Scott Thornbury: Towards a performance-based approach to language learning


Scott Thornbury: Towards a performance-based approach to language learning

First plenary, Saturday 9th Feb, 2019

In order to define what exactly is meant by the key word of the title, Scott divided his talk according to 5 different interpretations of performance:

- Performance as usage
- Performance as production
- Performance as identity work
- Performance as embodiment
- Performance as drama

Performance as usage

Scott kicked off his talk with a reference to Chomsky’s (1965: 4) distinction between competence – the speaker / hearer’s knowledge of the language and performance – the actual use of the language in specific situations. He illustrated this with reference to an example of ‘recursion’ (a linguistic property which allows a language to continuously embed phrases into other phrases). For example:

 Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight

The sentence above is theoretically possible, and grammatical, and therefore represents competence, but is not (except perhaps in talks on Chomsky) an aspect of human linguistic performance.

Conversely, performance (the language as it is produced and used by speakers) does not always conform to a Chomskyan view, as there are common utterances which are not necessarily grammatical, e.g.
...leading Halliday (1978: 38) to suggest that

‘Instead of rejecting what is messy, we accept the mess and build it into the theory’

and more recently, to Hopper’s (1998: 166-167) observations that language is akin to a collage, improvised from a collection of ready-made elements, and the skill of speaking depends more on remembering procedures than on following rules.

In other words, language may not be ‘innate’, but rather accumulated by the process of repeated performance. As an example, Scott showed us the incomplete phrase:

“You must be!”

The first instinct of most (all?) expert users of English would be to identify this as “You must be joking”, yet, as Scott illustrated with examples of concordances taken from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), this is not the most frequent verb appearing in this structure (which was actually doing).

As humans we are primed to look for and identify patterns in ‘the mess’ and therefore: ‘Learning grammar involves abstracting regularities from the stock of known lexical sequences’ (Ellis, 1997). Even the algorithms used (ever more successfully) by Google Translate are based on identifying patterns, as explained in this vídeo.

All of which led Scott to conclude this section with:
When humans learn their first language, they are exposed and process massive amounts of data. Arguably, as teachers, instead of trying to shoehorn grammar and vocabulary into our students’ heads, we should be finding ways to maximise their exposure to the language.

Performance as production

Don Byrne, who is widely credited with coining the phrase ‘PPP’ (Presentation, Practice Production’), suggested that it was a pity that many lessons tended to finish after the second ‘P’ (see slide).
Teachers (understandably) attempt to reduce stress and pressure on our learners. However, real communication is fraught with anxiety and pleasures, so perhaps we should actually try to reproduce these conditions in the language classroom. Gatbonton and Segalowitz (1988: 486) suggest that activities should be designed:

‘to allow learners to experience some of the normal psychological pressures felt by people engaged in real communication’

The same authors suggest that the characteristics of a good speaking task are the following:
Curiously, an example of a common ELT activity that satisfies all these criteria is the ‘Find someone who....’. It is psychologically authentic, as it occurs in real time, the learners don’t know the answers and they are moving around the room rather than anchored at their desks. Perhaps most importantly, it is inherently repetitive. As Scott points out, all good tasks should be repeated, with each iteration adding a new degree of difficulty, or an added element of performance:

- Do it again but without your notes
- Do it again while being filmed....etc.

As illustrated in Lynch’s framework for task repetition (2018):

Another very important aspect of performance as production is the possibility of assistance. Based on the Vygotskyan (Sociocultural Theory) view of development, ‘assisted learning’ helps the learner to move from
Other-regulation → self-regulation

Teachers (or parents, or simply more competent others) can encourage development through intervention and scaffolding learning at a level which is just beyond the learner’s current ability (the window of opportunity that is the ZPD: Zone of Proximal Development).

This pedagogical principle is often found in vídeo games, which expect the inexperienced player to ‘perform’ immediately, but allow endless repetition and offer guidance upon request. This learning curve was pointed out by James Paul Gee in the book:

This ‘performance before competence’ principle may be equated with ‘fluency before accuracy’ in language learning.

