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!


27 thoughts on “The PPP saga ends

  1. Thanks very much for sharing these articles and especially for the fascinating account of the origins of PPP. There are just a couple of points I would like to take issue with if I may.

    Firstly, I have no access to the Norris & Ortega and Spada & Tomita studies so am not qualified to comment in detail; I am aware, however, that the methodology employed in the former has been questioned (, and aside from that, it would seem to me that evidence in favour of direct grammar instruction is not necessarily support for PPP. A variety of methodologies and staging models (Test-Teach-Test, even Dogme) permit the idea of direct instruction. It’s just, in these cases at least, that direct instruction would proceed from learners’ failings or blocks while attempting to achieve a communicative goal, rather than a pre-selected grammar syllabus. In any case, if the results of these studies say that “focus on forms-type instruction such as PPP [is] no less effective than alternatives”, this does not account for the predominance of the former over the latter in initial teacher-training and beyond. As a teacher trainer at both Cert and Dip level, I find it hard to accept your assertion (via Harris) that “most training courses, and most novice teachers today, seem to adopt a
    healthy balance of different frameworks”. In terms of the Cert, I would argue that even if one promotes a variety of approaches, PPP is the one most often used – firstly because it suits novice teachers, who only need to get their heads around one pre-determined language point – and secondly because, as your article points out, this is the approach most often adopted by the coursebooks.

    Coursebooks themselves, it seems to me, cannot be used as a justification for PPP. I’m sure there’s some truth in your claim that publishers research carefully what learners seem to want. However, publishers are also interested in presenting a marketable system, one which offers the illusion of linear progress as one “masters” one structure after another. More complex, messy approaches are harder to sell, and harder to deliver for underqualified and/or inexperienced teachers. But this speaks more to failings in initial teacher training in our industry, and the undue influence multinational publishers have, than the efficacy of PPP.

    Finally, as a teacher who has worked both with underprivileged groups (refugees, asylum seekers, “second-chance” FE students in the UK), and with children in Central America, I found the arguments about PPP suiting underprivileged/disadvantaged students and developing nations questionable. I wonder, in the latter context anyway, whether PPP simply represents the line of least resistance given the conditions you accurately describe. Once again, PPP becomes the optimum model due to prevailing circumstances – underqualified and overworked Ts, poorly constructed syllabi, exams – rather than through any of its own merits. Here, however, I admit I need to follow up on your references before passing further judgement.

    Like you yourself do not advocate a PPP-only approach, I personally feel it has a place; it’s just that, for various cultural and economic (rather than pedagogic) reasons the balance is so much against other, (at least) equally efficacious ways of teaching that are more in need of promotion (I feel) than PPP.

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    1. Thanks Neil for your detailed and balanced appraisal, and for having read both pieces carefully. I take all your points on board, and perhaps when I mention a ‘healthy balance’, I’m referring to the general situation in comparison with the 1970s/80s, and not to individual centres, which can sometimes promote one lesson shape or recipe over others too strongly.

      Regarding the Norris and Ortega paper, it has been questioned (the findings were presented with caution by the authors themselves), esp. re indicators of proficiency, but the Spada and Tomita (2010) paper actually uses more valid indicators from the perspective of anybody who is prioritising spontaneous language use, and they come up with similar conclusions, as does the survey review by Spada and Lightbown (2008). I’ll send you both of these by email. A lot of the people questioning this research based their initial claims on much shakier ground than these meta-analyses. The research on which writers such as Michael Long have based their promotion of focus on form is scant, often involved poor sample sizes, biased data interpretation, debatable constructs, laboratory-based interventions, etc. (see Block’s Social Turn in SLA). Yet it is that research that has managed to dominate Anglophone theorising on language teaching since the 1980s. Part of what I’m trying to do is to redress the balance.

      The points you make about coursebooks are all valid, but I think that coursebooks in general, and the notion of ‘linear progress’ is a reflection of a much wider tendency in curricula and syllabi design. Given that the vast majority of English language teaching in the world today is happening in state-sponsored primary and secondary education, where national curricula perform precisely this role, we can predict to a large extent that top down approaches to language instruction are going to dominate for the foreseeable future. See Bruton’s writing on this, esp. 2005 when arguing against TBL in secondary contexts.

      Your final point conflates two arguments that I intended separately. I describe two contexts (2 and 3) in the ‘Why practice makes perfect sense…’ paper (2016) in ELTED. With regard to low-income contexts, I don’t think you can compare what you did with children in Central America with state-sponsored teacher education, esp. pre-service in low-income countries. Many educators have shown that innovative approaches can work in low-income contexts, but, like all small scale interventions, the vast majority of challenges occur when attempting to scale up an intervention. Have a look at the ‘change literature’ (e.g. Waters or Markee). I think it’s about trying to understand what is happening and providing the support to improve it incrementally, not going back to the drawing board (esp. as we have no evidence that PPP is less effective than other approaches), as I conclude in that paper. I think the reasons why PPP can be useful with low-achieving learners (context 3) are completely different to context 2. Also, be careful before presuming that low-achieving learners = underprivileged groups (e.g. refugees and asylum seekers). Some of the highest-achieving language learners I’ve ever worked with have been refugees.

      As I mention on numerous occasions, my hope here is that we redress the balance and keep our ‘methodological’ options open, rather than the FonF obsession and attempted theory culling that has underpinned so much theorising in western, especially Anglophone academic discourse for the last 20 years, often to the detriment of the most disadvantaged teachers in the world, who cannot replicate the western contexts and need to work to very different pre-specified agendas.


  2. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for responding and especially for sending along those articles. Really interesting. My reading of Spada and Tomita (2010) finds little to support PPP as such. It rather supports explicit over implicit instruction of grammar – and explicit instruction can take place in a myriad of approaches or paradigms (including TBLT).

    Spada and Lightbown (2008) does advocate a PPP approach as one option in lessons which isolate structures for study and practice. It seems to suggest (although I may be overstating) that in some cases the presentation phase should be as divorced as possible from a communicative context to prevent a focus on meaning interfering with the students’ capacity to notice form. In these cases, could the more contextualised, inductive version of PPP presentation be counter-productive?

    Anyway, it was interesting to note that for Spada and Lightbown, such isolated grammar lessons should take place within a CLT and CBI syllabus and, as you acknowledge, focus on particular structures for particular reasons. The authors themselves say that isolated grammar lessons “are a starting point or a follow-up for communicative or content-based activities”. Other structures are effectively dealt with within communicative activities or tasks (the integrated approach), but here again instruction may be explicit (abstracting a rule, using metalanguage etc.).

    I agree with you on the inevitability of teacher-led, structural syllabi in most state education for the foreseeable future – you’re right, it’s not only CBs to blame – but again, this is leaving the pedagogical justification for PPP to one side. However, I take your point (from one of the articles) that PPP can provide considerably more communicative practice for students than other typical state education approaches, e.g. grammar translation, decontextualised pattern practice etc.

    Btw my intention was not to conflate your two points about learning issues and low-income countries, nor to associate low educational ability with underprivileged students – on the contrary. In my experience most refugees and asylum seekers I worked with were underprivileged and disadvantaged in economic and social terms (even if they were not always so in their home countries), which is why I described them as such. Of course within that group there was a wide range of educational experience and attainment, from PhDs to women who had been prevented from attending primary school. In fact, I felt your article conflated these points in the quote from Muijs and Reynolds: “the highly structured approach seems to be particularly effective for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, or pupils starting from a low level of achievement in a particular subject”. That being said, I probably read too much into that as the main body of this section makes more explicit reference to educational aptitude than to economic conditions.

    Overall, with the caveat that I am not particularly qualified to judge the criticisms you cite of Long etc, I’d just like to say that I don’t believe that “the FonF obsession and attempted theory culling that has underpinned so much theorising in western, especially Anglophone academic discourse for the last 20 years” has filtered down to classroom practice – and here I’m specifically talking about classroom practice in high-income, highly educated adult contexts, even at times beyond intermediate level. That’s to say, PPP has remained dominant, alongside the grammatical (CB) syllabus that has come to underpin it. So I don’t think it needs much defending – for me, the other approaches, especially those which privilege learners’ communicative needs (while attending also to form, even explicitly), are those that need to be argued for and defended (at the chalk face if not in academia) in order to redress some of the balance. You have, however, convinced me that there is a place for some form of PPP, some of the time, within that kind of framework.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Many thanks again Neil. Your last paragraph highlights a key point, that academic discourse and the classroom practice of many teachers seem to be at odds with one another – why? Alan Waters discusses this dichotomy in his piece ‘Trends and issues in ELT methods and methodology’ (2012, ELT Journal). It’s the practice of (some) teachers and coursebook writers that has been repeatedly criticised by many writers in academia, and I’m arguing that they have neither evidence nor theoretical justification for doing so. As such, I think PPP needs defending (and more balanced representation) in academic contexts, which is where I’ve published the two papers.

