A running diary of Scott Thornbury’s #IATEFL2016 Plenary

This is my first post as an official IATEFL 2016 registered blogger. I have followed Scott Thornbury’s tweets with the hashtag #1966andallthat for a while now and only very recently realized what they were referring to. There are lots of interesting quotes and thoughts in those tweets. I suspect we will see some of them in the talk.

Drawing inspiration from Chia Suan Chong, Sandy Millin, and Lizzie Pinard I am hoping to post this very quickly after the talk ends. This is intended to be a running diary where I share what is happening in the talk and my thoughts on it. I will add links when I can. Apologies in advance for typos and half-formed thoughts (as well as any potential misrepresentations of anyone’s thoughts). All quotes are paraphrases or approximations.

30 minutes before the talk
I think it is quite a testament to Scott and his public speaking skills and knowledge that I have seen him speak around 15 times (most recently at #excitELT!) but I am just as excited as I was the first time. He always manages to keep it fresh and interesting. I am excited.
Note: My excitement might be partially due to coffee.

25 minutes before the talk
I guess I will have put myself in quite the predicament if Thornbury is not interesting in this talk.

24 minutes before
Rain in Seoul and snow in Birmingham! Thanks to modern technology I can enjoy the talk from the warmth of home. Thanks to IATEFL and The British Council.

14 minutes before
Oh gosh, I hope this post is not (or is not accused of being) beguiling.

9 minutes before
At the aforementioned excitELT conference I had the honor and pleasure of introducing Scott. This is pretty much what I said:

I first heard of Scott Thornbury back in 2004 on my CELTA course. He was a fresh faced guy challenging assumptions about coursebooks and the need for them. I became a member of the Dogme group on Yahoo! groups immediately and found it valuable. I have been lucky enough to hear Scott speak around 15 times and never once did I wish the intro were longer. So, without further ado here is Scott Thornbury.

I probably could have mentioned what he was talking about in his talk that day,  in hindsight.

Anyway, I remember one TESOL luminary being introduced at a conference in Korea and it being said that he needed no introduction but the person who said that went on to introduce the speaker for about 10 minutes (of a 50 minute talk).

Haha. I just saw this tweet from Hugh Dellar about the expression “without further ado.

3 minutes in
As I scramble to get the live stream here is the abstract:

1966 and all that: A critical history of ELT
In this talk I would like to use the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the IATEFL conference to review some of the major developments in the teaching of EFL since the mid-sixties and in particular the advent of the communicative approach, including the ideological context from which it emerged, its initial promise, its dispersion, its dilution, its normalization, and its discontents. I will interweave autobiographical detail throughout in order to illustrate some key landmarks in this narrative, while at the same time I will challenge the notion of progress and evolution, and suggest that the diversity of contexts, needs, and traditions that ELT currently embraces repudiates the notion of method, and challenges such established orthodoxies as cookie-cutter pre-service training, global textbooks, uniform examinations and even the notion of a standard English itself. I will argue that one way of making sense of all this diversity is to situate ELT within the wider orbit of education generally, which might mean re-configuring EFL/ELT/ESL/TESOL as simply LE: language education.

– See more at: http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2016/live-schedule#sthash.G9AQ0DkB.dpuf

8 minutes in
I cannot believe I missed the start after all that talk above.

9 min in
A mention of Grammar McNuggets 

11 min in
Thornbury mentions the connection between his title and 1066 and all that.

12 min in
He explains his hobby of collecting old text books and shares a little library porn.

15 min in
Random and bizarre quotes from a book from the 60’s. Interesting to see the types of phrases someone thought might be useful.

17 min in
Scott shares a quote from Chomsky’s skepticism of theories from linguistics impact on language teaching. I am always curious why some people take Chomsky’s words as gospel but seemingly ignore this.

18 minutes in
I have a dollar that says Thornbury mentions Pit Corder soon.

20 min in
Corder mention! Boom.  He said something like “Language is not knowledge of individual items but it is a set of skills.”

22 min in
Talk about Richard Smith and the history of ELT.

23 min in
The parallels of English teaching beliefs and religious beliefs are mentioned.

25 min in
It is interesting to note the fear of errors all the way back then but perhaps in some quarters this has not really changed much in the world.

25 min in
Pit Corder again! The idea of developmental stages in learning is revolutionary. As is the idea of stepping away from everything.

Scott’s paraphrase of Corder is”Errors are inevitable. Deal with it.”

27 min in
Example sentences from a textbook includes,  “Don’t push that dog.”
Scott suggests it’s not a very frequent expression.

29 min in
“One generation’s heresy is the next’s orthodoxy.” This is a very interesting thought and I think we have seen hints of this even in the last 15 years. Some examples might be L1 in the class and even translation activities or even a more overt focus on grammar at times.

33 min in
We are zooming by. It’s 1972 already.

36 min in
Shoutouts to IH and the Haycrofts.

36 min in
I had some tech problems and missed some jokes and insights.

37 min in
A mention of a textbook without a grammar syllabus (functional) and how this was a game changer. This brought in all sorts of new activities. My thought is that it is interesting to note that most textbooks these days are heavily grammar focused and organized as such.

41 min in
The idea that communicative competence and fluency should be primary. This was 1975. What happened in the next 40 years?

