The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

Today I want to publish my bold manifesto.

Today I want to publish my bold manifesto. I want this to be the Secret equivalent to Scott Thornbury’s 2001 Vow of Chastity. From this day forward, I want to have inspired debates where people rubbish me, build me up, knock me down. I want to be the catalyst for change. I want…I want…I want…how did that Rolling Stones  song go again?

So, what is my big manifesto? It is big. It is going to incorporate all of my resentment to published materials, teacher training, professional development, ELT, testing, IATEFL and you name it. It is going to provide the framework within which all ELT dichotomies can be resolved: techno or luddite; dogme or coursebook; grammar or no-grammar. And yet it is going to be quite simple. My one big idea (quite possibly thought of already by anybody with half a brain cell) is that ELT needs to focus more on knowledge and less on skills.

I can hear you groaning and recoiling in horror. Am I really urging a return to black-gowned teachers, stalking the corridors between rows of desks, lost in their own recitations of grammar rules? Not exactly. You see, I believe that it is possible to do dictoglosses, role plays, projects, games, songs,…in short, all that might be regarded as fun and yet, at the same time, be guided by the question: what will my students know at the end of today’s lesson that they didn’t know before? It strikes me that at the moment, the world of the ELT goldfish bowl is presided over by a rather muddle-headed wizard who encourages us to ask the question, What will our students be able to do at the end of the lesson that they couldn’t do before? And the problem with this is that, to me at least, it seems as if there are many more variables that need to be taken into account. Not least is the variable of context: when we say do what context are we talking about? I have been speaking my L2 for years. In some contexts I am bloody marvellous at it; in other contexts, it’s as if I have been whacked in a very tender spot just before I start speaking. To make matters even more confusing, there are some contexts in which I perform as if I have just been whacked in a very tender spot despite this typically being one of the contexts within which I perform bloody marvellously. And vice versa. And the problem with classrooms is that they tend to limit themselves to a pretty small handful of contexts.

No- join me in swearing allegiance to knowledge and embrace the argument that skills are just applied knowledge. We will take as our motto ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς – the Socratic affirmation that the unexamined life is not worth living. We examine our lives to gain knowledge about what we can and cannot do. Our quest, brothers and sisters, is k-n-o-w-l-e-d-g-e. Which is not to say that skills are consigned to the midden. The skills that somebody exhibits provide some insight into the knowledge that they have or that they have yet to have – and, as such, provide a more motivating method of evaluating the depth and extent of the knowledge of our students. Let us turn to that most illustrious footballer, Lionel Messi. I think we would be hard pushed to find, even in the changing rooms of Real Madrid, anyone who would deny the obvious footballing skills of this diminutive Argentine(an). Now, suppose we were to define what knowledge constitutes an advanced state of learning in the field of football.  Messi’s skills would allow us to assess the depth and extent of his knowledge: does he understand the offside rule? It would appear so. Does he understand that the ball is to be touched, for the most part, with his feet? One has to conclude that this does seem to be the case. Can one say with any degree of certainty that Messi realises that the objective of the game is to cause the ball to move to the other side of the line underneath the crossbar of one’s opponent’s goals? Yes. With some considerable degree of certainty we can make this assertion. In short, were Messi to take a footballing exam, he would rock da house.

But the argument is put forward by the Skills Camp that knowledge does not always transfer across into skillful practice. A student may well know the finer details about the form and function of the future perfect continuous passive but may be quite incapable of applying this knowledge in a meaningful and appropriate manner. This is usually the killer argument for abandoning all focus on teaching as the cultivation of knowledge and making it all about the cultivation of skills. And yet it is based, it would seem, upon a highly spurious definition of what is meant by knowledge. Is knowledge synonymous with awareness? Or is it more fairly synonymous with practical awareness? When we ask a child if they know what to do if a stranger approaches them and offers them a lift in the car, are we really just asking them if they are aware of the best course of action or are we checking that should such an event occur, they will act in the most prudent fashion?

The art, skill or science of teaching is knowing how to create knowledge in engaging ways that allow students to develop their own skill base. In the past, teaching was so primitive that there was a belief that knowledge was a commodity that the teacher had and that the learner did not. The teacher could impart knowledge by telling. The students would receive knowledge by learning: a simple enough transaction that required very little introspection. We seem to have progressed beyond this rather naïve epistemological fairy tale. We now know that knowledge is a social act and that it is constantly being created and re-created. We (think we) know that reflective practice is particularly good for cultivating knowledge. We (think we) know that dynamic activities allow it to burst forth. This manifesto calls for all of us to be imaginative in how we define knowledge, how we create the knowledge and how we assess the knowledge.

