Retraction in ELT

I am currently reading the new book, Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie. It deals with meta research (research about research) and outlines all the ways in which science is currently going wrong. In one section dealing with retraction, Ritchie notes that “1.97 per cent of scientists admit to faking their data at least once” and suggests that that number is probably an underestimate as people are unwilling to admit to things like this even when asked in anonymous surveys.

This number means that for every 50 papers published in ELT one is likely to contain faked data. Some of these cases have come to light in biology and psychology and this led me to wonder if there were many retractions in ELT. So I asked twitter.

Marc Jones instantly found two (here and here) both of which were retracted due to plagiarism. One was plagiarism of another scholars work and the other was self plagiarism (submitting the same paper for double credit). I also found one from The journal of Computer Assisted Language Learning retracted for (self) plagiarism. So far no fraud.

Stuart Ritchie pointed me to the retraction watch searchable database. I tried searching by journal and found a RELC paper published by Ivan Chong which was withdrawn for “significant data errors“. There was also The journal, System which had the misfortune to publish one article twicein the same issue!

The journals Applied Linguistics, ELTJ and TESOL Quarterly have apparently had 0 retractions to date. The database is not complete though and I was also sent this piece which was retracted from the prestigious “language learning” journal. It’s not that clear what went on here but it seems like one author noticed errors in the data and requested a retraction.

As an interesting aside, Richie notes that people continue to cite retracted articles even after they have been retracted. I was curious about this so I used google scholar to check citations of the 2003 Language Learning article. There were hits from 2018 and even from 2019. I don’t know the date of the retraction but I feel pretty confident it was well before these dates.

Out of thousands of papers in ELT I could find only two that were withdrawn due to data issues. So either ELT is a paragon of virtue or we haven’t got very good at sniffing out fraud yet.

But how easy is it to get a journal to retract a paper? While researching an article on learning styles, I came across a couple of very curious articles. The first was Hyland 1993, the second was Hyland 1994. While reading the 1994 article I got a strange sense of Deja Vu:

In essence, learning style research suggests that people make sense of the world in different ways and these ways are partly created by cultural experiences (Hyland 1994)

Learning style research therefore suggests that people make sense of the world in different ways, more importantly however, these ways are partly created by cultural experiences (Hyland 1993)


Eight Japanese universities participated in the survey with 265 undergraduate students responding. The questionnaire was also administered to 140 Japanese students at various English proficiency levels at a tertiary college in New Zealand to determine whether overseas study influenced modality and group preferences. (Hyland 1993)

Eight Japanese universities participated in the survey with 265 undergraduates responding. The questionnaire was also administered to 140 Japanese students at different English proficiency levels at a tertiary college in New Zealand. (Hyland 1994)


Essentially the concept expresses the simple idea that each learner has a clear and coherent set of learning likes and dislikes, but studies have addressed an enormously wide range of factors. (1993)

Learning style research expresses the simple idea that each learner has a clear and coherent set of learning likes and dislikes, but people differ in their learning styles in a number of ways and studies have addressed a huge range of factors. (1994)

Most of the later (1994) article is a verbatim copy of the earlier one with minor phrasing adjustments such as those shown above. This type of thing is usually known as either self-plagiarism (see the examples above) or, on a smaller scale, text recycling and is considered unacceptable in academic publishing. Many journals have rules against it, such as JALT itself:

Papers sent to JALT journal should not have been previously published, nor should they be under consideration for publication elsewhere.

I thought this was a bit strange and so I contacted JALT, the 1994 publisher, to make them aware of the issue. They told me that they take such matters very seriously and would investigate. After an investigation they informed me that this was all just an honest mistake, a bit of a mix up. The paper had been submitted to two journals by accident and and as a previous editor had dealt with the matter, it would be wrong to retract the article now.

How one accidentally submits the same article to two journals is, I must confess, a mystery to me. More mysterious was JALT’s reasoning. Regardless of what a previous editor had decided, a repeat publication is still in the literature with no indication that it is a repeat.

I wrote back suggesting that since I was unaware that it had all been resolved, as was the current editor and presumably future readers, it might be worth retracting the article, or at least adding a note to explain what had happened. They told me they were very grateful for my suggestion but no, they weren’t going to do anything. And so both articles remain in the literature.

It is also odd that Hyland himself, a incredibly respected editor and prolific author would not want the article to be retracted. In fact, until recently he continued to list both papers among his publications (his new blog, however, only lists papers from 2003). Not retracting the paper may be less embarrassing in the short term but it means that there is always the chance for some annoying blogger to bring attention at some point, to what was a mix up .

In truth, I’m not ‘that’ surprised that nothing happened here. Brendan O’Connor a student at the University of Leicester discovered that a well respected psychologist was “recycling” parts of papers into new publications to an alarming degree. Although O’Connor has documented this to an impressive degree, some journals were reluctant to do anything at all when confronted with these findings.

As whistleblowers, data sleuths and anyone else who’s contacted a scientific journal or university with allegations of impropriety will tell you, getting even a demonstrably fraudulent paper retracted is a glacial process – and that’s if you aren’t simply ignored or fobbed off by the authorities in the first place.

Science Fictions

Well quite.

EBEFL asks: should we use translation software?

I was recently presented with an almost flawless piece of writing from a students whose English level precluded her producing such an almost flawless piece of writing. Initially I thought, “oh no…we have to have *that* conversation”…

In her tutorial the student guilty confessed to using translation software. I told her I was surprised because google translate famously produces awful translations from Japanese to English. “ah” she said, “I didn’t use google”.

She directed me to a site called DeepL. I threw a bit of Japanese in from Wikipedia and this is what I got out.