42 min in
Thornbury says these issues were not resolved and there was quite reaction to them. It sounds like the field was on a certain track back then BUT it seems like something happened. What happened, I wonder.

44 min in
Scott says not much has changed since back then and wonders what happened.

45 min in
The ease of testing McNuggets is mentioned as a reason for the continued dominance of the grammatical syllabus.

46 min in
Teachers answered Scott’s survey (“What do you attribute to the persistence of the grammatical syllabus”) with the reason that publishers don’t want to change and students expect grammar.

One answer: SLA researchers are wrong!  Ten percent of respondents thought this. Hmm.

Interesting to note the students are blamed… “But are they ever asked?”

I think sometimes it is far to easy to just say the students want/don’t want something when teachers are lazy or fearful of change. See also: NNS “debate.”

49 min in
Potential reasons for the continual dominance of grammar syllabi are the lack of teacher training/skills as well as the importance of tests.

52 min
Scott implores us to think more about general education BUT acknowledges that all is not well over there either. The idea of teachers as service suppliers and the spread of neoliberalism is mentioned.

56 min in
Scott wonders about the overuse of the word “granular” in the field and relates it back to the idea of (language) McNuggets.

57 min in
Scott says he will offer something hopeful. Good! It was pretty bleak in here.

He offers three paths.
a) The pragmatic route: Just helping students learn to read (for example) and not expecting communicative competence.

b) The dogmatic (dogmetic) route:
Get back to using language communicative in the classroom.
He notes that this might not be a popular option for many.

c) The dialectic route:
Without the teacher…students can learn English (or anything) on their own, maybe aided by “grannies in cloud.” This is similar to what Mitra suggested at IATEFL a few years back.

1:05 minutes in
Scott suggests ideas that combine the above including “language learning in the wild” and Nick Bilborough’s Handsup Project  with students in Gaza.

I enjoyed the video and it was a nice chance to collect my thoughts and multi-task just before Scott wrapped things up with some thoughts of the future.

I enjoyed these examples but find myself wondering how practical they are for others and how different they are from what lots of teachers are doing.

Final thoughts: 

I am sure I didn’t do this talk any justice at all but it was fun to try blogging like this.  And wow I cannot believe those people that get blog posts out immediately after talks. Kudos to them. Kudos to Scott and IATEFL for a great and thought-provoking talk.






  1. mrchrisjwilson

    Sounds pretty interesting to me. I might have to watch a replay. I do find it interesting how a lot of books/materials/schools seem to stress communication but then default to grammar. It seems like a statement “yes communication is our focus so here’s a grammar based syllabus” maybe that is an over simplification but it doen’t seem to produce much difference from saying “we focus on grammar first and foremost” IME.

  2. Teresa Bestwick

    Thanks for sharing this – both the highlights from Scott’s talk, along with all the links, and your own thoughts about it. I wonder whether the reason we focus quite heavily on grammar is because it makes learners more competent users of the language. Vocabulary alone will certainly help them communicatively and, as we all know, it’s the nouns, main verbs, adjectives, etc. which we use to convey meaning. As such, a good communicator could probably go to another country with a dictionary and convey simple ideas without needing to use grammar (by which I mean mainly tenses). Perhaps as grammar can be more difficult (different functions of a similar tense in different languages), it’s felt that that’s an area where learners need more support.

  3. laurasoracco

    Thanks for doing this, Mike. Pretty impressive summary! Very cool that you registered as an official IATEFL blogger 🙂
    Now I’m regretting not asking Scott a bit more about examples of non-grammar based textbooks when I saw him at TESOL.

  4. Jamie C

    Teachers answered Scott’s survey (“What do you attribute to the persistence of the grammatical syllabus”) with the reason that publishers don’t want to change and students expect grammar.
    Interesting to note the students are blamed… “But are they ever asked?”

    – Good point! I’ve had parents of YLs request more grammar “teaching” in class. Certainly in Vietnam it seems that parents and schools are obsessed with going through the grammar syllabus. They associate grammar “knowledge” (‘S + will + v1 + if + + + + + +) with learning English. Not only do they expect grammar but they believe / are brainwashed into thinking that this declartive knowledge is the most important thing. End of course tests, of course, provide the justification for these beliefs.

    Adult students typically don’t request more grammar, but less. More speaking, more vocabulary, more chances to communicate. Once they get through to the other side of their wretched education system, no more “important” tests, they can enjoy English studies, or start using English and stop learning about English.

    Was the looming threat of tests so strong back in 1966?

    My hunch is that there are more tests than ever NOW and this is why the intentions behind ‘the idea that communicative competence and fluency should be primary. This was 1975.’ are only taken on board by students when they are free of formal education.

    Quite depressing really!

  5. Peter Stange

    Pushing the dog reminded me of using a textbook in 1968 at the YMCA in Jerusalem. The cat is under the umbrella was used to illustrate ‘be’ in the Present.

  6. Sandy Millin

    Loved this summary, and thanks for the mention 🙂 My blogposts are going up ever so slowly this time round, based on tweets and Lizzie’s summaries. It’s great to see different perspectives on a talk we’ve all seen 🙂

  7. Pingback: IATEFL Birmingham 2016: Video selections | Sandy Millin

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