Speaking Games shortlisted for ESU Duke of Edinburgh award

1cover_speaking_gamesI’m proud to announce that my book Speaking Games (2014, Delta Publishing) has been shortlisted for the English Speaking Union Duke of Edinburgh Award for Resources for Teachers, one of four titles in its category. This prestigious award celebrates innovation and good practice in English language teaching. This year the judges were looking in particular for materials that focussed on oracy skills, something that I hope Speaking Games does pretty well!

In its category it’s up against two other titles from Delta Publishing and one from Cambridge University Press. After winning an ELTON in June this year for another of my books ‘Teaching English in Africa’, it would be rather greedy of me to hope to win again, but it’s very nice to be shortlisted nonetheless!

My passion for games and play, as expressed through the book, was the subject of this webinar for Delta Publishing ‘Speaking Games: Learning to Play’, and this article for English Teaching Professional.

Anybody interested in the book, sample pages can be downloaded from the Delta Publishing website here. It can be bought on Amazon here. My short YouTube introduction to the book is here.

Many thanks to all that worked on or helped with the title, and thanks to the many positive reviews it has received so far. See here for the review in English Teaching Professional and here for the IATEFL Voices review.

A fundamental dichotomy in ELT methodology: A response to Pang (forthcoming)

Now available in Advance Access in ELT Journal.plan

May Pang recently wrote an interesting critique of my 2015 ELT Journal article ‘Affordance, learning opportunities and the lesson plan pro forma’. Pang’s piece in the current ELT Journal (‘Companion guides for lesson planning: a planning template and the lesson plan pro forma’) follows her earlier article (in TESOL quarterly), essentially arguing for an outcomes-based approach to lesson planning – something that I think makes sense especially in initial teacher education. However, I think she somewhat misreads my 2015 article, perhaps unaware that my aim was to promote a lesson plan pro forma that is, as I then put it, ‘…potentially compatible with product, process and procedural approaches to syllabus design’ (Anderson 2015: 228).

Thus I wrote a short Reader’s Respond piece to defend my original article, where I also identify what I perceive to be a fundamental dichotomy within the planning debate in (E)LT, drawing on Alan Water’s (2012) seminal piece on this ‘Trends and issues in ELT methods and methodology’. If anyone is interested in reading my response to Pang, there’s a click-through link to the PDF version on the ‘Articles and talks’ page of my website. It is, I believe, currently due for publication in ELT Journal 71/1 (January-ish). Feedback, comments and opinions are always welcome.

The most important animal in the world

Regular readers of my blog (both of them) will probably know a little about my interest in nature. Occasionally I find opportunities to bring this together with my passion for creating teaching materials. My Delta Download for this month, produced for Delta Publishing is an interesting jigsaw reading activity on what might just be the most important animal in the world. Any guesses?

Here’s a picture to provide a clue – Can you identify it? Why might it be so important?


Click here for access to the download itself. There are full Teacher’s Notes to help you. Let me know how you get on with it in class – it should be fun!

See here for more Delta Downloads, although the Brexit debate one now seems somewhat out of date!  :(

1-minute survey: CPD support on using the mother tongue to teach English

DSC_0002In preparation for a plenary talk I am giving at the Pharos University International ELT Symposium in Alexandria, Egypt on 3rd September, I’m doing a very quick (4-question) survey on support that teachers receive on the issue of L1 / mother tongue use in the classroom. It should only take 1 minute to complete.

To be eligible to take the survey, you should currently be teaching learners with whom you share a common language (see 1st question). Many thanks!

The slides and resources from the symposium will be available on 3rd September from my website: www.jasonanderson.org.uk


The PPP saga ends

Having become known as ‘Mr PPP’ to some of my acquaintances, it is with mixed emotions that I finally conclude my work on this paradigm. I was never the world’s biggest fan, but given the shared mythology that has been disseminated within the TEFL community on PPP, I felt the research warranted, and it was.

ppp monster

Just over 1 year of research, a lot of reading, countless discussions, 2 talks, 2 papers,and numerous lines of enquiry have helped me in my quest to confirm its originator and origin, Donn Byrne and Teaching Oral English (1976) respectively. I can also confirm its ingenious predecessor (Dakin’s Presentation, Practice, Development, Testing paradigm), the fascinating link to Pit Corder’s work on error correction, and burst a number of myths (e.g. its audiolingual origins). The final article is a piece for ELT Journal outlining its history. Click below for a magic Advance Access link to the piece itself:

A Potted History of PPP with the Help of ELT Journal (due in print 2017)

My earlier, more academic paper that discusses its validity in more detail:

Why Practice makes Perfect Sense: The Past, Present and Future Potential of the PPP Paradigm in Language Teacher Education (2016)

Enjoy reading!


