a few principles:

- teach communicative language to be used in a limited number of daily situations and use target language only in class.

- learning should be student-centred, make sense, lead to active participation, encourage interaction, develop mutual listening and aid.

- activities should be varied and link learning to doing, language to action.

- to help students learn, teachers should use a multi-sensorial approach: little by little students are led to recognize, understand and use target language.

- the teacher should consider himself as a facilitator, a mediator.

- to avoid cognitive overload, the contents should be introduced as gradually as possible with equal attention given to understanding and producing questions and answers.

To view the article


Thanks to Mark, Ron & Pierre



Workers Told 'No Smoking' lesson plan based on a Guardian article
about a company in the US that has prohibited the employees from
smoking at all times. For intermediate & up.

To view the plan


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ESL & Canada. Lots of resources.
Antagonym - 'This is a word I made up to describe a single word that has meanings that contradict each other. My derivation of the word antagonyms is described below. Example of an Antagonym: A current example would be "BAD". There is the normal meaning and the slang meaning of "good" (sometimes pronounced baad for emphasis). Although I prefer words in which the antithetical definitions are listed in common dictionaries, I will accept well-known slang examples.'
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Stories for youngsters.

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Some days to plan your lessons around in April:

1st - April Fool's Day - Lesson plan
2nd - International Children's Book Day
7th - World Health Day
14th - Anniversary of Titanic sinking
International Moment of Laughter Day
18th - Crossword Puzzle Day
22nd - Earth Day
23rd - St. George's Day - England
Carnival time
London Marathon

To see the list of Days
Some holiday origins.

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If you are teaching teenagers, you must check out the excellent 'Language Activities for Teenagers' by Seth Lindstromberg (CUP).

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Recent Tips have included:

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7. PS - Internet/computer-related links from

A few computer use rules of thumb:
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