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A new beginning…


It should come as no surprise to anyone who still has this site bookmarked that I’ve had my mind on other things the past year or two!

In fact, I’ve been busy working on a new graded reader series for McGraw-Hill Education called Choose Your Own Adventure. These books are adaptations of thirty of the best-selling 2nd-person adventures published by Chooseco LLC. It’s been a lot of fun, but sadly hasn’t left me with a lot of spare energy to keep this blog running.

I’ll be keeping this site up as it is for the time being, but with comments and other notifications turned off.  If you’re looking for me, you’ll have better luck at my new brand spankin’ new Teach Your Own Adventure blog. See you there!


The End


(Don’t worry; that’s just CYOA-speak for start again! ;-) )


Tim Murphey and the L2 Passionate Interactional Imperative

I recently came across the following excellent article by Tim Murphey, and liked it so much I asked him if I could repost it here. Although it’s not directly about task-based learning, the concepts of passionate–or meaningful, to use the tired old term–interaction and the primacy of doing are, of course, core underlying principles of the approach. Download a PDF of the article. Visit the SiSAL Journal website. Visit Tim’s website.


The L2 “Pie”: It’s Hot or it’s Not!

Originally published in Murphey, T. (2011). “The L2 Passionate Interactional Imperative (for short “The L2 Pie”): It’s hot or it’s not!” Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(2), 87-90. Reprinted in full with permission from the author. 


At the American Association of Applied Linguistics (AAAL) 2011 conference, John Schumann described how Lee, Dina, Joaquin, Mates & Schumann’s (2010) interactional instinct unfolds between infants and caregivers such that learning an L1 is assured in normal development through emotional bonding between infants and caregivers which is substantiated by motivation, proficiency, and opportunities (all co-constructing concepts). In subsequent second language learning at an older age, these three characteristics are not environmentally and contextually assured, and this seems to account for a great part of the shortcomings of much of the late-L2 instruction in the world (Lee, Dina, Joaquin, Mates & Schumann, 2010).


And the Winner is…

Drum roll, please

Bicycle with Winker, by Naoto Maezawa, from Kazuhige Cho’s class at the Tazasaki City University of Economics!

Naoto will be receiving the top prize of an iPod Touch, as well as the shortlist prize of a 5th Edition Longman Dictionary of Current English with CD-ROM, both courtesy of Pearson-Kirihara.

Each of the shortlisted entries will receive a 5th Ed. LDOCE as well. Amazingly, three other entries from Cho’s class at Takasaki City U were shortlisted this year: Kenta Kimura’s Battery Pencil Box (which got my vote, I can now reveal!); Risako Yumoto’s Water Checker (which received the most overall points in the shortlist selection stage); and Shogo Kawashima’s Earth Walker (which finished a very close second place–only two votes short, in fact).


2nd Annual Widgets Contest: Please Vote!

Please take a moment to read the six student entries below and vote on the one that you think is the best overall.

The winner will be announced on July 25th, and will receive the top prize of an iPod Touch, courtesy of Pearson-Kirihara. Each of the other finalists will receive a 5th Edition DVD-ROM Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. We will announce the names of the winner and the runners-up at that time.

For the sake of clarity, we have typed out the text from each student’s submitted proposal form. We may have corrected minor spelling, punctuation and capitalization mistakes, but by and large we did not edit the students’ words.

When judging the best product proposal, try to consider the following criteria:


1. Is the idea clear? In other words, can you understand what the product is supposed to do? Is the language, while maybe not perfect, comprehensible enough–maybe even persuasive?

2. Is the idea original? Have you seen or heard of something like it before? Variations on existing ideas are okay–clear rip-offs are not!

3. Would the idea be possible to produce given today’s technology? We would all like to own a teleportation device. But if it sounds too good to be true, that’s probably because it is.

Other considerations are up to you, but could include: how overall attractive, safe, useful, or interesting the product is. Remember, it doesn’t need to appeal to everyone’s taste for it to be a good idea.

The following is not in any particular order. After you have chosen your favourite, please follow the link to vote (below, after the last submission).


The Widgies Are Back!

Better late than never, here is the official kick-off to this year’s Widgets inventions contest for students. Here is a sample of the entries from last year. And here is last year’s lucky winner receiving her grand prize, a new iPod Touch.

