Corpus, concordance and Cups of COCA *


A few years back, Hugh Dellar posted a useful and provocative piece on his blog entitled ‘What have corpora ever done for us?’ For those interested, the post is still online, even if that specific blog has finished.

I replied at the time, (as did several others) suggesting that while corpora do not provide answers to every aspect of teaching, three things they have done are as follows:

1. Corpora have provided us with excellent learner dictionaries, packed full of real examples and useful information about frequency, meaning and usage.
2. Corpora have provided learners with an initial list of high frequency lexis on which they can focus at the early stages of learning. Without this, many learners (and teachers and textbooks) may spend a lot of time learning/teaching obscure items which are of very little use.
3. Corpora have provided teachers and researchers with real evidence about how language is used beyond sentence level.This is something which should at least inform what is taught in classrooms and must be better than guesswork. It is surely worth knowing that commonly taught aspects of language such as modal verbs are not the only  way to express modality and how such modality operates in discourse. As one example, in their corpus-informed grammar Carter and McCarthy (2006: 678) give examples of modal adverbs such as ‘possibly’ as one other way of expressing modality

Despite such advantages, working with pre-and in-service teachers has shown me that even these simple benefits are not always covered in training and as a result, teachers can be unsure of how to start using corpora to inform their teaching. So, in this post, I want to suggest some ways in which teachers could apply the above points before introducing a book which, in my view at least, is a helpful resource for teachers. So, how can corpora help? Here are some suggestions, related to the above points:

1.Learner dictionaries are now all based on corpora  and allow us to check frequency quickly and simply. Many follow an entry with codes such as W1 W2 or S1, S2 etc , which shows us that a word is in the first or second thousand spoken or written words in the corpus used. Some also use stars to show the frequency or give the most frequent words in red. Here are examples of both, from Macmillan Dictionary  and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English . This at least gives teachers and learners some guidance about whether they need to spend time on teaching or learning items – if an item is of high frequency, this can suggest it is likely to be worth more of our time than something which is low frequency. Dictionaries also provide examples of items in context with their sample sentences drawn from the corpus they have used. With some simple editing, these samples can easily be used to contextualise language in familiar tasks such as matching activities, rather than teachers feeling they have to invent examples for themselves. Target items can be highlighted within the sentence and matched to meanings, also taken from the dictionary. Here is an example, adapted from the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
Target item = crash diet
A crash diet will leave you hungry, you will eat more and you will not really lose weight
an attempt to lose a lot of weight quickly by strictly limiting how much you eat

2. A lot of researchers have argued that the first two thousand most frequent words need to be learnt quickly as they make up a great deal of texts which students hear and read, as well as what they will need to produce ( see O’Keeffe, McCarthy and Carter 2007 for more discussion of this point). On a simple level, lists of these words can easily be consulted, as a means of checking that there is ample coverage of these on any course. Here, for example, are the lists made for the British National Corpus, provided by Leech, Rayson and Wilson (2001).
Lextutor  also provides a simple means of checking texts for these words. Simply copy and paste a text into the ‘vocab profile’ section of the site, and choose (as an example) BNC 1-20 k and the software will highlight which words come from which frequency band. Related to this, Martinez and Schmitt(2012) have produced the Phrasal Expressions list of spoken and written lexical chunks, which are grouped in order of the first and second thousand most frequent words from the British National Corpus. You can find the list (alongside many other useful articles and ideas) on Norbert Schmitt’s website.

3. Many corpora are now open access and it is now relatively quick for teachers to check how items are used in spoken and written context. If we take the example of modality, a search in the conversation sub corpus of the BYU BNC (Davies 2004-) is relatively quick and simple to undertake. Choose the ‘ s_conv ‘ option from ‘sections’ and then simply type in the form being searched for in the search bar. If we take the highly frequent  ‘should’  as a simple example, we can quickly see it has 4379 occurrences in this section of the corpus, or 1, 091.4 occurrences per million words. Another search (* should *) tells us which items most often come before and after this word, which in this example is  most commonly ‘I should think’. When we click on these items and look at the concordance lines, we can quickly see that the most common use for this in this conversation sub-corpus is to express fairly certainly what we think to be true rather than to give advice with ‘you should'(the function which is most often taught first for this item). Here are some of the sample concordance lines, which I have edited slightly.
1. (SP:PS029) Eh? (SP:PS02E) I should think you were getting rea–, a real panic then. (SP:PS029) When? (SP:P
2. and (pause) weighs nearly (SP:PS02H) Mm. (SP:PS02G) she must weight fourteen, fifteen stone I should think.
3. it must be some (SP:PS02H) Can’t she? (SP:PS02G) (unclear) Her latest beau I should think, I don’t know. (SP:PS02H) Maybe. Maybe maybe. (pause) (SP:PS02G)
4. (SP:PS02H) Chucked all the duff ones out (unclear) (SP:PS02G) At least, yeah, I should think nine tenths of them would go, very (unclear) (pause) there’s yesterday’s
5. coming up, must be a year now mustn’t it? (SP:PS6TB) Yeah I should think it is that. (SP:PS02G) No I can’t remember exactly what month.