But aren’t I just promulgating another dichotomy? I don’t think so. I am not advocating abandoning skills – I am advocating abandoning our focus on skills and calling for it to be re-diverted towards knowledge. What follows is my limited imagination about how this might re-frame ELT (and the grounds for my list of wants that began this manifesto).

  1. A focus on knowledge requires teachers to ask themselves at the end of each class, What will my students know at the end of this class that they didn’t know at the beginning? Of course, this could quite validly be rephrased as What do my students know… or even What have my students told me that they know… This refocusing on knowledge rather than skills makes it a lot easier to come up with strategies for formative assessment. Formative assessment is one of the very few strategies that has been repeatedly shown to increase student learning.
  2. A focus on knowledge will frustrate any teacher who tries to do a listening. It will therefore encourage teachers to think more about the purpose of such activities. In my experience, teachers tend to turn to writing when talking about learning objectives and such things. This is because they feel that there is a body of knowledge that underpins good writing: we can analyse texts and make bold claims about how paragraphs should be structured around a main idea. Genre analysis allows us to make claims about how certain texts are most appropriately structured. But because we focus on skills, the body of knowledge that underwrites listening, reading and speaking is less clear. Meaning that teaching tends to be a polite way of saying forcing you to practise without any real input on how you can improve. Or, as I prefer to think of it, not really teaching at all.
  3. A focus on knowledge will pour oil on the troubled waters of dogme/coursebook/technophilia/technophobia. We don’t need to sweat the small stuff and these debates most certainly are the small stuff. Research by Hattie concludes that “When teachers claim that they are having a positive effect on achievement, or when it is claimed that a policy improves achievement, it is a trivial claim because virtually everything [95%+] works” (Hattie, 2012). It’s what you do and not the way that you do it that we need to be exploring with so much fervour.
  4. A focus on knowledge would force (…should force) a change in coursebook content. I have two well-known coursebooks in front of me that are pitched at Intermediate level. I have turned to the contents page and will list the contents of the reading skill: read about basic emotions, read about a BBC programme, read about the best way to give bad news, time-saving tips: lists. The activities associated with these reading exercises are pretty uniform: some sort of personalisation activity, some sort of comprehension activity, some sort of vocabulary expansion activity and some sort of grammar-focussing activity. A knowledge focus would not allow this kind of drivel to see the light of day. It would force the publishers to commission texts that could be exploited to develop students’ knowledge about genres, textual development, etc.
  5. A focus on knowledge will require teacher training to be re-thought. What passes for much ELT teacher training is, quite frankly, lamentable. It is largely based around teaching teachers about grammar, pronunciation etc. This would appear, on the surface, to make sense. After all, if you don’t know your subject, you are unlikely to be able to teach it. Yet this rather intuitive assumption is, rather counter-intuitively, not borne out by research. Garet (2008) found that developing teachers’ knowledge about evidence-based approaches to developing reading skills did not have any noticeable effect on student performance. Rather than focussing on subject knowledge, the manifesto calls for teachers to be taught why certain knowledge is valued over other types of knowledge, techniques for imparting this knowledge and for measuring the uptake of this knowledge. Put in a less smarmy manner, trainee teachers would be taught about teaching and the assessment of learning.
  6. A focus on knowledge will require assessment to take on a much more predominant role in what we do. Skills-focussed teaching provides a get-out clause because who’s to say when the skill will be acquired? Who’s to say, indeed, what the skill actually consists of? Does the skill of reading come about through reading magazine-style texts? Does the skill of listening emerge somehow from “listen[ing] to a radio programme about therapies”?  We are allowed to assume that these activities are somehow legitimate because we are focussed on skills. But what knowledge is the learner expected to learn from the experience? How can we know if they have learned it? How will we know how well they have learned it? These are all questions that must be answered if our focus is on knowledge. To be able to answer them, we need to know about assessment strategies.  Research suggests that the amount and quality of formative assessment is a particularly strong predictor of student success. Skills-based teaching –which seems better placed to encourage the mindless and blind pursuit of opportunities for practice- does not encourage the accumulation, assimilation and application of knowledge and does not, therefore, lend itself so easily to meaningful and purposeful formative assessment.

Mick n Keef told us that if we can’t always get what you want, we should try some time. We just might find we get what we need. Do we need more focus on knowledge? I’d love to know what you think.


30 Apr 2013 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. OK, I go along with a great deal of your criticism of the way skills are often dealt with in classrooms (partly as a result of how they are dealt with in coursebooks, but let’s stop bashing poor old coursebooks because that’s less the issue here than the whole paradigm we are in, of which coursebooks are only one – admittedly very influential – manifestation).

    But I’m not sure I understand what you mean by knowledge. You re-construe it as ‘practical awareness’. Is this something like ‘knowing the facts and how to apply them’? If so, what is the practical awareness of knowing that the third person -s inflects the present simple with he/she/it etc? Knowing how to apply it, presumably. But under what conditions? A gap-fill? Fluent talk? Consistently? Accurately pronounced?