Why practice makes perfect sense

For those interested in the PPP research I’ve been doing, my more academic paper on this topic has just come out, in the journal: English Language Teaching Education and Development (ELTED). See here for a link to the open access article. The full title is ‘Why practice makes perfect sense: The past, present and future potential of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education’.

It briefly covers the history of PPP, but also looks in detail at the research evidence supporting PPP, also including the opinions, from survey/literature reviews of perhaps the most respected authorities in SLA research – Rod Ellis and Spada and Lightbown, all of whom conclude that there is no longer any evidence for rejecting PPP-type instruction. A model is also provided for effective use of PPP, drawing on notions of best practice from mainstream teaching, and the significantly more robust research it has to offer (Hattie, Black, and Wiliam, Marzano, etc.), consistent with the primary and secondary contexts in which the vast majority of English language teachers in the world work. I also analyse PPP’s durability, important links to skill learning theory, and a number of other paradigms in education as the table below shows (from the paper). As always, I caution that it is only one of many lesson shapes necessary in a healthy, balanced language learning diet. Enjoy reading!

My more historical paper for ELT Journal will be coming out in Advance Access in the next few weeks – watch this space.



Teaching English in Africa wins ELTON award

On 2 June 2016, Teaching English in Africa (TEIA) won the British Council Elton award for Local Innovation, after being shortlisted earlier in the year along five other resources in the category including video and online resources, learner libraries, and large publishing companies such as Oxford University Press and Macmillan Education. It was up against some excellent competition, but I suspected that it was in with a chance upon reading the judges’ comments in the brochure. The comment selected for TEIA was very positive:

Jason accepting award 3b
My rather lengthy acceptance speech (watch here)

“A unique, comprehensive resource for a previously neglected context of English teaching.”

Sure enough, when that dreaded heart-wrenching moment arrived, I was surprised and overjoyed to hear the presenter say those magic words:

  “The British Council Elton for local innovation goes to Teaching English in Africa…”

Since receiving the award, I’ve received a lot of requests for more information about what’s in the book, how it came about, and the contexts for which it is written. So here we go…

What are the current realities for African English teachers?

Africa is of course many contexts, especially with regard to education. Significant differences often exist between rural and urban schools within the same country. Yet while there is so much cultural, social and linguistic diversity in Africa, the socio-economic challenges that many countries face in trying to meet the millennium development goals and reach 100% enrolment have led to similar challenges in many classrooms across the continent (see Clemens 2005). These teaching realities may include very large classes (sometimes over 100), a lack of teaching and learning resources, inadequate preservice training for new teachers, and the challenge of trying to teach English literacy in primary school to children who are still having difficulty learning to read and write in their mother tongue. TEIA aims to provide support to teachers working in the most challenging of these contexts, those that are so often neglected by the mainstream methodological literature.

How did the book originate?

Buy from EAEP, at African Books Collective (UK) or Amazon.com (US)

TEIA has been nearly 10 years in the making, and has drawn on the best practice of African teachers and teacher trainers who I have had the privilege to work with across the continent – initially for VSO, and later for UNICEF and national ministries of education. I first travelled to Africa to work for VSO Eritrea as an English methodology trainer in Adi Keih in the Debub Zone of the country in 2007. I found myself working in a rural context of the type common across sub-Saharan Africa. Students were in schools and teachers were teaching, but I noticed significant differences between the quality of teaching of the more experienced teachers (often in the local town) and the newly appointed teachers (often in remote locations). Drawing on both my previous teacher training experience and my VSO training, I began to build links and explore ways to support and improve the local professional development network that existed. While I was able to contribute a small number of useful ideas and strategies at CPD meetings, I felt that the biggest potential gains could be made from getting the more effective teachers to work in small mentor groups with the newly qualified ones. We introduced some new ideas, such as ‘Teaching Buddies’ and nonsupervisory lesson observations that helped to facilitate this process more effectively. During my two years in Eritrea, my learning was exponential, both from my own classroom (I had insisted on teaching for much of this time, as well as training), and from my work with inspirational colleagues and teacher training supervisors.