(This year we’re thinking iPad–but no promises yet!)

Pearson will be donating 12 copies of its great 5th Edition DVD-ROM Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English again this year, so your student’s chance of getting a nice prize is actually pretty decent.

To enter, submit your students’ creative invention ideas according to this guideline. The guideline form is from last year (what? what? I’m busy this month, okay?), but everything still applies except the top prize.

In an amazingly convenient twist of fate, the dates are exactly the same–just change the year and voila! So, submit your students’ entries by June 25th, 2011, and we will announce winners here after July 10th.

You don’t need to be using Widgets to enter(*), by the way–but if you are, the submission is basically a copy of the Stage 2 Product Proposal form. Piece of cake. If you aren’t using Widgets, you can follow this sample lesson, or just do it all on your own. It’s a guaranteed fun lesson, whatever else may come of it!

In a nutshell, our judges are looking for creative ideas, presented clearly, and in an attractive way. Good luck!

ADDED: Found a fun series of photos of creative inventions to inspire your students: <> (Thanks Michael Stout!)


(*) Incidentally, if you try to order Widgets in your country, and your ever-helpful Pearson representative tells you that it isn’t available there, don’t believe ‘em. Contact me and I’ll help them once again to do their job!



Six things teachers should know about tasks

Lindsay Clandfield, author of Macmillan’s award-winning Global course, has recently reconfigured his famous Six Things blog as a museum of sorts–an ongoing archive for the many posts and threads on various things ELT that had accumulated there during its run.

One of these was a guest post that I wrote on TBLT, titled Six Things All Language Teachers Should Know About Tasks. Since I have not posted much recently here, I thought this might be a good occasion to bring up an oldie.

I think comments are disabled there now, but feel free to come back and comment here.


P.S.: More posts from me here soon, I promise.

The importance of experiential learning

This week, I will let Diane Laufenberg’s TEDxMidAtlantic Nov 2010 presentation, “How to Learn? From Mistakes” speak for itself. [Thanks to Philip Shigeo Brown for this recommendation]

It’s not specifically on TBLT, or even language learning for that matter, but the points Laufenberg makes regarding the experiential nature of learning and the importance of failure and task repetition are perfect examples of why TBLT is important. And it’s only 10 minutes long, so you have nothing to lose!

Oh, and Merry Christmas everyone–see you again in 2011!

Grammar as cartography

There’s an analogy I’ve been using with my students for ten years now: that grammar rules are like maps. I think it’s a useful analogy to reduce some students’ often obsessive attention to grammar.

Here’s the picture I try to paint for them, using Google Maps images as examples:

Grammar rules are like maps–and landscapes are like languages–in several important ways.

First of all, maps are not the landscape itself; they are a representation of that landscape. Likewise, grammar itself is not the language, but rather a way to describe language–to lay a grid over it so that we can examine and discuss its component parts. When we study a map of Japan, we are aware that we are studying Japan; however, we are equally aware that we are studying just a few aspects of Japan–its shape or geographic features. We know that there’s a lot about Japan that isn’t as easy to explain in map form, and we certainly don’t expect to be able to get around Japan without trouble just because we have a map in hand.

The second important point is that both landscapes and languages are massive, shifting, complex, organic things, with no distinct beginning or end, and few clear meaningful boundaries. In other words, it’s just as difficult to say where English begins and Spanish ends, or how large each one is, as it is to say where exactly the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic or the Pacific, or to measure the surface area of any of them. So what we do is we observe as well as we can, for as long and with as much care as we can–and then we make what are often arbitrary boundaries which are, nevertheless, meaningful to us at the time. The problem is that we sometimes forget just how arbitrary some of these boundaries can be, and start thinking of them as natural, inherent qualities of the world. Regarding landscapes, this can lead to outdated ideas such as that all people of Type X belong in Country X. In linguistics, it can lead to a desire to prescribe stylistic conventions as rules, or to overgeneralize from one aspect of the language (i.e.: “English shares many characteristics with Latin”) to another (i.e: “therefore one shouldn’t split infinitives”).

