Tony Gurr

BIG Questions for ELL…in 2013!

In ELT and ELL, Teacher Learning, The Paradigm Debate on 02/01/2013 at 6:42 am

The BIG Question:

Checken or Egg (photo TG ver)


…could be applied to matters of LEARNing and TEACHing.


Actually – as I was drafting (the original version of) this post, I (quite accidentally) discovered that Scott Thornbury is using a very similar title for his new e-book (to be published very shortly by The Round).

Scott’s idea is a pretty cool one – “re-engineering” a number of the core posts from his great “A-Z of ELT” and helping those lovely guys at The Round realise their goal of creating more bridges between the blogosphere and the world of conventional publishing.

This is why I felt I (just) had to re-blog a new, re-imagineered version of this post – to lose the Xmas “feel” I went with originally!


Scott’s book is already shaping up to be a great addition to our ELT Library –  you can get a “taste” (or a “tease”) by clicking HERE.


The THING is...


…YOU guessed it !


There is a bit of a problem with much of this “library”  of ours – a library that publishers have been helping us build up since the late 1970’s…a library that, I would argue, misses a great deal of the the “wood” for the “trees” (trees all those conventional publishers are busy “chopping down” on our behalf)!


TEACHers do, of course, need books n’ stuff to help with their LEARNing.  

I’m not suggesting we should go all “Fahrenheit 451” on our favorite volumes and works of EDUliteracy. I’m saying perhaps we need a different “perspective” on how we look at the “business” we are in – and how we “do” that “business” around the globe through the books we read!


Let me elaborate…with some BIG NUMBERS!


Lies (people and stats)


Before we get to the numbers (and people)…let’s start with a question:

How many English Language LEARNers are there – on the planet?

A tough one – I know!


Well, if David Graddol is even close to being half-right – around a third of the world’s population (yes, I said 33.33% of around 7,018,500,000 human beings) – are trying to LEARN English – right now!


give or take a million or so (and their dogs)!


If you (as I have just done) also do a quick Google search for the acronym “ELT“, you’ll get around 37,800,000 potential bits of “bedtime reading”. However, when you do a similar search for “English Language LEARNing” – Google can only come up with around 1,910,000 pages for you to ignore.

And, “yes” – I know you can get just over 62 million pages of digital reading, if you use the acronym. But, then again…take a closer look at some of these hits – not all ELL “hits” are equal!

BESIDES…if you try “English Language Teaching”…the world’s favourite search engine will cough up 171 million results for you.


Yani, almost three times as much “stuff” on TEACHing…than LEARNing!


Now, this may not be much…when compared with the 252,000,000 results that you can potentially browse when you type the two little words Justin + Bieber” (and do not even ask me what happens when you type “Lady Gaga)!



…the point is…


English Language TEACHing is BIG businessa huge “industry”…and we ain’t even touched on “textbooks” just yet!

An industry, for example, that nets the UK almost £1,500,000,000…everysinglebloody year! Not too shabby…not too shabby at all…just don’t get me started on global sales of the Top 50 publishers!

Let’s just say Amazon and Kindle have NOT delivered on their “promise”yet!

The BIG question I have, when I consider these HUGE numbers…numbers that relate to LEARNers and their LEARNing (or SPENDing)…is this:
Why do we call it the “ELT Industry” – not the “ELL Industry”?
I said, a wee bit before, we ain’t touched on textbooks…so I guess we should.
English Language LEARNers spend king’s ransom after king’s ransom on these lovely “paper-based LEARNing opportunities” – but we hardly ever hear them being described as the cornerstone of the “ELL Industry”.
Or, did I just miss the memo?
very rarely hear students talking about “my” textbook. It’s more a case of (the more “distant” phrase“our” book – you know, the one the TEACHer “uses”. The vast majority of TEACHers do appear to have more “ownership” of the textbooks they use in class – than the students that cough up good money for them (or, at least, take the time to photocopy them – as they are found to be too expensive for many cash-strapped students).
As it’s these same TEACHers that control the “pace” of “textbook page turning” in our classrooms (I don’t think I have EVER heard a student ever say “Let’s turn to page 15”)…
…I guess the whole ELT thingy really does make sense, after all – yani.


The BIG problem isas my “birth-father” (the gossip is “working”) has noted:

Rogers QUOTE (Facilitation of LEARNing)

Scott…and many of his mates…”get” this!


TEACHers like Scott “favour dialogue over transmission” and recognise that the process of NOT trying to fill “empty vessels” on a 24/7 basis is best facilitated by ASKing questions.

This is why he has promised us a “question-driven” approach in his new book – and some of the “teaser questions” he’ll be looking at are:

  • How do you achieve ‘flow’ in your teaching?
  • What makes an activity ‘communicative’?
  • Is there anything wrong with rote learning?
  • Can you teach well without planning?
  • Do rules help?

These are wonderful questions…and I’m sure many TEACHers will be very eager to read Scott’s “answers”


Fewer, I fear, will take the time to reflect on his “questions for discussion” – many will totally miss the real point behind the book (IMHO).


WHY (joker Face)

…am I thunking in such a dark & gloomy manner at the start of a bright NEW YEAR?


Well, it’s quite simple really! I do not have much of a choice…the way things stand at the moment.

The ELT Industry is made up of suppliers (who seek to push their wares into this “market” of almost 234,000,000 LEARNers) …and “providers” (institutional players like our schools, colleges and universities).


Both of these sets of “stakeholders” have to be “seen” to have all the ANSWERS.


Get Answers Button

If they were seen to be more about “LEARNing” (than being “LEARNed” and “expert”)…they might not make as much money or “get” as many students!


Peter Block has been telling us for years that it is this “take” on “what matters” that keeps luring us back to the Dark Side.