Samples such as these can be used by a teacher to inform their teaching of this item or (with some editing), as exercises in class for students to analyse the item. We might ask about the above samples questions such as : a) which words come before ‘should’ and immediately after ‘should’ in these examples and b) is ‘should’ used to give advice here or to make a guess about what the speaker  thinks is true? c) why might a speaker choose ‘I should think’ and not ‘I think’? Such exercises are nothing new – Johns first suggested activities of this type (and many more excellent ideas) back in 1991 in his proposals for Data Driven Learning (DDL).

Teachers preferring a more step by step approach to using corpora may well seek some kind of published guide. An excellent example of such a book has recently been published by Mura Nava, entitled ‘Quick cups of COCA’,  a free e-book which works with the Corpus of Contemporary American English  (Davies 2008-). Nava takes the reader through a series of ways to use the corpus to inform teaching decisions in a user-friendly way and the examples are usefully grounded in his own teaching. Here is a short sample from the book (Nava 2016: 3):

A student in my TOEIC class, when we were looking at adjective endings -ED and -ING, asked what was the difference between “unmotivated” and “demotivated”. I replied that demotivated describes someone after some experience whereas unmotivated is a general state of being. I wasn’t too sure if that was sufficient so whilst the class was engaged in the following part of the lesson I used the wildcard asterisk, see image above.I found out that the instances of “demotivated” were pretty low compared to “unmotivated”. I only transmitted the frequency information to the said student. If I had more time and a projector hooked up to the computer I would have looked at the example sentences in each case.

Amongst the many useful aspects of this book, readers can click on search images such as the one above and find the actual results to check understanding. The book also includes a range of different types of search, which allows for a helpful and varied exploration of the corpus and is highly likely to include the types of searches teachers may need to undertake. Available for free download or reading online here. Incidentally, Mura also published a response to the original Hugh Dellar post here 

Overall then,  it is fairly simple to use corpora to inform what is taught in classrooms and they give us valuable evidence about language form and function. Given the recent calls more generally for  evidence-based practice in ELT ( for example, Mayne 2014)  perhaps it is now time they became a standard part of teacher training.

*The title of this post is an admittedly poor play on ‘Corpus, concordance, collocation’, a seminal work in Corpus Linguistics by John Sinclair. Well worth a read – see references below.


Carter, R and McCarthy, M. (2006).  Cambridge grammar of English: A comprehensive guide to spoken and written grammar and usage.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, M. (2004-). BYU-BNC. (Based on the British National Corpus from Oxford University Press). Available online at

Davies, M. (2008-). The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): 520 million words, 1990-present. Available online at

Johns, T. (1991). Should you be persuaded – two samples of data-driven learning materials.  In  Johns, T  and King, P (1991) (eds) “Classroom Concordancing”. ELR Journal. Vol. 4, 1-16.

Leech, G., Rayson, P and Wilson, A. (2001). Word frequencies in written and spoken English. London: Longman

Martinez, R and Schmitt, N. (2012). A phrasal expressions list. Applied Linguistics , 33 (3), 299-320.

Mayne, R. (2014).  A guide to pseudo-science in English language teaching.  IATEFL Conference presentation. Available online at

Nava , M. (2013). This corpora-bashing parrot has ceased to be. Available online at

Nava, M. (2016). Quick Cups of COCA . Available online at

O’Keeffe, A., McCarthy, M and Carter, R. (2007.) From Corpus to Classroom: language use and language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sinclair, J.M. (1991).Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ELT Research Bites

I am really pleased that Anthony Schmidt has agreed to write a guest post for me to introduce his very useful ELT Research Bites website. Many thanks to Anthony for the post. Over to him:

What is ELT Research Bites?

ELT Research Bites is a collaborative, multi-author website that publishes summaries of published, peer-reviewed research in a short, accessible and informative way. It is intended to be of use for teachers in ELT but will also be of interest to those undertaking MA, Dip.TESOL/DELTA, and other related programmes.

What are the aims of the site?

There is a lot of great research out there. This research ranges from empirically tested teaching activities to experiments that seek to understand the underlying mechanics of learning. They include everything from pronunciation to pedagogy to neurolinguistics. The problem is, however, that this research doesn’t stand out like the latest headlines – you have to know where to look and what to look for as well as sift through a number of other articles. In addition, many of these articles are behind extremely expensive pay walls that only universities can afford. If you don’t have access to a university database, you are effectively cut off from a great deal of research. Even if you do find the research you want to read, you have to pour through pages and pages of what can be dense prose just to get to the most useful parts. Reading the abstract and jumping to the conclusion is often not enough. You have to look at the background information, the study design, the data, and the discussion, too. In other words, reading research takes precious resources and time, things teachers and students often lack. By creating a site on which multiple authors are reading and writing about a range of articles, we hope to create for the teaching community a resource in which we share practical, peer-reviewed ideas in a way that fits their needs.