    I’m also making the point that we need to understand why (some) teachers have resisted the influence from academic discourse, and to ask whether they have good reason to do so. I think there needs to be less ‘filtering down’ (the applied science model) and more socially situated understanding of the practices of teachers if we as teacher educators are to support them in their efforts to improve these practices. Waters finishes his 2012 piece by quoting Penny Ur (2011) at length, and I hope you don’t mind if I do the same:
    “The practice of a second language teaching involves not only SLA processes but also things like students’ socio-cultural background, relationships, personalities; motivation; their expectations, learning styles and preferences; the influence of stakeholders such as parents, ministries of education, school principals; aspects of lesson design and planning; time available for preparation and correction of notebooks; classroom management and discipline; upcoming exams … to mention but a few. Such features often actually have more influence on how grammar is taught, and whether it is successfully learnt, than any of those dealt with in research.” (p. 518)


  4. Hi Jason,

    An interesting journey, and it makes good reading. You make an impressive attempt to defend the indefensible, and there are lots of good references, even if you play fast and loose with what your sources actually say.

    To the issues, then.

    First, let’s establish what we know about the SLA process after 50 years of SLA research. Students do not learn target forms and structures when and how a teacher decrees that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Studies in interlanguage development have shown conclusively that L2 learners exhibit common patterns and features across differences in learners’ age and L1, acquisition context, and instructional approach. Independent of those and other factors, learners pass through well-attested developmental sequences on their way to mastery of target-language structures, or, as is often the case, to an end-state short of mastery. Acquisition of grammatical structures (and also of pronunciation features and some lexical features such as collocation), is typically gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, the product broadly conforming to developmental sequences observed in naturalistic settings. They master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both.

    That’s what we know. Thus, it is simply wrong to say that “while research studies conducted between the 1970s and the 1990s cast significant doubt on the validity of more explicit, Focus on Forms-type instruction such as PPP, more recent evidence paints a significantly different picture.” It does not. No study conducted in the last 20 years has come up with any strong evidence to challenge the established claim that explicit focus on forms such as PPP can do nothing to alter the fixed route of interlanguage development. As Ortega (2009), in her summary of SLA findings (2009) states “Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.”

    It is, on the other hand, generally accepted that explicit instruction has an important role to play in classroom-based SLA. The non-sequitur that appears constantly throughout your paper is that evidence to support explicit instruct = evidence to support the “PPP paradigm”. The PPP approach, as you succinctly summarise it, consists of pre-selecting and sequencing language features for explicit instruction, which involves their contextualised presentation followed by clarification of meaning, form and use. Controlled practice of the feature is then provided, and then opportunities for use of the feature is provided. There is nothing, I repeat nothing, in “recent evidence from research studies” that supports such an approach to classroom teaching, because, quite simply, such an approach flies in the face of all the evidence we have for interlanguages development. To take evidence for the effectiveness of explicit grammar teaching as evidence to support the PPP paradigm, where a synthetic syllabus based on the presentation, practice and production of a sequence of bits of the language is followed, is patently illogical. The rest of your paper says absolutely nothing to rescue a PPP approach from the fundamental criticism that students don’t learn an L2 in the way it assumes they do.

    Furthermore, to say that the PPP approach is popular with students and that coursebooks are consumer-driven, and that PPP is attractive to low income countries is to make a naive appeal to an “apples and pears” group of factors that need to carefully examined and distinguished. I won’t go into any proper analysis now, but, just for example, the multi billion dollar ELT coursebook industry is not informed so much by the end users, as by the language teaching institutions, both public and private, that deliver foreign language courses to them. For these institutions, the coursebook is convenient – it packages the otherwise “messy” thing that is language learning. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t be cheapr, better, more efficient, and more rewarding for everybody if the coursebook and a PPP approach were abandoned.

    There’s also the fact that you ignore any serious consideration of a learner-centred approach and any version of the process syllabus suggested by Breen. There are issues of humanisitic education at stake here. Those of us who oppose PPP don’t do so only because it is contradicts what we know about SLA, but also because it adopts a pedagogy where students are given no say in the decisions that affect their learning, where the commodification of education goes unchallenged, where Friere’s “banking” view of education rules.

    Finally, your long quote from Penny Ur. She’s good at this kind of stuff, but it’s pure rhetoric. To say that all the factors she throws in “often actually” (note the hedge, but the emphatic “actually) have more influence on how grammar is taught, and whether it is successfully learnt, than any of those dealt with in research.” is to do nothing more than make an unsupported assertion.

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    1. Hi Geoff,

      While I thank you for the time and effort you’ve put into this lengthy comment, your response reads rather like a summary of Ellis’s 1994 edition of The Study of SLA. I respect his opinion, but things have moved on somewhat since the opinions and constructs you espouse were ‘generally accepted’. I disagree strongly with you when you assert that the research evidence is not telling us anything new. Try reading what, for example, Ellis and Shintani (Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisitions, 2014: 112) have said more recently about PPP (cited in my parallel ELT Education and Development article, which goes into more depth regarding SLA research than the ELT Journal article). Ellis and Shintani don’t agree with your summary, and agree that the SLA research evidence is no longer rejecting PPP, only ‘casting doubt’ on the 2nd P. By the way, in neither article do I say that explicit instruction is the same as PPP.

      SLA research aside, I believe strongly that we need to look much further than the limited field of SLA research as a knowledge base for our practice as teachers/trainers. Research from mainstream pedagogy, sociocultural theory, cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics are just as relevant, and I draw upon these in the ELT Education and Development piece.

      Given your approval of Doughty and Long, it was never very likely that we would agree on this issue! In the ELT Education and Development article, I cite Long’s 2015 book, Second Language Acquisition and Task-based Language Teaching as a recent misrepresentation of PPP. I don’t want to repeat what I’ve already said in that paper, so see the link above.

      But thanks again for your opinion, and please remember that first and foremost I’m trying to describe, contextualise and understand the durability of PPP. In addition to this, I’m arguing that we no longer have justification for rejecting it as less effective than other ‘lesson shapes’, on which point you and I clearly disagree.


      1. My comments come after the ***s

        You say “things have moved on somewhat since the opinions and constructs you espouse were ‘generally accepted’.”
        ***** What “constructs” have “moved on”? What are you talking about? What parts of interlanguages theory have “moved on”? Who do you think is impressed by this baloney? Give some evidence. But, of course you can’t becuase, as I said, there is no “new research evidence” to make us think that if teachers base their classes on the presentation and practice of a pre-determined sequence of discrete items of the language, everybody in the class will learn those forms and in that order.

        You say “I disagree strongly with you when you assert that the research evidence is not telling us anything new.”
        ***** I didn’t assert that the research evidence is not telling us anything new. I said that new research evidence does nothing to support your claim that PPP is an efficient approach to classroom ELT. You make your familiar mistake of conflating support for explicit instruction with support for a “PPP paradigm”. I cited Ortega (2009) who said “Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way”. Let me say, one more time, without much hope that you’ll get it, that this means that PPP (not, please note, explicit instruction) is based on a false assumption.

        You say “Try reading .. for example, Ellis and Shintani 2014.”
        ***** Try reading it properly yourself. Or just try reading carefully the part you quoted in your article, here::

        The research . . . suggests that there is merit in teaching explicit knowledge of grammar as an end in itself and in supporting this with teaching some metalanguage. It casts doubt on the value of the second P (controlled practice) in the PPP sequence. The research also suggests that explicit instruction is much more likely to be effective if it is directed at grammatical features that learners have partially acquired, rather than at new features… Explicit grammar instruction has a place in language teaching but not based on a grammatical syllabus. Instead it should draw on a checklist of problematic structures and observational evidence of their partial acquisition.

        Now, please, tell me: How can this quote be taken as evidence that Ellis and Shintani diasgree with my summary of interlanguage development, or with Ortega’s 2009 conclusion? And how can you suggest that this is part of the “more recent evidence” that “paints a significantly different picture” of the PPP approach?

