Understanding Discourse – Grice and Implicatures Part 1

Ever since my last blogpost about discourse, I have been receiving requests to delve a little deeper into the area of pragmatics. It reminded me that a previous BESIG interview about pragmatics and politeness had led to the same kind of requests which I had not had the time to devote to before.

This has spurred me to share some of the reading and research I had previously done on this subject here.

Here’s Part 1 (of 3) of a summary of Grice’s maxims and implicatures – often considered to be the basis of any study into the pragmatics of language.

The bibliography will follow at the end of Part 3.



1.      Introduction

 1.1    Why Grice?

A lot has been written about the work of the philosopher H. Paul Grice and his contribution to the study of pragmatics. After a long spate of linguistic study focused solely on truth conditional semantics and the grammar, syntax and semantic meanings of words controlled fully by the speaker, Grice was the first to propose a set of principles to describe the nature of conversation as a co-operation between the participants (Cook 1989), and his Co-operative Principles (CP) and maxims have been the basis for the further exploration of the nature and power of what a speaker means and implies, and how it is understood by the hearer. His notion of conversational implicature is believed to be ‘one of the single most important ideas in pragmatics’ ( Levinson 1983:97) and even his greatest critics, such as Davis (1998:1) admitted his theories to be an ‘important phenomenon’, a major achievement’ and ‘a breakthrough in linguistics’.

In order to understand Grice’s theories, it is perhaps useful to first consider J.L. Austin’s ideas on language. Austin was Grice’s teacher at Oxford University, and was reacting against his contemporaries’ views that language was full of ambiguities, imprecision and contradictions which needed to be refined and purified (Thomas 1995:29), by purporting that the way ordinary people used everyday language could shed light on how people identified the distinctions that were worth making (Austin 1962). Consider this example.


Emma: Can you find out if the tube is running?

Tom: The internet is down.

On a purely semantic level, it seems that Emma is asking about Tom’s ability to obtain the information about the London underground and Tom’s answer seems to be an irrelevant one about the internet not working. However, the mere locutionary force of the words does not help us to understand that Emma’s question was a request for help and Tom’s answer implied that he was unable to do so. Austin (1962) introduced the idea of there being an illocutionary force in such implicit perfomatives, (in this case, that of the functions request and refusal) which we use in speech to produce an effect.

Grice’s systematic study of such cases where there was a significant difference between speaker meaning and semantic meaning led him to put forward a theory that could explain how we bridge the gap between the locutionary and illocutionary force of a context-dependent utterance in order to make sense of each other. While his principles bring logic into the use of language, they also account for the hedging used in everyday language (by the way, I might be wrong but…), and provide explanations for the phenomena of metaphors, irony, tautology, and hyperbole.

1.2     Grice in the foreign language classroom

Some teachers might argue that the interpretation of an utterance is universal, and that because students can already interact and communicate in their L1, the time in the classroom should be spent on the formal skills and knowledge of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (Cook 1989). As a result of this assumption, the indirect communication explained by Grice’s implicatures are often not highlighted or dealt with in language coursebooks (Bouton, in Hinkel 1999).

However, if we were to consider the fact that the same utterance in the same context could be interpreted differently in different cultures (Keenan 1976, Bouton 1988 & 1994), it might explain why even fairly advanced students have trouble understanding the nuances of utterances, the intentions of the speakers, and an area of particular interest to me, English humour. This causes frequent cases of misunderstanding and confusion to the language student who lives among native speakers and/or is exposed to comedy and films through the global dominance of Hollywood. Perhaps the interpretation of utterances is not wholly transferable as previously assumed, and needs to be covered in the English language classroom. The issue of the universality of CP and its maxims will be dealt with after we look at the principles themselves.



2.      The Co-operative Principle (CP) and the Maxims

2.1     What is CP?

In his paper Logic and Conversation, Grice (1975) proposed that all talk exchanges are cooperative efforts where participants recognise a common purpose or mutually-accepted direction of the conversation. If we were to take the dialogue between Emma and Tom in (i)  at face value (i.e. the locutionary force of the utterance), the utterances seem disconnected, and thus irrational and illogical. The assumption that Emma and Tom were guided by the cooperative principle helps us to understand that Tom’s reply is indeed a relevant answer to Emma’s question. Grice’s CP is worded as follows:

Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

(Grice 1975:45)

Grice then goes on to specify how CP is followed in the form of 4 maxims.

Quantity:        1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Quality:           1. Do not say what you believe to be false.

2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Relation:          1. Be relevant

Manner:          Be perspicuous.

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity)
  4. Be orderly.


Despite the unfortunate name of ‘maxims’ and use of imperatives, Grice (1975) emphasises that they describe ways of people’s behaviour which they have learned from childhood, and that they are not only something we should follow but that which is rational and ‘reasonable for us to follow’. Levinson (1983) recognises them as assumptions and guidelines that help us to use language effectively and efficiently, and thus should not be considered as rules of any sort. CP is by no means idealising human beings as having an intrinsically co-operative or altruistic personality, but refers to the assumptions about communication one operates on, even when we are in an argument (Cameron, 2001).


2.2     Implicatures

The term ‘implicature’ was coined by Grice (1975) to account for what the speaker implied, suggested or meant, as opposed to the semantic meaning of the words said. The conveyance of implicature enables one to determine the meaning of an utterance via inference because of the assumption that the participants of a conversation are adhering to CP and its maxims (Yule, 1996).

In what Grice (1975) terms ‘conventional implicatures’, the conventional meaning of the words conveys what the utterance implies and is not based on CP, as the following illustrates:

(ii) He was on social welfare but was not lazy.

The above sentence implies that people on welfare are expected to be lazy since the word ‘but’ generates the implicature that what follows will contrast the presupposed expectation. Thomas (1995) lists words like ‘but’, ‘even’, ‘therefore’, ‘yet’ and ‘for’ as words that could carry conventional implicatures. As such words are not context-dependent for their interpretation, and are often covered in the formal studies of a language learner, I shall move on to a category of more interest to the pragmaticist, conversational implicatures, that which is communicated based on the assumptions about a conversation’s rational nature, as stated in CP and its maxims (Levinson, 2000).

The nature of conversational implicatures have been characterised by Grice (1975) as such. In order for the hearer to work out the implicature, the following rationalising takes place:

1)    The speaker is observing the maxims.

2)    The speaker is saying X to imply Y. In fact, he would not say X if he did not want to imply Y.

3)    The speaker knows that the listener would understand Y from X, and intends it to be so.

There has been much debate over the categorization and definitions of conversational implicatures, which has led me to sub-categorized this section in a controversial way. Grice (ibid) himself provides the sub-categories of generalised conversational implicatures (GCIs) and particularized conversational implicatures (PCIs). Levinson (1983:104), however, introduces the term standard implicatures to refer the ones expressed when a speaker is observing the maxims, while more complex implicatures are communicated through what Grice (ibid) calls the  flouting of the maxims in the form of PCIs.


2.2.1    Standard Implicatures

Although Grice (1978) indicated that he wished to withhold the term implicature from inferences that only express the maxims themselves (as opposed to flouting the maxims), I have started with this category in order to illustrate how we unconsciously abide by CP and use it to make sense of the utterances we hear. I shall use examples in my classroom to show that, sometimes, the observance of CP might be universal and transferable from my learners’ L1.




Me: How many siblings have you got?

Student: I have 5 brothers.

I can infer from common understanding of this maxim, albeit unconscious, that the student is being as informative as possible and thus implying that he has no more than 5 brothers, although semantically, the statement could imply that he has more than 5 brothers.



When the student asserts that he has 5 brothers in (ii), I believe he indeed has 5 brothers and has adequate evidence that this is so.

Consider also this question.

(iv)      Student:  What does ‘greedy’ mean?

This implicates that the student is asking this question sincerely, does not know what ‘greedy’ means, and requires this information. (Levinson, 1983)




Me: Is Claudio in school today?

Student: He’s sick.

The student’s utterance is not a non-sequitor one. It implies that Maria was not in school by giving the reason that she was ill.



(vi)      Student:  I did my homework and went to sleep.

Although the ‘and’ seems ambiguous semantically and could be taken to mean ‘also’, the meaning ‘and then’ is understood.


2.2.2    Generalized Conversational Implicatures

Although most discourse analysts tend to assume that pragmatically-inferred meaning is always dependent on the context surrounding the utterance and the observance of CP and its maxims (Carston, 2004), GCIs are those based on ‘general expectations of how language is normally used’ (Levinson 2000:22), and no special background knowledge of the context is required to make the inferences (Yule 1996). GCIs could be said to be somewhere between conventional implicatures and PCIs.

(vii)     He went out with a woman.

The sentence implicates that the woman is not his wife, family member or platonic friend (Grice 1975).


Also consider,

(viii)    I repaired a roof.

Without the use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’, one can infer that this was not the speaker’s roof.


2.2.3    Particularized Conversational Implicatures

In situations where the speaker blatantly fails to observe a maxim, he is ‘flouting’ and such flouting is used to generate PCIs, which the hearer will in turn infer from. The procedure is termed ‘exploitation’. (Grice 1975)


Exploiting the maxim of Quantity

(ix)       Sharon has recently watched a film that was hyped up in the media as sensational.

David:   How was the film?

Sharon:  Well, the costumes were nice.

Sharon is flouting the maxim of quantity by not giving enough of the information required by David’s question. David knows that Sharon has flouted the maxim but has no reason to think that Sharon is being uncooperative. He, thus, infers that Sharon is implicating that the film was awful. Such flouting is used to create what is called indirect criticism (Bouton, 1994).

Tautologies like ‘a lie is a lie’ or ‘first introduced’ could be seen as flouting this maxim by unnecessary repetition. However, the implicature generated by the former might be telling us that the speaker is unwilling to make exceptions to what might be meant as a white lie, and the later might implicate the first occasion when something was introduced (e.g. the term ‘implicature’), although it  might have been introduced by several people in different places.


Exploiting the maxim of Quality

(x)        You are an angel.  (metaphor)


(xi)       Upon seeing Shelly online every time Michael logs on, he comments,

Michael: You are always online.

Shelly: Me? Never! I never use the internet.   (irony)



Brian has just burnt his dinner.

Anna: You’re such a great cook.  (sarcasm/irony)


(xiii)     I can eat a horse.  (hyperbole)


(xiv)     Upon seeing that a wedding would cost £30,000,

Rakesh: It’s a bit expensive, isn’t it?  (understatement)

The above examples all flout the maxim of quality and both participants expect each other to realise that the utterances are not to be taken literally. They could be used as stylistic devices, to create humour, or just simply to be interesting.

Notice, however, that each of these utterances requires a different set of reasoning to work out the implicature intended. (x) requires the hearer to make comparisons between the concept of an angel and one who is kind and saves another, the semantic meanings of (xi) and (xii) are opposites of the implicated meaning, while (xii) is overstates and (xiv) understates what the speaker really means. Grice does not seem to explain how an interlocutor is to know which set of reasoning to use when such flouting is carried out.


Exploiting the maxim of Relevance


Dale accidentally mentions Steve’s ex-wife in a conversation with Steve and Rachel. Rachel quickly changes the topic.

Rachel: What do you think of the coffee here?

Rachel’s blatant flouting of the maxim is used to show Dale that he has committed a social faux pax and in danger of treading dangerous waters.


Exploiting the maxim of Manner


The parents are talking in front of their toddler.

Dad: We won’t B-U-Y the T-O-Y today.

Through being intentionally ambiguous and spelling out the words, the father is implicating that there’s something he can’t say directly and expects the mother to infer that he does not want the child to know what they are talking about.


2.2.4    Other categories of non-observance

It is not always that the non-observance of a maxim is done blatantly with the intention of creating an implicature. Grice (1975:49) mentions several ways where a maxim is not adhered to, aside from flouting: violating, violating because of a clash and opting out. He later added a fourth category: infringing; and others have purported a fifth: suspending (Thomas1995:72).

Grice has not only been criticised for not always using the terms consistently but also for failing to address the issue of how the hearer is to distinguish between the types of non-observance involved in working out the implicature intended (ibid:90). This could explain why some girls spend hours trying to work out what the voicemail message left by their date really implies. The following categories might somehow be controversial as different writers have chosen to group them in different ways.



Unlike flouting, violation is not meant to be noticed by the hearer perhaps because the speaker intends to deceive or hold back information (Cameron, 2001:78). Some speakers, such as politicians, might be intentionally ambiguous so as not to commit themselves to a proposition (ibid), hence violating a maxim.



Grice (1975) explains that sometimes a speaker cannot fulfil one maxim without violating another, and is faced with a clash. In example (xvii), the student cannot answer the question fully without being long-winded, and chooses to forgo the maxim of quality.


Teacher: What did you do this weekend?

Student:  Nothing.


Opting out

One might opt out of a maxim by clearly showing that he is unable to cooperate, perhaps due to legal or ethical reasons, or the need to protect someone else (Thomas, 1995). The speaker might say, ‘I can’t tell you that,’ or ‘I promised not to say’.



A speaker sometimes infringes a maxim because he is unable to abide by it (ibid). Infringement could take place if the speaker is not particularly eloquent, is drunk, or simply can’t speak the language well (as with a child or foreign language speaker). Here is a classroom example where my student infringes the maxims of quantity and manner due to a lack of language skills.