    To be able to assess this knowledge (and to be able to quantify the net knowledge gains in my lesson) I need answers to these questions. And because the answers will need to identify a degree of skilfulness in the application of this otherwise inert knowledge, how can we not, in the end, be assessing (and therefore teaching, facilitating, what have you) skills?

    Put another way, isn’t the distinction between ‘knowledge as facts’ and knowledge as ‘practical awareness’ really the distinction between declarative knowledge (‘knowing that’) and procedural knowledge (‘knowing how’)? And hasn’t methodology always recognized that procedural knowledge is (best? only?) developed through use?

    So, if you are simply saying that we need to reconfigure teaching (and syllabi and coursebooks and exams, the whole kerboodle) in terms of procedural knowledge, I’m not sure that you’re saying anything that the advocates of a communicative approach didn’t say 40 years ago. I.e. knowledge needs to be proceduralised, and the best (only?) way of doing this is through use. Just for good measure, here’s one of those advocates:

    Developments in second language acquisition research make it difficult to see the learning even of foreign languages as distinct from the process of language use: learning is using and using is learning. (…) Of course, there are also formal activities associated with the learning – people learn vocabulary lists off by heart more than is commonly acknowledged – but these activities are preliminary to the language learning process itself, for only when the language items are fused into active meaning systems by the process of use, is the language system developing for the learner’s own purposes. We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing.

    (Individual Freedom In Language Teaching by Christopher Brumfit, O.U.P. 2001)


    Comment by Scott Thornbury | 02 May 2013 | Reply

    • You honour me with your presence, Sir. But you ask a lot of questions. If you permit me to cherry-pick…

      I confuse you with what I mean by “knowledge”. This is unsurprising because I have still to determine what I mean by the term itself. Like Morrissey I oscillate wildly. It is either the same as skills or different from skills. Perhaps somewhere in between and perhaps it all depends. I think it is more than “knowing how” and “knowing that”. I think it might be “knowing how to and, as a consequence, doing”. As you point out, this kind of discussion was being had around 40 years ago…Paolo Freire talked about praxis which took the word and the action and fused them together. Maybe this is what I mean by knowledge.

      If procedural knowledge is best achieved through doing, what does this mean for teachers? I think it means that more attention needs to be given to how we assess learning. What needs to be learned? What is being learned? How do we know? What should we do as a result of what we discover? Will it stay learned? Will new knowledge be transferable to other situations?

      Perhaps I am railing against the rot that has set in around the concepts of the communicative approach? I feel that I am working in an environment where there is too much focus on what people are doing with their students and not enough thought about why they might be doing it or how they will know if it’s [been] any use. Perhaps Brumfit’s quote concerns itself more with learning whereas I am becoming more concerned with teaching?

      But these are early days…like most political parties, I have published my manifesto in a rush and before my thoughts have fully set. But your contribution pushes me closer towards reading Michael Polanyi on knowledge and learning; closer towards reading more about Michel Thomas. I feel that there is more to this than simply regurgitating the communicative approach; more to this than just procedural awareness. But how will I know?!?!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 02 May 2013 | Reply

  2. In the world of Scottish qualifications, which I find myself inhabiting, knowledge and skills go hand in hand. They are seen as different things, but every unit (or qualification) has a list of knowledge and skills that students are expected to gain while doing the course. These are then used in course design to devise a set of performance criteria which evidence acquisition of the knowledge and skills. Assessments are then designed to allow students to demonstrate that they have met the performance criteria.
    I’m not quite sure why I’m telling you this, other than to say that knowledge and skills are interdependent. There’s no point in knowing stuff if you can’t do anything with it, and you can’t do stuff without knowing it.

    Comment by stevebrown70 | 02 May 2013 | Reply

    • Couldn’t agree more, Steve. The question preying on my mind is where the focus might be better placed. I feel that there’s too much emphasis on “skills” and not enough emphasis on “knowledge”. We can teach knowledge, but only students can develop skills. In a world where knowledge was the target, would we still “teach” reading? Would we still “do” listening?

      Comment by Ann O'Nymous | 02 May 2013 | Reply

  3. When I first read your post, I wondered if you were trying to find a way to make language learning and/or teaching conveniently assessable from a management, need-to-be-able-to-tick-boxes point of view. I knew I had to be missing something.

    Rereading your post in light of your reply to Scott, I realise that’s probably not what you are doing.

    I agree that there are “many more variables that need to be taken into account” and that using language effectively requires more than skills, and that a fuller picture of what needs to be learned would include knowledge and understanding.

    In the Adult Literacies part of my world, reading, writing and using numbers are viewed as complex capabilities involving knowledge, skills and understanding (as briefly overviewed here: ). It is useful to think about what is involved in using a language in real contexts for real purposes (with the classroom being one of those real contexts where people use language for real purposes.)

    As Steve says, knowledge and skills are interdependent and I think it might be risky to focus more on knowledge than skill. I do believe that we learn to do by doing and that opportunities to speak, read, write, and listen are very important. In some ELT contexts, knowledge is perhaps given too much emphasis and skills aren’t developed enough. Or perhaps that’s what you’re getting at? That sometimes people ‘do’ listenings without actually developing the skill of listening because of lack of input about how to improve, knowledge of what listening entails, etc?

    So while I’m not sure about the greater focus on knowledge, I do agree with a lot of what you’ve written here. In particular, that we should try to provide input on how to improve, that there is not one way to learn a language, and that we need to know why we are doing an activity with learners.

    I’m intrigued by how a greater focus on knowledge will affect assessment – what is available to be assessed or how we assess – and I’ll look forward to reading more about it as your manifesto develops.

    Comment by Carol Goodey | 02 May 2013 | Reply

    • The cynicism of the teacher! No – I am most definitely not trying to find a way to make learning conveniently assessable from a management point of view – more from a teacher’s point of view. I am impressed with the way things seem to be done in Scotland (again) – not just the existence of the document, but the existence of two people who can refer to the concepts contained within the document!

      I was interested in how the webpage you referrd me to sought to tease apart knowledge and skills and understanding. I am going to have to give far more time to this over the weekend. But this conversation sees me drifting towards the Freirean concept of praxis – almost saying that the dichotomy is a false one and that they are both the same thing. Not just interdependent, but a unitary package.

      As I wrote, I think my concern is what knowledge-focussed teaching will look like rather than knowledge-focussed learning. Today I am planning on going into my class with a short text – I wanted to focus on the skill of reading, but realise that I have no idea on what this means when working with highly literate young people. I also wanted to branch off into the area of listening, but the same problem assails me. If the focus of my lesson is listening, I am stumped by the question, What will the learners know at the end of the lesson that they didn’t know at the beginning?. In my defence, it is a class that I am covering and I have never taught them before. But the usual teacher has not said to me anything like, Could you go in there and teach them how a text (inevitably from the popular magazine genre) develops and how to look for organisational patterns over the space of the article?. Might this be what is meant by teaching reading? I can understand how our cultures will have different genres and different expectations of a text – but this highlights the utter inadequacy of course books which, in order to peddle texts that are of an appropriate length, tend to limit themselves to the same type(s) of genre.

      As for listening, what is that skill made of? Is it just phonetics and teaching people ways of asking for clarification (something I have always struggled to do)? How do we teach it? Surely the answer must be more than we learn by doing? If this is the case and we are told that error correction is of next to no use, then what does a teacher do? Is a language teacher just an actor employed to stand on the stage and give validity to the proceedings? Are we just psychological crutches for the needy?

      Why aren’t we all clamouring for better stage directions?! Am I the only one who struggles (some 20 years into this profession) with the concept of teaching reading and listening? HEEEEELLLLLLPPPPP!!!! [I may need to reevaluate my lesson plan for today…damn you, existential angst, damn you].

      Comment by thesecretdos | 03 May 2013 | Reply

      • First of all, you are not alone in struggling with the concept of teaching of reading and listening as they are traditionally done and I agree that we, as people working to help people learn language, need to know and understand more about what people do in learning to read successfully in a second language. Part of our role is helping learners be aware of their learning and language using processes. Adrian Underhill suggests we ask learners “what did you do to do that?” or, we could ask “what prevented you from being able to do that?” When I’ve asked learners this about difficult reading texts, it’s most often knowledge of vocabulary or syntax. I’m not at all comfortable with the advice to guess from context when the context also requires a lot of guessing. Or, that they don’t need to understand everything as long as they can answer the questions. This might be a useful and necessary exam strategy but has to be very frustrating. We need to find out what they still need to be able to do to be able to read successfully in a second language and this may be different for each learner.

        Secondly, although I’ve said my comment that we learn to do by doing, I agree that the answer must be more than we learn by doing. Or at least that it’s probably not that straightforward. I wonder if the problem might be the division of language into the four skills with the expectation that you learn speaking by speaking, reading by reading, etc. We can develop writing skills through reading and speaking skills through reading or listening. As we read or listen we come to ‘know’ more about the language. (Ahh! I see what you’re saying now! 😉 ) We learn more about the language when a teacher shows us different ways to say things or clarifies how language is organised in sentences or texts to create meaning and to achieve particular purposes.

        Hmm! There might be something in this bold manifesto after all!

        We perhaps don’t need to set out at the beginning of a session what the learners will know at the end that they didn’t before, but should record – and encourage learners to record – any gains in knowledge that have happened and reflect on how this new knowledge will help them do things and use language in ways that are relevant to them!

        Comment by Carol Goodey | 03 May 2013

      • YES! to all of this. Dylan Wiliam says much the same in his book about Embedding formative assessment. He writes about how being too specific about learning objectives at the start of the class might actually impede learning.

        I have a cancerous little thought developing that teaching language really boils down to teaching grammatical and lexical patterns y nada mas. Wiliam talks about how the job of the teacher is to create effective learning environments – this is presumably done by giving students opportunities to do things. We can then exploit those things for language instruction- teaching grammar and lexis. My discomfort comes from the realisation that this is precisely what all of those execrable course books do!

        So far, today’s lesson plan has gone the way of the flesh. I am now looking at re-hashing a list of vocabulary into a meld of Blockbusters, Family Fortunes and Catchphrase which I will then follow up with a run-around activity that requires the bastardisation of some FCE sentence transformations. These will have the advantage of allowing me to see concrete things that the learners do not know. I can then use this to plot my next bit of teaching. At the end of the class, I will ask the students to tell me at least one thing new that they learnt and at least one thing that they want to learn more about.

        Comment by thesecretdos | 03 May 2013

  4. Some random ramblings, sorry:

    I think I agree with pretty much everything that everyone has said here – it seems to me that yes there has been too much of a drift towards the deployment of a skill, rather than the practical application of knowledge, and I think that for me the one of the important (and perhaps neglected) roles of skills development is moving language from conscious knowing to unconscious doing.

    I would also agree that actually what we consider to be skills are indeed the application of knowledge – the top-down bottom-up distinction, for example, is all about the application of knowledge to make sense of spoken/written texts (but a distinction which seems to come up rarely in early teacher training courses). Arguably skills are *only* about the practical application of knowledge in order to comprehend or create a text. It’s certainly a dichotomy which is promulgated by CELTA and by the curriculum documents in the context I work (ESOL in the UK – you can read it here, it’s fascinating…ish. where everything is primarily about skills (in a first language literacy sense) and secondarily about language awareness. The ESOL Core Curriculum for England & Wales is essentially literacy skills standards which have been shoehorned into an ESOL context.

    One more reflection/comment, which you do cover yourself: If you want an answer to “What will my students know at the end of this class that they didn’t know at the beginning?” then you need measurable evidence. Which means demonstrating it somehow, and this is most likely to be through a skills activity? Writing a word in a gap is a skill.

    Another point here is the use of the future tense in your question. Does a focus on knowledge mean that this knowledge must be dictated in advance? For me language knowledge/awareness can be equally laid out in advance, discovered en route, or identified and reflected upon after the fact. It’s just a thought, really, rather than a criticism.

    Sorry if this is a bit confused/repetitive, but it is a bit of an unformed, unplanned and unrevised reflection. But I did enjoy the post though.

    Comment by samuelshep | 03 May 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks for joining in Sam. The Wiliam book I’m reading looks at strategies for embedding testing into the classroom to take measure of what has and/or hasn’t been learned. So far he’s prohibited hands going up unless students want to ASK a question; mandated that classroom participation is not optional; talked about a great strategy called ask-pause-pounce-bounce; criminalised the words I don’t know and introduced strategies for randomising the students you pick on. It’s a pretty great book! I anticipate many more pearls and will retweet as I find them, but the easiest option, it seems to me, is to ask students what they learned and what they would like to learn more about in the next class. The teacher then becomes more of a quality assurance agent, making sure that whatever happens, the general direction is onward and upward. It is THIS that I think has become smothered by the Skills-beast.

      Where I work, one class have gone out to a museum, another for a coffee, another to ask questions in the street. If you ask the teachers why, they are likely to cite fun (a valid objective from time to time) and, if pushed, will say that they are “doing” some aspect from the past or that they are “doing” people’s attitudes to horoscopes. Great! WHY??? It’s not a history class; we’re not a sociology department or an anthropology department. Yeah, but we learn by doing! they might tell me. Learn WHAT, exactly? is the question that I really want to have answered.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 03 May 2013 | Reply

  5. I am slightly alarmed by your use of terms like ‘quality assurance agent’ (with respect to teachers), and the assertion (or was it an implication?) in your original post that only knowledge (read: facts) is testable. This seems to echo the current neoliberal obsession with accountability, with positivism, and with outcomes. I can’t believe a card- carrying old leftie like yourself should be going down this route. Please persuade me I am wrong!

