Dipping my toe back into ELT waters

I’ve had a lovely long weekend doing some of the suggested reading for the Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) course with Serveis Lingüístics de Barcelona (SLB Coop) which starts next month. Having not spent very much time thinking or reading about English Language Teaching (ELT) and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) over the past six years, this feels like comfort reading, returning to familiar names, theories and debates. 

I used to do quite a bit of reading and taking part in discussions about language learning and practice. But then, a couple of experiences at an IATEFL conference in 2014 – one positive, the other, less so – took me in a slightly different direction and drew my attention away from ELT until very recently. Although I continued to practise as an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) worker for a while, my reading, thinking and discussions were more focused on broader topics. I completed an EdD earlier this year, having researched the formal and informal learning of grassroots community activists in Scotland. In that research, I used the work of Jacques Rancière, along with a bit of Michel Foucault, as a theoretical framework.

As I now start to read about TBLT in preparation for the course, Rancière’s work seems relevant, particularly around the role of the learner and the way in which education can position people. As we search for the most effective and efficient way for someone to learn a language, we should also consider the effects of the different approaches on how people are perceived (and how they perceive themselves). 

In writing about TBLT, people regularly refer to the distinction identified by Wilkins (1974) between synthetic and analytic syllabuses. In a synthetic syllabus, the learner is presented with bite-sized pieces of language – whether these be grammar, lexis or functions – and they are required to synthesise this information about the language in order to be able to use the language to communicate. In an analytic syllabus, of which TBLT is an example, learners analyse the language they encounter, inducing rules for themselves and learning lexis incidentally (Long, Lee & Hillman, 2019). Dogme ELT, or Teaching Unplugged (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009), an approach I’m much more familiar with, is also an example of an analytic syllabus. 

A synthetic syllabus seems to conceive of learners as not being able to learn without a teacher and indeed keeps learners dependent on teachers as they progress through the different levels. This progression, as Rancière (2010, p.9) writes, ‘is the art of limiting the transmission of knowledge, of organizing delay, or deferring equality’. An analytic syllabus, on the other hand, recognises that people can learn without the explanations of a teacher but that a teacher, by drawing attention to things, can speed up the process. 

All their effort, all their exploration, is strained toward this: someone has addressed words to them that they want to recognize and respond to, not as students or as learned [individuals], but as people; in the way you respond to someone speaking to you and not to someone examining you: under the sign of equality.

Rancière, 1991, p.11

I won’t go any further into this just now because this is just intended as a short post to say “hello again!” to the one or two people who might come across it, but it does highlight the ways in which learning about task-based language teaching might connect to my thinking and my concerns about education more widely, particularly the ways in which education can create and maintain inequality under the guise of tackling it. 

To pose equality as a goal is to hand it over to the pedagogues of progress, who widen endlessly the distance they promise that they will abolish.

Rancière, 2003, p.223

Neil McMillan’s conversation with Mike Long in episode 3 of the SLB Coop podcast touched on the potentially emancipatory purpose of TBLT so this is something I’m hoping I get to explore further on the course. For now, I’m enjoying thinking about and reading about language learning and teaching again. 

I have a lot of catching up to do! 


Long, M., Lee, J., and Hillman, K. (2019) ‘Task-Based Language Learning’ in J. Schwieter & A. Benati (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Language Learning, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching unplugged: dogme in English language teaching, Peaslake, Delta Publishing.

Rancière, J. (1991) The ignorant schoolmaster: five lessons in intellectual emancipation, Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Rancière, J. (2003) The philosopher and his poor, London, Duke University Press. 

Rancière, J. (2010) ‘On Ignorant Schoolmasters’ in C. Bingham and G. Biesta, Jacques Rancière: Education, Truth, Emancipation, London, Bloomsbury.

Wilkins, D. (1974) Notional syllabuses and the concept of a minimum adequate grammar. In S.P. Corder, & E. Roulet (Eds.), Linguistic Insights in Applied Linguistics, Brussels, AIMAV. 

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