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.




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