I went directly to a second VSO placement in Rwanda, where I had an opportunity to work with just a small number of schools (4), this time at primary level, and with teachers of all subjects. Despite the 2000 km between these two locations, and the differences in language, culture and history, I was surprised to find a lot of similarities in the challenges that teachers faced, and consequently the teaching practices that had evolved. I found that much of what I had learned in Eritrea was useful in Rwanda – indeed, much more than my previous years of experience working as a teacher and trainer in Europe. I also noticed a similar gap between the more and less capable teachers that became a focus of the teacher development programme that we set up at the four schools. I was still in contact with my old colleagues in Eritrea, and found opportunities to share innovative ideas from the Rwandan teachers with the Eritrean ones. It was at this time that one of the headteachers suggested it would be a good idea to put together a booklet of lesson plans that drew on expertise from both contexts. This was the starting point from which the book itself would gradually develop.

In Rwanda, there were also opportunities to work on national projects. The country was switching from French to English-medium education, and I found myself involved in curriculum development projects, nationwide English language training projects for teachers, and even some work on the UNICEF Child-friendly Schools project that was to lead into my future consultancy career. While working with both Rwandan and Ugandan English language teacher trainers, I had often noticed them making use of practical guides such as Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching, a good book, but one written for a very different world, and promoting methodology that has never been demonstrated to work in African primary and secondary contexts. It occurred to me then that a guide that drew on African expertise, described it and expanded upon it within the constraints that such teachers experience would be significantly more useful for these teacher trainers and their teachers.

Subsequent opportunities to work in several other countries in East Africa, southern Africa and North Africa provided opportunities to notice and compare contexts, and to recognise commonalities, most often as a result of the socio-economic challenges faced. During a UNICEF project in Kenya, I met a member of the East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) team (based in Nairobi), who suggested a potential collaboration. Kiarie Kamau and Jane Mathenge at EAEP were enthusiastic about the initial proposal, and with the excellent help of Benson Shiholo as copy editor and Dr. Lilian Kaviti as content editor, the book was written. Abdul Gugu drew the illustrations.

What’s in the book?

The book is divided into three sections: Part A – Key Concepts; Part B – Literacy; Part C – Teaching Practice. ‘Part A – Key Concepts’ focuses on principles of good teaching within the African classroom, presenting a model of child-centred English language learning developed in Africa, using the acronym CHILD to help readers remember five key principles as follows:

C – Children COMMUNICATE with each other

H – Children HELP each other to learn

I – Children IDENTIFY with the lesson content

L – Children LEARN at their own speed

D – Children DEMONSTRATE what they have learnt

‘Part B – Literacy’ focuses on initial literacy in English in the primary classroom, whether this happens alongside mother tongue, after it, or in the unfortunate case where children have to learn English as their first language of literacy. It presents a model of synthetic phonics that is Africa-appropriate, avoiding references to objects that children may not see in Africa, and never assuming that children have more than the bare minimum of English language knowledge.

Kids drawing on the floor Kabare June 2010 (6)
Fourth grade Rwandan pupils make  innovative use of a concrete classroom floor as a learning resource.

‘Part C – Teaching Practice’ focuses more on teaching in upper primary and secondary contexts, presenting effective example lesson plans from teachers in different countries, ideas for activities and games that require no additional resources, and a model of CLIL based on the practices of effective sciences and humanities teachers in Africa who recognised that teaching in English often means also collaborating closely with English language teachers for the sake of the learners. The book also presents 10 essential resources for effective English language teaching that all African teachers can make themselves, and helps teachers explore the effective use of the mother tongue in the English language classroom, something I believe strongly in, because this is one of the few resources that most (but not all) African teachers share with their learners.

