Three is the magic number: Commentary

The answers and some reflections

Click here to do the quiz first, if you haven’t done it!

Some of these are planning paradigms, designed to help teachers, especially trainees to plan lessons. Others are mnemonics that may help trainee teachers learn important skills and procedures at the start of their career. Here are my reflections, interpreting them largely from the point of view of a pre-service teacher trainer:

1. ESA

engage, study, activate

Jeremy Harmer’s planning paradigm (e.g. Harmer, 1998, How to teach English). The 3 elements are flexible in order and the Engage element emphasises the importance of learner involvement in the learning process. Personally, I quite like this emphasis, but I’ve had issues when training teachers on CELTA courses and CertTESOLs with regard to 3 areas:

  • All Engage activities are also either Study or Activate. It’s possible to Engage learners through either, if done well. This leads to the question as to whether categories are being confused. While Engage is solely a description of stage purpose/aim, Study and Activate are largely identified by activity type.  As one trainee once asked me, shouldn’t Study and Activate also be engaging? This has led to a lot of E/S or E/A on lesson plans.
  • Input skills: Trainees find it really difficult judging whether a reading or listening activity is Study or Activate.
  • Study encompasses a lot in this model. This leads trainees to presume, sometimes wrongly, that the lesson is too ‘teacher-centred’ because it has a lot of it.

2. ARC

authentic (practice), restricted (practice), clarification

Jim Scrivener’s planning paradigm (e.g. Scrivener, 1994, Learning Teaching). The 3 elements are flexible in order and often presented in a pyramid that emphasises the importance of authentic practice. Interesting, but it raises the question of what authenticity is. While at first analysis it seems fairly obvious, it’s actually a surprisingly elusive thing to describe in ELT. See, for example, Cook’s (1997) article for ELT Journal; ‘Language play, language learning’ (not to be confused with his book of the same name), or see my reflections on this in my ETP article ‘The uniqueness of gameplay’ from 2015 here, or my webinar here and blog here on authenticity in game play). It can be argued, as Widdowson does (1998), that authenticity is impossible in the language classroom:

“I would, on the contrary, argue against using authentic language in
the classroom, on the fairly reasonable grounds that it is actually
impossible to do so.”

1998, p.711, Context, community and authentic language, for TESOL Quarterly

This appears to leave a model premised on ‘authentic language use’ on rather unstable ground.

3. PPP

presentation, practice, productionppp monster

The oldest planning paradigm, Ridiculed by many authors in the 1990s especially (Lewis, 1993; Scrivener, 1994; Willis, 1994) especially for being too prescriptive in that the stages are expected to happen in the same pre-specified order. Yet it has stood the test of time probably because of its simplicity – a key facet of all successful learning paradigms. Two interesting, balanced appraisals of it include Harmer’s article for ETP in 1996 ‘Is PPP dead?’, and Scott Thornbury’s video blog on it (see here). Thornbury notes that it has plausibility for learners, and tends to reflect coursebook structure. Harmer makes the point that it can be interpreted more flexibly than some of the criticisms state.

4. COW

concept, oral, writtendinocow

An old mnemonic used to guide trainee teachers when explaining new vocabulary. The idea is that the concept is presented first, then the oral form is practised, and finally the written form, with the arguably mistaken assumption that if it’s done this way round the written form of a word is less likely to cause pronunciation errors. I think this probably depends more on how visual or aural a learner is. It is also problematic because a huge amount of new vocabulary is rightly noticed in written form by the learners first, which provides context, which enables understanding. Almost extinct.

5. DIG

demonstrate, instruct, give

A simple mnemonic for giving instructions, often used with trainee teachers. The idea is to begin with the example, then instruct and only give out the materials afterwards. Doesn’t seem to account for the fact that sometimes learners need to see a resource closely to understand how to use it, nor for the fact that they may already have the resource if it’s in their coursebook.

6. OHE

observe, hypothesize, experiment

Michael Lewis’s paradigm for describing how learners acquire new structures. At the time it was praised for being very ‘learner-centred’, but personally I have found it of little use when planning lessons precisely because it focuses predominantly on individual, internal processes, rather than those processes that we can observe, plan for and respond to when (we think) we see them happening. I suspect this might be why it never caught on (e.g. Michael Lewis, 1996, The Lexical Approach).

7. TTT

test, teach, test

teacher talking time

total time on test

All 3 are possible! Test, teach, test is a lesson structure used in ELT especially when a teacher specifically wants to demonstrate progress at the end of a lesson. It involves a quick test at the start to check prior knowledge, followed by a ‘standard lesson’ and then  assessment at the end. Teacher Talking Time, the most common of the 3 in ELT is often contrasted (negatively) with Student Talking Time (STT), when consideration of the balance of these 2 elements is under discussion. Total time on test is a concept from statistical analysis, used as a means of testing reliability – not really TEFL related, but I had to put a trick question in there somewhere!

8. III

illustration, interaction, induction

McCarthy and Carter’s planning paradigm. It was tagged onto the end of a very interesting article on spoken grammar in ELT Journal, and is, to be honest, a bit bizarre. Here’s what they say about it:

“‘Illustration’ here means wherever possible examining real data which is presented in terms of choices of forms relative to context and use. ‘Interaction’ means that learners are introduced to discourse-sensitive activities which focus on interpersonal uses of language and the negotiation of meanings, and which are designed to raise conscious awareness of these interactive properties through observation and class discussion. ‘Induction’ takes the consciousness-raising a stage further by encouraging learners to draw conclusions about the interpersonal functions of different lexicogrammatical options, and to develop a capacity for noticing such features as they move through the different stages and cycles of language learning.”

1995, p. 217; Spoken grammar: what is it and how can we teach it?

Good. So nice and simple then. That should go down well with teachers who aren’t sure what ‘discourse’, ‘consciousness-raising’, ‘lexicogrammatical’ and ‘interpersonal’ mean. Wonder why it never caught on?

9. TBL

pre-task, task cycle, language focus

Interestingly, Willis’ model (in A framework for task-based learning, 1996) is not flexible in order, and many teachers and trainees often feel it’s upside-down when they first encounter it. While many of us sneakily do the language focus before the task cycle (as does Cutting Edge, the alleged ‘TBL coursebook’, if used as designed), Willis has always insisted that the evidence from research supports this order. That evidence is far from conclusive (see Michael Swan’s 2005 paper: Legislation by hypothesis: The case of task-based instruction). Then there’s the question of what is (or rather what isn’t) a task…

10. Why do these things always come in 3s?

It’s the smallest amount of information that can create a pattern, also known as the ‘rule of threes’ in advertising.

This answer is pure speculation. See here. But I think it’s the most plausible one. Let me know if you disagree? Also, have I missed out any?


3 thoughts on “Three is the magic number: Commentary

  1. Thank you very much indeed for the food for thought. The manner of presentation is particularly creative – you are involved in the process of studying/teaching without even realizing it. It is informative and also fun!


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