Why did I start Research Bites?

I started Research Bites as a series on my personal blog in 2014 ( ). I wanted to share some of the interesting research I was reading as part of my own professional development. The beginning of Research Bites also happened to take place during a period in which evidence-based teaching began to grow in popularity, especially in online communities such as Twitter. My Research Bites posts quickly became the most popular posts on my site, and I think this context further inspired me to continue writing the series. I thought I had hit on a very useful and interesting idea and wanted to expand it – reach a wider audience with research that fell beyond my own interests. Up to this point, all the research articles summarized were based on my own interests – EAP, ESL in higher education – which may not have had an appeal to everyone. Therefore, I decided to reach out to people I had met on Twitter who shared a similar interest in research and blogging. I contacted a number of folks, all of whom supported the idea but few who had time to take on another project. From the dozens of people I reached out to, I built a small core of 3 or 4 bloggers and had promises from guest contributors. I moved the site to its own domain and since then it has been slowly growing in popularity and content. We have been able to meet our goal of at least one article per week and hope to continue this goal indefinitely. We are also always on the lookout for contributors and welcome all feedback.

Find ELT Research Bites here:

Twitter: @ResearchBites

Experimental teaching

Sekiyama shrine

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of teaching several classes, using a different form of methodology in each lesson. The purpose of these classes was initially to give demonstrations of various types of teaching to trainees but as it transpired, this was a process I learnt a lot from. I wanted to reflect a little here on the possible implications for teaching and for methodology research in ELT.At the outset, I should say that this was very much an ideal situation to undertake experimental teaching. Learners attended the class voluntarily, were multilingual, based in the UK, at CEFR B2 + level, had agreed to take part in experimental classes and there was no pressure on me to follow a syllabus or prepare learners for an exam. The only ‘imposed’ structure were the requests to see certain types of teaching from trainees but beyond that, I could teach whatever I felt was suitable for the learners. Blessed with this freedom, I jumped in. Below, I give a description of the lessons I remember best and then a reflection on the implications for teaching and research. The basic idea behind each type of teaching is given but if you want to find out more, I would suggest Richards and Rodgers (2001). This is a personal account and is intended to stimulate ideas rather than be a presentation of any empirical research.

1. Task -Based Learning (TBL)

Basic theory: Students benefit from tasks with a clear  outcome and will develop their interlanguage by attempting to make meaning when completing tasks. A focus on form should come after a task and be related directly to it. This could be , for example, listening to speakers at a higher level completing the same task as learners and then completing language awareness activities about some of the different forms used. They will attend to these forms after a task as they will be able to notice gaps in their own output, having attempted the same task. See Willis (1996) for more on TBL.

Context: Informal discussion amongst friends/classmates
Task: Students agree upon and present their top five pleasure in life
Form focus: Indefinite/definite and zero articles, ‘-ing’ form used as noun phrases
Text(s): ‘Pleasures’ (in translation) by Bertolt Brecht

Students were shown some pictures of a few things that are pleasures in my life e.g. watching football, tea etc. The word ‘pleasure’ was checked and written up. Groups were asked to make a list of five of their pleasures in life and to agree on their top five as a group then present these to the class. As they formulated the list, I circulated and fed in/corrected language as they needed it. The class then voted on the best list . Students were then asked to listen to the poem ‘Pleasures’ by Brecht (essentially a list of things he likes in life) and notice what was different from their lists. They could then read and double check this before feedback. We then undertook some language awareness work on the patterns of ‘-ing’ forms, and articles used in the text, formulated some simple rules of usage and compared this to students use of these forms in their initial lists.

This was by no means the first TBL lesson I have taught but it was interesting in a few ways. It certainly seems to be true that when learners are not told which forms to use they attempt a lot more language. It is also the case that a discussion task of this nature is ideal in a multilingual group of this type. It also seems logical that a focus on form should arise after a task to enable students to notice gaps in their own output, as Willis (1996) suggests. I wondered though how such a task might be undertaken in a monolingual context. Would students produce the same range of language or would they just use the minimum needed to complete the task? I am not aware of an extensive amount of research on the amount/variety of language students produce when undertaking tasks but there is some evidence that they can encourage students to ‘do the minimum’ ( e.g. Seedhouse 1999) and I think more research is needed in that area. Perhaps, in a monolingual context, there is more explanation of the purpose of TBL and encouragement to use the L2 needed, as Hamano-Bunce (2013) has suggested.


2. The silent way

Basic theory: Teaching must be subordinate to learning. Learners will learn more effectively if encouraged to actively participate in lessons and the withdrawal of the teacher’s voice will encourage this. The aim is not (of course) to turn lesson into a silent puzzle but to only offer minimal support in the form of the teacher’s input. The teacher has a very active role otherwise- monitoring, eliciting, helping learners to shape language etc See Gattegno (1972) for a more detailed description.