Performance as identity work

Goffman (1959: 252-253) argued that our identity is assumed through repeated activity. More recently, in the field of gender studies, Judith Butler (1999: 179) has suggested that gender itself is a performative act based on the repetition of certain acts, and is therefore ‘a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment’. This idea is echoed by Alistair Pennycook (2007: 63) with reference to language learning:

‘We are the products of our performances … It is the repeated performances of language and identity that produce the semblance of being.’

One strategy often used by good language learners is the practice of ‘shadowing’ (subvocalising), which is repeating what you hear under your breath almost simultaneously. While this echoes the other’s speech it is produced in your own voice, which helps you to ‘appropriate’ the language.

As the well-known feminist sociolingüista Deborah Cameron points out (1995: 15-16), sociolinguistics suggests that how you act and talk depends on who you are, whereas critical theory claims that it’s the other way round: you are who you are because of the way you act and talk.

Performance as embodiment

Scott introduced this section with the following quote from Malinowski (1935: 58)

“Ultimately all the meaning of all words is derived from bodily experience.”

At this point, Scott introduced us to the French linguist and language teacher, Jean-Rémi Lapaire. Through a series of YouTube vídeos, Lapaire advocates presenting aspects of English grammar through movement. You can see this in action here.
Lapaire has support from research into ‘embodied cognition’, as for example, Holme (2009: 53) states:

‘The body can be rethought as the expressive instrument of the language that must be taught.’

Performance as drama

In the final section, Scott moved on to performance as drama. As Scott pointed out, the use of drama and drama techniques: role play, writing and performing, has great potential for language learning but is seriously under-researched. In one of the few studies, the researchers (Galante & Thomson, 2017) concluded that drama techniques can have a significant impact on L2 oral fluency.
As a compelling and moving example of all the effort and energy that goes into drama in an L2, Scott showed us a clip of the winners of a competition run by the Hands Up Project, in which schoolchildren in the Gaza strip wrote and performed a short play. Learn more about the Hands Up project here.

In conclusion, Scott summarised the pedagogical applications of each area of performance that he had explored in the presentation:

And left us with the following thought from Atkinson (2002: 537):

‘One acquires a language in order to act, and by acting, in a world where language is performative. This is exactly why and how children learn their first language, and it accounts as well for most of the second/additional language learning going on in the world today.’



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

Butler, J (1999). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. London. Routledge.

Byrne, D. (1976) Teaching Oral English. Harlow. Longman.

Cameron, D. (1995) Verbal Hygiene. London. Routledge.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge. Mass. MIT Press.

Galante, A. & Thomson, R.I. (2017). 'The effectiveness of drama as an instructional approach in the development of second language oral fluency, comprehensibility, and accentedness.' TESOL Quarterly, 51/1

Gatbonton, E. & Segalowitz, N. (1988) ‘Creative automatization: Principles for promoting fluency within a communicative framework’ TESOL Quarterly, 22, 3.

Gee, J. P. (2003) What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. Basingstoke. Palgrave Macmillan. 

Goffman, E. (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1978) Language as a social semiotic; The social interpretation of language and meaning. London. Edward Arnold.

Holme, R. (2009) Cognitive linguistics and language teaching. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hopper, P. J. (1998) Emergent Language. In Tomasello, M. (Ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure. Mahwah, N.J. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lapaire, J-R. (2006) La grammaire anglaise en mouvement. Paris: Hachette.

Lynch, T. (2018). Perform, reflect, recycle: enhancing task repetition in second language speaking classes. In Bygate, M. (Ed.) Learning languages through task repetition. Amsterdam. John Benjamins.

Malinowksi, B. (1935). Coral Gardens and their Magic, vol. 2. London: Allen and Unwin.

Pennycook, A. (2007) Global Englishes and transcultural flows. London: Routledge.


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