‘Thorough’ Thornbury At IATEFL 2016

So after missing out on so many of the much awaited sessions and plenaries at the IATEFL 2016 , I was finally lucky enough to watch the online streaming of the plenary session on the last day of the conference.

I was looking forward to his plenary ever since I saw his name on the conference schedule. Scott Thornbury, the man behind A-Z of ELT , knows well how to be thorough and concise in his talks. I’m once again amazed how skilfully he covered the history of major movements and development in ELT since the mid-sixties up until the present time.

So here is a summary of what I found interesting in his presentation.

 When We Played Records

Thornbury took us all back to the time when it was rather easy to know the difference between ‘record’ (N) and ‘record’ (V). The book he referred to had records (definitely a NOUN here!) as accompanying (cool) aid to make language learning a ‘living’ experience.

Living English A Course Book

The Living Language Course

Errors were not appreciated in language learning in that time and age and accuracy had supremacy. This was also the time when TESOL was founded i.e. the year 1966. He also quoted Chomsky as this was the era when Chomsky challenged the prevalent language learning and teaching theories and practices of that time, for the first time. He quoted Chomsky, “ I am  frankly rather sceptical about the significance, for the teaching of languages, of such insights and understanding as have been attained in linguistics …”

[I]ATEFL Founded

So amidst all the shifting from Audio-Lingualism to Chomsky’s revolutionary ideas, [I]ATEFL was founded in 1969. The president of the newly founded organization said in his opening plenary ” The much- publicised revolution is not a leap forward but a regression into routine and dullness.” 


 ‘Built-in- Syllabus’ and All

In 1968, Pit Corder introduced the notion of ‘Built-in-Syllabus’ and according to Thornbury, ” set the agenda for the next decade in ELT”.  He talked about Corder’s book, The Visual Element in Language Teaching and quoted Corder, ” Language is not knowledge but a set of skills. The teaching of it, therefore, must be different from the teaching of a content subject like science”.

Thornbury, Plenary at IATEFL 2016

Thornbury, Plenary at IATEFL 2016 ( A Slide from the Presentation)


Thornbury took us on a ride from H.V.George’s ‘101 Substitution Tables for Students of  English’ to L.G. Alexander’s ‘Look, Listen, Learn’ , moving on to the revolutionary ‘Strategies’ by Brian, Angela and Ingrid. This course book used ‘functions’ in its ‘ Content List’ and there were no ‘ Grammar’ structures to be found.

(A Slide from the Plenary)

(A Slide from the Plenary)

Basically this book changed the whole English Language Teaching scenario. The book was based on the following notion by David Wilkins, ” What people want to do through language is more important than the mastery of language as an unapplied system”. 

Nothing has really changed in ELT!

It is quite interesting to know that from 1966 to 2016, ideas, methods, approaches and theories have been going back and forth and this ELT Pendulum have been swinging to and fro between accuracy and fluency, cognitive and social experience, grammar mcnuggets to communicative routines etc. Hence, well, ironically, we haven’t really ‘advanced’ in 2016 in the field of ELT.

1966 - 2016

1966 – 2016

To make us feel a little better, and as Thornbury said in his presentation for an ‘up beat’ ending to his talk, he proposed 3 ‘endings’. He first mentioned Van Lier L. and his idea of  ‘ forging’ a ‘ new field of educational linguistics’ and then went onto describing his 3 ‘endings’.

3 Endings

The Pragmatic Route

English can be taught as a ‘subject’. So this route won’t take you to teaching any ‘communicative competence’. Grammar is seen as very important component of teaching and books play a crucial role too.

The Dogmatic Route

Polar Opposite to the Pragmatic Route, this suggests no grammar teaching, no particular course book to teach and sometimes not even a teacher ! Language is taught as a ‘ Whole Act’.

The Dialectic Route

This is my personal favorite. It is the most ‘moderate’, at least in terms of its theoretical aspects. Projects like ‘Language Learning in the Wild’  fall into this dialectic route. It is a neat blend of the pragmatic and the dogmatic route to language teaching. Thornbury also talked about the ‘ Hands Up Project’. I really loved the idea behind this project as it uses the modern technology but uses the ‘old’ activities like Dictation Drawing and keeps the young learners focused and engaged, despite the thousands of miles between them and their teacher.

In short, this was such an amazing plenary session. While describing the strange relationship between the teachers, the students and the publishers, Thornbury said,

Because the publisher thought that the teachers thought that the students thought that grammar is important, that’s why we gave it to them’.

To sum up, I’d say that it was a rich and thorough presentation by one of the gurus in ELT. Thornbury ended it by mentioning a student named Hanan who is a part of the ‘Hands Up Project’ as a possible presenter in 2066 IATEFL conference, sharing what she would have learnt through this experience.

Let me know what did you find the most interesting in this plenary session. Also, leave a link to your blog post if you blogged about any of the IATEFL 2016 sessions.

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