But the third, and most crucial, point of analogy is that one can “zoom in” on both maps and on grammar–and the more one zooms in, the less reliable the description can become. So for example, from space, the coastline of Japan is pretty easy to describe. It doesn’t change noticeably over time, at least not the timescales we are concerned with. It’s the same with general grammar descriptions: one could examine a large corpus and say, with confidence, that subjects precede predicates in English X percent of the time.  However, the closer one gets, the more detailed, the less one can be confident that the representation is accurate in all cases or over time. “Zooming in” on a particular writer doesn’t tell us very much–it’s not very useful as a map of the language–since idiosyncrasies of style vary greatly between writers.

The more we zoom in, the more discrete features we can see, but the less reliable their descriptions can become, and the more exceptions become apparent.

I am currently sitting in my office, which should be situated in the empty rectangular field at the center of this Google Map satellite photo. It’s not, of course, because the building I’m in is relatively new. Maps at this scale are often full of such mistakes, since they are relatively detailed, and features at this level change more often. With current technology, and depending on the area, Google maps can be several years out of date–just like very precise grammars and lexical frequency lists can become obsolete quickly as well.

Zooming in to sentence level reveals even more divergence, since individual utterances are often marked in relation to standard grammar usage–and anyway, are also affected by other factors including local usage, social context, etc. Languages change, and the closer one gets to real, meaningful language in use, the more drastically and quickly they can change. To the point, even, that worrying too much about grammar rules at “street level” begins to seem a bit mad.

A bit like, say, using this picture as a map to navigate your way across this street, and expecting that particular truck to still be there.

We use maps as tools to learn how to get around–but we also get around to learn how to get around. We don’t endlessly study maps and then expect to get from A to B without a problem, because we understand that no map can ever be perfectly detailed. There will always be features of the real world that cannot be described easily, or that change too often, for maps to be our only tool. The best way to learn how to get around is to combine map-reading knowledge with the actual experience of getting around… just like the best way to learn a language is to be able to refer to grammar when needed, yes, but also to just get out there and communicate when that is the best option–which is more often than we may tend to think.

Meaning McNuggets

There are many reasons to decry the grammar syllabus, the most valid of which is the plain fact that learners learn grammar forms at the point of need, and very rarely does this follow any intended sequence of instruction. Least of all when the sequence of instruction is created according to some arbitrary sense of increasing language complexity, of an easy-to-more-difficult progression of units, because there can be no such ideal progression. Spanish learners of English will always find articles easy enough to master, and Japanese learners will always find them among the most difficult features of the language, and so a syllabus or a coursebook that attempts to please both groups will need to make a tough decision as to where on the grammar syllabus it tackles article use–if at all.

But the problem doesn’t stop there. Scott Thornbury coined the term grammar mcnuggets a decade ago to criticize the widespread use of what are at best inauthentic but easy to sequence, teach, and test bits of predigested language forms. The idea that grammar as it is “produced”, “regulated” and “consumed” (his words) in coursebooks is one of the things that has made many of us less than healthy learners and teachers of languages is a powerful one, that cries out for activism as much as its fast-food counterpart. The form that this activism has taken is in calls for MEANING FIRST! DOWN WITH FORM!

But the problem with meaning is that it too can be as easily atomized, reconstituted, packaged, and sold as the meatiest grammar point. It should certainly come as no surprise to any teacher that the various units and purportedly meaningful dialogues and discussions in nearly all coursebooks are just as bland and inauthentic as the grammar exercises that they claim to have replaced. Bland because any gristle, fat, and bone–any mention of real world topics with real world consequences–are avoided, and inauthentic because meaning needs context to thrive, and context cannot ever be found in 10-minute Find Someone Who? activities. (*)

So why do teachers love disconnected activities and topics so much? Why this pack-rat mentality to collect materials devoid of context? Maybe I’m an especially terrible teacher, but I almost never find myself browsing 101-Activities-for-the-Busy-Teacher type websites, or looking into coursebooks for that perfect task. What I’m always looking for is that perfect theme to tie the whole syllabus together–without which even the best short activity will ring hollow.