Context: Describing objects to people in shops when you cannot remember the name of something or describing objects which you cannot easily translate from L1

Task : Students have to describe an everyday object without naming it while others try to guess

Form focus: Lexical chunks to describe objects such as: ‘ You use it for ‘V-ing’, ‘It’s a bit like a + NP’ , ‘It’s this sort of shape’ etc

Common everyday nouns such as: paperclip, pin, colander, post-it note, stapler, sieve

At all times, there was minimal or no spoken teacher intervention and language was elicited by means of gesture and some written instructions. Students first produced the language fro the everyday objects. This was elicited by busing realia and by student producing a workable model of each. Once models were established, these were drilled and then written up (by learners). Students then listened to six descriptions of the everyday objects and agreed which referred to which object. They then re-listened, noting down the language used to describe the objects such as ‘you use it for cooking’. This was then checked and drilled before writing up. We then practised this with some drills- I held up the objects and students produced different chunks to describe it. Students then worked together to describe and guess everyday objects from pictures. Finally, we discussed when we would need to use this language – students came and wrote suggestions on the board following a prompt question.


I have taught using silent way influenced techniques before but never this particular type of class. Students responded well to this lesson and seemed to enjoy it a lot, with a lot of unsolicited favorable comments about the class afterwards.  Perhaps the element of novelty helped here but I also think this could be important with learners of this level. Given that intermediate learners have had a lot of English classes and that we know how important motivation is  in second language learning (see Dornyei 2001 for an example) there is probably a greater need at this level for some different styles of lessons, even things which are slightly off the wall at times.  Beyond the novelty, and this seems crucial at this level, I  also think that learners were challenged  because they could not be passive and had to try hard to formulate/re-formulate the language. One weaker aspect of CLT is that learners can ‘opt out’ of certain communicative activities of just do the minimum to complete them and I suspect that intermediate level learners become aware of activities where they can get by with  minimal effort.

I also felt that this type of teaching is  hard work for the teacher. Choosing to withdraw the support of your voice and intervention means you have to work a lot harder than in a  ‘standard’ CLT class, by using gestures and using learners to build a good model of language. In some ways that is good but it also requires a lot of commitment from a teacher. There is also a need for a lot of care – nobody wants a lesson which quickly turns into a frustrating puzzle for learners and sometimes you have to intervene by saying something. And of course you need to have faith that your learners can do it with less intervention from you!  As this was only one class, I was also left wondering if there is any evidence that the silent way works better than other forms of teaching? There are plenty of arguments for it in theory but what about evidence in the form of simple methods comparison studies? I have looked for these and simply could not locate any. Perhaps somebody can point me towards something I have missed here.

3. Total Physical Response (TPR)

Basic theory: Learners (and particularly beginners) benefit from comprehension of language without the pressure to speak. The teacher gives instructions and learners show understanding through physical movement . At a basic level this might be following commands such as ‘stand up’.  This creates a memory trace and helps learners remember new language more easily, which will over time also lead to the ability to speak a second language. See Asher (1969) for more detail.

Context: Understanding a video giving a spoken recipe for cauliflower cheese

Task: Following instructions in the correct order, showing awareness of some differences between a written and spoken recipe.

Form focus: Recipe collocations such as ‘Grate the cheese’. ‘grated cheese’ , stir the mixture’ etc Common food nouns such as ‘grater’, ‘cauliflower’ and ‘colander’

Students were not asked to speak throughout the entire class. I first pre-taught some lexis used in the recipe. They showed understanding by pointing to and touching the correct pictures. For example, the teacher says ‘cauliflower’ and the students touch that picture. Next, students showed understanding of the collocations by showing the action e.g. ‘grate some cheese’.  Students then had to watch a video telling them how to cook cauliflower cheese and put the recipe in the correct order. Finally, we looked at a written version of the same recipe (taken from the food section of the BBC website and learners had to show how the written and spoken version were different. They did this by circling differences on a large projection of the written recipe.


Before I began this lesson, I was concerned that it might be a little easy for intermediate level learners. It seems that TPR is generally best suited for low levels and indeed it was originally designed for students beginning to study a second language. Many of the studies detailing its success are focused on early levels of proficiency (see Asher 2009 for a review of several studies). Despite these reservations, I felt the lesson was enough of a challenge for the group and it was interesting to see the relief on some faces when they realised they did not have to talk! This is perhaps another weakness of CLT – it is inevitable that we put pressure on students to speak and at times they are just not ready to do so. It is acknowledged  in the literature on SLA (see Ellis 2008, for an example), that learners generally have a silent period in their L2 but I have never found this to be recognised  in elementary courses I have taught.

