Scott Thornbury ''Seven things beginning with A'

Macmillan Academy Day, Barcelona 2018

Macmillan Academy Day, Barcelona, 26th May 2018

Scott Thornbury: Seven things beginning with 'A'

Scott’s talk coincided with the recent second edition of the A-Z of ELT, published by Macmillan. As he was putting the first edition of the book together, he noticed that there was often a curious overlap between some of the concepts starting with the same letter. This resulted in two previous talks: 'Seven things beginning with M' and ‘Six things beginning with 'R'. In this new edition of the book he found interesting connections between some of the entries in the ‘A’ section, namely:

Seven things beginning with 'A'


Acquisition can be taken as a rather narrow term. The word lends itself to the interpretation that learners are acquisitive, that we ‘acquire’ language in a similar way to going shopping: language is a product to be acquired. There is a school of thought among Applied Linguists that acquisition happens in the head: the so-called ‘black box’ analogy uses a computational metaphor to describe the mental processes involved.

SLA as a cognitive process

Krashen’s (1982) Input Hypothesis coincided with the advent of the current era of advances in electronics and ICT, and used terminology drawn from the field: input; filter; process, etc. However, Scott argues, language learning may not be as linear or ‘computational’ as this analogy suggests. The subsequent ‘social turn’ (Block, 2003) in Applied Linguistics contends that language acquisition doesn’t just happen in the brain, but inevitably depends on the social context. In other words, we acquire language BY using it, not IN ADVANCE of using it

 ‘Just as surely as language is social, so is its acquisition’
 Atkinson, 2002: 527

Concluding this section, Scott described how the ‘old school’ acquisition metaphor (the black box) has been challenged by what he called the ‘new kid on the block’ participation metaphor: that we learn by using and / or doing.

Acquisition v Participation metaphors
Leading neatly to the next A entry:


Activity refers to the idea that all learning is experiential: learning by doing. Scott quoted Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) 

‘In contrast with learning as internalization, learning as increasing participation in communities of practice concerns the whole person acting in the world’

Lave & Wenger

Leo van Lier (2006: 81) used the example of a child learning to play football to illustrate the learning process:

The rules of the game become learnable in an interaction between bottom-up discovery and top-down instruction, within the social context of playing the game’.

In this view, ‘language learning emerges from participation in linguistic practices, such practices always being steeped in historical, cultural and institutional meaning systems’ (ibid. p. 88). New technology can show how this happens in child first language acquisition. Scott showed a clip from the TED talk by Deb Roy: The birth of the word.  The aim of this experiment was to track the development of language from the start. Cameras in the researcher’s house linked up to vídeo feeds mapped all his son’s encounters with words over a period of several months, in order to build up a ‘landscape’ of his language development as it coincides with his activity around the home: the uses of ‘water’ peak in the kitchen, ‘bye’ at the front door, etc.

Activity-based teaching

If we believe that language learning is situated and social, and we base our teaching on the notion of activity, this involves many other processes, not just cognitive, leading us to.....


This section refers to the idea that learning occurs in interaction, with the assistance of a more knowledgeable other: someone who knows a little more than we do and can help ‘scaffold’ the learning. Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of learning (1978) proposed the notion of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): the magic moment when a learner can almost do something but just needs a little help, often visualised as a child learning to ride a bike or to read with an adult’s occasional prompting.

©Reading with children: Pre-readers.

This assistance or scaffolding gradually helps the learner move from external (other) regulation to self-regulation.

Assisted performance

It is also important to consider when to offer the learner the assistance they need. Scott referred to the concept of teaching ‘at the point of need’. In his book (see image) James Paul Gee describes ‘just-in-time help’ – when the game player gets advice or guidance at the precise moment needed to continue playing the game.

What can computer games teach us?

As language teachers, we tend to note down errors and deal with them after the learners have finished a (typically speaking) task, for fear of interrupting any interaction. Here, it is suggested that feedback given while learners are actually in the middle of the activity will be more memorable than correction given after the fact or instruction given beforehand.