This point was driven home to me last week as I waded into Alex Case’s 100 Publications that Most Changed TEFL post, and realized that what teachers are most looking for are in fact mcnuggets: As it currently stands, the first 3 items on that list (**) are of the 5-minute-activities-for-teachers-to-copy variety, as are about 20% of the other items on the list. Academic articles and methodology books aside, I don’t think I’ve even heard of the majority of these “influential” titles. And some of the ones that I happened to have seen and admired, for instance the Vineys’ Handshake course, are dismissed as not influential. I even got into a bit of a spat with Case in the comments because he dismissed Widgets when he “picked it up twice looking for ideas or materials to supplement classes and [...] put it straight back down again”. As if somehow the natural test of a coursebook should be its usefulness as a source of random lesson ideas!

In any case, this whole thing has brought back to my mind the importance of a themed syllabus, a topic I presented on at JALT 2010. I’ll attempt to summarize that presentation here next week. Maybe I’ll even have time to put up the audio and slides as I’ve been meaning to!


(*) Okay, it’s true, a lesson-long discussion of, say, global warming is a bit more contextually rich and thus meaningful, but only until next week, when the unit abruptly changes to Emperor Penguins or Machu Picchu!

(**) Alex has rightly corrected me that they are not the “top” three items, as the list is in alphabetical order. In my defense, the list was originally ranked, hence the mistake. ADDED: And I stand corrected again! They were never ranked, just numbered. Nevertheless, I stand by my core point, which is that the list is dominated by books of activities. Useful? Perhaps. Necessary? In those rare cases where lesson gaps need to be filled–no doubt. But influential? Surely only negatively so, by implying that lesson “nuggets” are an important part of a healthy syllabus!

Good news, and a brief hiatus…

As some of you might have heard by now through the blogvine, my new co-authored reading coursebook, Fiction in Action: Whodunit has jointly won the 2010 Duke of Edinburgh award (*). This is exciting for obvious personal reasons of course, but here are some other possible ramifications of the award which make me especially proud:

1. Whodunit is at heart a task-based title, although this sometimes gets overshadowed by its more explicit Narrow Reading focus. There are not many examples out there of how ‘strong’ TBLT can be integrated into commercial textbooks (two exceptions here and here), so this particular prize could serve to remind the industry that it is possible sometimes to sidestep that all-pervasive grammar syllabus.

2. As far as I know, this is the first time a fully Asia produced and developed title aimed at a worldwide market has won a major award. It would be thrilling if this were to herald the emergence of Asia as major creative force in the industry on par with Europe and North America. For far too long has the region had to make do with titles produced elsewhere and with different students and teachers in mind!

3. Our publisher, ABAX, is one of several ‘indie’ publishers currently thriving in Japan and other national markets. Ours isn’t the first innovative title they have put out, nor will it be the last. If we can bring some attention to what Abax and other independent publishers have been doing in the shadow of the larger multinationals, then perhaps that alone can help to infuse some much needed innovation into the ‘coursebook industrial complex’.

4. Also worth mentioning is the Creative Commons side of things. I’ve posted about this before at the Abax blog, but I sincerely believe that copyright is one of the great issues of our time. A free and vibrant culture depends upon a fair and flexible policy of rights management–and the draconian enforcement of 19th Century laws in our digital age is simply not the way to go. I don’t presume to know the best option for every creator out there, but I do know that our CC edition of Whodunit is doing very well indeed, and if anything is leading to greater sales of the print edition. So download it, share it, copy it, and try it out in class; if you like it, pay what it was worth to you–or simply order the convenient and feature-packed print version the following semester. Hurrah for freedom! Hurrah for choice!

Unfortunately, one short term downside to this award is that I will need to take a brief hiatus from the blog. My schedule was already jam-packed with my full time teaching load and conference presentations (next up: JALT 2010)–while I can hardly complain about having to pencil in Prince Philip, the last-minute trip to London is going to be a bit disruptive for the next month or so. Apologies in advance, and I promise to be back in full force at the end of November at the very latest.


(*) This year’s other winner, I was just as thrilled to discover, is none other than MacMillan’s new flagship title Global, penned by Lindsay Clandfield of Six Things blogging fame. This is actually Lindsay’s second trip to Buckingham Palace, the first having been for his co-authored Dealing with Difficulties. I’ve gotten to know Lindsay a bit through blogging (I did a guest post at Six Things recently), and really look forward to meeting him in person next month!