Now this isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn good. For good measure I threw it into google translate and got a pretty good rendering too.

google translate

I was quite surprised at how good the Google Translate version was. But I shouldn’t have been . Sure, it was an endless source of comedy in 2004 when it produced weird and wacky sentences, but that was 15 years ago and technology moves on (in 2004 no one thought computers would beat humans at Go any time soon, that happened in 2015. There is an excellent documentary about it online). Google translate switched to using “Neural Machine Translation” around 2017 and this has reportedly led to much better quality translations.

So, is there any point in banning students from using translation software to write their essays anymore, particularly in EAP contexts? We wouldn’t mind them using dictionaries to translate words, and rather than just banning them, perhaps we could focus on getting them to use this tool more effectively? It certainly beats receiving a paid for or plagiarised submission.

Let me know your thoughts.


So after 8 years I have decided to move to WordPress. There are a few reasons for this but I won’t bore you with the details.

You have probably noticed that the name has changed slightly. I did this because although I don’t see anything wrong with the term “Evidence based teaching”, some people do and can get a bit stuck on the idea that evidence based means “dictated by the evidence only”. I don’t see it that way but I also don’t think it is an important enough hill to die on. My twitter account will remain EBEFL, but the blog name has changed.

All of the content from the previous site should still be here but a lot of the hyperlinks no longer work. If you see one that isn’t working and draw my attention to it then I will fix it. There are over 150 posts so it could take me a while to sort this all out!


Woo Watch: speed reading

A friend recently forwarded to me an email from a BBC reporter (radio Leicester) making inquiries about speed reading. The email said:

The aim would be for someone to speed read the 50 page Government document that becomes available at approx. 3:30pm today and take us through the key points they managed to pick up along with giving us the time it took to do it.The aim would be for someone to speed read the 50 page Government document that becomes available at approx. 3:30pm today and take us through the key points they managed to pick up along with giving us the time it took to do it.

I wasn’t sure if this was a joke so I looked up the reporter on twitter and found the following:

BBC radio Leicester 

So they found someone! They found one “Anne Jones” who has a reading speed of around 4,000 WPM! Jones read a 50 page government document in 8.5 seconds according to Carpenter. I questioned this in a tweet saying, “this isn’t possible, is it?” Oddly his tweet disappeared shortly after that. 

Many people, including me, would like to be able to read faster and there are lots of people, like Anne Jones, running course or selling books to tell you how this can be done. 

One such person is Susan Norman who you may remember as the author of several books and articles on NLPNorman wrote The Speed Reading Bible with Jan Cisek an environmental psychologist and  Feng Shui expert (you can see him talking about Feng Shui for animals on the BBC here). 
I have only been able to get a sample of their book but it contains tips and hints about how to improve your reading speed. Some of these seem eminently sensible like “have a clear aim for your reading” and “Don’t think ‘reading’, think ‘finding information’”. The kind of advice we give to international students taking university courses. Others seem less convincing, such as the following:  

Speed up your brain with ‘super-duperreading’* Look quickly (1-4 seconds) down the middle of the page using your finger to guide you for about 10 pages or until you begin to make sense of some of the words. Then start reading with comprehension – but you’ll be reading more quickly because your brain is reacting more quickly.

Likewise the suggestion to trainees to “open your peripheral vision” is a curious one. 

So is speed reading possible? The short answer is “no”. Although it would be nice to read hundreds of books every week, sadly we are stuck with the roughly 300 words a minute that “average” native speakers read at. 

The longer answer is, it depends what you mean by “reading”. Speed reading is really just skimming, and skimming involves a necessary decline in comprehension. You can go through a text faster but you won’t be getting as much info, -you’ll just be missing bits out. 

it is unlikely that 400 words per minute can be easily surpassed as when reading, people subvocalise and therefore there is a physical limit to the speed they can read at. There is also a physical limit on how fast your eye can move across a page focusing on the words and 8 seconds for 50 pages is, I would guess, beyond that limit. 
Speed reading may sound “far out” but it actually looks quite tame when compared to a relatively new phenomenon, known as “quantum speed reading“. As with all things quantum and neuro, you are probably wise to be skeptical. The breathless blurb on the QSR website tells us that it is:

a completely new technique for reading books without looking at the pages. It was developed in Japan and has been taught to both children and adults there for the last several years. Astonishing as it may seem to most of us who learned only to read books by reading a page at a time they can in fact be read by simply flipping the pages

They don’t really just mean flipping pages though, right? Check the video. 

According to method creator Yumiko Tobitani, “after 72 classes, students can finish reading a 100,000-word book within five minutes” Although QSR doesn’t seem to have taken off in Japan, it has found some success in China.

Whether it’s learning a language in 10 days or in your sleep, humans will continue to look for short cuts to doing difficult things and there will always be those willing to offer a helping hand. In the case of Tobitani, this will only set you back $350

Woo Watch: The rise of Neuro

There are those in ELT who aren’t fans of  science and research. ‘It’s an art‘ they protest, ‘stop trying to measure everything!’ On the other side are those who grab science and embrace it wholeheartedly. Sometimes these hugs can be a little too hard, leaving science with broken bones and internal bleeding. The intention is good but the result is a squishy, science shaped mess. 

One example of this is the rise of “Neuro” in teaching. The Neuro crowd are not doubt well-intentioned but can sometimes seem to stray dangerously close to the “woo” side of the forceSatel and Lilienfeld note that neuroscience “is vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs who tout facile conclusions that reach far beyond what the current evidence warrants”. 

Neuroscience is a legitimate science which offers many promising insights but as Dorothy Bishop, Professor of developmental neuropsychology notes, the attempts to link it to education are often misjudged. And she is not the only one. Daniel Willingham has written that Neuroscience applied to education is “mostly unimpressive“, stating that there is “definitely a lot of neuro-garbage in the education market.” As the authors of “Brainwashed” note, there are many educational enterprises that seem to “merely dress up or repackage good advice with neuroscientific findings that add nothing to the overall program.

“Neuro” is popping up increasingly in ELT. For instance, in a recently published piece by Cambridge University Press on “neurolearning” the author argues that “neurolearning” is useful for creating a “brain-compatible environment”. The article goes on to use language like “Homeostasis” and “Hypothalamus” in order to suggest rather ordinary things like keeping the classroom at a good temperature. The author published another article saying that “no matter the target language, try to think about activities that will appeal to the different learning styles – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.” and “a brain-compatible environment can only be created by a passionate teacher”. Unfortunately, after some online criticism, the page seems to have been removed. Exactly what the word “neuro” adds to any of the approaches suggested in article, is not clear. 

Another example of the rise of “neuro” is “neurolanguage coaching®“, which is a mix of coaching and neuroscience. It’s creator claims that:

Neurolanguage Coaches are trained in the practical application of neuroscientific principles, relating to how the brain learns, functions and reacts, in particular in relation to emotional triggers when learning a language, drawing Krashen´s affective filter into the scientific evidence arena.

Similarly, in Japan, ‘neuro’ has taken off! The Japanese Language Teaching association (JALT) has a special interest group know as the “mind brain and Education” sig. The sig promotes something called NeuroELT. The group began as a charity project after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and went on to hold a series of conferences called the FAB11

I don’t know much about these approaches and don’t particularly have any bones to pick with either, but in both cases, as with neurolearning, it’s a little unclear as to what precisely the role of “neuro” plays, other than to provide a slightly scientific veneer to otherwise ordinary educational practices. Is there that much to be gained by knowing that the prefrontal context “lights up” when students play Hangman? 


Another curious side-effect of the rise of Neuro are the endless pictures of colourful brains accompanied by effusive explanations that this proves that X or Y is the case:

Here’s a spot that lights up when subjects think of God (“Religion center found!”), or researchers find a region for love (“Love found in the brain”). Neuroscientists sometimes refer disparagingly to these studies as “blobology,” their tongue-in-cheek label for studies that show which brain areas become activated as subjects experience X or perform task Y. (link)

These images can be surprisingly effective. It has been shown that brain images of the type neuroscience produces, actually helps to make research seem more believable. However, when even a dead salmon in an FMRI scanner can produce exciting looking blobs, we should proceed with caution. 

This current “neurophilia” is not completely without precedent in ELT. The 90s saw a rise in popularity of Neuro-linguistic programming. NLP, which has very strong pseudoscientific elements became so popular that it made appearances in a number of respectable people’s work. And what concerns me is that people who might have previously been previously swept up in various “brain-based” approaches might now be getting swept up in the “neuro” craze. 

For example, I recently discovered that the “language teacher“Journal had had an NLP special edition (volume 21, no. 2) and one of the contributors to this special edition, an advocate of educational hypnosis and a proponent of NLP, is also a founder of the JALT Brain, Mind and Education sig. Other founders have also published articles on, for example, the Kolb model of learning styles, the learning pyramid (a theory which must surely be on life support at this point) and a study into the VAK learning styles of over 30,000 dental students. 

These articles are fairly old and it is possible that the authors no longer buy into these kinds of practices. Evidence for this can be seen in that the group has a handy neuro myths website and the NeuroELT website explicitly warns readers to watch out for neuromythsThe creator of “neurolanguage coaching®” has, likewise, explicitly distanced herself from NLP (her upcoming conference, however, does feature one speaker who is an NLP practitioner.)  All of this is reassuring, but  I am still left with a linger sense of unease about the prospects for “neuro” in ELT. 

One area where ‘Neuro’ has already ‘contributed’ to education is in the proliferation and acceptance of many neuromyths. Lethaby and Harries have shown that, as in other areas of education, many ELT teachers believe that people only use 10% of their brains or that there are left brained and right brained learners. But the prevalence of neuromyths and experts warning about giving too much attention to the “neuro” prefix seem to falling on deaf ears. No doubt neuroscience can bring interesting and useful findings to education, but the rush to embrace this new toy could also end badly. 

Is the end of Erasmus Nigh?

While working in Leicester University I had a few classes teaching Erasmus students.These were always an interesting change from a lot of the other EAP classes we used to teach and although the students could be a bit challenging at times, they were a memorable bunch of students. I was a shocked earlier this year to see “Erasmus” trending on twitter and a large number of accounts mourning the (imminent) loss of the program. But are Eramsus’ days really numbered? Here is Dan Jones from the University of Leicester to try to explain what’s going on.

For the last two years I’ve had a Google Alert set up for the combined key words of Brexit and Erasmus. Every so often, but not too often, I get a ping telling me about a Brexit/Erasmus news story. I’ve learnt that either the Google Alert algorithm or the UK government isn’t working. I get surprisingly few pings. 

If you’re not familiar with Erasmus, here’s the quickest of summaries. Firstly, as an acronym it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s the EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. Students can select up to 4 modules a semester, basically the same ones as the undergraduate students but they can choose from across departments. Some come for just a semester and some for the whole academic year (yes all seven months of it). We currently have students from Spain, France, Germany and Italy. The outbound British students get all the attention in the UK press (as we’ll see a lot of them grow up to be journalists), but the other half of the story is the students from other EU countries who come to study in the UK. 

It’s centrally funded through the EU and runs in 7-year blocks. The current one ends this year and therefore the UK can’t keep putting off signing up for 2021-2027 much longer. Each 7 years has seen the budget and remit expand. The current programme’s budget is 14.7 billion euros. The new programme is notable for its budget of 30 billion euros.

The UK’s involvement may now come to an end. What follows is a short Brexit story where nothing very much happens.

From 24th June 2016 until December 2018 nothing very much happened. In universities, the plan was ‘wait and see’. The government offered to underwrite the current programme, which was nice, but nobody believed them, so universities had to give their own separate guarantees (e.g and e.g.).

The government advice on Erasmus up until 8th December 2018 started with “A scenario in which the UK leaves the EU without agreement (a ‘no deal’ scenario) remains unlikely given the mutual interests of the UK and the EU in securing a negotiated outcome.” By December, it became clear that the May strategy of running down the clock and calling everyone’s bluff was a long shot and wasn’t going to work. Without making a fuss, on the 23rd December 2018, a civil servant updated the advice to “Delivering the deal negotiated with the EU remains the government’s top priority. This has not changed. However, the government must prepare for every eventuality, including a no deal scenario.”

Just to repeat: NOTHING HAS CHANGED 

At a government level it wasn’t clear what preparing for every eventuality actually meant. But by January 2019 it meant hanging the universities out to dry “UK organisations may wish to consider bilateral arrangements with partner organisations that would enable their projects to continue.”

At a university level, all they could do was publish a reassuring strategy statement (e.g), but as everyone was fond of saying you can’t start doing new deals until you’ve left the old one. At a course planning level, how exactly do you prepare for every eventuality? Do you both plan and not plan all the modules, allocate and not allocate hours to teachers, book and not book rooms? So we decided to wait and see. 

This period of limbo gave journalists the opportunity to reflect on what the UK might lose. This and this being the most recent. Essential elements are 1) Facebook just reminded me I was an Erasmus student. 2) I had a lot of fun, 3) That was the year I found myself, 4) It wasn’t all about the drinking. 

From my experience of hungover and sleep-deprived students, there’s some truth to the partying aspect. I can’t say about the finding yourself. But as all these articles quite rightly go on to say, Erasmus students get to experience living somewhere else, and from an academic point of view, they get to study modules at degree level outside of their specialisation. Our Shakespeare and literature modules are taken by students from all academic backgrounds. We have students doing a TESOL module who had previously not given a thought to teaching, let alone teaching English (though admittedly, that doesn’t sound too different to the usual route into teaching English). 

If you were in the UK in 2019 you won’t need reminding that, politically, it went a bit mad. In the run up to the original Brexit deadline of 29th March, El Pais was reporting that Spanish universities were discouraging their students from applying to the UK. At my university, 20% of our Erasmus students are from Spain. But otherwise it was more ‘wait and see’. 

A survey published in April 2019 of prospective students painted a more complex picture. When asked about whether they were more or less likely to study in the UK due to Brexit, 36% of EU students were less interested, 6% more interested. For non-EU international students it’s 10% less interested and 14% more interested. The proportion of ‘more interested’ might seem surprising, but it seems that some students see that a weakened UK pound will give them more spending power and a weakened UK HE will give students more leverage in getting into a higher ranked programme and university. 

Of course it’s the majority in the middle that are neither more nor less interested and fortunately they just carried on as usual, and when we got to the start of term, the numbers held up quite well. We even have Spanish students. The El Pais article was either inaccurate or the students ignored the advice. For most students, the only thing that will stop them applying is taking down the application form. 

In November 2019 Universities UK published “A ‘NO DEAL’ BREXIT: IMPLICATIONS FOR UNIVERSITIES AND MINIMISING RISK” They left the caps lock on as it’s directed at the government and it’s full of specific advice on what should be done. After years of vague technical notices, this is refreshingly readable (for a report on education policy). 

Over the last week, there’s been a bit more pinging from my Google Alert than usual. Firstly, the Liberal Democrats tabled an Erasmus amendment to the withdrawal agreement bill. And when it was inevitably voted down, it was reported in the most pessimistic terms: U.K. Parliament Vote Casts Doubt On Future Of Erasmus Study Abroad Scheme and Fears over future for Erasmus international student exchange scheme after Brexit. (This second of these has this great celeb filler: “Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James was among those taking to social media to denounce the outcome, which she branded disgraceful”. Well if EL James says it’s disgraceful…). But as each of these reports goes on to concede, this doesn’t actually mean anything. With the exception of last year’s madness, opposition amendments don’t get voted for by the government.

In fact, there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, saying we’ll probably stay in but if we don’t then we’ll make our own, at least suggests an engagement with the issue. It does raise the question, why would you make your own when there’s a perfectly good one that we’re already using? But it’s not unprecedented, Switzerland withdrew from Erasmus in 2015 as part of a move to limit immigration. The result was the Swiss-European Mobility programme.

At this point I’m as miserable as the next person on this rain sodden island, but I seem to be a bit more optimistic about Erasmus. Once we get past 31st January I think there will be a flurry of mini deals and Erasmus will be one of them. And anyway my most recent Google Alert tells me that Boris Johnson has just said flat out, we’re staying in Erasmus. Now, if we can’t trust the Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s Government then who can we trust?

Why there is not, and will never be, a ‘fifth skill’

My first teaching job was working at GEOS. The GEOS method was ingenious. First you present the daily grammar target, then students practice it then you do some kind of role play. It wasn’t until I started my MA that I realised that this method hadn’t in fact been dreamed up by the geniuses at GEOS. It was PPP!