I was  also left wondering how you could extend this type of teaching further at this level. How could we use  TPR to teach more abstract language  to B2 + level learners? It would be interesting to know if a course has ever been developed at this level which makes use of TPR. This would also be an interesting avenue for research – the extent to which TPR can help to develop interlanguage at B2+ levels.


Overall, teaching these classes was an interesting and enjoyable experience. It is certainly liberating to teach learners whilst free of the normal constraints such as an imposed syllabus and pressure to pass tests. The methodology of a class is only one variable in the learning process but it is interesting to consider the impact it can have on other variables, particularly motivation. For learners, different methodologies other than those are very familiar with may enhance this and this would be an interesting area to research as most would agree that motivation is a key factor in SLA. For example, it would be relatively simple to ‘track’ learners’ motivation via questionnaires and interviews as they experience different types of teaching. It also seems that challenge is something which impacts upon teacher motivation. We all know that teaching should be a process of constant change where we seek to improve lessons each time we teach. But we also know that it is easy to fall into familiar routines, especially under the pressures of planning a lot of classes. Teaching in these ways  pushed me as a teacher and as a result I felt I taught better classes. Experimenting with different types of teaching should not just be reserved for a slot on the DELTA but where possible, a regular thing. A good school would encourage risk taking and experimentation of this type and allow teachers freedom to test things out,  as Underhill (2013) talks about in relation to International House.  Obviously, such experimentation could also lead to research in the form of experimental studies and/or action research.


References (* indicates open-access article)

Asher, J.J. (1969). The total physical response approach to second language learning. The Modern Language Journal, 53(1), 3–17.

Asher, J. J. (2009). The total physical response (TPR): Review of the evidence. Retrieved from: *

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and researching motivation. Longman.

Ellis, R. (2008). The Study of Second language Acquisition (Second Edition).Oxford University Press.

Gattegno, C. (1972) . Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools – The Silent Way. Educational Solutions.

Hamano-Bunce, D. (2013)    A Framework for the Creation of Task-Based Courses for First-Year Students at Asia University. CELE Journal, 21, 103-141. *

Richards, J,C and Rodgers , T.s. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press

Seedhouse, P. (1999). Task-based interaction. ELT Journal, 53 (3), 149-156.

Underhill, A. (2013). International House and its unique atmosphere of practice. IH 6oth conference. Retrieved from *

Willis, J.(1996) A Framework for Task-Based Learning. Longman.


