Adrian Tennant’s Six Acts of Sheep in ELT


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This week I got the following interesting list in my inbox, from Adrian Tennant. Adrian is a prolific materials writer and occasional provocateur. He is the author of a column in the IATEFL Voices journal in which he challenges assumptions about language teaching, and is known in some circles as Doctor Evil. No surprise then that he wanted to do a list like this. Here are “six acts of sheep” in ELT, according to Adrian!

As with many other professions, teachers tend to follow the latest trends and particularly if it’s associated with a famous name in the field. Now, in many cases there is nothing wrong with this, but occasionally a little more thinking would enable people to realise that the idea is not quite as good as it first appears. Here are 6 that I’d highlight.

1. Universal Grammar (and Chomsky)

Yes, I’m going to attack Chomsky. My ‘bone’ with his idea of Universal Grammar is that it simply doesn’t hold water when put to the test. There are languages, such as Piraha (an indigenous language from the Amazon) which simply don’t fit the theory. And, of course, it’s a theory rather than reality. Can language really be innate? I haven’t got a lot of space here so to keep it simple I’d say that we use language through necessity – a need to communicate. Our environment & culture dictate what we can talk about and, if anything is innate, it’s our cognitive ability and not an underlying grammar that enables us to use language.

2. The Four skills.

 I’m not sure who the genius was that came up with the idea of having discrete skills. I’m hard pressed to think of any other than reading that don’t entail at least one of the other skills at some point. And, unfortunately, it’s got to the absurdity where people teach ‘Speaking lessons’! Does nobody listen during these lessons?

The sooner we think of what people actually do and stop dividing things into false ‘blocks’ the better for everyone – both teacher and learner.

3. TTT / STT

This is one of the silliest of ideas that abounds. Simply put the less the teacher speaks the more the students will! It appears to be based on statistics or percentages rather than the reality of the classroom or possibly on the fear of silence. In fact, if the teacher doesn’t say anything the likelihood is that neither will the students. Surely the key should be the quality, not the quantity?

4. Testing

Of course we have to test students, but the question is what are we testing them for? Do we want to find out what they know, or are we more interested in finding out what they don’t know?! Unfortunately, the majority of tests are designed for the latter – if you don’t know the answer …. Of course, open tests, which are the ultimate way of finding out what students actually know are extremely hard to mark both in terms of the breadth of information they may contain and also in the subjectiveness inherent in their design.

5. Preteaching

 A personal bug bear if ever there was one. It’s not that I don’t like preteaching vocabulary – I quite enjoy it. Ten minutes focussing on 8 words that might cause my students some problems when they read a text or listen to the CD. My issue is that it just isn’t natural or authentic. I mean, when was the last time you were walking down the street and somebody came up to you and said, “We’re going to have a conversation, but before we start here are 6 words you might not know.”? Absurd! Much better to help our students work out vocabulary from context than give it to them on a plate.

6. Authentic materials

There is certainly nothing wrong with authentic materials, but why is it that we use them with inauthentic tasks? To be honest, I think we’d be better off using inauthentic materials with authentic tasks. What do I mean? Well. you have a nice meaty newspaper article full of ‘rich’ language and then a set of multiple choice (True / False) questions. Now, honestly, when was the last time you read something in the newspaper and then answered ten multiple choice questions? If we are going to go after ‘authentic’, I think we need to think of hat we really do in life and not pay lip service which is what we seem to be doing much of the time.

Nottingham, May 2009

Published in: on June 5, 2009 at 4:43 pm  Comments (27)  
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  1. Three cheers to Dr. Evil! He has been known to ruffle quite a few feathers on the dogme forum, but really should try harder, in my opinion…

  2. Excellent post! Agree with every word. So of course I’d consider it to be excellent! 😉

    Does that make me evil, too?

  3. Not sure if I agree with every word, but 2, 5 and 6 certainly strike a chord.2 in particular is a personal gripe of mine – why do course book editors insist on labelling sections as ‘Listening’? To reflect Adrian’s comment back, what exactly are we supposed to be listening to? Surely speaking is involved somewhere?

    I’m way off agreeing with Chomsky on the Universal Grammar, but I think his essential observations were important. It seems to me that it’s not language which is innate, but our ability to extract patterns from the language we hear (first) and read (second). There is ‘innateness’, but not where Chomsky supposed.

    And an additional point about authenticity. It’s all very well material being authentic, but does that necessarily mean that the language within that material was itself being used ‘authentically’? This, for me, is where the idea of a black and white division between what is authentic and what isn’t collapses.