The book recognises that many readers may only have intermediate levels of English or lower, so any new terminology is highlighted and explained at the back of the book, and the English used is clear and simple, avoiding clause subordination and passive voice wherever possible. In short, it contains everything I have learnt from the many talented African teachers I’ve worked with, and a few ideas of my own. Sections of the book can be previewed on Google Books or the African Books Collective website.

Only a first step

I’m aware of the irony of a European writing this book for African teachers (see, e.g. Phillipson, 1992; Holliday, 1994), something I readily acknowledged in my acceptance speech (see below). Because of my privileged status as an expat trainer, and especially thanks to the opportunities provided by VSO and UNICEF, over the last nine years I have been able to work in a wide range of different African contexts, both longitudinally at classroom level with the teachers themselves, and also with experienced methodologists, materials writers and consultants. This combination is something that few teacher trainers, researchers, or consultants ever get the opportunity to experience. While some may argue that such a book is premature, and that the advice is based on personal practical knowledge rather than evidence, I believe it would be a greater injustice not to share the benefit of my experience, given how little appropriate methodological literature is available for primary and secondary teachers in Africa.  As I also mentioned in my acceptance speech, this book is only an initial attempt to provide something in the way of support to those (especially preservice and novice teachers) who are most in need of it. I hope that within this remit, it will be of some use. The judges seemed to agree. Many thanks to them and to the British Council for the award.




Why PPP won’t (and shouldn’t) go away

ppp cycle

In this talk, delivered at IATEFL Birmingham 2016 (slides available here) I investigate the origins, durability and validity of the PPP paradigm[1] in language teaching. Since the 1990s, when PPP was rejected by a large number of leading writers on (English) language teaching pedagogy (see, e.g., Willis & Willis 1996), a shared mythology about its origins and validity continues to be disseminated, very little of which is true. I begin by mentioning the relevance of PPP to my own work as a teacher and teacher trainer, where I draw upon it selectively when appropriate, both in the UK in initial teacher training (e.g. CELTA, CertTESOL) and language teaching, and in low-income countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where I have worked extensively with primary and secondary language teachers on in-service projects.

Where does PPP come from?

I demonstrate that PPP originated at the dawn of communicative language teaching and not before (it is not audiolingual), when a number of teachers were experimenting with adding an additional, free practice stage to the Presentation and Practice of Situational Language Teaching (Rixon & Smith 2012). I reveal the originator of PPP as Donn Byrne (1976[2]), as well as the ingenious paradigm that preceded and strongly influenced it, developed by a (today) little-known, but influential figure in the early development of communicative language teaching; Julian Dakin (1973), who was also influential in the then-burgeoning field of second language acquisition research (through his links to Pit Corder, 1967, and their work on error correction; Howatt 1984). Without the belief that free practice is useful and that errors are an essential part of the developmental process of language learning, this free practice stage of PPP would not have been possible.

PPDT Dakin 2
Dakin’s PPDT paradigm, 1973

Why is PPP so enduring?

After providing evidence that PPP is still very much part of our shared discourse as language teachers and teacher educators, I provide my opinion as to why PPP continues to endure, drawing on both skill-learning theory from cognitive psychology (Fitts 1964; Anderson 1983), and its compatibility with syllabi and coursebooks. I also emphasise the importance of traditional teacher and learner roles in a range of societies (including my own) and argue that before a pedagogy (or a paradigm which implies a pedagogic approach, such as PPP) can be learner-centred or learning-centred, it must be learner-sensitive, recognising and respecting the beliefs and cognition of teachers and learners if ‘tissue rejection’ (Holliday 1994) is not to occur. Teaching is a culturally-embedded social practice, not simply the facilitation of a cognitive process.

Why was it rejected and is the rejection justified?

I then examine the rejection of PPP, especially in the 1990s both from SLA writers and researchers (e.g. Ellis 1991, 1993), and from teaching methodologists (e.g. Lewis 1993; Scrivener 1996; Willis 1996; Skehan 1998), pinpointing the discrediting of PPP based on early research evidence from SLA in the 1970s and 80s, and cite more recent evidence, including the two largest meta-analyses conducted in this area of research, both of which find explicit instruction to be more effective than implicit instruction, and indicate that Focus on Forms is no less effective than Focus on Form (e.g. Norris & Ortega 2000; Spada & Tomita 2010). I also mention evidence that is providing increasing support for a strong interface between explicit and implicit knowledge (Spada & Tomita 2010), which Rod Ellis himself has admitted would justify a PPP-type approach (e.g. 2008; 2014 with Shintani). Here I conclude that we can no longer argue that PPP is incompatible with SLA research evidence, and if anything, is supported over more inductive, implicit approaches.