I first became aware of Jason Andersons writing when I saw his piece on PPP in ELTJ. As I read the article and the posts that accompanied it, I really enjoyed the level of detail Anderson went into.
 He is someone who can really do a deep dive on a subject, see for example his recent piece on the origin on Jigsaws and information gaps

Jason is one of those people who seems to have produced 5 papers while other people are thinking about writing one. He has written several books and has a very long list of papers and talks to his name with subjects from Translanguaging to teaching large classes. 

Jason Anderson @jasonelt
Teacher educator and researcher:

Visit Jason’s blog here.

Google the term “fifth skill” and you’ll find numerous references, mainly from (English) language teaching communities, including blogs, talks and even articles in academic journals. The range of things offered forward as ‘the fifth skill’ is extensive, including:
  • translation (e.g., Janulevičienė & Kavaliauskienė, 2002)
  • grammaring (e.g., Larsen-Freeman, 2001)
  • culture (e.g., Hong, 2008)
  • cultural competence (e.g., Kramsch, 1993)
  • intercultural awareness and language learning (Pulverness, 1999)
  • viewing (e.g., Donaghy, 2019)
  • retelling (e.g., Burns, 2005)

And recently even Mario Rinvolucri (2019) joined the ‘fifth skill’ club, proposing… inner monologue. Doh! It seems so obvious now he’s said it. Reference to the fifth skill even shows up on a Google Ngram search (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Google Ngram showing frequency of ‘the four skills’ and ‘the fifth skill’. From Copyright 2018, Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Yet, in this (hopefully humorous) blog post, I’m going to argue that they’re all wrong to suggest that X is the fifth skill. First and foremost, if any one of these writers is going to argue that their choice IS the fifth skill, they either have to be ignorant of the numerous prior attempts to offer a fifth skill (which suggests incompetence), or they are dismissing the others as wrong, yet without justifying why (which suggests complacency). They can’t all be the fifth skill, can they?

The point I’d like to make is not that they are wrong to suggest that the specific skill that they are talking about is important – I’m sure that they all are, even inner monologue (how many times has ‘inner karaoke’ saved you from boredom?). There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of identifiably discrete skills involved in learning of any kind, and within this, the learning of languages.
The point is a very simple one. The reason why some of us still talk about ‘the four skills’, sometimes called the “foundational language skills” (Hinkel, 2006, p. 110), is not because we’re so stupid that we haven’t realised that there might be other skills involved in language learning, it’s because we are referring to a matrix of two dichotomous categorical variables that enable us to describe how we use language for communication, what Candlin and Widdowson (1987) call “modes of behaviour”. Any instance of language behaviour, or if you prefer, communicative  language ‘use’ (i.e., excluding entirely internal processes such as inner monologue) involves, on a fundamental level, one of two channels, the written or the spoken channel, and on an individual level, one of two directions – reception (we see or hear something) or production (we utter or write something). That makes 2×2 which equals? You got it, four. See Table 1 – hopefully it’s familiar.
Table 1: Where exactly would you put the fifth skill?

Within each of the four quadrants there are numerous discrete and fuzzy skills, both those things often labelled sub-skills, and many others besides, and there are broader skills that link these four skills together, such as translation. Behind this two-dimensional table there are numerous other cognitive skills that necessarily support and manage acts of communicative language use. And in the beautiful, messy, complex world that is social interaction we are able to use two or more of these skills simultaneously (in conversation, for example). There are also, of course, many other, interpersonal and multimodal skills that accompany our languaging acts. But that doesn’t make any of them ‘the’ fifth skill.
Analysed synthetically at the simplest meaningful level there is no act of language use possible that isn’t unambiguously categorizable within the matrix of the four skills. What I am doing now. What your eyes are doing now. What your speech organs might do if you don’t like this blog, and what the person near to you might do with the sound waves entering their ear to cause them to take offence. That’s why we talk about the four skills. So no, you can’t add another one. Sorry.
Burns, D. E. (2005). Your story, my story, history. In Tomlinson, C. A. et al. (Eds.) The parallel curriculum in the classroom, Book 2: Units for Application across the content areas, K-12 (pp. 5-56). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Candlin, C. N. & Widdowson, H. (1987). Language teaching: A scheme for teacher education (preface). In Bygate, M. Speaking (pp. ix-x). Oxford: OUP.
Donaghy, K. (2019). Advancing learning: The fifth skill – ‘viewing’. [Blog post]. Retrieved from
Hinkel, E. (2006). Current perspectives on teaching the four skills. Tesol Quarterly, 40(1), 109-131.
Hong, S. (2008). The Role of Heritage students in incorporating culture into language Teaching. South Asia Language Pedagogy and Technology, 1, 1-10.
Janulevičienė, V., & Kavaliauskienė, G. (2002). Promoting the fifth skill in teaching ESP. English for Specific Purposes World, 1(2), 1-6.
Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: OUP.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2001). Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.
Pulverness, A. (1999). The fifth skill-intercultural awareness and language learning. British Studies Now: Anthology Issues, 2, 6-10.
Rinvolucri, M. (2019). On my mind. IATEFL Voices, 272, 19.

2019 wrap up

This year I moved from the UK back to Japan (for a 4th time) and started a new job at the International University of Japan in Niigata. It’s a really interesting uni, being entirely EMI by necessity as only 15% of the students are Japanese. Most of the 300 students come from East Asia, Central Asia and various parts of Africa. It is also surrounded by koshihikari rice fields, snakes and bears. 

Last year I wrote about my thoughts on twitter. This year I have tried to be it off it less but it I’m not sure I have been all that successful. Twitter is still an awful form of communication. and probably the easiest way to fall out with someone who you would probably get on with in real life (or have previously gotten on well with in real life). Perhaps 2020 will be the year when I finally kick the habit? 