    Comment by Scott Thornbury | 03 May 2013 | Reply

    • Well, with the passing of one great Dame…

      The beauty of implications is that they are only a hair’s breadth away from inferences. I don’t think that I believe that only knowledge is testable, but I do think that knowledge is more instantly obvious to the observer. And as teaching seems to be about inching more closely towards a better state, this is surely not undesirable? Akin to the revolutionary noticing that the conditions are now right for hanging around outside Tube stations with a bundle of newspapers to sell to the commuters. I think that I am making you nervous because I am not stressing clearly enough that I am talking about formative assessment – summative assessment is an unavoidable evil for now, but the kind of testing that I am talking about may be synonymous with checking.

      Similarly, the quality assurance that I am talking about need not carry a clipboard and a cruel eye. It is the quality assurance of the craftsperson who looks to see how things are turning out and makes the required adjustments to ensure that the finished product is not an abomination. Away from metaphors this would presumably go along the lines of, “So, write up a short summary of what you just heard. Try to use some of the language on the IWB wherever you can.” The teacher would then look over this to make sure that the language being used was being used correctly and, if so, would make a note to think of how this language might be extrapolated into a different context on a later occasion. They might see that the language was NOT being used correctly, in which case they would make a note of the type of errors that were coming up and would look to re-engineer accordingly.

      Does that ease the sweats?

      Comment by thesecretdos | 03 May 2013 | Reply

    • Positivism was surely always the left’s domain, no? I’m not entirely sure why positivism seems, to you, to be a dirty word?

      Comment by Ebefl | 05 May 2013 | Reply

  6. Hmmm. You seem to be digging yourself in even deeper.

    ‘The teacher would then look over this to make sure that the language being used was being used correctly …’ Correctly? According to whose standards? To what ends? What message is projected to the learner if only the chimera of ‘correctness’ is valued?

    It gets worse:

    ‘ which case they would make a note of the type of errors that were coming up and would look to re-engineer accordingly.’

    Errors? Who decides what is an error? What failure in the knowledge base does the error index? Will correcting it make a difference? And what is this metaphor of ‘engineering’? Since when was language use subject to production-line, mechanical interventions? Is the teacher a mere technician, adjusting learner output with a normative spanner?

    Concerned, of Barcelona.

    Comment by Scott Thornbury | 03 May 2013 | Reply

    • Well. I tried to make it better! I agree that correct was not the best choice word. I think I probably meant appropriate. And for error, it may be better to substitute inappropriate. As for whose standards and whose criteria, dare I say the teacher’s? We must be good for something other than just setting up activities and watching them unfold. This isn’t to exclude anyone else: I’m not suggesting that if a classmate pulls a face and says, “WHAT?!?!” , the teacher intervenes to say, “OI!! That’s my job!”

      I think that all I am trying to suggest is that the teacher sets up the students with an activity that will require them to do something with the language. The teacher will then observe and identify the kind of language that the students are using. If the teacher sees that the students are using inappropriate language, they will look to see what they [the teacher] can learn from these inappropriacies and they will use this knowledge to inform their future teaching.

      On Friday, we listened to a challenging voice mail that a student had received. We used Soundcloud to listen and listen again. We transcribed the phone call. The students asked about features of the transcribed text; I asked them about features that i thought were interesting. They wrote some sentences using this language. It wasn’t obvious that they had understood what I had tried to explain to them. So, I glossed the meaning of what they had written and warned them about the possible misunderstandings that might arise.

      We moved on.

      The metaphor of engineering seems appropriate given the metaphor of language as a tool. And the world of tool production and tool use is thankfully not quite yet the sole preserve of the factories, the production lines and alienated labour. As I wrote earlier, the image I have is more like the artisan who looks, observes and smooths out the imperfections. The teacher looks at the product of her teaching and adjusts accordingly. If not this, then what?

      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 May 2013 | Reply

    • I’m worried we seem to be slipping into the relativist mire here. Worse than neoliberal positivism is surely misguided post-modernism. There is no truth only your truth and my truth, there are no mistakes only different version of ‘right’ etc etc.

      Comment by Ebefl | 05 May 2013 | Reply

  7. Interesting discussion so thanks to all concerned.

    It seems to me, this is a reaction to the nonsense about receptive skills that has been doing the rounds for many years, with plenty of materials certainly practising, say, listening, but without any discernible focus on developing any tangible ‘sub-skills’ or strategies to speak of. Often language ‘knowledge’ is then taught in the context of the text, for example exploiting texts for collocations. While this approach may have its plus points it does lead to the division of what this blog refers to as ‘knowledge’ and skills.

    In John Field’s work on process listening, this division is dissolved. The subskills and strategies employed in listening really involve decoding bits of language bottom-up, paying attention to the cues you can hear and not worrying about those you can’t, rather than expecting to hear every word, however weak, reduced or completely elided. For instance, focusing on the main verb ending difference in ‘I could have gone’ v ‘I could go’, as the ‘have’ auxiliary may virtually disappear in connected speech. Similarly, there may be no difference between ‘I finished’ and ‘I’ve finished’ so more attention to other co-text and context will be required. As a result of all this, ‘skills’ development necessarily involves attending to language systems of grammar, lexis, phonology and discourse.