I conclude the talk by making clear that I’m not promoting PPP as a panacea, and recognising the importance of a range of paradigms and types of instruction necessary for the development of both explicit and implicit knowledge alongside a healthy dose of varied skills practice, as suggested by Ur’s ‘Mix and Match’ approach (2011). I suggest, that especially when working with teachers who do not have language-specific pedagogy training (i.e. the majority of primary teachers, and many secondary teachers around the world today), and especially when working in cultures which tend towards more teacher-led approaches to learning, teacher educators are likely to have a more positive impact by promoting effective PPP (where the third phase is not neglected) than by attempting to introduce alternative (perceived to be more learner/learning-centred) paradigms or approaches.

Watch this space

Anyone interested to read more about this, subscribe to my blog, or come back here in a few months when I will post a link to a forthcoming paper due to be published in ELT Education and Development (19): ‘Why practice makes perfect sense: The past, present and prospective future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education’. In this paper I discuss many of these themes in more detail, and also outline a PPP approach that is compatible not only with evidence from the somewhat insular field of SLA research, but also with the significantly more robust evidence from mainstream education (see e.g. Hattie 2012).


  1. PPP stands for ‘Presentation, Practice, Production’, and is used primarily to provide a prescriptive structure for new language lessons, especially, but not only, grammar lessons.
  2. An exhaustive search of the Warwick ELT archive, British Library catalogues, online databases produced no prior references.

References (including those from the talk itself):

Abbs, B., Ayton, A. & Freebairn, I. (1975). Strategies: Students’ Book. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Anderson, J. (2016). Why practice makes perfect sense: The past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education. ELT Education and Development 19: in press.

Anderson, J. R. (1983). The Architecture of Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Arnold, J., Dörnyei, Z. & Pugliese, C. (2015). The Principled Communicative Approach London: Helbling.

Byrne, D. (1976). Teaching Oral English. London: Longman.

Byrne, D. (1986). Teaching Oral English New Edition. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learner’s errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching 5/4: 161-70.

Dakin, J. (1973). The Language Laboratory and Language Learning. Harlow, UK: Longman.

DeKeyser, R. (1998). Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar. In Doughty, C. & Williams, J. (eds.). Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition (pp. 42-63). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. (1991). Grammar teaching – Practice or consciousness-raising? In Ellis, R. (ed.). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Pedagogy (pp. 232-241). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Ellis, R. (1993). Talking shop: Second language acquisition research: How does it help teachers? ELT Journal 47/1, 3-11.

Ellis, R. (2008). Principles of instructed second language acquisition. CAL Digest. Washington, DC: Centre for Applied Linguistics.

Ellis, R. & Shintani, N. (2014). Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Finocchiaro, M. & Brumfit, C. (1983). The Functional-Notional Approach: From Theory to Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fitts, P. M. (1964). Perceptual-motor Skills Learning. In Melton, A.W. (ed.). Categories of Human Learning (pp. 243-285). New York: Academic Press.

Harmer, J. (1983). The Practice of English Language Teaching (1st ed). Harlow, UK: Longman.

Harmer, J. (1998). How to Teach English. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Harris, B. (2015). Where Are We Now? Current Teaching Paradigms in Preservice Training. Paper presented at the 49th International IATEFL Annual Conference, Manchester, UK, 11th April.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Howatt, A. P. R. (1984). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006). TESOL methods: Changing tracks, challenging trends. TESOL Quarterly 40/1, 59-81.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward. Hove, UK: Language Teaching Publications.

Long, M. H. (1991). Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology. In de Bot, K., Ginsberg, R. & Kramsch, C. (eds.). Foreign Language Research in Cross-Cultural Perspective (pp. 39-52). Amsterdam, Holland: John Benjamins.