I have been thinking about the role that practice plays in second language learning recently. This is an area of language teaching which is important to a lot of learners and teachers and yet, it remains fairly under-researched, aside from one or two examples dedicated to this area (see DeKeyser 2007 for a good example). One reason for this, within ELT at least, is I think that practice is often seen as part of Present Practice Produce (PPP) and this way of teaching is itself poorly explained in a lot of the literature. At times this may be deliberate in order to build a case against the use of PPP. The misunderstanding/ misrepresentation of PPP can be summarised as follows:
1. PPP is a ‘traditional’ way of teaching. I do not have evidence from all possible countries where EFL is taught but at least from my experience and that of colleagues in countries such as Japan, Thailand, Turkey and Hungary this is certainly not the case. In these contexts, grammar translation was used commonly in mainstream schools (where most EFL teaching takes place) and Cook (2010) suggests that grammar translation has ‘survived’ the onset of newer methodologies in many contexts. Similar to this claim is that PPP is the most common type of methodology used. Here is a recent quote: ‘Since the mid-1960s, PPP has been the most widely implemented methodology’ (Jarvis 2015). Perhaps this is true in language schools, but again, I suspect that this is not the case where most EFL teaching actually takes place. I am not aware of a global survey of ELT methodology but am happy to be proved wrong if there is evidence that PPP is as widespread as is often suggested.
2. PPP is less effective than other methods or frameworks. This is currently unclear. There is certainly evidence that other types of teaching can be superior to PPP. Beretta and Davies (1985), for example, investigated the effect of Prabhu’s Bangalore project (Prabhu 1982) and found that on some measures, the Task-Based Learning group outperformed a control group who seem to have been taught using a similar form of teaching to PPP. However, we can also find results which contradict these in other contexts. For example, Jones, Smith, Lees and Donahue (2015) compared PPP with TPR for lower level students in Japan and found that there were no significant differences between the groups on receptive and productive tests. Both types of teaching helped learners to demonstrate significantly improved awareness and production of a set of target collocations taught as part of students’ oral English classes. Norris and Ortega (2000) also compared a number of experimental studies of these and found that explicit teaching (whether it was a reactive focus on form or pre-determined focus on forms as favoured by PPP), had a larger effect than implicit teaching. Methods comparisons on a large scale have tended to produce inconclusive results an early investigation of this sort was conducted by Scherer and Wertheimer (1964), who compared the effects of audiolingualism to grammar translation, in a longitudinal study. The subjects were approximately three hundred college students learning German and each method was measured over two years through pre- and post-tests, interviews and questionnaires. Despite the amount of data the study produced, it did not demonstrate that one method was superior to the other but that the emphasis of each method was reflected in the ability of each group of learners. This meant that learners taught using grammar translation were superior at reading, writing and translation, while the learners taught using audiolingualism were superior at listening and speaking. Similarly, Swaffar, Arens and Morgan (1982) compared audiolingualism with cognitive code learning and also found inconclusive results. This suggests that a large scale study comparing PPP with (for example) TBLT may not produce conclusive results and that what is needed is a meta-analysis of the type produced by Norris and Ortega (2000). Their meta-analysis found that explicit teaching was more effective than implicit teaching across a number of studies and the results have been replicated more recently in a similar study by Spada and Tomita (2010). A similar type of research, which brings together the results of a number of smaller studies investigating the effectiveness of PPP in comparison with other teaching types would be helpful.
3. PPP is only used to teach discrete items of grammar. Commonly, the flawed use of an atomistic structural syllabus is conflated with the use of PPP. I am not in favour of a structural syllabus whereby week 1 = Past Simple, Week 2 = Present Simple etc but this characterisation ignores the fact that PPP can be used to teach other aspects of language. ‘Functions in English’ by Leo Jones (1982), for example, was a popular precursor to many of the current course book series and used PPP to teach functional exponents.
4. PPP is behaviourist. I think this is something of misrepresentation. There are elements of PPP (such as drilling), which we could say are behaviourist. But looked at as whole, we could also easily suggest that it is related to the notion that learning a language is akin to developing a skill, whereby a learner moves from understandings aspects of language and being able to use them under controlled conditions to eventually using them automatically (as described by McLaughlin, Rossman and McLeod 1983). It is perfectly possible to relate the three common phases of PPP to Anderson’s (1982) skill building model in the following way: a) a cognitive phase, when a learner makes a conscious effort to learn the meaning and form of language (Present), b) an associative phase, when a learner will try to transfer declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge (Practice) and c) an autonomous phase, when a learner will be able to use the language spontaneously (Produce). Naturally, it is very difficult to argue that this process can take place in one lesson, as developing a skill takes time and few teachers would claim that a learner is able to automatically produce a form which they have encountered only once. Similarly, any attempt to isolate particular areas of language to teach in class does not guarantee a learner will acquire them. SLA research shows that interlanguage (Selinker 1972) develops within learners at its own pace and McLaughlin, Rossman and McLeod (1983) suggest that knowledge is constantly restructured and automisation does not follow a linear path. We can say then that any attempt to help acquisition (via teaching) is purely that: an attempt to speed up acquisition. Nobody can guarantee that it will work.
5. Presenting language involves teacher-fronted explanation of rules. This particular myth is fairly common and suggests that all explicit teaching must be deductive, involving a teacher giving learners information about language with little room for student-centred, guided discovery work. However, if we take implicit learning to be ‘learning without awareness of what has been learned’ whilst explicit learning means ‘the learner is aware of what has been learned’ (Richards and Schmidt 2002:250) it is perfectly possible for a PPP lesson to be inductive and yet explicit because it simply means the learner is aware of what is being taught. Hopefully, this is something that teachers would always try to make learners clear about!

By identifying these issues, I am not arguing that PPP is somehow better than other ways of teaching or ‘the answer’ or that I cannot see it has flaws! My feeling is just that practice itself often has a negative association because of the tendency to describe PPP in the ways I have shown. This is unfortunate because most types of teaching involve some kind of practice, however we may wish to characterise this. Tasks can be seen as practice for the real world, for example, and listening work is a form of receptive practice. So, it seems obvious that a lot more research is needed into practice within ELT and it would help if PPP wasn’t misrepresented so much of the time. There are lots of directions in which research in this area could move, three of which I think are as follows:
1. Research could do more to investigate the impact on repetitive practice of lexical chunks via drilling. As chunks generally have to be largely learnt as intact units, it would be helpful to know the extent to which drilling key chunks actually aids memorisation. Taguchi (2007, 2008) found a positive effect for drilling and memorisation of chunks in regard to elementary learners of Japanese but there is a need for further studies of this type. In each case, the use of drilling and repetitive practice needs to be compared with a comparable control group who attempt to learn the same chunks without the use of drills and/or with other types of practice.
2. It would be helpful to know more about the type of practice which best aids learning aspects of language which have a pragmatic rather than a propositional meaning and hence are optional. For example, stance markers such as ‘To be honest’ are important in aiding a speaker’s intended message but are often avoided or go unnoticed by learners. We often assume that practice can help with all aspects of language but perhaps a different type of practice is needed with language of this type?
3. The views of learners are quite often omitted from classroom research and it would be interesting to how learners themselves view different types of practice. Mohammed (2004) undertook an interesting study which investigated how learners perceived deductive vs inductive consciousness raising tasks and found that learners viewed both types of task as useful. This type of qualitative research can be useful and revealing and also act as a useful addition to quantitative data.


