Thor's Teaching Critique and Methodology Papers



All ideas expressed in Thor's Articles and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.




Note 1 : all of the papers on this page are also available in PDF format in my repositories at and Mendeley.

Note 2 : many of the papers on this page are also available on my Wordpress blog, Thor’s Language & Teaching Notes.

Note 3 : papers directly relating to technical linguistics can be found in Thor's Technical Linguistics section.




29. Child Language Teaching in the Pacific - A Project for Solomon Islands Primary School Teachers (1983)[large PDF file. Also online at]


Abstract: This is a collection of legacy language activity guidelines for Solomon Islands primary school teachers created in the course of a 1983 Australian government funded aid project. I am putting it in the public domain now (2015) as a possible source of ideas for anyone who might find it useful. One of the lessons one learns in education over the course of a career is that what goes around, comes around again sooner or later. Good ideas are lost, then found again in the next generation, or sometimes much later. The ideas here might be good or bad or adaptable for other uses, depending upon your needs. For those unfamiliar with the Solomon Islands language and education scene, this will also serve as a partial introduction.


28. International Language Testing - Standing the monster on its head (or PDF version)


Abstract: At the top of the assessment pyramid are multinational testing corporations, best known by the names of their standardized tests, such as IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL, BULATS, TKT, Cambridge ESOL main suite, or G-TELP (there are many other aspirants). In some ways these testing companies can be thought of as the Big Pharma corporations (i.e. drug companies) of the educational world. Like Big Pharma they are subject to constant challenges to their ethics and reliability from within and without, and like Big Pharma they are rather prone to corrupt the issues which they were designed to assist with. The possible corruption of language learning by the requirements of testing is known as wash-back. Wash-back is not always malignant. The analysis in this paper is a tentative attempt to manipulate the wash-back from an international test in a manner which actually assists genuine language acquisition.


27. Monolingualism and How to Fix It (if it needs fixing)


Abstract: The argument I will develop in this essay is that the foreign students are a latent human resource who can assist with overcoming English monolingualism in the Australian population. Foreign students, properly rewarded, can be a major source of skills transfer. Every one of those students is a walking compendium of language and cultural skills that Australians need to know


26. Testing for Teaching; Teaching to What?


Abstract: The outline which follows analyses the two halves of a language teacher's profession: a) The first half is daily classroom practice : what is taught and how is it evaluated? b) The second half of a teacher's profession is to know or at least estimate what is going on in the brains of her students : what is learned and how is it learned? Teaching is a simulation machine. Learning is for life. The implicit professional challenge is in making the simulation useful for living.


Note: The discussion here reflects a teacher’s interest in actual language learning, rather than that special game which sets out to manufacture “the IELTS/TOEFL performing clone”. Also, I have termed these notes an “outline”. It would be an abuse of language to call them an academic paper in any finished sense, and the absence of referencing reinforces that. There are, after all, whole academic faculties devoted to the study of testing, though unfortunately most teachers have never heard of them. Still, for those in a hurry, these reflections of my own may crystallize some of the questions which, sooner or later, will trouble any thoughtful teacher.


25. Hidden Boundaries: – A Joint-Venture Education Program in China


Abstract: This review is a post-mortem of an education joint-venture between an Australian college and a Chinese college in central China at the three year mark*. It has lessons for policy, management, teaching and learning. The focus is on foreign language teaching, but most of the elements also apply to other fields of study.


24. WHAT NEXT?: Eighty things to do with students learning English


Abstract: This is a collection of things to do in a classroom, plus a little explanation for teachers. The collection is not a syllabus, it is not graded and it is certainly not “complete” (what would “complete” mean here?). However bits of it should be useful for almost anyone teaching English.


23. Stress, Rhythm and Intonation (this piece is also on my blog, Thor's Language Teaching Notes)


Abstract: These are notes on English stress, rhythm and intonation. Part A is for students and Part B is for teachers. The treatment here is “technical”, as by a linguist, but in very plain language. Even with poor formal English, L2 speakers who “sound right” will gain social acceptance, and this in turn will greatly accelerate their learning. Firstly the concept of “the music of a language” is introduced. It is noted that languages are on a scale of “syllable timed” to “stress timed” (though this is not a simple matter). English is a stress-timed language. Both word stress and sentence stress are essential in English. However, proper word liaison and elision marks native speakers from non-native speakers. Some advice is given on how to practice privately and in a classroom. The importance of teacher talk as a model is noted.


22. Please Tell Me Some Idioms to Learn (this piece is also on my blog, Thor's Language Teaching Notes) (2012)


Abstract : What is an idiom? The answer is both complex and fuzzy. This short paper is a colloquial discussion that begins with a student inquiry about learning idioms and progresses to the realization that idioms are an indeterminate category which raise deep questions about the nature of collocation and cognitive language processing.


21. Language Tangle - Predicting and facilitating outcomes in language education - PhD dissertation (2010)


Doctoral dissertation in knowledge worker productivity (specifically, language teacher productivity), from the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia, 2010. The abstract of the thesis, Language Tangle, may be viewed here. The thesis itself (pdf) may be viewed here. The letter of completion (pdf file) from the University of Newcastle, formally announcing the award may be viewed here. Note: Language Tangle has now also been published in an identical commercial version, re-titled Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies.


20. Fluency and Accuracy in Language Teaching (2009)


Abstract : This seminar paper indicates a fundamental difference in objectives between language learning for certification and learning for live use. Whereas accuracy is an absolute goal within schooling contexts, its value on the street is highly variable. This difference is reflected in teaching perspectives. // This is the outline of a seminar on teaching methodology given as a teacher inservice for Chinese English teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China, in November 2009.


19. Basic Tips for Language Teachers (2008)


Abstract : These notes consist of three parts : 1. Some short background notes on the profession of teaching languages; 2. A few useful links for teaching tips and content; 3. A collection of ten activities which the seminar presenter has invented or borrowed, and found to be popular with students.// This is an outline from one of a monthly series of seminars by Thor May on teaching skills. The seminars were given as a teacher inservice for Chinese English teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China. This seminar was conducted on 10 June 2008


18. Grammar for Language Teachers (2008)


Abstract : 1. What are we doing when we do grammar ? / 2. So what is grammar?/ 3. Where do the rules in book grammars come from ? / 4. So is grammar just about the links between words ? / 5.Language grammar always happens at the same time as lots of other things in your brain / 6. What should grammar teachers teach ? / 7. Do students learn useful language control from studying grammar books? / 8. Can teachers teach grammar? / 9. How can language teachers be most useful? / 10. Do grammar mistakes matter? / 11. Is accuracy more important than fluency?


This is the outline of a seminar on grammar teaching given as a teacher inservice for Chinese English teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China, on 13 May 2008. Thor May has been teaching language and linguistics since 1976.


17. Fractional Language Learning


Asian EFL Journal Quarterly Vol. 9, No.4, December 2007; presentation : Global Congress English International Language Conference, Korea University, Seoul, May 26, 2007


Abstract : Many users of a second language, especially English, have little productive mastery of the language. Rather, some requirement in their life forces them to use limited subroutines (maybe quite small and formulaic) which are effectively encapsulated as special elements within L1.


This paper proposes that fractional language learning is a valid objective for large numbers of users, and briefly examines some of the contexts in which it has a pragmatic application. It notes that much fractional language learning occurs outside of formal educational environments, and then goes on to consider how both the classroom teaching and evaluation can be adapted to give proper recognition to student achievements on a fractional scale. The paper suggests that this kind of graduated recognition is in fact likely to enhance outcomes across the full spectrum of language teaching, and can be consciously incorporated into curriculum design.


A paradigm shift to teacher acceptance (and community acceptance) of fractional language learning has strong implications for assessment practices. Most current measures of language assessment offer little or no recognition to the achievements of learners in the pre-production phase of acquisition. Attempts at language use in this phase are routinely punished by existing assessment tools. Partly as a result of this discouragement, large numbers of students never progress to independent language production. Fractional language objectives are one remedy for this deep flaw in language teaching outcomes.


16. Corruption and Other Distortions as Variables in Language Education (copy on this site)


TESOL Law Journal, Vol.2 March 2008


Abstract : This paper examines some of the ways in which foreign language education has been affected by corrupt practices and various other distortions of best teaching practice. Particular attention is paid to South Korea. The nature of corruption and its social origins are identified. Pressures affecting students, teachers and institutions are all seen to play a part. It is noted that mass education is a simulation which leaves space for fraud, whereas actual live language performance is its own test. Perhaps as a consequence, the gradual insertion of a new language code like English into a speech community might succeed over the long term even where immediate educational practices suggest failure.


15. When Grammar Doesn't Help (an analysis of the role of grammar in language teaching),


Abstract : This paper questions the role of grammar in language teaching and learning. Firstly it identifies the constituencies in academic language teaching, and their often conflicting notions of language programs. Several kinds of learners are discussed, with particular attention to the large group who are uncomfortable with any technical analysis, including formal grammars. Some conventional ideas about what a natural language grammar actually is are challenged. The consequences of a connectionist view of language processing are briefly explored. The power of collocation sets is identified as a key to language acquisition. Language is set in the broader cognitive context of memory processes and patterns of generalization. Pedagogical grammars are viewed as forced external generalizations with little organic presence in memory, but some suggestions are made about how to make use of them. Actual student language memory, as well as teacher self-insight into L1 are both contrasted with the idealized patterns assumed by academic language programs. Finally, the stubborn problem of average teacher behaviour is set against the real ways in which people appear to use grammars and learn languages.


14. Some Mysteries of Language Learning (2005; updated 2012)


Abstract : An expert is a fool a thousand miles from home. Having successfully failed to learn about nine languages, I’m a veteran language learning imbecile, always a thousand miles from success, and an eternally hopeful beginner. I’ve also had the cheek to teach my native language to hopeful novices for over thirty years, which sometimes leads them and others to mistake me for a wannabe guru. The sheer hypocrisy of this dilemma should condemn me to embarrassed silence forever, yet I persist probing the reasons and remedies for my own language learning incompetence. After all, my exasperated search is surely shared by millions of others. The discussion which follows is informal, but makes serious points. It builds on an original e-mail exchange with a correspondent in 2005.


13. Is Assessment a Satire? - The Conspiracy of South Kogglebot


The wise elders and the feckless noviates, the desperate mothers and the captains of industry, even it is rumoured, the king, nowadays puzzle over backwash from the great South Kogglebot bell curve conspiracy.


12. Standing Room Only - Posture, Space and the Learning Process in ESL Classes (2005)


Abstract : This article explores the role of posture in the language learning process, and concludes that it is sometimes critical for learning success. Principles of learning and moving are outlined. The history of physical movement in study is briefly traced. A Korean case study is presented of “failed” tertiary students who learn to learn on their feet. The paper is a practical guide for teachers who wish to experiment with physical movement and location in their own ESL/EFL classrooms .


11. Rude Thoughts About Information Technology in Language Education (2005)


Abstract : Information Technology in language teaching probably began with papyrus. It has attracted admirers and detractors ever since. This paper takes a slightly irreverent look at current IT, as well as its actual and potential uses in foreign and second language education. The power of commerce in IT development has always been a prime motivator, so the analysis here recognizes the essential economic context, with the resulting effects on language learning.


10. South Korean Language Policy - A Letter to President Roh Moo-hyun [2003]


9. Evaluating Linguistic Difficulty [guidance for teachers] [1987]


Abstract: While ESL teachers cannot eliminate linguistic difficulties, with an awareness of the factors involved it is possible to minimise the confusion of their students. This article systematically analyses some important problem areas in language learning. It itemizes a range of syntactic and semantic phenomena, considering in each case how the rule or pattern might pose a difficulty for some learners. This paper has been published for a number of years now, and the writer has become aware that many teachers themselves have found it a useful aid in preparing and presenting course material.


Table of Contents: INTRODUCTION // orders of complexity // LEXICAL DIFFICULTY // Syllabic length:// Clusters // Irregular spelling // Irregular stress // Affixes // Multiple denotation // Range of connotation // Specialized application // Frequency of lexical items // Selectional restrictions // Subcategorical restrictions // MEASURES OF STRUCTURAL COMPLEXITY IN SENTENCES // Sentence length // Qualifying words // Adverbial and prepositional phrases // Conjunctive sentences // Equi-deletion // Deletion by convention // Permutation // Transposition // Embedding // Sentential complements // Topicalization // Presupposition // Tense // Aspect // Agreement (concord) rules // Anaphoric, cataphoric and exophoric references // DISCOURSE COHESION // CUEING // IDIOM // CONCEPTUAL DIFFICULTY // More accessible reference // Less accessible reference // Types of Inference // REFERENCES


8. This Is Your Problem, Friend, Not Mine: Towards A Cure For Formal Language Errors In Papua New Guinea (& Elsewhere) [advice for teachers] [1985]


Abstract: this paper proposes that teacher correction often has very little transfer effect on a student's later language behaviour. It examines reasons for this, and the motivational paradigm within which students operate. The paper argues that student self-correction is more likely to have a measurable long term effect. A mechanism to motivate directed self-correction is therefore proposed. This mechanism involves subtracting marks from assessed essays, and indicating line locations where there is a problem, without however explaining the problem. The procedure gives students the option to recover the lost marks through re-editing and re-submission within a time frame. The system has been tested empirically and found to yield promising results. The method of error evaluation also results in a lower burden of pointless correction for teachers.


The material in this article is as relevant now as it ever was. Some things don't change. It was first published in Guidelines - A Periodical For Classroom Language Teachers, Vol.8, No.1, June 1986, SEAMEO Regional Language Centre, Singapore. This is an extended version of a paper given at the TESLA Conference in Goroka, PNG, in July 1985.


7. Plain Speaking: Judging an Oratory Contest [advice for teachers & speech judges] [1989]


Abstract: This paper attempts to explain the criteria which judges are likely to apply in the Fiji National Oratory Contest. It comments upon some features of the 1989 contest, and suggests factors which may have underlain the performance of contestants. However, the analysis is not merely local to an historical time or place. Oratory contests are a special case of the “speaking competitions” which are widespread in countries where English is learned as a second language. The cultural beliefs and traditions which come into play in public speaking are especially important in cross-cultural situations. The solutions discussed here have universal relevance for speakers and judges.


6. Technical & Further Education in Australia: Is there a star to steer by? 


Abstract: A review of the mission of Australian TAFES, and risks to their skill base. Published in Campus Review (a weekly newspaper for academics with Australian nationwide circulation) April 16-22 1997, p.13 (2000 words); also tabled in the Australian Federal Parliament, December 1996 as part of the Senate committee hearings on The Status of Teachers


5. Apprentice Literacy: Designs for a Bonfire of the Vanities 


Abstract: This is a study of the levels of literacy amongst apprentices in Victoria, Australia. Its context was the pending introduction of the New Apprenticeship Scheme by Australian state governments at the time of writing. This reform was essentially politically driven, and designed to redistribute much apprentice training away from purpose built institutions (TAFEs) into workplaces. Since the scheme would inevitably place a greater burden on apprentices' personal learning resources, especially their literacy, it was important to analyze the existing situation. It was noted that apprenticeship was a diverse category of skills studies that required varying levels of literacy. In heavily male dominated apprenticeship fields, the majority, there had always been severe weaknesses in general literacy. These weaknesses had been compensated by various stratagems, especially direct demonstration, which might not be easily available on many work sites. The newly favoured pedagogical approaches of CBT (competency based training) and "self paced learning", had translated in many TAFEs into tick-box answer booklets, rampant copying from classmates, and a severe degradation of integrated skills learning. These trends were likely to accelerate as students moved away from an environment where remedial assistance with literacy or trade skills was no longer easily available.


4. Negotiating Knowledge - Centralized Planning in Curriculum Control and Evaluation [ref. CBT]


Abstract: This is a critique of a National Reporting System implemented by the Australian Federal Government in the mid 1990s in an attempt to centralize and standardize the evaluation of teaching in English language, literacy and numeracy to adults. As such it should be of purely historical interest at this editing (2012). In practice of course, the wheel continues to be reinvented with each new political cycle, and each fresh generation of bureaucrats. Perhaps it is part of the human condition that blind political ambition will always trump historical experience and professional insight. Nevertheless, for those currently involved anywhere in a struggle between managerial micro-control and independent professional judgement, or the perpetual dilemmas of evaluation and their blowback on teaching practice, the document may be of interest. (My own doctoral dissertation, Language Tangle, University of Newcastle 2010, deals with these issues at much greater length).


A shorter version of this paper was first published in Fine Print Vol.18, No.1 1996 (Journal of the Victorian Adult Literacy & Basic Education Council) under the title of The National Reporting System: A Critique. The individual bureaucracies referred to have of course mutated to new acronyms (their analogue for progress). OTFE = Office of Technical & Further Education (Victoria); ANTA = Australian National Training Authority; NRS = National Reporting System; DEET = (Federal) Department of Education, Employment & Training; TAFE = Technical & Further Education institution (the Australian equivalent of a polytech); CBT = competency based training


3. Observations on the AMES Certificate in Spoken and Written English

This was one of two short but politically inconvenient discussion papers circulated to teachers in the Australian Adult Migrant Education Service in the mid 1990s. It led to my being black-banned by management in that organization from employment in the state of Victoria. Most teaching colleagues agreed with my assessments in these papers.


2. Assessment in the AMES Certificate in Spoken & Written English

This was one of two short but politically inconvenient discussion papers circulated to teachers in the Australian Adult Migrant Education Service in the mid-1990s. It led to my being black-banned by management in that organization from employment in the state of Victoria. Most teaching colleagues agreed with my assessments in these papers.


1. Learning to be Australian

This letter is included for historical interest since it captures a regressive aspect from changes in the Australian government’s provisions for adult immigrant education in the mid-1990s. The Australian newspaper declined to publish the letter at the time.



Other Materials Related to Language Teaching Methodology


TESOL Program (2003-2004) Pusan University of Foreign Studies, South Korea


[lectures & course materials for South Korean graduates, cross credited for Masters programs in American Universities. 2003-2004 was the program foundation year, developed by Thor May & Dr Brian King. It was taught by us for two cycles and doubled enrolments. The university and its business partner subsequently chose to continue to program with staff hired at an approximately 30% lower salary - a situation unfortunately common in the TESOL industry].


Lectures on Second Language Acquisition


[teacher training given by Thor to graduate students]

Powerpoint slides : These work in Internet Explorer, but maybe not in Firefox


Lectures on Grammar in EFL : 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, + Burt & Kiparsky – The Gooficon


(cycle 1: teacher training given by Thor to graduate students)

Powerpoint slides : These work in Internet Explorer, but maybe not in Firefox


Error types : 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 =>


scans from the table of contents of The Gooficon by Marina K. Burt & Carol Kiparsky, Heinle & Heinle Publishers1998 [ sadly out of print; hence these scans - but try to obtain the book itself]


Lectures on Grammar in EFL (cycle 2: changed text book)


[teacher training given by Thor to graduate students]

Powerpoint slides : These work in Internet Explorer, but maybe not in Firefox


Links to Online Resources for Teachers


Thor's ESL Everything Index


The Barebones Index - EFL stuff from Korea & China


Thor's Other Stuff for learning English


When Is It Rude To Be Rude? [also Korean language version ]

[politeness across cultures]


Technical English Consultancy Report

[at Koba Tin, Indonesia, 1996]






<> Knowledge is an accident caught out of the corner of the eye. 


<> Knowledge is a pattern of leaves seen suddenly, the collision of two chance remarks, the brush of a hand that plumbs all emotion. 


<> Knowledge is a swift observation in a twenty cent novel, a new taste of fruit, a dream that is strangely important, a chance that was never looked for. 


<> Knowledge is an insight that you can act upon in body or mind.




writing & photography on this site is

copyrighted © Thorold (Thor) May 2013

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