  4. I beat Adrian to it on preteaching ( but I think he’s taken most of the other Overrated Things in TEFL I was going to write about. Next one will be the CEF then

    • Hi Alex,
      Not sure when you wrote about preteaching, but the first time I mentioned it was around two and a half years ago in one of my Voices articles. I’ve also written one about the CEF which will be published later this year.
      Good that people are questioning things, though.

  5. Amen to that. Is that universal grammar? 2, 3, 4, 5 in particular.

  6. With regard to pre-teaching, I agree that it’s important to develop a strategic approach to working out words from context. But we also use texts in the classroom not only for skills development but as a springboard for some other purpose, e.g. grammar presentation, or for discussion, or as a model for writing. In that case, is it necessary that students should be struggling to work out the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary from context? And isn’t it motivating, on occasions, for students to experience rapid conmprehension, rather than have to struggle for it? In a recent study (Hancioglu and Eldridge, 2007, Texts and frequency lists… ELT Journal 61/4) the researchers found that, by selecting 6 words for preteaching in a range of different texts, they could increase the familiar vocabulary beyond the 95% cut-off point that is now believed to represent comfortable fluency in reading, and they concluded that “one of the most helpful approaches a teacher can adopt when teaching reading is to pre-teach a limited number of the most frequently occurring unknown words in the target text” (p. 338). Admittedly, they argue this solely on the basis of frequency lists, and not on empirical studies of the impact of preteaching, but I think their argument is plausible.

    • I’m a little confused, and so I hope you don’t mind me asking. Does this mean that ‘dogme’ was a passing fad? I would have thought that in the quest to encourage more learner autonomy, then it really shouldn’t be the teacher who gets to decide which items of vocabulary need to be pre-taught, but rather that learners should be encouraged to develop the skills to help themselves find the meanings of unknown words. They should also be helped to learn to want to do so, through the use of activities that encourage them to identify themselves as competent learners of English.

      To my mind, pre-teaching vocabulary smacks very much of product teaching rather than process teaching, and I would associate the latter quite firmly with ‘dogme’.

      I admit that I’ll pre-teach on occasion. For instance, I have an activity whereby I show the students a number of sentences on a transparency (I’m old-school!), and they have to quickly read them and select the one sentence which they feel they relate to most closely. This decides how they will be grouped for the rest of the activity, and in this case I pre-teach (pre-elicit) a couple of words which might prevent them from selecting a sentence that they might have otherwise chosen. But that’s different to pre-teaching before some kind of reading activity, for instance.

    • This is a very late contribution I know, but it’s just today I came across this discussion. Since Scott Thornbury refers to the article by myself and Nilgun Hancioglu, I thought I’d just elaborate a little.

      What seems to have been missed is that The 95% lexical threshold is not just a reading comfort zone, not at any rate according to the likes of Paul Nation and Tom Cobb – it’s the level of contextual understanding you need to have in order to be able to reliably infer meaning. So the kind of pre-teaching we recommended should in many cases actually help develop autonomous text processing skills by providing the necessary scaffolding.

      Incidentally, the tools we used – such as the vocabulary profilers on Tom Cobb’s Compleat Lexical Tutor ( are really very user-friendly – enough so that learners can be shown how to profile texts for themselves, and use frequency lists to help them develop the language awareness that in many ways is the bedrock of autonomy.

      For the rest, methodology is ultimately a matter of ‘fitness for purpose’, and prescriptions of any type of what practitioners should or should not do with text seem to me to fall out of the realm of informed practice and into that of theology.

      Nice discussion, and site by the way…

      • Thank you John, for the contribution. May I also say that I find the Lexical Tutor site an excellent resource as a teacher and materials writer.

      • I find ‘scaffolding’ quite a vague term, and not suited for the discussion. Sorry.

        The ‘theology’ comment is rather bitchy. If one doesn’t understand the basics of the product-teaching and process-teaching cline, then so be it.

        Modern research into SLA would not support product teaching. In-class practices need to reflect what we know about SLA. It’s not theology. It’s the recognition that most mainstream EFL is based on nothing, but it continues to rot the system.

        What we do in the classroom must be based on something justifiable, right? “Because that’s how I was trained, it’s how the course books are written, and it’s how all the other teachers I know work” just doesn’t cut it in my mind.

        Sorry to seem so belligerent. But a TEFL blog with a post about methodology was a welcome relief, and I was keen to interact.

      • The discussion lead me to wonder what I would do as a teacher if I wanted to use this actual thread as an authentic text in class….would I indeed want to ‘pre-teach’ some vocabulary?

        Hmmm…so I put the text through a vocabulary profiler at Tom Cobb’s site: to find out that over 90% of the words in this discussion thread come from a pool of 2,709 most commonly used words in English. When I took out the proper nouns like Thornbury, Eldridge, etc. The text coverage rose to 93.5%. There were a few ‘low frequency’ words in general English that are high frequency words in an EFL classroom, like ‘vocabulary’ and ‘classroom’, so when I put these in as ‘known’ words, the text coverage rose to 94.3%. Looking over the rest of the ‘low frequency’ words, I noticed the phenomenon that Eldridge and Hancioglu refer to, that there are usually a few low-frequency (presumed unknown to the learner) words that occur frequently within any given text. By pre-teaching a few of these, in this case, ‘theology’, ‘lexical threshold’ (as a chunk), ‘scaffolding’, and making sure they knew the abbreviation ‘SLA’, the text coverage rose to 95.5%.

        Now, that left me with a pool of ‘low frequency’ words for use in developing other reading strategies: “springboard cline fluency plausible dogme fad quest smacks elicit elaborate zone autonomous scaffolding profilers profile bedrock autonomy prescriptions realm vague bitchy mainstream belligerent ”

        Of course, this is purely a look at the vocabulary profile, and doesn’t take into account other factors like readability, grammatical structures, cohesive devices, etc. But, if I had learned English as a foreign language, and I wanted to use this as an authentic text, then this sort of analysis would not have been in vain.

        Finally, armed with this information, I might just create a WORDLE of the discussion thread:

        As a teacher, perhaps I could use this as an opportunity to explore the ‘frequency profile’ of the specific text with my students, and in this way deal with ‘pre-teaching’ on a flexible basis from my students reaction to the WORDLE, along a more ‘test-teach-test’ type of methodology.

  7. Dogme or no dogme, if the learners’ enjoyment of a text is enhanced because of being in a state of “zero uncertainty” (to use Frank Smith’s term), and if zero uncertainty can be achieved by means of pre-teaching, or a glossary, or hypertext links to an online dictionary, or whatever, so much the better. Would you have students read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” without first checking they knew what an albatross was?

    • Point taken, and you’re right: best not to forget common sense in the search for an ideal. 🙂


  8. Whoa. I just noticed all this. I’m glad that Mr D and Scott have come to agreement – and I have to say that I agree with both of you.
    I have no problem whatsoever preteaching vocabulary. The argument that “it doesn’t happen in real life” is not convincing for me. If language learning in the classroom replicated exactly what happened in real life there would be no point in teaching at all! There are lots of things I do in class, that I am sure Adrian believes in as well, that are arguably “inauthentic” if authenticity is only to be measured against what happens in an “outside” world. Drills for example. Anyway, all this is ripe matter for another list. Thanks for participating!

  9. Hi Scott,
    My main issue is that teachers preteach far too frequently, it becomes almost an automatic action. I also wonder how they choose the words – it often seems to be words they think students need and not the words the students actually do need (rarely seems to be based on frequency).
    I also think that if we want to use a text to present grammar, or as a model for writing we can either choose a text where the vocabulary won’t pose problems. Or, in the case of a model text for writing have a post-reading vocabulary task.
    Finally, it’s more the lack of helping students develop the skills needed to work out the meaning of words, learn not to panic if they don’t understand and other strategies to deal with vocabulary that concerns me.

    • I absolutely agree with you on this, Adrian.
      To me ‘pre-teaching’ seems to be what happens when textbook writers can’t think of a good way to present new words.
      I have this vision of the concept being born under pressure in a publishing house one day. A bunch of editors and text book writers are sitting round a table, looking at some proofs and realizing that the students would find some of the words in the texts too hard.
      ‘What are we going to do?’ they say. ‘There’s no time or space to fix it now’.
      ‘We’d better stick a note in the teachers book to warn them’
      ‘Yeah, but we can’t tell them we haven’t done our job’
      ‘Hey – let’s call it ‘pre-teaching’.

      • Thanks for the comments Vicky, and nice website about speaking ‘merican! I will now scour Quick Work, Tech Talk and Meeting Objectives etc for any vocabulary pre-teaching! Just kidding, I’m POSITIVE if you wrote that I won’t find ANY examples of this shameful practice. 😉 Actually, I really liked Quick Work, I used it in Barcelona one year.

      • Hi Vicki,

        lol – probably exactly what happened.

        I’m also very worried at the type of activities that are put into books as pre-teach nowadays. Activities such as match the words to the definitions – how can the students do this if they don’t know the words? Label a diagram with the words in the box – well, if they can label the diagram then ….

        This really isn’t pre-teach it’s guesswork!


  10. Surely it all depends on what a teacher’s aims are in presenting their learners with a text. If the aim is to promote in students the skill of working out the meaning of unknown words from the context, it would surely be counter-productive to tell them the meaning of those same words beforehand! However, if the aim is for the learners to enjoy reading the text because it is interesting, amusing or otherwise stimulating, then a certain amount of pre-teaching makes sense to me, for the reasons stated above. Isn’t that what teaching is really? Pre-teaching is simply a priming short-cut – rather than having learners using up valuable processing time priming themselves by working out the meaning, it makes sense for them to be primed in advance of actually seeing the text, leaving them free to get on with enjoying reading it. Admittedly the greater cognitive activity involved in students’ priming themselves may result in more comprehensive priming and deeper ‘knowledge’ of the word, but that’s not really the point here.

  11. Mark,
    Does that mean students are unable to enjoy reading without the help of the teacher? Surely, if we want them to enjoy reading outside the class then we need to help them develop skills that will mean they don’t rely on preteaching.
    Secondly, the word short-cut really worries me. One reason often given for preteaching is that it saves time later on. But as far as I can see it’s a short term solution and one that, in the long run, takes more time by not helping students develop independence.

    • Adrian,

      Very fair points. I think pre-teaching is indeed a short-term solution, but the extent to which that makes it an unsatisfactory one depends on what ‘problem’ it’s solving! If the problem is helping students to grasp the key meaning of a particular text (either for its own sake or prior to then using it as a vehicle for zeroing in on some target language or on other reading skills) then I can see reasons why pre-teaching might be justified. However, if the problem is that students are unskilled at working out meaning from context, then yes, absolutely, it hardly helps them if teachers go around pre-teaching everything willy-nilly! What was it Confucius said about teaching a man to fish?


  12. No comments on the other 5 areas????!!!!

  13. I wonder how many EFL teachers have tried being on the receiving end of pre-teaching. From what I can tell, it can be quite a patronising experience. (But that’s much of BANA TEFL for you!) And not all students remember the words once they come across them in context ten minutes later, anyway, and so they still need to ask someone or look them up. So there’s no guarantee of ‘zero uncertainty’, anyway.

    I think it’s not unusual that when a blog post has lots of meaty areas, commenters will focus on only one or two. But here’s a thought on TTT vs STT. Although I basically agree with Adrian, I would suggest that there is another good reason for limiting TTT: to stop all the noise pollution and to help the students relax and think. I observed an EFL lesson a couple of years ago taught by someone with a PGCE and QTS (typical!), and my memory of the lesson is one of her standing (!) there and shouting. Without stopping. It was one of the most stressful hours of my life!

    • Hi Mr D,

      I don’t necessarily advocate reducing TTT. In fact, there are many instances when I talk a lot – storytelling, telling an anecdote etc but I always know why I am saying what I’m saying. This is why I’d stress quality of quantity.
      Another thing worth thinking about is thinking time. As you point out, much of the talk that goes on is simply ‘noise’. Often teachers seem frightened by silence, but silence can actually be very productive.

      • True. I sometimes use the Silent Way on a writing course (which I make sure isn’t just about writing, but that’s another topic). The first time it’s a bit of a shock for my students, but they soon realise what’s happening and then they enjoy the silence. The only time it hasn’t worked so well was when there was a sudden thunderstorm with lots of lightning – in the middle of a major snowstorm! But you can’t plan for freak weather conditions. (And we got back on track after a short while.)

  14. I agree with mostly everything Adrian says here (but not in a sheep-like way, you understand).

    I think the testing issue is very important. Of course there’s a time for testing (I’ve just been writing a diagnostic test today) but it does seem like many teaching materials are just a string of tests. Especially, as Adrian says in no. 6, with reading. To me a big problem with tests is that they narrow people’s objectives, from the IELTS candidate who only wants to know how to describe a graph and use linking words to the reader of a text in a coursebook who just needs to understand enough to answer some comprehension questions. What about the rest of the lovely language in the text?
    As a CELTA trainer, sometimes I stop in mid-sentence while telling my trainees how to do something and think, “I’ve always said that, but is it really true?” I’ve stopped getting them to pre-teach for the reasons Adrian gives and it makes teaching practice SO much better (no more spending so long pre-teaching that there wasn’t time for the text!).
    Interesting post, thanks very much.

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