This year I also wrote 10 blog posts, three book reviews and spoke at three conferences, ELTIreland, ExcitELT, and Nanzan langauge education seminarI did not attend the big conferences this year because the price would have been almost half of my entire research fund. The conferences I did go to were all relatively small and two of them were 1 day events with very low fees to attend and interesting formats. I think there is something to be said for these kinds of smaller conferences with novel formats. I certainly got the chance to meet and talk to a lot of other teachers. 

For example, I managed to finally meet people I had known for ages on twitter such as Formerly SwanDOS Rachel Fionda, Marjorie Rosenberg, Peter LahiffLou McLaughlin, Liam Tyrell, Tim HampsonPeter Brereton, Ted O’Neil,  Chris Farrell, and Darren Elliott (of lives of teaches fame). Apologies if I missed you out…I’m very forgetful! I also unfortunately missed the chance to meet Leo Selivan and Marek Kiczkowiak as I was passing through Liverpool. Maybe next year?

Here were the top 5 posts of this year by views. 

1. The authenticity trap 
2. Evidence based resources 
3. Taboo ELT
4. Mogg’s Rules 
5. tooth Fairy expertise  (my personal favourite) 

the top 5 posts of all time haven’t really changed. 

1. MA or DELTA?
2. Does Swearing show a lack of IQ
3. Skimming and scanning
4. left brains and right brains in TEFL 
5. Learning styles: facts and fictions


This year I also had a piece published in EFL magazine on Freire that generated a little bit of controversy. The piece was my personal reaction to a book that some claims is very important to the teaching profession. 

It occurs to me, rather belatedly, that twitter has something of an amplifying and distorting effect. You can get the impression that ideas are really popular and important when really it’s just a twitter thing. A political party can seem really loved or a celebrity can seem reviled when in reality it’s just the impression twitter creates. I think this is probably true for critical pedagogy. In fact, the editor of one publication I sent the article to replied saying that though I made valid points the book was just not well-known or part of main stream teachers’ reading lists to be of interest to readers. 

Likewise, one distinguished member of “TEFL royalty” told me, much to my surprise, that he had never heard of the book and similarly very few hands went up when J.J. Wilson reportedly asked teachers at a conference to raise their hands if they knew it. Writing about Freire then is a bit like writing about NLP. Most people will shrug but the fans will really come for you

Am I Trump in this analogy?

So I think I got sucked into spending time on something that isn’t really that important to most teachers and I’m probably done with the subject but to fans of critical pedagogy I ask the same question I ask everyone else on this blog, -where is your evidence that this stuff works? 

Is blogging over?

And finally for this decade….EBEFL asks….is blogging over? Perhaps it’s how little time I spent on twitter or perhaps it’s who I follow or twitter’s algorithm but I can’t remember seeing that many new bloggers or blog posts going around this year. In contrast, everyone seems to have a podcast! So many in fact that I can no longer keep up with them all (though you can read reviews of some of them here, here and here) Is podcasting the new blogging? 

Anyway, as always, thanks for reading and have a great 2020. 

Try this, it works! 4….3….2…

Paul Nation‘s 4/3/2 1 activity is often cited as an excellent way to improve a students spoken fluency. I have used it myself and incorporated it into a lot of materials. It’s evidence based after all, right? 


The other day it suddenly hit me that I’d never once bothered to check if the method itself had any evidence to support it at all. Here’s what I found. 

The method 

In a paper from 1989 Nation describes the technique which originates in a 1983 paper by Maurice (if anyone has a copy I would love to read it). Ask students to prepare a talk on a given topic but don’t let them make any notes. Pair the learners up and give them 4 minutes to talk about it. Their partner should not interrupt. 

Next, the speaker and listener switch and the process is repeated. After this the students switch partners and repeat the process but this time with the time reduced to 3 minutes. In the final iteration the time is reduced to 2 minutes. The point of this is to get students speaking more fluently. 

In order to test the efficacy of this method Nation recorded students doing the activity and then measured various aspects of the performance. For example her measured, the number of words per minute, the number of hesitations and the number of repetitions. Nation also measured accuracy by counting the number of errors per minute. 


  • The 432 technique seemed to lead to improvements in student fluency as measured by words per minutes (WPM), and a reduction in hesitation and repetition. 
  • There was ‘some’ improvement in student accuracy. 
  • Students seemed to get better at only including important information (control of content). Nation believes this shows students may get better at condensing information. 

    Some thoughts

    The study was N=6. That’s very very small. Nation claims that despite this “the consistency of the results indicates that their gains from the activity would be typical of other learners” but with 6 advanced students can he really make these claims? 
    There seems to be a lot missing from the methodology section of this paper. What was classed as a mistake? how long was a hesitation and so on. There are no transcripts to look at to see what kind of language the students produced and we get no information about whether any students finished before the allocated time and if so how that was recorded. 

    Did students take it slowly on the first 4 minute round because they had some much time? would student have been able to speak at the “final” speed if they had only been given 2 minutes from the beginning? If the time wasn’t changed at all would students speed up anyway? 

    The “audience” students (those listening) do nothing other than listen. Whenever I do this activity I ask students to take notes to answer questions later on so they are at least paying attention. I also tend to start with a much shorter initial time. 4 minutes seems like a really really long time. The IELTS speaking test “long turn” only lasts for 2 minutes. 


    I was curious if anyone had replicated the study, perhaps with a larger cohort. It turned out they had. 