Norris, J. M. & Ortega, L. (2000). Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning 50/3, 417-528.

Rixon, S. & Smith, R. (2012). Survey review: The work of Brian Abbs and Ingrid Freebairn. ELT Journal 66/3, 383-393.

Scrivener, J. (1996). ARC: A descriptive model for classroom work on language. In Willis, J. & Willis, D. (eds.). Challenge and Change in Language Teaching (pp. 79-92). Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann.

Skehan, P. (1998).

Spada, N. & Lightbown, P. M. (2008). Form-focused instruction: Isolated or integrated? TESOL Quarterly, 42/2, 181-207.

Spada, N. & Tomita, Y. (2010). Interaction between type of instruction and type of language feature: A meta-analysis. Language Learning, 60/2, 263-308.

Tomlinson, B. & Masuhara, H. (2013). Adult coursebooks. ELT Journal, 67/2, 233-249.

Ur, P. (2011). Grammar teaching: Research, theory and practice. In Hinkel, E. (ed.). Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning Volume 2 (pp. 507-522). New York: Routledge.

Willis, D. (1996). Accuracy, fluency and conformity. In Willis, J. & Willis, D. (eds.). Challenge and Change in Language Teaching (pp. 44-51). Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann.

Willis, J. (1981). Teaching English through English. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Willis, J. and D. Willis. (eds.). 1996. Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann.



British Council Eltons 2016 – Nomination for Teaching English in Africa

I have just heard that my fourth book, Teaching English in Africa, (East African Educational Publishers, 2015) has made the final shortlist for the Elton 2016 awards in the category of Local Innovation. Great news for the book, and for everyone who worked so hard to help teaching_english_in_africaproduce it. Many thanks to the content editor Dr Lillian Kaviti for her thought-provoking comments on the manuscript, thanks also to Benson Shiholo for his excellent and efficient copyediting, Abdul Gugu for his great artwork and to Kiarie Kamau and Jane Mathenge for their vision and support throughout the project. Two great things about publishing this book with East African Educational Publishers; we kept the production costs to an absolute minimum to ensure it’s affordable to teachers across the continent (retail price is about $7 US), and we kept the project in Africa, ensuring that more of the income and benefit of the book stay in the continent. Well done guys!

Buy it on African Books Collective, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com Or direct from EAEP. Read extracts on Google books here.

As always, I’m sure the competition will be stiff (there are 6 titles in the category), but it’s great that the judges saw the strengths of the book and shortlisted it. The award ceremony takes place on the evening of 2 June. Wish us luck!  Unataka sisi bahati!

You say TESOL and I say TESL, or TEFL, or… Is the English language teaching world a community with identity issues?

Given that the intended benefactors of all English language teaching are students, people who by definition are likely to have difficulty understanding such confusingly similar acronyms in English, it is ironic not only that we have so many of them in English language teaching (ELT), but that understandings of their meanings also vary significantly among us as ELT educators. Yet once the initial smokescreen of acronym confusion clears, it is evident that there persists a far bigger issue at root – our assumptions regarding what we are teaching, to whom and why, assumptions which for many of us appear to have persisted despite the many and massive changes that the ELT world has undergone over the last 30 years.

Quickly Google the following: ‘What’s the difference between ESL…’ Then stop there, and Google’s auto complete function will illustrate the initial confusion I’m talking about. Nearly all of the alternatives for completing this question involve acronyms, so many of which are situated, arguably entrenched, in specific approaches to language teaching and learning:

‘What’s the difference between ESL and EFL / ESOL / CELTA / TESOL / CertTESOL / TOEFL / EFL / ELF / ELL / EAL?’


It’s easily enough to make potential English teachers give up before they start, let alone language learners. Now read some of the answers and you will notice contradictions, either between what different writers are saying in response to the same question, or between what you thought you knew and what the writer thinks they know. Either way, these acronyms do not really appear to be describing anything stable across communities, or even within them. Let’s take the most common distinction that we think we all know:

What’s the difference between TESL and TEFL?