    So, while I agree with the rejection of certain descriptions of subskills, e.g. the ones that often lead trainees instructing students ‘not to read every word’ (!), I also dismiss the rejection of the training of skills and strategies that are inextricably linked from ‘knowledge’ of language systems and as such are extremely valuable.

    Comment by Chris Bunyan | 04 May 2013 | Reply

    • Yes Chris, I think I’m with you here. It’s not so much that we need to focus on knowledge, it’s that we need to teach skills properly. Having said that, if knowledge and skills are inextricably linked (which I think they are) then perhaps the problem is that when we focus on skills we seem to forget about the knowledge part. This whole weird thing that we train people to do at CELTA level, where trainees either teach “a language lesson” or “a skills lesson”, has to stop. These “skills lessons” only practice skills, with no focus on development whatsoever. More of the pre-, mid- and post- task reflection stuff that Underhill describes (see Carol’s comment above) would be helpful. This helps to make students aware of what they are actually doing, and this heightened awareness of how well (or badly) they spoke/wrote/understood gives learners something to improve on next time.

      Comment by stevebrown70Steve Brown | 05 May 2013 | Reply

      • Again, I think I am in complete agreement with you, Steve! My only concern with Underhill’s stuff (and with some of the stuff that I have recently been saying too) is that self-reports are notoriously unreliable. When students are asked to report back on what they are actually doing, what they often end up doing, in my experience, is reporting back on what they think teachers are looking to hear. Have youe ver seen those (usually dreadfully produced) posters that teachers put up in class with “How to improve my XXX”? Students generally are asked to write these posters near the start of their course and they are supposed to serve as a permanent reminder of what options the student has for improving listening or reading etc.

        NEVER have I seen anything particularly thought-provoking in these posters. It may be that language learning is rather straightforward and that there is nothing new under the sun. But there is a huge lack of connect between what these posters actually say and what students actually do. Making me think that students are aware of what teachers want to hear and are quite happy to regurgitate it whenever asked.

        This “manifesto” (I feel self-consciously pompous in referring to it as such any more)is saying to teachers, “LOOK! We pay you money to think beyond these tired old recommendations and this discredited -and discrediting- practices. Start thinking about the rationale for what you are doing in class and start looking for evidence that what you are doing is having some respectable returns. When you go into class, don’t content yourself with the assumption that because students were engaged in an activity they automatically learned something. Start looking for evidence of what they actually learned or didn’t learn and then use this knowledge to shape how your teaching continues.”

        As teachers, our primary responsibility is to teach; leave the learning to the learners and let the psychologists and the philosophers battle to see how -or whether- we can witness learning taking place. But our practice is a social one and -I am beginning to think- one that is more tangible than learning. Scott is right to suggest that I may have strolled too far down the path of free-market ideology – but there is something here, I think, that transcends political theory: if we are asking students to pay us often inordinately large sums of money, we need to be able to assure ourselves and others, that we are not peddling some new age bullshit.

        Comment by thesecretdos | 06 May 2013

      • I certainly found something resonant in Demand High, but found it still underdeveloped in certain regards as a concept/meme etc. this isn’t intended to be dismissive. It is more than likely that my reading about DH lead to my growing dissatisfaction with the current state of play.

        I think DH would benefit greatly from recorded examples made available and a compendium of activities that teachers can (re-)integrate into their daily practice. These could well be structured around a division of skills. If they were preceded by a short discussion of WHY the activities were used, it would also help.

        In spite of incurring Scott’s disapprobation, I do feel that teachers should be held accountable – not for their learners’ learning but for their own teaching. Of course, part of teaching includes -doesn’t it?- holding learners accountable for their own learning. We need to be able to give a good account of what we do if we are to be able to give a good summary of the effectiveness of our learning and teaching.

        Comment by thesecretdos | 06 May 2013

      • Am following this discussion with interest – at ESOL Nexus, we’ve tried to look at some of Field’s ideas in the Dictation resources here: – they seem to be skills that should be considered more – if we want to try to break down and improve learners listening skills…

        Comment by Phil | 22 May 2013

    • Thanks for this, Chris. I will look out John Fields’s work and see if that helps me feel a little happier with myself. To be clear, I am not rejecting anything that might be extremely valuable – far from it! As long as the value is clear and evidence-based, then it is all the more welcome.