        In the section dealing with SLA findings in your 2016 article, you repeatedly make the unwarranted claim that evidence for a role for explicit instruction is evidence to support the “PPP paradigm”. Here’s what you say:

        1. Ellis and Shintani’s findings “offer validity to aspects of PPP.”
        2. The meta-analyses by Norris & Ortega (2000) and Spada & Tomita (2010), suggest that explicit instruction (which includes PPP) is more effective than implicit instruction.
        3. Focus on Forms instruction (including PPP) is no less effective than Focus on Form instruction.
        4. Spada and Lightbown’s (2008) review comparing studies into isolated form-focused instruction (i.e. FonFs, including PPP) and integrated form-focused instruction (FonF), found clear justifications for both depending on context.

        In 1. What they actually offer validity to is explicit grammar instruction, but not to controlled practice, and certainly not to implementing a synthetic grammar-based syllabus where a succession of bits of the language are given the PPP treatment.
        In 2, 3, and 4, focus on forms receives support, but not PPP.

        So there is no evidence whatsoever in your article to support your claim that new SLA research findings support your “PPP paradigm”.

        You go on to say that “research from mainstream pedagogy, sociocultural theory, cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics” is “just as relevant” as findings from “the limited field of SLA research.” We may first note that sociocultural theory, cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics are all parts of SLA research, and we may then note that the parts of your piece in the ELTED journal devoted to skill learning theory and “appropriate contexts for PPP” are as poorly researched and argued as the rest of it. I’ll deal with them in a separate reply.

        Finally, you say that Long’s (2015) SLA and TBLT is “a recent misrepresentation of PPP” and that you don’t want to repeat what you said in your ELTED article. It’s a measure of the quality and rigour of your work that you can seriously claim this. I defy anybody to read the few words you devote to Long’s “misenterpretation” and say that it deals seriously with Long’s criticisms of PPP.


      2. Thank you for your detailed further comments. Before I reply I suggest that you avoid the use of meaningless rhetoric, for which you criticised Ur in a previous comment.

        The crux of your criticism of my defence of PPP lies in the repeated argument that my references do not offer support for PPP, only for explicit instruction and Focus on Forms instruction. Let’s have a look at Ron Sheen’s “Key Concepts in ELT: ‘Focus on form’ and ‘focus on forms’” (2002: 303-304). Here he says:

        “’Focus on formS’, on the other hand, is based on the assumption that classroom foreign or second language learning derives from general cognitive processes, and thus entails the learning of a skill–hence its being characterised as a ‘skills-learning approach’. As such, it comprises three stages:
        1 providing understanding of the grammar by a variety of means (including explanation in the L1, pointing out differences between the L1 and the L2);
        2 exercises entailing using the grammar in both non-communicative and communicative activities for both comprehension and production;
        3 providing frequent opportunities for communicative use of the grammar to promote automatic, accurate, use.”

        This is in my opinion a fairly clear description of PPP, similar to that I provide in both my articles, and the closest that the SLA literature gets to ‘PPP’. And as your comment mentions, focus on forms receives support.

        Please bear in mind that my ELT Journal article was peer-reviewed by four separate reviewers, all of whom were designated by the editor to have relevant expertise on the topic in question. If you disagree so strongly, why don’t you submit a piece to the Readers Respond section of ELT Journal? That would help to ensure that your opinion reaches a wider audience.


  5. Sorry, I forgot the reference:

    Ortega (2009) “Sequences and processes in language learning”. In the truly excellent Long and Doughty (2009) “Handbook of Language Teaching”. Wiley.


  6. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for this again. On the issue of context, granted the ELTJ is an academic journal, but it’s also one some teachers look at (e.g. DIP trainees) as its focus is very much on classroom practice.

    My question about “filtering down” would be that you presuppose that classroom EFL teachers are aware enough of academic influence to be able to resist it. I doubt this is the case for the majority below DIP level, which I’m guessing is the majority overall. But this is maybe too pessimistic a view.

    Further to that, isn’t it a little disingenuous to invite Ts to treat SLA research with caution when you yourself have appealed to it in defence of PPP? And in a manner which, arguably, wasn’t too cautious, given the scant reference to PPP in some of the literature you cite?

    On your last point/quotation – I’m sure few would deny the influence of all these factors on what constitutes effective teaching/learning. But the SLA element on that list is already one of those that gets largely ignored in initial teacher-training and beyond. And I’m certainly not convinced that PPP is the go-to lesson format that best absorbs the tension of all these competing elements (although I’m sure that’s not what you’re claiming). It is, after all, just a staging model – maybe the real debate to be had is about the learning theory that it’s so often grafted onto, namely that represented by the structural-grammatical syllabus. Your article offers some hope in that regard as it places PPP (version 1.0 at least) firmly within the communicative tradition. It would be nice to put it back there.


    1. Thanks again Neil.

      ELT Journal is both academic and practical. It brings the 2 together very nicely in my opinion. I perceived therefore it was the best place for this article. Regarding the influence of academic discourse on teachers’ practice, your point is valid, but do remember that the vast majority of English language teachers worldwide don’t follow the Cert-Dip path that is prescribed in esp. UK private ELT – they gain qualified teacher status on courses similar to our PGCE (some do MAs too – which does often provide the SLA background theory). Most receive a very different type of training that I think we need to understand in order to work effectively as teacher educators in mainstream education. We need to understand the whole context of this education, and their other education, including their ‘apprenticeship of observation’ (Lortie’s [1975] term for their many years they spend as students in classes themselves and the influence it has on their practice as teachers).

      Regarding treating SLA research with caution, I don’t think this presupposes us from recognising its importance (which I most definitely do), or drawing on its evidence, especially when we’re talking about its most robust research – the 2 meta-analyses, and the survey review that I cite. But caution means caution, and recognising that there are issues with some of the research out there.

      Regarding the lack of reference to PPP in the literature, one of the issues here is that SLA researchers tend to use alternative terms – ‘isolated form focus’, ‘Focus on Forms’, and Spada and Tomita’s (2010) research that supports the strong interface position that “declarative (i.e. explicit) knowledge obtained via explicit instruction can be converted into procedural (i.e. implicit) knowledge with practice” – something that Ellis (Principles of Instructed SLA, 2008: 3) has said would justify PPP. I recognise of course that explicit instruction does not equal PPP, but I don’t say this in either paper.

      Regarding your last point, I absolutely agree. And I like the use of the term ‘staging model’. Many thanks again for your interesting observations.


  7. In reply to the criticism that the references you cite don’t give any support to your claims. you provide another reference!
    Sheen says no more than that it’s possible to see language learning as skills-learning, and that this could involve the 3 stages he describes. No evidence is given to support this view, and it’s a view that many SLA scholars reject, partly because it contradicts SLA research findings which indicate, and here we go again, that “Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way” (Ortega, 2009). Consequently, those who don’t agree with Sheen argue that the “first explain and then practice” approach to general learning is not the best approach to language learning. And anyway, even if you accept Sheen’s view, it STILL doesn’t amount to an endorsement of your claims for PPP. Quite simply, evidence for the undoubted value of some explicit instruction, and controversial arguments for the efficacy of a skills approach to language teaching, do not support the assumption that if teachers use a synthetic, grammar-based syllabus to present and practice pre-selected bits of language in a pre-determined order, their students will learn what they’re taught in the order they’re taught it.
    Throughout, I’ve been commenting on your ELTED article, which you tell us is “a more academic paper that discusses PPP validity in more detail” than the ELTJ article.

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    1. Thanks again Geoff. But the key point of your previous post was to show that support for Focus on Forms is not support for PPP. My reason for citing Sheen 2002 is to provide an objective point of reference (the aim of the ELT J Key Concepts pieces is to provide such points of reference) to show a very clear similarity, and, as you yourself have stated above, Focus on Forms receives support from the references provided. QED, there is support for PPP. Bear in mind that as I mentioned at the start of this blog, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of PPP, and I have never argued that it is sufficient on its own. But what I have gleaned from my research is that there is support for PPP in the literature, it has increased over the last 15 years or so, and that the evidence indicates that it is no less effective than other ways of structuring a lesson.


  8. No, sorry, not QED at all. From “Focus on Forms receives support from the references provided” it has NOT been proved that there is support for PPP, unless you more carefully restrict what PPP refers to. You begin your article by outlining how you see PPP working – as the central principle in a synthetic syllabus where bits of the language have been chopped up in such a way that they can then be presented, practiced and produced throughout a a pre-determined order on the assumption that students will learn what they are presented when they’re presented with it. This assumption is false; and none of the sources you cite,not even Sheen, makes it.
    The use of explicit instruction of various types, including FoF, FoFs, and PPP for 30 minutes now and then in response to a perceived problem is not the same as implementing a syllabus using a coursebook devoted to turning every class into a PPP structured session.