This “fascination” we have with allthingsanswers – drives our relentless search for the next “big thing”“quick-fix” or “magic bullet”. The “obsession” we have with an “answer-orientated” way of doing “business”…prevents us from really “seeing” the (LEARNing) wood for the (TEACHing) trees we noted earlier!


Time for a RANT

That “business” in ELT is still dominated by the interests (or “convenience”) of our INSTITUTIONS – the thingsthe fixes….the bullets we focus on are, more often than not, all about the TEACHing.

Very few of our institutions take the time to ask the questions we need to ask – probably because the questions themselves are just “too” important! Instead, our preference for “quick-fix” TEACHing recipes all too often does little more than advance the culture of “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak” (the Turkish for “borrowing, ripping off, and faking-it-till-you-make-it”) – rather than meaningful attention to student LEARNing and SUCCESS.


Now, around about 500 words ago, you probably got a very crisp mental image of “me” in your head – just another guy having a rant! Just another guy having a bitch an’ a whine – with no bloody “answers”!

Isn’t that the whole point…the whole problem?


Block (fingerprint quote)


Well, to prove I do mean “well”I want to challenge all our “ELT Institutions” with a few “BIG Questions for ELL…for 2013”.


Your “mission”, should you choose to accept it, is to put one of these questions (every week) on the agenda of your regular “meetings” – and come up with your OWN answers…through your OWN conversations…with those that “matter” at your OWN institution!


Let’s start with a couple of “easy” ones:

Why (all over the globe) are “lessons” always around 50-55 minutes in length – shirously, in every country?

Why are so many of our classrooms organised in rows that “point” at the TEACHer (in fact, why do we still have classrooms at all)?

Why (in many classrooms) do TEACHers do more “talking” than the LEARNers?

Why do so many institutions (and their TEACHers) still “ban” mobile devices and “smart phones” in the classrooms?


This one still bakes the noodle of many an administrator:

Why do some institutions still believe that (relatively) untrained and inexperienced “native speakers” are better than qualified and experienced “local” practitioners?


This one could keep decision-makers awake at night:

Why do ELT institutions (and TEACHers) still approach English Language Learning as something that can be “taught” or “delivered”?


These ones might hit home for a few of them, too:

Why do so many of us (TEACHers) still complain that we do not have enough time to “cover” the material?

Why do so many schools operate with a curriculum that is little more than the “contents page” of a textbook?

Why do so many institutions allow publishers to select their themes and texts – rather than letting the LEARNers do it?

Why do so many institutions still work with the premise that “if we do not assess it, the LEARNers will not do it”?

Why do institutions still assume that students will LEARN more English if we test them more often?


And a couple on TEACHer LEARNing:

Why do schools and universities still believe that TEACHers can “LEARN” from one-shot, one-way workshops (especially if they serve no other purpose but to keep TEACHers busy during holidays)?

Why does ELT (as a “discipline”) still LEARN so little from other disciplines?


Heyyou never knowASKing questions like these…might, just maybe, help us co-create a few ANSWERS…that help Google balance things a wee bit more in 2013!


Mission Possible (wt Tom in DXB)



N.B: One of the most comprehensive discussions of trends in language education is presented by David Graddol, in his excellent monograph “English Next. In this, he builds on his innovative analysis given in The Future of English (1997) – and also offers a great deal of insight into helping us understand where the “business” of ELT (and ELL) is going.

  1. This is a great blog post that deserves at least one comment, Tony. BTW, I’m rounding off the month with a selection of my favourite posts from the ELT Blogosphere, of which this is one!

    Hopefully, I’ll find my way back here soon to leave a proper comment. Until then…

    • Hi Adam,

      Yeah, it’s funny – I can never work out what makes a post spur people to make a comment. Like you – I really liked this one (writing it) 😉 With others – I’m never sure! One I think that is not that great gets loads 😉

      I’m guessing I still have a few “lurkers” (do not like that phrase) – this one got a fair few hits but, as you say, no comments 😉

      Hey, got one now 😉 Cheers, my man 😉


  2. […] In BIG Questions for ELL…in 2013! Tony Gurr goes off on one in typically excellent fashion on about more things than I can easily […]

  3. Some great questions to consider for everyone involved in our industry. I would probably venture to say that it’s called ELT not ELL since it’s the practitioners that drive the name of any industry, no?

  4. “Why do so many institutions (and their TEACHers) still “ban” mobile devices and “smart phones” in the classrooms?”

    Perhaps because a language lesson is no bloody use when the students just tap everything into Google Translate?

    Seriously, the biggest problem in the classroom is that students see their goal as getting all the answers filled in, by hook or by crook, and they end up devising strategies to avoid learning.

    We, as teachers, are mostly to blame — our tasks are rarely well enough designed that genuine learning is the most efficient strategy to achieve the apparent goals of the task.

    But what Rogers and Block talk about — “facilitating learning” and “meaningful conversations about learning” — just isn’t right for the language classroom. Consider Bloom’s taxonomy: language students enter right at the bottom. We’re dealing with very basic fundamental skills, and what is all too often suggested these days is that we leap straight in at “evaluating” — the second-highest level of the taxonomy. Our students simply do not have the necessary grounding to achieve that.

    Yes, there is some apparent success in such an approach, because we’re pushing the minority who are capable of achieving it to do so, and because we are pushing the majority who can’t out of our classes — and “out of sight, out of mind,” as they say.

    That said, Bloom’s taxonomy is part of the problem, because this progression of “rembering -> understanding -> applying” is uselessly naive: application is necessary for understanding, and it is much easier to remember something you understand than something that is inherently meaningless…!

    But still, language is unique among taught subjects in that all learners start from a near zero level of initial knowledge, so teaching has to start at a very low level of abstraction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: