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Is PPP dead?

Jeremy Harmer

The teacher begins to draw on the board: some lines, a curve. She encourages the students to guess what she is doing or to ask questions Is it a football? Is it a face? etc. It is a face and she and the class establish a name for it, Peter. Now the teacher draws vertical lines across Peter so that he ends up like this:

The teacher and the students establish that Peter is in prison and then through explanation, gesture and mime she gets over the meaning of the sentence He cant drink beer. After modelling the sentence - and isolating parts of it, e.g. cant = cannot - she gets students to repeat in chorus before asking for individual repetition.

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Soon there are six statements about Peter (He cant drive his car but he can watch TV in the prisoners lounge etc) which the teacher uses to get quick and accurate repetition/practice.

Finally the teacher asks students to say some of things they can and cannot do in law/school etc, for example I can buy food in the canteen but I cant take it into the library. Later, perhaps the students write sentences.

Most teachers will recognise this simple (and simplistic?) teaching sequence as an example of PPP: presentation (setting up the situation, modelling the new language), practice (controlled and accurate drilling of six sentences) and production (students making real sentences about themselves).

PPP is frequently used for grammar patterns, dialogues and even vocabulary teaching. It is one of the methodological sequences which has gained most acceptance throughout the English-Language-Teaching world as any glance at textbooks will show.

PPP under attack

In the last few years, however, PPP has come under concerted attack. Is it the best way to teach/learn new language? Can language be cut up into little bits anyway? Does PPP actually work? Michael Lewis has no doubts: ...the model (PPP) is discredited and reflects neither the nature of language nor the nature of learning. (Lewis 1993:190). More recently Scrivener (1994a), Willis (1994) and Woodward (1993), for example, have ganged up to attack it even more forcefully. Woodward writes:
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(The PPP) model seems to be firmly rooted in the tradition of thought springing from Descartes who believed that things should be divid ed up the better to study them. This analytic view of study is in contrast to the growing feeling in our own time that more holistic or ecological ways of looking at interlocking variables and systems might be healthier. (1993:3)

Willis lists six things that are wrong with PPP, but Scrivener (1994a) tops the bill with 8, accusing PPP of being theoretically groundless, of making assumptions about straight-line learning, of being based on sentence-level theories of language and much more. Most damningly he writes that it ..is fundamentally disabling, not enabling. (1994: 15).

Leaving aside the fact that this may come as a surprise to the many hundreds of thousands of students who have managed to progress despite having been subjected to such discredited disablement, one cannot help feeling along with Hopkins (1995) that sustained criticism of PPP may be somewhat exaggerated. As he writes:

No language course these days offers an undiluted diet of the dry meaningless PPP structured lessons that so many commentators like to set up as a straw-man foe. (1995:11)

Indeed even ten years ago descriptions of PPP were more flexible than critics seem to imply. Byrne (1986) swaps the straight line of Presentation-Practice and Production for a flexible circle like this:

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so that a teaching sequence might start with a role-play, for example (production) and as a result of problems encountered there the teacher might then (re)-present some language before organising a bit of practice. The same three elements are present, but their variable sequencing allows for a range of teaching options.

Describing teaching sequences

The need to describe teaching sequences - both for trainees and as principles to guide materials writers - has led many of PPPs critics to propose alternative models themselves. And even those of us who are not prepared to be so destructively dogmatic about teaching practices which have served teachers and learners well over the years recognise the need to re-position contemporary versions of PPP in a wider methodological framework. Such a framework will include PPP as one of many
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procedures which modern EFL teachers have at their disposal. PPP is not discredited, in our view, though its use may be considerably more restricted than it was twenty years ago!

The rest of this article will look at alternatives to PPP and try to assess their claims to be an all-inclusive methodology.

Task-based learning
All people need to learn a language; according to Pit Corder (1986) is exposure to it and a reason for learning it. Willis (forthcoming) suggests three basic qualities for language learners outside classrooms: Exposure to the language, Motivation to learn it and opportunities to Use it. Task-based learning provides those three conditions and, in some versions, claims to sidestep and ignore the more traditional syllabus-based presentation and practice. The extraordinary Bangalore Project, described in many articles and memorably in Prabhu (1987) made just such claims.

Other writers on task-based learning have seen the need for some kind of language study, however. Willis (1994 and forthcoming) suggests a fourth stage when languages are learnt inside a classroom. After students are exposed to language, plan their own task and report on its execution they then listen to fluent speakers doing the same task to compare their versions. They are in a position to do some Language Analysis - what Willis calls Review and planning.

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Willis version of task-based learning is, in the words of a trainee in Turkey ...like a sort of PPP upside down. The steps are there, but in a different order. (Willis 1984:19)

Task-based learning has many advantages, of course. It allows students to see the relevance of their study, it may well be motivating (though of course that depends upon the task, the class and the teacher), and the way students process language during task planning and execution is seen as beneficial for language, personal and intellectual development.

Two caveats occur to me, however. Firstly the completion of meaningful tasks depends upon the students language ability before they start. For beginners, therefore, the range of motivating tasks may be limited. On top of that the procedure may be time-consuming where other more standard routines may help students learn more quickly. Task-based learning may feel better, in other words, but is it any more efficient?

Nevertheless Task-based learning is a powerful alternative to PPP-type lessons, especially for students at higher levels.

The impact of discovery techniques

One of the big movements in the 1980s was the utilisation of discovery learning. Lewis (1986) echoed the prevailing mood when he wrote that

All learning theory suggests that those things we discover for ourselves are more firmly fixed in our minds than those which we are 'told'....In
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place of blind 'learning', the emphasis has moved to the process of exploration which leads to genuine understanding. (1986: )

Despite the fact that the evidence is somewhat sketchy, we have accepted the philosophical claims for the superiority of finding things out for ourselves. Students are not so readily persuaded, however, as Fortune found out (Fortune 1992). When he asked his subjects to choose between a basic transmission model (PPP) of teaching on the one hand and student-centred discovery on the other 68% of them initially chose the former!

Nevertheless, discovery has become a focus for learning and it forms a part of a more reflective methodology. For example Lewis 3 stages for language learning - OHE (Lewis 1993) comprise Observation of language, Hypothesis-formation on the basis of that observation and Experimentation to see if the hypotheses are correct.

This kind of discovery-based observation gains added impetus with studies showing how real language use - especially spoken language - differs markedly from the tidier structure-based organisation of many traditional materials. Maule (1988) sat watching his television writing down any if-sentences he heard. He found that the construction of such sentences was usually very different from the 3-conditional description found in many textbooks. Yule et al (1992) observed that people dont seem to report direct speech in the ways we teach EFL students to do., quoting examples of real language use where American English speakers are just as likely to use to be like (Im like you OK? and hes like yeah Im OK) as they are to use say and tell.

Most recently Carter & McCarthy (1995) and McCarthy & Carter (1995) have demonstrated how, on the basis of a relatively small corpus of spoken language, the
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rules of spoken grammar are uniquely different from the more formalised patterns which are often laid before students in syllabuses and textbooks. Their methodological response to this is to propose a new procedure, III. In McCarthy & Carter, examples show the model in operation where students are provided with an Illustration of language (they read the transcript of a conversation), and then take part in an Interaction with it (they discuss what words - like auxiliaries and subjects are left out) before becoming aware of how the language works so that Induction of the rules they have discovered through illustration and interaction may take place.

Such reflective discovery has much to recommend it. It allows students to be reflective, to think about the language and it gives them a chance to see real language at work as an alternative to the sanitised examples some textbooks and teachers provide. But there are problems too: language discovery is less impressive at lower levels - where it is more difficult to provide comprehensible authentic illustration - than at higher ones. Nor have we decided whether we want to actually teach aspects of spoken interaction or just have the students notice it. And despite the pioneering work of Tribble & Johns (1990) evidence from language corpuses has not yet been made friendly enough for general student use. Finally in Carter & McCarthys work we may question how much benefit is gained (for speakers of non-native English) from studying a restricted variety of informal spoken English of a particularly British kind.

One of PPPs fiercest critics, Jim Scrivener, has provided us with his own model, ARC (Scrivener 1994a & b). This stands for Authentic Use of language (the kind of language used in communicative or creative tasks), Restricted use (which describes
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the kind of language used for controlled practice, in some course books and for tests, for example) and Clarification and focus (which refers to the language which is used to explain, demonstrate, give rules, provide substitution tables etc). For Scrivener lessons can be described in various ways by stringing together these 3 elements in various different orders, e.g. CRA (similar to PPP), RCR, CRCRCRCR etc. In Scrivener (1994b) he also provides global models of lessons, making a useful distinction between Logical line lessons (probably CRRA) and Ragbag lessons, for example. i

ARC seems to be a refreshing way of re-looking at the elements that have always been present in EFL lessons, though the three categories seem difficult to sustain at the margins. At what point, for example, does clarification and explanation become nonauthentic? Why is repetition not part of restricted language use? How does the ARC model account for the mental processes involved in Authentic use - which may involve internal or external clarification/restricted language etc? And how different is it from the PPP circle that Byrne presented us with?

Despite some doubts, however, ARC does provide a useful focus for differentiating language used in the classroom

One element which may perhaps have received less attention than it deserves is that of student engagement or involvement. In Harmer & Rossner (1991) and Harmer (forthcoming) three key elements of language learning sequences are isolated. The starting point for such an abstraction is the belief that if students are not engaged, if they werent involved in the process, heart and soul; there isnt much point in going
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on. Those who are familiar with left- and right-hand brain theories and the distinction which is made by Storr (1992) amongst others between logic and emotion will recognise that successful language learning experiences benefit from having both. All lessons have to engage students and Engage therefore becomes one key element of the model.

A key part of all lessons is the stage where students activate their knowledge, either to enable them to process written and spoken text for its meaning or, conversely, to express their desired meanings themselves. Reading to understand and/or react to content is an activate activity: so is writing a poem or pursuing a passionate argument. Reading to understand minutiae or see how anaphoric reference works is not. Neither are invitation dialogues to practise would like and/or the present continuous.

All lessons need some kind of Activate activity both for motivational reasons and for the mental processes that such exercises provoke. Perhaps Activate techniques really do provide what Ellis called a switch from learnt to acquired language (Ellis 1982): at the very least the choice of the best language to express meaning requires the flexing of the mental muscles, thus provoking intellectual fitness.

Most, if not all lessons, also require at least some opportunity for Study, however small that may be. However many routes there are to learning and acquisition, one of them is to get students to focus in on constructional aspects of grammar, lexis, pronunciation and style. Students frequently demand (with justification) such teaching: we would be foolish not to provide it. Study can be provided through transmission (the explanation & practice of PPP) in Willis language analysis way or by the use of discovery techniques.

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ESA in use
The ESA model itself has three main realisations. In the first (Straight Arrows - see figure 1) the teachers gets students engaged in the lesson, study takes place and some activation then results. A typical example might be: students look at a picture to guess whats going on (engage), a dialogue and drill offers students knowledge of (and practice in) apologising (study). Students then role-play apologising for being late (activate).

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Figure 1: Straight Arrows

In the second type of lesson (The Boomerang - see figure 2), once the students engagement is assured, the class can move straight into an activate stage. Depending on what happens here the teacher may move back to a study session to cl ear up problems that have arisen during the activate session. In essence this reflects Taskbased procedures and even Byrnes PPP circle when the sequence starts with production. A typical example of the Boomerang might be: students tell each other what they think of fortune telling and if they have ever experienced it ( engage), they then role-play a fortune-telling encounter (activate) and then (if - and only if - the teacher thinks it necessary) they listen to a fortune-telling dialogue and extract language they need (study) ENGAGE


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Figure 2: the Boomerang (ENGAGE- Then ACTIVATE, then STUDY)

In the third type of lesson (Patchwork, named after the multi-coloured quilts made up of bits and scraps into a harmonious whole - see figure 3) engagement is taken as a starting point, but from there the lesson may go in a number of different ways straight to an activate, back to something designed to re-engage and then into a period of study etc etc. An example of such a lesson might be a quick discussion of who (if anybody) sunbathes and why (engage), a quick word-formation activity (study), a discussion about the dangers/enjoyment etc of the occupation (activate), and a personal response to a reading about sunbathing (activate), reading for detailed comprehension (study). Students say where they fit on the reading description of skin types (activate) and then look at a particular feature of grammar which comes up (study) and then........




Figure 3: Patchwork (example route- SEE Description above)

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The point of the ESA model(s) is to offer a global view of classroom practice, an easy mnemonic and a principled abstraction for trainees and others to get hold of. It is a model based on class management which can comfortably encompass task-based learning, PPP and/or Carter & McCarthys specific suggestions about the study of language corpora, for example. Whatever kind of language is being considered, and at whatever level, the three elements can and should always be present. More than anything else it focuses attention on the need to involve students. Like faith, hope and charity engage-activate-study seeks to become an article of faith, and the greatest of all these three is engage!

This article has studied the various attempts to describe the process of learning and teaching - descriptions which have had, as their main aim, explanations of what is happening so that other researchers and teachers can be helped to perform their tasks more successfully. It is one of the glories of EFL that so many people re-assess what the discipline consists of so passionately and so often.

The greatest shift in language teaching over the last few years has been the movement away from one rigid model of what happens in each and every class. Indeed the job of modern methodologists and trainers, it seems to me, is to expose their audiences to the diversity of procedures and techniques which are now available. As such the models mentioned here are valuable contributions to our understanding.

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The problem remains, however, that the individual procedures may not be all things to all men and women, despite their reach for global coverage. On the contrary, the III of Carter and McCarthy looks, at present, to be a concern for students at higher levels of proficiency, and, despite the insightful benefits it affords both teachers and students, so far says nothing about the output from such study. PPP (wearing its humane face) seems to be an entirely appropriate model for some clearly defined rulebased grammar at lower levels of competence - though not for all. Its limitations, as this article has been at pains to point out, are well-documented. But it is not dead. Happily alive, PPP will always have a part to play in language teaching and learning.

Various forms of task-based procedures appear to have an increasing pay-off as the students level increases rather than being seen as a model to follow at lower levels, and the A of ARC likewise comes into play more successfully as students pro gress.

What we need is a model which is wide enough to encompass all these sequences and approaches. Like some of the other models mentioned here ESA is an attempt to provide this. It describes, at a macro level, the various global options available to teachers in classrooms. Task-based learning fits within an ESA framework. So does PPP and ARC and OHE and III! Perhaps it might be the description to use.

And theres one last question: why does everyone describe teaching in 3 stages (rather than two or four or five)?!

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Byrne, D (1986) Teaching Oral English: new edition. Longman handbooks for Language teachers. Carter, R & M McCarthy (1995) Grammar and the spoken language (Applied Linguistics 16/2) Ellis, R (1982) Informal and formal approaches to communicative language teaching. (ELT Journal 36/2 ) Fortune, A (1992) Self-study grammar practice: learners' views and preferences (ELT Journal 46/2) Harmer, J & R Rossner (1991) More Than Words. Book 1. Longman. Harmer, J (1991) The Practice of English Language Teaching: new edition. Longman Handbooks for Language Teachers. Harmer, J (forthcoming) How to TEFL. Longman. Hopkins, A (1995) Lewis, M (1986) Lewis, M (1993) Maule, D (1988) Revolutions in ELT materials? (Modern English Teacher 4/3) The English Verb. Language Teaching Publications. The Lexical Approach. LTP Teacher Training Sorry, but if he comes I go: teaching conditionals. ( ELT Journal 42/2 ) McCarthy, M & R Carter (1995) Spoken grammar: what is it and how can we teach it? (ELT Journal 49/3) Pit Corder, S (1986) Prabhu, N (1987) Scrivener, J (1994a) Scrivener, J (1994b) Storr, A (1992) Tribble & Jones (1990)
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Talking Shop (ELT Journal 40/3 Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford University Press. PPP & After. (The Teacher Trainer 8/1) Learning Teaching. Heinemann Music and the mind. Harper Collins. Concordances in the classroom. Longman.
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Willis, J (forthcoming) Willis, J (1994)

Task-based language Teaching. Longman Task-based language learning as an alternative to PPP. (The Teacher Trainer 8/1)

Woodward, T (1993)

Changing the basis of pre-service TEFL training in the UK. (IATEFL TT SIG 13)

Yule, G, Mathis, T & M Hopkins (1992) 46/3)

On reporting what was said (ELT Journal

I do, however, find it difficult to accept Scriveners suggestion that Jungle path lessons (where teachers go into class unprepared and teach on the basis of what comes up from their students) are the only ones which can be described as person-centred.

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