    Nation himself repeated the study 2 years later with Supot Arevart, only this time with 20 intermediate level students. This time, the authors give a bit more detail about the procedure. It seems that students were grouped in fours and spoke once, listening three times (which seems a bit dull for a speaking lesson). This paper also contains transcripts of participant speech. 


    • Again there was an increase in WPM (18 more words from the first to the last performance) though it is not clear if the repetition or time reduction is the cause.
    • Individual student results are listed in this paper and show that whereas some subjects made great gains (an increase of 48 WPM) others did not. One student actually got worse (though that was a student with an very high initial WPM count). 
    • Hesitations decreased by an average of around four fewer hesitations by the 3rd round. Again, the individual data shows us that the results were much more varied at an individual level with one participant going from 10 to 18 hesitation by the final round (incidentally the same student who did not make WPM gains).  

      De Jong and Perfetti (changing the topics)

      This paper tested 4/3/2 with a group who repeated the same topic and one that got a new topic every round. They found that even if the topics differed for each time the levels of fluency increased. This would seem to indicate that the reduction in time alone can prompt students to appear more fluent. However, the authors also found that only those who had repeated their topic showed improvement in the posttest. 

      Boers (keeping the time constant)

      Another two replications were carried out by Boers who is quite critical of Nation. He raises the following issues:
      • Nation claims that this is a well-researched technique (Nation and Newton 2009) when in actual fact there are very few studies into the technique. 
      • Nation research only shows improvements within the 4/3/2 activity itself. He does not show that this permanently affects a students fluency. 
      • Although Nation has claimed that 432 also improves accuracy and complexity, the actual results do not support that claim. 
      • Boers wonders if the repetition alone, without the time pressure, may have the same effect. 
      Boers studies (2014, N=10 and 2015, N=20 with Thai) introduced a control group with no time reduction (3/3/3 as well as 4/3/2)


      • As with Nation, Boers found increases in the number of words and WPM from the first to the third round. 
      • Both papers found the number of disfluencies (hesitations) decreased. 
      • They also found that in the time-constant group students improved as well, though not by as much. 
      • One striking finding was the amount of verbatim duplication in the shrinking time condition. This was notable to the authors as in some cases up to 50% of the texts were exact repetitions. 
      • “There was no compelling evidence of increased lexical sophistication and no evidence of increased syntactic complexity.”

      Boers found that participants seemed to repeating the same structures and this held for both replications. Although students got faster, errors did not decrease significantly and in some cases they increased. Boers notes that as students were just repeating the same thing without getting any input on, or evaluation of their performance, this is hardly surprising. 

      Take away

      Most of the research shows that repeated practice will increase fluency as measured by WPM (or syll/sec). However it will probably not do much for accuracy or complexity. As Boers argues that “the 4/3/2 technique is recommendable if the sole aim of the activity is to push fluency”. But you can increase fluency merely by reducing the time students have, even with different topics. You can also get a decent increase with no reduction in time. 

      Simply put, rehearsing a talk and repeating it will tend to improve fluency. A modified 432 in which students get feedback on their performance (from other students or the teacher) and then repeat it may help with accuracy and complexity. But as with many things “more research is needed”. 

      Taboo 2

      Much to my surprise the taboo ELT post took off! 

      It was really just for my curiosity and I hadn’t intended on publishing at all. There are now 83 responses so I have put the new ones in this post. 

      I would say some people out there seem to think views which are pretty mainstream are a bit taboo. I have, where I think it’s useful, linked to blogs or academic papers which make a similar point. Perhaps if you, dear reader, know of any other links you can post them in the comments. 


      For various reasons, I’m not sure I will continue to update this. That said, I think this could be an interesting research project if someone wanted to go about it in a more systematic way. Anyway here are the latest results. 

      Approaches and methods 

      Teaching the IPA is a waste of time and energy for all concerned.
      Tired of endless arguments about methods. Grammar translation works for some students. TBLT seems hopelessly confusing and unsystematic to some students. Some students hate group work.
      ‘Listen and repeat’ is no good for practising pron. You have to get physical.
      I wish you’d recognise the severe limitations of correction codes for writing.
      “Everyone learns differently,” I’m not sure they do. People may have different learning habits and different strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve seen no evidence that the process of learning isn’t basically the same for everyone. I think it’s often just lip service to seeing students as individuals……before giving them all the same task to do anyway.
      While communication is key, treating mistakes that don’t impede communication as silly and acceptable accidents so nobody’s feelings get hurt is lazy teaching and in the long run is far worse for students regardless of how or where they will use their English 
      Process writing is a complete waste of our time. The teacher spends hours commenting and suggesting corrections, and students completely ignore them in their final version.


      A CELTA does not make you a qualified teacher.
      I understand the rationale behind the insistence of having a degree to be a TEFL teacher. I have found that some folks who don’t have a degree to be better teachers and are more professional in their approach. This requirement is a big barrier preventing people with potential but have no degree from entering the profession.

      Native vs non native 

      Too much emphasis on grammar based on native English. Books for teens written by adults who don’t appear to have any connection with their readers.
      There is a self- fulfilling prophecy to a lot of discrimination issues by which students expecting different styles from NS and NNS teachers can lead those teachers to be more effective when they adhere to their prescribed styles. Or at least being an effective teacher while breaking from a prescribed style for one’s teacher demographic would require a lot more training and experience.
      Non-natives overestimate themselves and tend to be prescriptive (and proscriptive) and this ‘World English’ nonsense just sets the bar lower for them
      While native teachers are often worse teachers, the bitterness of knowing that makes non-natives ignore any possible value or advantages that natives can bring to the table. 
      Many Non native teachers make mistakes with their collocation and collogation. I have read a number of articles written by non native teachers complaining of their treatment that use unnatural expressions and contain mistakes

      Other teachers 

      Most of my colleagues don’t know what they’re doing in class and shouldn’t be teaching.
      The “subject knowledge” that English teachers are supposed to be experts in is LANGUAGE. So many teachers know jack shit about language as a system, linguistics, phonology/phonetics and it’s embarrassing. If I hear another teacher respond “Oh, it’s an exception! That’s just the way it is! Isn’t English wild and wacky?!!!” in response to a question about some aspect of language that is completely systematic, rule-governed and explainable, I will go crazy! It’s not an “exception”! You just don’t know enough about the subject area you’re supposed to be an “expert” in.
      There are teachers/trainees that will never be effective classroom practitioners because they don’t have the people skills (and such skills can’t be learnt/take too long to develop).
      Many teachers are delusional, especially those involved in Teacher training. They really see themselves as big celebrities and sometimes act as annoying divas, asking people questions like “You DON’T KNOW who I am???”. Ridiculous to say the least.
      We don’t all teach EFL as a means of living in the Far East while we decide what we want to do in life. Some of us do the job in English-speaking countries as a profession.
      A lot of unprofessional behaviours and attitudes of teachers are ignored in the name of collegiality. Some employers don’t pay teachers for prep time due to funding issues or whatever and Ts end up doing hours of unpaid work.
      The majority of teachers, especially at private language schools, are really just washed up has beens and life’s rejects, this always being the elephant in the room when issues of exploitation, unfair treatment and teacher’s rights are brought up. In other words, there may well be reasons for management at institutions, etc., treating teaching staff as interchangeable, expendable revenue generators, their attitude being that the ‘teachers’ (whom they tend to think of in inverted commas like that) wouldn’t be at their mercy without having seriously fucked up in life in one way or another (‘take it or leave it’, basically). There are indeed teachers who are passionate and go the extra mile, along with all the incompetent dross, but the rather awkward question of how most ended up long-term in what regular society regards as a silly sort of gap year job remains.
      Linguists teach best. If you’ve learned a foreign language as an English native speaker, you’ve got to have a lot to contribute.

      The industry 

      it is too much work for too little pay
      The lack of professionalism within the ELT industry.
      It’s mostly all bollocks. People buy into all sorts of crap with messianic vigour and preach to a largely uncritical crowd. I suspect most teachers and students would mostly prefer to be left alone to get on with it in whatever way works best for them. Don’t mind me, I have fallen from the faith. Also. pretty much every test is meaningless and all the international language exams are essentially a scam. 
      .That ultimately the private language school model is useless. Teachers have very little effect on the learners and they’d be much better off watching tv and reading books in English. The results we produce are typically down to the students own motivation/talent. For that reason it’s fine to use coursebooks as it will have the same effect as not using them.
      1. Students are very often pushed into doing exams that they don’t need, and are not ready for, in the name of profit for schools and inflating salaries at the Anglocentric exam boards. Cambridge Assessment and the British Council are ‘not for profit’ which means they don’t pay taxes, and their income can also be ploughed into massive marketing campaigns. (I once contacted Cambridge Assessment to ask about their marketing budget for a research paper I was doing, but they said this information was ‘confidential’.) This means that in the EFL industry, the most highly remunerated are those who are not actually teachers or necessarily know anything about teaching. And, for example, Cambridge writing examiners are paid peanuts. 
      2. ‘Management’ in ELT is just a euphemism for manipulation – how to get underpaid overworked teachers to do the job without having a nervous breakdown. All talk of ‘teacher motivation’ to me is thus senseless – pay them more and give them fewer hours- it’s as simple as that, instead of spending money on plastic red buses and gadgets like IWBs that nobody needs. To become Delta qualified is a massively costly and stressful exercise, but in London the going rate of pay at this level is only 20 quid a teaching hour gross. This is, quite frankly, very insulting and the main reason why I hope never to have to work for a language school again. 
      3. Native speaker teachers (with TEFL+ observed teaching practice/CELTA ) are better than their NNS counterparts in some contexts because a) high school teachers in (eg) Italy usually have NO didactic training, neither are they observed or given feedback. Just having a degree in English is enough to be an English teacher. b) high level exam prep (CAE, CPE, Ielts bands 7-9) requires in-depth knowledge of idiomatic NS-like lexical chunks since the exam boards are Anglocentric. If you don’t like this then lobby to change the exams. But who would dare to challenge Cambridge Assessment and the BC?? 4. A1-B1 levels should be taught by someone who speaks their L1 and uses it in the classroom. Zero beginners especially should be taught in L1. CELTA style eliciting and CCQ-ing is just a pointless pantomime at this level. 
      There are schools in the USA that are known to be little more than student visa factories, yet they manage to get CEA accreditation (for those outside the US, this is the body which oversees the quality of ESL schools and should prevent this situation).
      the English students arrive in a course with is the English they leave with.
      I don’t like every student 
      We are fooling ourselves and our students in the process into believing that it is possible to learn language structures or concepts that native speakers learn over the course of their lives and have the ideal environment in which they can test their hypotheses about what they are learning.
      That when intrinsic motivation for learning isn’t enough, there is very little I can do to motivate my students in the classroom 😦


      Some of the top academics often have trouble translating their amazing knowledge into practical application. They need to get their asses into a classroom again (or for the first time).
      Racism is a much bigger problem in ELT than Native Speakerism.
      Am also fed up of the environment as a topic. Just had to base an entire course on environmental themes and they wear very thin.
      Textbooks are a good idea. Somebody took the time to plan a course not just so that you don’t need to but because you couldn’t do a better job AND teach at the same time.