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    1. But according to Long’s original definition (1991) of Focus on Forms (and he, like you, was also arguing against it for similar reasons), Focus on Forms include exactly the kind of ‘synthetic syllabus’ you are arguing can’t work. Just in case you don’t have a copy of Long’s paper to hand, here is what he says:

      “As distinct from a focus on form, to which we return below, structural syllabi, ALM, and variants thereof involve a focus on forms. That is to say, the content of the syllabus and of lessons based on it is the linguistic items themselves (structures, notions, lexical items, etc.); a lesson is designed to teach “the past continuous”, “requesting” and so on, nothing else.”
      Long, M. H. 1991. ‘Focus on Form – A design feature in language teaching methodology’ p. 44

      And let us remember that it is this Focus on Forms that receive support from the references.

      By the way, you make the point that because I’m arguing that PPP can work I’m assuming ‘that students will learn what they are presented when they’re presented with it’. This depends what you mean by ‘learn’, and what indicators you choose to identify whether learning has happened. I believe that learning is complex and a slow, cyclical process, and that learning happens gradually and can involve greater declarative awareness that is gradually proceduralised through practice, along with skill learning theory (e.g. Anderson 1983), as I note later in the ELTED paper (p.6): “The extent and type of production will depend on learners’ prior knowledge of what is being taught. If this is the first time learners are encountering a grammatical structure, less demanding and more highly scaffolded tasks (such as collaborative writing) will be selected. If prior knowledge is expected, more procedurally demanding, freer activities will be chosen (such as role-plays).”

      What’s most interesting from your latest comment is when you imply that “The use of explicit instruction of various types, including FoF, FoFs, and PPP for 30 minutes now and then in response to a perceived problem” may not necessarily be a bad thing, i.e. that PPP can work if used appropriately. This is what I’ve been arguing all along. Nowhere in either paper do I imply that we should be “implementing a syllabus using a coursebook devoted to turning every class into a PPP structured session”. I note at the end of the ELT ED article: “At this point it is important to emphasise that PPP cannot and should not be promoted as a framework for structuring all lesson types.” (p.19), and conclude the ELT J article: “[PPP] is only one of many lesson shapes necessary if we are to provide our learners with an appropriate combination of intensive and extensive skills work alongside both isolated and integrated form focus in a balanced curriculum.” (p.9)

      It seems we agree after all! 🙂


  9. This is my last comment.
    You say that you have gleaned from your research “that there is support for PPP in the literature, it has increased over the last 15 years or so, and that the evidence indicates that it is no less effective than other ways of structuring a lesson”.
    1. There is no support in the SLA literature for using PPP in the way you suggest.
    2. There is no evidence in the SLA literature to suggest that PPP is as effective as other ways of structuring a lesson, because that’s not a good framework for any serious research study. But there is a great deal of evidence to support the view that teaching can affect the rate but not the route of interlanguage development. One implication of these findings is that learners are impervious to attempts made by using a PPP approach to teach them what they are not ready to learn. Another implication is that language learning is special, and can’t be well explained using a skills learning model.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 1. As mentioned above, and as we agree, there is such support for Focus on Forms in the SLA research literature, which is very similar to, and the closest that the SLA literature gets to, PPP. In the cognitive psychology literature (Anderson 1983) there is support for a skills learning framework, which includes the same 3 stages.

      2a. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘that’s not a good framework for any serious research study’. Remember that I’m arguing that there is no evidence that there is any more effective way of structuring a lesson. If you want to argue that there is ‘no evidence in the SLA literature to suggest that PPP is as effective as other ways of structuring a lesson’ you’re actually arguing that PPP is less effective, which you haven’t yet managed to demonstrate.