Anderson, J. (1982). Acquisition of Cognitive Skill. Psychological Review, 89(4), 369–406.
Beretta, A ., & Davies, A. (1985). Evaluation of the Bangalore Project. ELT Journal, 39(2), 121–127.
Cook, G. (2010). Translation in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
DeKeyser, R. M. (Ed.). (2007). Practice in a Second Language. Perspectives from Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jarvis, H. (2015).From PPP and CALL/MALL to a Praxis of Task-Based Teaching and Mobile Assisted Language Use, TESL-EJ, 19(1), 1–9.
Prabhu, N. S. (1982). The Communicational Teaching Project, South India. Mimeo, Madras: The British Council.
Jones, L. (1982). Functions in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jones, C., Lees, M, Donohue, N., & Smith. K (2015). Teaching Spoken English at Junior High School: A Comparison of TPR and PPP. The Language Teacher, 39 (1), 3–9.
McLaughlin, B., Rossman,T ., & McLeod, B. (1983). Second Language Learning: An information-Processing Perspective. Language Learning, 33 (2), 135–158.
Mohammed, N. (2004). Consciousness-Raising Tasks: A Learner Perspective. ELT Journal, 58(4), 228–237.
Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (2000). Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-Analysis. Language Learning, 50(3), 417–528.
Richards, J. C., & Schmidt, R. W. (2002). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (Third Edition). Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Scherer, A., & Wertheimer, M. (1964). A Psycholinguistic Experiment in Foreign Language Teaching. New York: McGraw Hill.
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 10, 209–241
Spada, N., & Tomita,Y. (2010). Interactions between Type of Instruction and Type of Language Feature: A Meta-Analysis. Language Learning, 60 (2), 263–308.
Swaffar, J. K., Arens, K., & Morgan, M. (1982). Teacher Classroom Practices: Redefining Method as Task Hierarchy. Modern Language Journal, 66(1), 24–33.
Taguchi, N. (2007). Chunk learning and the development of spoken discourse in Japanese as a second language. Language Teaching Research, 11, 433–457.

Taguchi, N. (2008). Building Language blocks in L2 Japanese: Chunk learning and the development of complexity and fluency in spoken production. Foreign Language Annals, 41, 130–

Language myths

sekiyama shrine 2

Discussions  this week have made we consider how much influence the typical structural syllabus has on ELT and it is worrying that it still seems to hold so much sway. If we use a structural syllabus, we are being asked to accept the following:

1. Language should be learnt through a primary focus on grammatical forms.

2. The grammatical forms which are of most importance are based on verb phrases used with particular tenses and aspects (e.g. Present Simple) which learners can use to generate their own language.

3. These forms are best learnt through a sequence which is arranged something like verb to be, Present Simple, Present Continuous, Past Simple, Past Continuous, Present Perfect , Past Perfect and future forms. This is then repeated and reviewed as learners progress through the levels.

I think that these are (by and large) myths, which fly in the face of evidence. Here is how I would refute them:

1. There does not seem to be any evidence that this is the best way to organise a syllabus. Of course, all learners need grammar and of course they need help with it. But I think that most learners actually express themselves by using lexis. At an early stage this could be by using simple words (‘Coffee’, ‘Yes’ , ‘Ok’ etc) or stock phrases such as ‘My name’s___’, ‘I come from____’ ‘Can I have a ___ please’ etc. As a learner’s level improves s/he may be able to use more grammatical forms but this is largely because they have heard/read a larger stock of chunks to generalise from. The language which learners (even at intermediate levels) seem to produce are prototypical chunks such as ‘I’ve been living in the UK for ___’, ‘ I don’t understand’, ‘I think’ etc. I don;t think these are produced because the learner s knows the Present Simple or Perfect but because they are learnt as wholes- as we would learn idioms. Sinclair (1991) made this point about language when looking at the COBUILD corpus, suggesting that much language is produced according to ‘the idiom principle’ (in prototypical chunks) rather than from the ‘open-choice principle’ (using the flexibility of syntax to create new and original language).

2. Even if we accept that a structural syllabus is the best way to proceed, it is curious that an obsession with Present Simple etc still holds sway. Many learners across the world (Swan and Smith 2001) have major difficulties with  other areas of grammar such as determiners and how these connect to different types noun phrases, for example.  But determiners and noun phrases are almost ignored, aside from the odd lesson on articles or countable and uncountable nouns. There are also many other areas which (in my experience) are tricky for learners which are given only a fleeting focus in most structural syllabuses including  causative ‘have’ and ‘get’ and the cohesive devices ‘it’ ‘this’ and ‘that’ in written texts.

3. Early studies in SLA investigating order of acquisition  (for example Dulay and Burt 1974) suggest that a typical order  does not follow the sequence used in many coursebooks, Continuous forms seems to be acquired earlier than simple forms, for example. It seems curious  this evidence is often ignored when the sequencing of structures is chosen. Even if we do not accept the view that there is a typical order of acquisition, the kind of prototypical chunks which learners often need contain language which is not part of the typical structural syllabus. Do learners really need to wait until they are intermediate or above before they can say ‘I was wondering…’, ‘ No, I haven’t seen that yet’, ‘I wish my flatmates wouldn’t ___’ etc?