      What I am suggesting is that there is an awful lot of practice in the places where I have worked that is based upon teachers doing things with students that don’t seem to be particularly focussed on any learning other than that which might possibly emerge. Even this is not a big problem for me as long as there are explorations of what was learned or has been learned. The problem is when you go into a class to “do” a listening, for example; you do a pre-listening discussion that is supposedly designed to activate schemata; you press play on whatever device you are using; you ask students some comprehension questions; you give them some sort of post-listening activity to do; then you move on to reading.

      At this stage, were I a learner, I might begin to wonder why I had just forked out £Xk for my studies.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 06 May 2013 | Reply

  8. Enjoyed this! Some good references in there. It’s amusing and shows how odd the elt world has become that saying “we should teach our students something” can be considered controversial. Haha. I like your focus on assessment too, I don’t know why so many teachers are rabidly anti-assessment, as if it were the work of the devil. Is it a left wing reflex?

    There is a swan article you should read (sorry cant remember the name) which touches on similar themes. To paraphrase ‘doing something with language is not the same as teaching language.’ – so getting students to make a podcast or do a student magazine might be enjoyable, students aren’t necessarily learning anything.

    Sign me up!

    Comment by Ebefl | 05 May 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks, EBEFL. It is odd, isn’t it? I can see why friends and acquaintances cannot be expected to engage in assessment, but if I was a fee-paying student, I would expect more from my teacher than just a partner for small talk. I would certainly expect regular feedback on my progress from my teacher and I would want that feedback to be as clear and unambiguous as possible.

      Phil Beadle suggests that “fun” activities might actively conspire against learning: students focus so much on having fun, that they are blinded to the actual learning objective of the activity that they are told to engage in (by their conversational chum).

      What I would hope could emerge from this declaration of sorts, is a more defined distinction between what we can expect from students’ learning and what everyone has a right to expect from our practice as teachers. Sometimes it seems to me as if the murky psychological waters of learning are being used as an excuse to free us from any hard and fast responsibilities as teachers.

      It might be that idle chit chat or frequent “lessons” in coffee shops are more conducive to learning than detailed text analysis or more structured approaches to listening. But in the absence of any evidence for such claims, they appear as ideological propositions more than anything else.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 06 May 2013 | Reply

  9. Congratulations on an excellent attempt to articulate your views; the post makes very interesting reading. I think I like your manifesto more than Scott’s. Your insistence that, in the end, we’re dealing with knowledge, without getting into debates about what kind of knowledge (although I’m very tempted to have a go at the hallowed “procedural versus declarative” dichotomy) seems absolutely right to me. There are, of course, as all the replies suggest, lots of debateable issues involved here, but the essential very coherent and cohesive argument you offer gets my vote. Sign me up!

    Comment by geoffjordan | 06 May 2013 | Reply

  10. One of the most interesting blog discussions I’ve read.

    The distinction between procedural and declarative knowledge in SLA seems to me very important, Lots has been said above about all this, and it’s neither an easy dichotomy, nor one that researchers are in agreement about. But, of course, it’s all knowledge, and I think the underlying argument of this manifesto is splendid, and one that I fully endorse. I particularly like the way it sorts out the major problems from the minor ones; I particularly support its view that “formative assessment is one of the very few strategies that has been repeatedly shown to increase student learning”; and I agree 100% with the views expressed in Points 4 and 5.

    Comment by geoffjordan | 03 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Thank you for your ringing endorsement, Geoff. Coming from someone whose blog I find fascinating, it is particularly welcome. I agree with you that the distinction between procedural knowledge (I know how to…) and declarative knowledge I know about… is crucial. Language teaching, I am telling myself these days, is largely concerned with providing students with a critical mass of declarative knowledge and the opportunities to turn it into procedural knowledge. The skills focus, it seems to me, is happy to bypass the declarative knowledge and focus entirely on the procedural.

      For many years I equated learning a language with learning to drive – both are skills which improve with time and experience. Neither of them can be learnt in any meaningful manner if the focus is on declarative knowledge. Both require the learner to get out there and do and both of them facilitate this action-based approach by placing a knowledgeable expert at the side for safety’s sake.

      Now, I am not so sure. Perhaps, and I have more hedges here than Hampton Court Maze, language learning is more comparable with piano-learning. Unlike learning how to drive, it is far less likely that I will emerge to write a sonata just by daily sitting down in front of the ivories (not to say that my sonata composition has been aided by the acquisition of my driving licence…a clumsily phrased sentence). Learning how to drive is really a matter of learning how to mindlessly crunch through some fairly basic machine-controlling techniques while being attuned to rapidly-developing changes in one’s environment. Piano playing, on the other hand, is largely a series of riffs on some basic scales. The more attuned you are to the scales, the bolder the riffs.

      Might the lexical chunks not be the scales we should be riffing off? If so, all that we need is some guidance from the lexicographers and the linguists about how to select the most productive scales.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

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