Well of course, we could begin by citing the literature, arguing that the distinction made by Kachru (e.g. 1992) between EFL (English in outer circle countries where English has no official status) and ESL (English in countries where English does have official status, but not including inner circle countries, where English is a native language; ENL) should logically stand when the ‘T’ for ‘teaching’ is added, but unfortunately, it is no way near that simple. Just as supermarkets don’t listen to botanists when deciding to put tomatoes in the salad vegetable section rather than the fruit section, common parlance with regard to the use of these acronyms has absolutely nothing to do with, and cannot be controlled by, academic use of these terms. Through various web searches we learn that TEFL refers to teaching English ‘abroad’, which is, if you think about it, quite a relative word in the given context… Or that TEFL is kind of industry, but TESL relates to teaching ‘immigrants and refugees’ in countries where English is a ‘native language’ (whatever that means). Or that TEFL and TESL are two branches of TESOL, a superordinate category. For others, TEFL and TESOL are synonymous, and for others still, all three terms are synonymous.

Slippery ground


With so much of the language in these definitions, we find ourselves on very slippery ground. Given the plethora of ‘Englishes’ worldwide (Jenkins 2009), and the complexities and varieties of ‘nativeness’ with regard to its usage and ownership, and the different ways in which some people who travel are considered ‘immigrants’, others are considered ‘refugees’ and yet I have only ever been an ‘expat’, despite spending almost half my adult career as an exile from my home country.

Can we perhaps agree on what we mean by TESOL?

Indeed, we don’t even need to compare acronyms. TESOL has, in its history, stood for both ‘Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages’ and ‘Teaching English as a Second or Other Language’, and while in the majority of current usage it is the former, we should also note that for the U.S.-based organisation that includes this acronym in its name (TESOL.org), it does in fact stand for ‘Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.’. They suggest that TESOL (as Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) can be used as a general superordinate to include both TEFL and TESL. Yet in the UK, TESOL generally refers to what in the USA the term ‘TESL’ is used to denote; teaching English to so-called ‘migrants and refugees’.

Perhaps TEFL is easier?

For Americans, TEFL is quite a simple term – it refers to all the English teaching that happens overseas (except in the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, probably South Africa, maybe Jamaica, possibly Hong Kong and Singapore…), yet come to London and you’ll find lots of TEFL schools teaching TEFL lessons to learners with typical EFL learner profiles (the majority of them would not class themselves as refugees or migrants). Basically in the UK, if you’ve promise to go ‘home’ when you’ve ‘finished’ learning, you’re a TEFL student, and you are treated as an economic statistic, rather than a demographic one. Nope. It seems TEFL is no simpler.

More fundamental problems in the ‘science’ underpinning our field

Second language acquisition (SLA) research is one of the two main academic fields potentially capable of usefully informing our practice as language teachers (alongside general pedagogic research). Yet here too we find identity issues. A significant number of influential writers, including Rod Ellis (1997), David Block (2003) and Diane Larsen-Freeman (e.g. Cameron & Larsen-Freeman, 2007) have all argued that either one, two or all three of the words used to name this field are misleading descriptors for the very processes that the field attempts to describe.

‘S’ for ‘Second’

In the Introduction to the first edition of ‘The Study of Second Language Acquisition’ (1997, p. 11), Rod Ellis notes a key misnomer inherent in our use of the term ‘second’ – it presumes that learners are monolingual, even though multilingualism is the norm in many cultures worldwide. He goes on to suggest that “in such settings, the term ‘additional language’ may be more appropriate and more acceptable”, a suggestion also made by David Block (2003, p. 57), who goes on to conclude somewhat despondently:

“Nevertheless, I am all too aware that changing SLA to ALA (additional language acquisition) would be the kind of seismic shift that academic fields seldom, if ever impose themselves.”

