For anyone who is still watching, I’m back from my blogging break just in time for classes to start tomorrow. The bigger picture is that teacher development passes through different stages, and in a pragmatic assessment of my blogging and tweeting I realised that neither was the most efficient way for me (personally) to become the best teacher I can – at least, not at the moment. So I took a trip back to England to take care of some family business, I spent some time thinking about photography, and enjoyed time with my boys before the youngest starts kindergarten next week.

The Lives of Teachers blog is not dead, but I will be posting more sporadically and focusing mainly on the interviews I intended to focus on originally. I have a backlog of podcasts to post, and a few future interviews in the pipeline, so please don’t unsubscribe! And apologies to any commenters in the meantime who have gone unanswered.

I am also working on a couple more sites which should be live fairly soon. The first is a website for teaching resources, mainly to direct my own students towards but also (hopefully) of interest to other teachers looking for class materials. The second is a blog about things I read – the other thing I have been doing a lot of in my blogging break. In order to concentrate on my own original research I am finding it useful to turn off the computer and measure my reading in pages rather than characters. Details of both these projects will follow.

To anyone starting the new academic year this week, students and teachers alike, best of luck and enjoy yourselves. Spending most of your days in a classroom is a privilege, and not an opportunity to be wasted.


Just searching through my inbox, it was way back in November 2008 that I received the call for papers sent to all members of the Learner Development SIG of JALT (The Japan Association for Language Teachers). They had just gotten the go ahead to put together another book in their series of edited collections, and were looking for chapters from the membership and beyond. Back in my student days, long before I was a JALT member, I had ordered their previous publications from the UK and enjoyed both immensely, so I thought it would be great to get involved.

(Aside – There are still a few copies left of ‘Autonomy you Ask’ and ‘More Autonomy you Ask’, and if you ask nicely you may be able to get hold of a copy. I think they are both excellent. I reviewed MAYA for ‘Independence’, the IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG)

So I put together some ideas and sent off my proposal, started working on the paper and developing it as a chapter. Something I had especially liked about the previous books was that each chapter had attached critical reflections written by reviewers, and other authors – it was an unusual idea, but I liked how it brought together the book as a whole, and showed the spirit of autonomy as collaborative. This project was to be no different, and in July of 2009 we gathered at a writers’ retreat in Tokyo, sharing our papers, talking through the section headings, book title , cover art and so on.

Alison Stewart and Kay Irie, our two editors, have been excellent all along and guiding the process firmly but democratically.

It was very exciting when we heard that Palgrave Macmillan were interested in publishing the book, and also that Richard Smith & Naoko Aoki would be able to write an introduction and Scott Thornbury would contribute a concluding chapter. The book is due early December, and most of the royalties will go to The Shanti Volunteer Association.

At the November 2010 JALT national conference I first heard the idea of a book launch conference mooted. Naively, I asked why such conferences were so often held in Tokyo or Osaka… which is how I fell into organising the Realizing Autonomy Conference at Nanzan University in Nagoya for October 29th 2011.

The call for papers is still operative, so you have a couple of weeks to get your ideas to us. If you can’t present, then we would still love to have you. You can see plenary speakers Tim Murphey from Kanda University of International Studis, and  Richard Pemberton from the University of Nottingham. You can see poster presentations from the book chapter authors, and get a first look at the book itself. We are also planning a party for the evening which should be a lot of fun, so if you can’t make it to the conference, then join us all for drinks and nibbles. Visit the conference website to submit an abstract, to print off flyers and publicity posters, to register, and to find out more. We will have some exclusive content on the site in the coming months, too, so keep your eyes peeled to see how it evolves.

I am very happy to have taken up a position as book reviews editor for a new online, open-access journal based in the UK, The Journal of Second Language Teaching and Research. The first issue should be out shortly, with three excellent book review contributions sourced from my personal learning network.

Part of the remit of the journal is to offer researchers who are newer to the field an opportunity to get their work published. I will be happy to take you through writing process on early drafts of your review, so this might be a chance to get some writing on your CV. I started writing book reviews myself after I finished my MA, as a way to continue reading critically and keep up with current theory, and I really think it’s a valuable exercise.

If you are interested, I have three books at them moment which I would like to place with reviewers. Click on the links to read more about them.

Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education
An Introduction through Narratives
Merrill Swain, Penny Kinnear, Linda Steinman

English Language Education Across Greater China
Anwei Feng

Code Choice in the Language Classroom
Glenn S. Levine

Contact me via (or twitter or facebook) and I can get a book sent directly to you from the publishers – free, of course! If you have another recently published book in mind, I am happy to take suggestions… just let me know.


A guest post by the mysterious Sputnik of The Tesla Coil, on A Book You Should Read.  Number two in the series, then, is a little book about chunks…..

‘Most people would succeed in small things,’ observed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘ if they were not troubled with great ambitions.’  This may certainly prove to be the ultimate fate of Michael Lewis’s classic 1993 work The Lexical Approach.  It was certainly not untroubled by great ambitions, as it proclaimed in its subtitle: The State of ELT and a Way Forward.  Such hubris, of course, grated with a few of the initial reviewers, for whom the subtitle announced an implicit condescension towards the existing ELT status quo, as if it really said, Everything is Wrong and I’ll Show You How to Make It Right.  Anca M. Nemoianu, for example, writing in TESL-EJ, complained of ‘the signs of distrust, and sometimes even disregard, for language teachers attitudes, knowledge, and classroom practices’ (August 1994, 1:2).  For me, however, the appeal of the book lies precisely in its vaunting ambition, its avowed purpose to lead us from the valley of professional darkness and into an enlightened state where we know what we are supposed to do, how we are supposed to do it, and why.

The first part of the book is nothing short of a relentless series of prompts.  Penned in the fiercest interrogative mode ever seen in the genteel and generally windless world of ELT field manuals, it is a quasi-cavilling, probing, harassing sort of questioning which compels the reader to undertake an anxious self-examination.  If Descartes famously holed himself up in the snug confines of a giant oven in order to arrive at the founding principles of Western philosophy in Discours de la Methode, it is not difficult to imagine Lewis composing his masterpiece in the more rebarbative circumstances of an infantry trench or a North Sea trawler.  It is deeply uncomfortable.  Assuming the guise of an Old Testament God, Lewis heaps scorn on the unprincipled teacher (yes, imagine – an unprincipled teacher), chastises the unthinking, and laments the fortunes of those whose classroom practice does not mirror ‘the values they claim to espouse’ (p.32).

Should the reader wish to become principled, he has to submit to a kind of coruscating doubt not dissimilar to the process adopted by Descartes.  With the combined admonitory talents of a  worried parent and a sergeant-major, Lewis asks us to reconsider some of the most cherished assumptions in ELT.  Don’t we, he urges, over-value explanations, structure, product and speaking?  Do we know why?  Shouldn’t we, perhaps, stress the importance of exploration, lexis, process, and listening just a little more instead?  In fact, shouldn’t we ask more questions, and stop rehearsing answers for which we can provide little or no philosophical or empirical underpinning?  Eh?

This, then, is the crux of the book.  It espouses a willingness, like all great dialectical thought, to attend to details and, by so doing, see in them the bigger picture itself.  This bigger picture is the approach of the title.  An approach , he remarks, ‘is an integrated set of theoretical and practical beliefs, embodying both syllabus and method.  More than either, it involves principles which in the case of language teaching, reflect the nature of language itself and the nature of learning’ (p.2).  It is not, in other words, a set of recipes for the classroom; rather, it is an elaboration of the precepts by which you might make them and the syllabuses in which they are contained.  The depth of this approach can be measured by its attention to the very tropes we utilise to describe language.  Lewis rails against the ubiquitous atomistic metaphor of the machine which governs our understanding of linguistic phenomena, and implores us to adopt an holistic one of the organism in its stead.

But, again, this book is so much more.  It is a wholly intemperate and inabstinent beast, immoderately invoking and provoking so many ideas it exceeds the summarising brief on the first few pages.  Lewis makes the case for this ideational largesse very explicitly, but was it too much for a profession which countenanced a four-week course as its entry qualification?    How did he hope to persuade the entire teaching nation with such a principled stance?  Nearly two decades after its publication, many of Lewis’s ideas have entered the mainstream – chunking, collocation, and a focus on sub- and supra-sentential grammar have all, to some extent, been adopted for use in textbooks and classrooms.  However, many more have not.  For example, how many of us have disregarded his reproof that teaching the conditionals, will as the future, reported speech, and the passive is ‘neither more nor less than nonsense’ (p.146)?  Of greater primacy is the failure of the lexical approach itself to change the manner in which we think about and teach language.  It has undone none of the suasiveness of the grammar-based syllabuses which still predominate in class and text.  Nor has it retarded the exam juggernaut.  And how many NESTs would retain their positions if they abandoned speaking as the central feature of their classes?