Gee's 'just-in-time' principle


Appropriation can roughly be defined as making something your own. Rather than going out and ‘acquiring’ a language, you ‘appropriate’ it, and make it a part of you. This is beautifully illustrated by the experiences of Eva Hoffman, moving to the US as a Polish-speaking adolescent:

the voices of others invade me. By assuming them, I gradually make them mine. I am being remade, fragment by fragment, like a patchwork quilt’.

Lost in Translation

Scott observed that learners working together on a task may pick up language from each other. Students are sensitive to what other learners are saying and may feel that this particular idiom or structure is more attainable, coming from a peer as role model, rather than the more distant, unattainable model of the teacher. As the learner ‘appropriates’ an element of the language from those around them, they add it to their own personal repertoire.

Bakhtin on 'Appropriation'

Each re-iteration of a task brings with it the opportunity to produce more elaborate and more accurate language, building on what has been heard and ‘appropriated’ previously. Learners are taking advantage of the opportunities they find around them and using their linguistic resources to the best of their ability:

Making the language your own


Environmental scientists describe the way that plants and animals create opportunities within their ecological systems as ‘affordances’. The term has been borrowed by Applied Linguists to describe the language-learning opportunities available to the learner.


In an extreme form, the context itself can provide the currículum. This is exemplified by a project in Scandinavian countries ‘Language learning in the wild’. As an example, a learner of Icelandic in Iceland would be prepared in class, then set a task, e.g. to go to a bakery to buy bread. The shopkeeper has been primed not to resort to English and the learner has the option of phoning an unpaid, often untrained, volunteer (Scott called them Über teachers). The learner records the interaction and can use this in class to examine any problems they had. The project is described by the authors here:

Language learning 'in the wild'

In the case of an EFL context, the Internet can become the virtual ‘wild’ that learners can immerse themselves in. In both cases there is interaction between the ‘real’ world and the classroom, as the class is the ‘pit stop’ where learners can come to share experiences and discuss problems.


Learners need to take some responsibility for their own learning. In a groundbreaking study of children of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the US, Lily Wong-Fillmore identified ‘social’ and ‘cognitive’ strategies used by successful learners:


- Join a group and pretend to understand what is going on
- Use well-chosen words and expressions to give the impression that you know the language
- Count on friends to help


- Use common sense: assume the language being used is relevant to the situation
- Use formulaic Language
- Break expressions down
- Make the most of what you’ve got
- Work on the big things first and leave little things to later

As Scott pointed out, this is good advice for language learners anywhere.


As was the case of the Hispanic children in school playgrounds in the US, language learning is helped considerably by becoming part the Target Language (TL) community, or in other words, by aligning yourself with TL speakers, even sometimes physically. To illustrate this, Scott showed the photo below, which comes from a study of a Japanese teenager doing her English homework with her aunt (an English teacher)

Physical alignment

As language teachers, we are sensitive to this in our classes and we create spaces in which the learners can align with the teacher or their peers. Ongoing research is proving teachers’ long-held instinct that we can ‘read’ the body language of learners during group or pairwork, to gauge their level of engagement.


In his conclusion to the talk, Scott pointed out that the new perspectives on language learning such as those he had described have led to a re-definition of certain key terms in the SLA literature, as shown in the following slide.

Re-defining concepts in SLA
As a parting thought, Scott summarised the common thread that connected the A words discussed in his talk:

Acquisition cannot and will not occur without use’

(Firth & Wagner, 2007: 806)


Atkinson, D. (2002). Towards a sociocognitive approach to second Language acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 86(4).

Block, D. (2003). The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Firth, A & Wagner, J. (2007). Second/foreign language learning as a social accomplishment: elaborations on a reconceptualized SLA. Modern Language Journal, 91. Focus Issue, p. 806.

Van Lier, L. (2006). The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning: A Sociocultural Perspective. Boston. Kluwer Academic Publishing

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes

Wong Filmore, L. (1979) Individual differences in second language acquisition, in Filmore, C.. Kempler, D. & Wang, W. (eds) Individual Differences in Language Ability and Language Behavior. New York, Academic Press.


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