‘A’ for ‘Acquisition’

Ellis (1997) refuses to accept Krashen’s (1981) acquisition/learning distinction “not least because of the difficulty of demonstrating whether the knowledge learners possess is of the ‘acquired’ or ‘learnt’ kind.” (Ellis, 1997, p. 14). Block (2003, p. 109) argues from a sociocultural perspective that the ‘A’ in ‘SLA’ might more usefully stand for ‘Activity’. Cameron and Larsen-Freeman (2007) go further to argue that ‘development’ is a more appropriate term than ‘acquisition’ to describe the reality of language learning within a complex systems theory perspective:

“A complex systems view of language rejects the notion of language as something that is taken in – a static commodity that one acquires and therefore possesses (Larsen-Freeman 2002). Instead, we see language as much a process as a product, something in which one participates (Sfard 1998). Because language is a dynamic system, continuously changing, its potential too is always being developed, and it is never fully realised.” (Cameron & Larsen-Freeman 2007, p. 231)

‘L’ for ‘Language’

Block (2003) also criticises the rather narrow understanding of ‘language’ among many researchers in the SLA field, arguing that a wider, socially based understanding is necessary, one that can account for all areas of communicative competence, not just linguistic. More recent theorising on the concept of translingualism by Pennycook (2008), Canagarajah (2013) and others, has argued not only that the borders between languages, often perceived as being fairly fixed and obvious by users that habituate predominantly monolingual communities, are in fact much more porous and context dependent. Canagarajah recognises that our choice of linguistic resources is as negotiable as other features of communication, using the term ‘alignment’ to describe a type of translingual accommodation between interlocutors.

Potential implications?

The implications that we draw from these influential writers and their ideas should be huge. The very academic field, ‘SLA’ seems to be premised upon monolingual assumptions that can no longer be supported, given what we know about language as a complex translingual system, what we understand about language use and what we understand about language users, all of which, at least in multilingual contexts, confounds these monolingual assumptions. Thus we could argue that the field of second language acquisition needs to be renamed, with a number of potential options in the offing:

  1. Additional Language Learning (ALL) – the simplest viable option, already used in some institutional contexts, including primary teaching in the UK.
  2. Additional Language Development (ALD) – possible if we accept Larsen-Freeman’s arguments that there is no end state of acquisition for language learners (2006).
  3. Multilingual Development (MD) – if we combine Vivian Cook’s (e.g. 1995) arguments with those of Larsen-Freeman.
  4. Translingual Development (TD) – if we recognise translingualism as the norm.

It can then be argued that this should have implications for the acronyms used to describe English language learning and teaching at the start of this article. Perhaps the superordinate category should not be ‘TESOL’, and definitely not ‘TEFL’, but ‘TEAL’ – Teaching English as an Additional Language. Within this, it is likely that we will continue to need to make some kind of distinction between perhaps the two most predominant reasons for learning and using English – communicating internationally or interculturally (i.e. using English as a lingua franca) and integrating into an English-speaking community in countries where English is the main national language. For this perhaps we could borrow the acronyms ‘ELF’ (English as a Lingua Franca) and ‘ENL’ (English as a National Language, rather than ‘Native’) from the lingua franca community (e.g. Seidlhofer, 2001), with the two teaching roles being TELF and TENL, respectively… Perhaps.

Alternatively, we can continue to use inappropriate acronyms founded on misguided assumptions and monolingual prejudices in divergent ways to mean different things, apparently in the blissful ignorance that we understand each other. Surely at least we (and here I suppose I mean both the English language teaching community and the applied linguistics community) should be having some kind of discussion on this topic, shouldn’t we?


Block, D. (2003) The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cameron, L. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (2007) Complex systems and applied linguistics. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 17: 226-240.

Canagarajah, A. S. (2013) Translingual Practice. New York: Routledge.

Cook, V. (1995) Multi-competence and the learning of many languages. Language, Culture and Curriculum 8: 93-98.

Ellis, R. (1997) The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2009) World Englishes. London: Routledge.

Kachru, B. B. (1992) World Englishes: Approaches, issues and resources. Language Teaching 25: 1-14.

Krashen, S. (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2006) Second language acquisition and the issue of fossilisation: There is no end, and there is no state. In Z. Han & T. Odlin (Eds.) Studies of Fossilisation in Second Language Acquisition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 189-200.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2002) Language acquisition and language use from a chaos/complexity theory perspective. In C. Kramsch (Ed.) Language Acquisition and Language Socialisation. London: Continuum. 33–46.

Pennycook, A. (2008) Translingual English. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 31: 30.1-30.9.

Seidlhofer, B. (2001) Closing the conceptual gap: The case for description of English as a lingua franca. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 11: 133-158.

Sfard, A. (1998) On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher March: 4–13.