      2b. I think you do me as a language learner, and my learners an injustice when you say that we are impervious to learning by a PPP-type model. As Swan notes in his ‘Learning by Hypothesis’ paper: “The on-line claim [that acquisition only takes place during meaningful communication] is also undermined by the experience of the countless people who have apparently learnt languages successfully by ‘traditional’ methods incompatible with the hypothesis. And, if pushed to the limit, it is seriously counterintuitive. (Suppose I tell you that Japanese questions are made by adding the particle ‘ka’ to the corresponding statements, and suppose that a year later you start learning Japanese and remember what I told you. Are you really not able to ask questions until the rule has been acquired naturalistically in the prescribed way?)” (2005: 379, my square brackets)

      2c. Regarding your very interesting point about language learning being special, and the skills learning model being inappropriate, you may need to read Anderson (1983) again. He is very well aware of the complexity of language learning. And interestingly, regarding the question of whether language learning is different to other types of learning, the original Chomskian theory that led us to believe it’s different has also been strongly eroded (although I personally feel that the truth might be somewhere between). See here. Happy reading!


  10. I promised not to comment further. Let me just say I really liked your stuff on bird-watching and the splendid photo of you in the river. Now that’s what I call research 🙂


  11. Key to this discussion appears to be whether evidence for the efficacy of explicit grammar instruction amounts to support for PPP as a classroom approach. Surely it does not, since support for PPP involves commitments to several things apart from a belief in the efficacy of explicit grammar instruction. The usefulness of focussed practice of some particular grammar item, for example, is not well established, and runs counter, I think, to most of our personal experience of language learning. Being told that adding ‘ka’ to the front of a Japanese statement turns it into a question is indeed likely to be helpful. So helpful, indeed, as to be perhaps sufficient (This was certainly my own experience when learning negation in Greek; just stick ‘then’ in front of the statement you want to negate). What is not clear is whether hours spent doing gapfill exercises, mill drills etc etc adds anything.


    1. I should elobrate on Sman’s example more. Suppose I explain that, in Greek, to form the past tense, you should, depending on the person, change the final vowel of the verb in various ways and move the stressed syllable in the verb from its usual, ultimate or penultimate, postion to the prepenultimate postion (and in the case of verbs with only two syllables introduce a new initial syllable in order to satisfy the above condition) and then, a year from now, you begin learning Greek, will you really find this advice particularly helpful?


      1. Hi Patrick,

        Many thanks for your contribution. If you have a look at my discussion with Geoff Jordan above, you will see he agrees that Focus on Forms receives support, and my references to both Long (1991 – his definition of Focus on Forms), and Sheen (2002) demonstrate that PPP is very similar to focus on forms, and the closest that the SLA literature gets to it. Nowhere do I argued that explicit instruction is the same as PPP. The reason I invoke it is to demonstrate the gradual shift from the late 80s/ early 90s when the influence of Krashen meant that many were rejecting any interface between explicit and implicit knowledge and consequently arguing that explicit instruction does not lead to acquisition (Ellis 1994). That has clearly changed, and few, excluding Krashen, are arguing against explicit instruction. Look again at the Spada and Tomita (2010) paper, and the section that I cite, which provides strong support for practice in converting explicit knowledge to implicit (procedural) knowledge. Ellis has said on more than one occasion (e.g. 2008 Principles of instructed SLA, p.3) that:

        “The interface position supports PPP—the idea that a grammatical structure should be first presented explicitly and then practiced until it is fully proceduralized (i.e., automatized).”

        You make the point that “being told that adding ‘ka’ to the front of the Japanese statement turns it into a question is indeed likely to be helpful”. As such, aside from the very interesting point that you make below, that this isn’t likely to apply to the more complex aspects of grammar learning (I agree), you are agreeing with Swan that our explicit knowledge of at least some bits of grammar is likely to enable us to use it in communicative situations (do read his paper if you haven’t). With regard to the fascinating bit of Greek grammar that you refer to (I’ve found similar complexities in Kinyarwanda, Russian and Tigrinya), my personal experience is that I find oral drills (i.e. controlled practice) very useful in helping me to proceduralise these transformations, specifically in more synthetic languages. That’s personal experience from someone who has studied 11 languages in his life (both analytic and synthetic, Indo-European and non-Indo-European), is not a fast language learner, and is proud to say that he today speaks four with some degree of fluency.

        With regard to your comment that “What is not clear is whether hours spent doing gapfill exercises, mill drills etc etc adds anything.”, this is hardly either an accurate representation of PPP, nor is it in any way similar to how I describe it in either article. At no point do I suggest that spending hours doing this sort of thing is a good idea, and is the kind of misrepresentation that opponents of PPP tend to invoke (see my reference to Long 2015 in the ELT Ed paper) in order to argue against it.

        Liked by 1 person

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