Thoughts and comments welcome.


Dulay, H. and M. Burt (1974) Natural sequences in child second language acquisition. Language Learning 24: 37-53.

Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Swan, M and Smith, B. (2001). Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Written correction

Sekiyama shrine

It is fairly obvious that learners expect us to correct their written work, even if some researchers (e.g. Truscott 1996) have suggested it has no benefits. The question is of course, how we can best do this.

Like a lot of people within ELT, my training emphasised the benefits of using an error correction code with learners and asking them to re-write their work.This seems to be something of an orthodoxy.  The British Council Learning English site (2014) , for example, suggests that ‘This is a common tool to optimise learning opportunities from mistakes learners make in written homework and to encourage the editing stages of process writing.’  The difficulty with correction codes is that experience tells me (and I suspect a lot of teachers) that they do not work very well, much as I am supportive of their use in theory. I have used them many times and found that while students can correct simple surface errors if pointed out with a code (e.g.third person ‘s’ for present simple, adding ‘s’ to plural countable nouns), they have no idea how to correct errors with collocations or more complex constructions, simply because they do not know them. This is of course the reason why they made the errors in the first place!

Research in this area supports the idea that correction works but also suggests that error codes may not be the most effective. Sheen (2007), for example, found that focused  direct corrective feedback  was significantly more effective than no feedback at all, when articles were targeted. Focused direct corrective feedback is simply underlining the targeted form and writing the correction above it. She also found that when metalinguistic explanation was added(e.g. adding brief notes about the grammatical form in focus) this was more effective than  focused direct corrective feedback. Frear (2012) found that focused direct corrective feedback (in this case with past simple forms) was significantly more effective over time with regular verbs when compared to  unfocused direct feedback and both types of indirect corrective feedback. Indirect feedback in this case was to simply underline the errors but not provide the correction and this was either focused on the targeted past simple forms or on errors in general. These studies also suggest that, as we would expect, learners also need to re-write their written work, first correcting errors and then re-drafting their work.  Given that correction codes are a form of indirect feedback then it would seem that it may not be as effective as targeting a particular form and simply correcting it directly before asking student to re-write their work. I would argue that this is even more likely to be the case with collocations and lexical chunks because learners cannot generally form them based on grammatical knowledge. It is simply a case of knowing them.

So what is the way forward? There is a real need for  teacher training to at least introduce teachers to the results of such research and  to introduce more options for correcting written work than only using correction codes. Ellis (2009) gives a useful list of options. Validating the options against the research evidence and in terms of their own particular teaching situations would allow trainees  to make more informed choices in their teaching. In terms of the  research, there is of course a need to replicate the kinds of results described above with more studies in more contexts. There is also a need to look at the impact of different types of feedback on written lexical errors, something which seems to be largely missing at the moment. Reformulated student work (the teacher re-writes students work correcting errors but keeping the original intention of the student) is also an area which needs more research. Although this is time-consuming, it seems logical that reformulated work can be a good source of comprehensible input for learners and it would be interesting to further measure its effects against other  direct types of feedback whereby a targeted form is underlined and  the correction provided. Some studies (



The British Council Teaching English . Writing Correction Code. Available:

Ellis, R., Sheen, Y., Murakami, M., & Takashima, H. (2008). The effects of focused and unfocused written corrective feedback on Japanese university students’ use of English articles in narratives. System, 36, 353-371.

Ellis, R. (2009a). A typology of written corrective feedback types. English Language Teaching Journal, 63, 97-107.
Frear, D. (2010). The Effect of Focused and Unfocused DirectWritten Corrective Feedback on a New Piece of Writing . College English Issues and Trends, Volume 3, 57-72.
Frear, D. (2012) The effect of written corrective feedback and revision on intermediate Chinese learners’ acquisition of English. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Auckland.

 Santos, M., Lopez-Srrano, S., & Manchon, R.M. (2010). The Differential Effect of Two Types of Direct Written Corrective Feedback on Noticing and Uptake: Reformulation vs. Error Correction. International Journal of English Studies Volume 10(1), 131-154 .

Sheen, Y. (2007). The Effect of Focused Written Corrective Feedback and Language Aptitude on ESL Learners’ Acquisition of Articles. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 255-283.

Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning, 46, 327-369.

What have corpora done for us?

Research in Corpus Linguistics can, to some, seem interesting but a little distant from the classroom. This article by Julie Moore nicely summarises the benefits of corpora for teachers. See the article here

John Sinclair (who led the original COBUILD project) is also someone whose work is often overlooked but was also way ahead of others in his analysis of language. His Corpus, Concordance, Collocation is well worth seeking out.