This raises the question of the role of thinkers like Michael Lewis in ELT.  Forming a nexus between teachers, textbook writers and more abstract university researchers in linguistics and education, such free-wheeling intellectuals or ELTerati are a rare but precious breed.  They have not only to amass an empire of research but also to find a practical expression for it and then persuade the teaching masses to use it.  Persuasiveness in teaching often has more to do with instinct and practicality than ideas.   Perhaps Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach, published in 2000, was a recognition of this problem and an attempt to address it so as to make it more likely that the lexical approach would achieve a kind of teaching critical mass.  It is certainly a more amiable read, and more practical than its elder sibling.  However, for a bracing encounter with a blazing mind working at its most acute, The Lexical Approach  is hard to beat.

Thanks Sputnik… and over to the mob to answer your question. Whither the thinker in ELT?

And I’ll throw in another for luck. Where is the line between grammar and vocabulary these days? Cheers!

Some eye-openers….

In 2003 an estimated 1500 Master’s programmes were offered in English in countries where English is not the first language.

In 2005 about 20,000 American schoolchildren were receiving e-tutoring support from India.

More than 60% of transnational companies see China as the most attractive location for R&D

A study in 2000 found that over 300 languages were being spoken in the schools of London.

74% of interactions in English do not involve a native speaker of English.

More of a report than a book, Graddol manages to cover an incredible breadth and scope of  research and uses it to provide pithy and well-considered analysis. If only more academics could be so concise….

The mobility of people, money and information has been increasing since the nineteenth century. Are we reaching a point at which English becomes ubiquitous, and it’s teaching unnecessary?

Several basic assumptions are challenged as Graddol tries to make sense of the state of the world now and in the past, in order to posit his predictions. One is the accepted history of English as a hero, battling the French and coming out triumphant (history filtered through the lens of the nineteenth century empire builders). Another is the modernist idea of history as constant change – he suggests that we are in a transitional period, a shift, which started with the industrial revolution and is still underway. These ways of looking at globalisation, as both a cause and effect of international English, help us to see where we are going. This is a debate which needs the heat slapped out of it with the cold hand of reason.

In the next section, Graddol focuses on the past and present of English teaching. The EFL tradition, he informs us, is designed to produce failure; pedagogically in it’s unrealistic aims of native-like pronunciation and grammatical accuracy, and socially and politically as a gate-keeping device to keep people ‘outside’. ESL, ESOL, CLIL, and especially ELF, all get more favourable feedback in the acronym soup race.

For teachers, Graddol’s policy implications are sobering, terrifying, exciting and / or liberating. But they are perfectly believable. Native speakers are a hindrance to the growth of English. By 2050 there may be very few English learners at all, besides the very young or those with special needs. Bilinguals will not be at an advantage; Rather, monolinguals of ANY language will pay the penalty.

The conclusion is this – this is a time of great opportunity, which could just as easily be buggered up by those shaping decisions. The time is certainly done for old fashioned quibbles about which variety of English we should be teaching. That ship has sailed, mate!

Don’t take my word for it. Two great things this book has going for it before you crack it’s metaphorical spine. First off, it’s short. But better than that, it’s free to download. Go and read it now and come back and comment when you are done.

(Update – 26/4/2010: Comments disabled due to huge spammage! Please email if you have anything to add!)

Despite the pleasures of the blogosphere and the twitterverse, I generally prefer to take my literature in paper form. A cup of tea, a digestive biscuit and a good book. The quiet hush of the library and the musty aroma of slightly damp academics. The per-lunk of a freshly-minted journal as it drops through the letter box.

I took to writing book reviews a couple of years back, partly for the free books, partly to get a few things published and on the CV, but mainly to motivate myself to read more and read more critically. It is a different experience to read a book from front to back with a highlighter pen, a biro and a scrap of paper to make notes, and generally I find it very rewarding.

However, published reviews are generally limited to the current… books which are not more than a year or two old. So, I’ve decided to start an ongoing series of reviews on this blog – old books, books which didn’t quite hit the mainstream, books which can start fights, books which deserve a wider audience, books from outside the field of ELT which are nevertheless pertinent, or books which you really should just read!

I have a little stack of books in my office which I intend to attack over the coming weeks and months, but I would also love to hear from YOU. This seems a ripe series for guest postings – pick a book off your shelf that we all need to know about, write your reasons why in as few or as many words as you feel appropriate, and send it to me…..