Tony Gurr

ELT’s “Dirty Little Secrets”…Part Two

In ELT and ELL, The Paradigm Debate on 23/02/2011 at 5:28 am

Steven Tyler: Well hellfire…Randy? Where did we leave things last night?

Randy Jackson: Dawg…that post had me on the edge of my seat! That was da bomb!

Jennifer Lopez: Why did I sign up for this?! I wanna go home!


We left things yesterday with a question…what are the dirty little secrets of ELT?

  • ELT, like all language learning endeavours, cannot guarantee success!

  • ELT, like all educational endeavours, has no “magic bullet” or single “best-practice model” (even if one did exist, the probability of it working on an “anytime-anywhere basis” would be zero)!

  • ELT, like almost all areas of modern human endeavour, operates in a world that is “answer-orientated” and has become addicted the notion of the “quick-fix”!


The first of our dirty little secrets is the result of the “the logical problem of language acquisition”. This problem is a fundamental dilemma that keeps many teaching professionals and practitioners awake at night.

As Bley-Vroman notes:

The lack of general guaranteed success is the most striking characteristic of adult foreign language learning. Normal children inevitably achieve perfect mastery of the language; adult foreign language learners do not.

… Not only is success in adult foreign language learning not guaranteed, complete success is extremely rare, or perhaps even non-existent, especially as regards ‘accent’ and the ability to make subtle grammaticality judgments.

Bley-Vroman’s logical problem essentially highlights the fact that ELT has not been able to fully explain its own “reality”. Yani, why it is that there are many adults who achieve very high language proficiency levels when they have enough time and input, put in enough effort and exhibit the right attitude, motivation and learning strategies/styles – in a nutshell, are provided with the right learning opportunities, in the right environment, at the right time.

And, why others do not – or end up all “fossilised”.

Neither have we been able to fully explain why so many “young learners” are not achieving the proficiency levels their young brains suggest they care capable of attaining. But, let’s save that one for another conversation…

Graddol also hints at the second of ELT’s dirty little secrets when he notes:

There is no single way of teaching English, no single way of learning it, no single motive for doing so, no single syllabus or textbook, no single way of assessing proficiency and, indeed, no single variety of English which provides the target of learning. It is tempting, but unhelpful, to say there are as many combinations of these as there are learners and teachers.

He is also correct when he suggests that:

the teaching of English has been seen in the past as largely a technical issue about the best methodology, a practical issue of resources in teacher training and text books

In saying this he is suggesting that there are big changes that have taken place in how we do business as a profession.

So what has changed – in practice?

If the first of our dirty little secrets acknowledges that the profession is built on a “black box”, the second suggests that the black box is also full of “something else”.

This something else is the beliefs, attitudes and underlying assumptions of ELT teachers and institutions themselves.

We all know that there are many, many, many unresolved debates on the place of grammar, comprehension, input and skills in ELT.  We also know that many ELT experts disagree on the best way to “teach” speaking, vocabulary and writing – and we also hear stories that a large number of instructors / lecturers still teach how they were taught or use “folklore” that flies in the face of more recent foreign language pedagogy and second language acquisition research.

The problem is that there are two “gaps”:

  • what we say we “used to do” yesterday and what we say “we do” today.
  • where we say “we are going” and where we “remain in practice” today.

We can see these gaps when we compare what many students say about their experiences of learning English and what institutions say about themselves on their web pages…what we say about the approaches we use as institutions and what actually happens in many classrooms around the world.

For example, I was in a student chat-room the other day – the students there were talking about whether it was a good idea to “pass” or “fail” (on purpose) the ELT prep school exam.

What had happened to these kids to make them so “strategic” that they would choose to “waste” a year of their lives?

In exploring the true nature of both gaps, I think it’s fair to ask all schools and universities involved in ELT:

  • Where are all the best practices people are talking about – in practice?
  • Where are the so-called improvements that are expanding learning – in practice?
  • Where are all the transformational practices that are making a real difference to the lives of our learners – in practice?

  • Where is the “next practice” that is guiding us on our journey into the 21st century?

These questions of “best” or “next” practice bring us to the third of our dirty little secrets.

I am not sure that as a profession we have truly moved on from lock-step teaching, that we have really embraced learning-centred practice or that we have drawn enough on the potential of technology to improve and expand the quality of student language learning.

I may be mistaken – and there are many great “champions” out there who can prove me wrong. But, the fact of the matter is I am talking about the wider profession – not the courageous individuals out there in the trenches trying to walk-their-talk, breaking the rules and pushing boundaries!

We need more of these “guys”!

The third dirty little secret is essentially about how we breathe life into all the innovations we discuss and all the ideas we pick up from conferences and websites. Sadly, our addiction to “answers”, things that “work” and “quick-fix bags of tricks” has not been able to realise wider change across the profession as a whole.

We have ELT experts doing the “conference circuit” rehashing the same sessions they had last year, the same bag of tricks from the year before that…and data telling us that conference presentations still only impact 10-15% of their “listeners” in a meaningful way.

This type of “learning” simply feeds the culture of “alıntı, çalıntı ve mış-gibi yapmak” (the Turkish for “borrowing, ripping off, and faking-it-till-you-make-it”) that characterises so much of how we “do business” in today’s world – not just in the world of ELT.

A key question that comes to mind – and I do not wish to play the blame game here (OK – maybe I do) – is whether it is ELT professionals themselves or the schools, universities and education systems (in which they find themselves) that have contributed most to this culture of “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak”.

It is certainly true that many talented ELT professionals find themselves in organisations that demonstrate a profound lack of conceptual clarity (in terms of who they are and where they are going). It is also a reality that current trends in testing and assessment mean that many of us are forced to work in systems that look more like an “examocracy” than “learning academies”.

However, as individuals we also have to go to that “dark place” and ask ourselves some tough questions:

  • What is our “talk” – as individual educators?
  • Are we truly “walking-our-talk” – as individual educators?
  • …and, What do we do – if we discover a “dirty little secret” or two about ourselves?


My thanks to Brian McVeigh for helping me learn about “examocracies” – and seeing that there are many more of these “educato-examination systems” around the world!


Bley-Vroman, R. (1989). The logical problem of foreign language learning. Linguistic Analysis 19:56-104.

McVeigh, B. J. (2006). The State Bearing Gifts: Deception and disaffection in Japanese higher education. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, Rowman & Little­field Publishers, Inc.

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