Scott Thornbury: a reflection on teaching

“An important test of our success as language tachers.. is the ability of our students to choose to say what they want”  Newmark L.


“If we focus too much on every bit of language then our children will be adults before they are finished and adults would be dead.”  Thornbury, 2016.


Interesting look at how learning has evolved in 50 years of IATEFL.  As we move away from a mistakes-focused methodology to language learning as a skill to be acquired.

In relation to our current topic of PLNs, as teachers we need to think about how we can harness students’ inate acquisition skills – to create productive, but not overwhelming, personal learning.


Thornbury is generous enough to share his own results from his International English Training cert. and I thought I’d post this for every teacher who panics about their own grammar ability.  We are not teaching the future grammarians or linguists.  We are ambassadors – promoting this wonderful land “The English Language”.  Sadly, despite the proposed theories of the importance of communication (70s onwards), as Thornbury points out, not much has changed.  Perhaps because

“…it is easy to test grammar use of students”

But if we acknowledge grammar is not the core of language learning, then why is it included in so many syllabuses?  Answer (from a survey of professional teachers):

“because students expect it” 49% / “ELT publishers are unwilling to take risks”48%

However while teachers agree it is easier to teach, to test, and write the books about it; the majority of teachers did not think it was the most essential factor in any language.

“The solution…,is to forge a new field, educational linguistics, and this would finally allow SLA to cure its classic schizophrenia.”    Van Lier.

This would also allow us to focus less on testing and more on creating a positive and effective learning experience.

sugata mitraSo Thornbury proposes we have three routes:  The pragmatic (accept what it is – not expecting complete communicative competence), the dogmatic (get rid of coursebooks – use language for communication) and the dialectic (get rid of the teacher.  Language learning is innate – we just need to activate it.

So let’s look Thornbury’s alternatives:  Language Learning in the Wild:  Students go out into the ‘wild’ to do ‘real’ tasks, but in addition, the shop workers have been trained to respond to these students. or The Hands-Up Project which beams ELT teachers straight into classrooms around the word.  How much of the elements either of these projects I can use will need to be looked at in more detail.  But what I love about both these projects is the emphasis on communication.  For me teaching English is not because I love grammar (yuck) but because I love the richness of the English language and its ability to not only connect me to others, but that World Englishes and English as a Franca Lingua gives me access to so many other cultures and peoples.  English is not just about red buses and cream teas.

In conclusion, what am I taking away from IATEFL 2016?  That the future of EFL, ESL etc. is bright as long as we have the enthusiastic voices of Scott Thornbury, Diane Larsen-Freeman and Sugata Mitra.

A copy of the presentation can be found at





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