Teacher: How was your holiday?

Student: Nice.



Critics of Grice claim that there are language communities that do not adhere to the maxims (Gazdar, 1979), and Keenan’s (1976) example of Malagasy speakers, who often make their conversations as uninformative as possible (see section 3.2), is often used to suggest that there are occasions on which Grice’s maxims are inapplicable and need to be suspended. Alongside Gazdar and Keenan, Grice has had many critics since he first postulated the CP and its maxims.


In the next part, I will be looking at the criticisms of Grice’s theories, including the exploration of the politeness principle, the universality of the Co-operative Principle, and how English humour and irony might or might not apply in cross-cultural contexts.

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

46 thoughts on “Understanding Discourse – Grice and Implicatures Part 1”

  1. I can see an MA pragmatics job coming Chia. I remember reading about this and learning how amazing it was then criticising it for about 5000 words. That seemed to be how everything on the MA worked so by the end you knew all these old theories but also how bad they were. But then you always want to know “how is this applicable to ELT teaching?” which I don’t think a lot of theoretical courses address. For high levels yes you could go into this as it’s interesting but if applied in a digestible way, for lower levels perhaps it just comes up regularly in ‘how to answer questions properly’. Still, I hope courses start with the classroom, bring in this stuff and show how it’s applicable. Doing 6 mths of Pragmatics then thinking “Alright,how is this useful to my int level learners taught using Headway?”

    1. Thanks for raising such a critical but often obtuse topic in such an open, informative way Chia. I agree with Phil that you should be lecturing on this stuff.

      Phil, I know completely what you mean but this stuff can be made central to classroom activities, particularly in feedback and evaluation.

      I personally often start a short course with a short input session a Grician maxims and then ask learners to self assess according to the maximums after each role-play, simulation or whatever you want to call it.

      This works great but Grice is a fairly simple area of pragmatics.

      Personally, I can’t wait till you get on to ‘face’ Chia as this is crucial for anyone wanting to perform in cross cultural contexts.

      I’ve got a lesson for this too but when I showed it colleagues they said they didn’t understand it. How do we make the more complex issues practical?

      1. Very good presentation. Practice is necessary in conversation that requires ability in resolving context situations. Students could be exposed to various stimuli they should answer to on spot, realizing all the possible but appropiate utterances. The skills imply the capacity to understand contexts where something new and specific is happening. Students change contexts as much fluenly as they can to practice language.It is useful to use the right language away from standard patterns.
        Thank you Luisa

        1. Indeed, Luisa.
          We so often feed our learners with linguistic formulae like ‘Could you…?’, ‘I was wondering if you could…’ to make requests, when in actual fact, sometimes, requests are made with statements like, ‘It’s so hot in here. Aren’t you hot?’ (i.e. could you open the window?)
          Contexts and making sense of how language and contexts play off each other in a dynamic and fluid fashion is simply intriguing.
          I’m glad you feel the same.


      2. Yep, I love a bit of positive and negative face. Fascinating in a multilingual classroom and for International Business contexts. That’s why I found Bob Dignen’s Int Culture DVD fascinating. There are some real clashes there with some colleagues being quite rude and cold but for them it’s normal. This is essential stuff in Business I think.

        Are you going Bald next time?

        1. I’ve already gone bald, Phil…
          And have also discussing Face quite a bit in my talks regarding ELF and politeness…
          But I haven’t quite blogged about it yet.
          Might do that some time soon…?

          Bob Dignen’s DVD is fascinating indeed.
          Love this kind of stuff.


      3. Thanks for commenting, Ed.
        I know you were one of those that initially showed a lot of interest in pragmatics when we were discussing ELF and politeness in Feb this year…
        So, as promised, here’s the blogpost that I promised you those many months ago…: )

        And thanks to you and Phil for suggesting that I should be lecturing on this…I so would love to…it’s a huge passion of mine…
        Cross-cultural pragmatics and discourse is just so very fascinating.
        Or maybe I’m just a nerd.

        But, Ed, in this 3 part series, I will only be looking at Grice and Implicatures, and perhaps some related theories and the implications for the classroom.

        I might have to deal with ‘Face’ and cross-cultural issues in a different post.

        So, could you share with us how you make a lesson out of this, Ed?
        It’ll be interesting to see how you apply it to the classroom and help students with it.


        1. Hi Chia,

          If you’re a nerd, so am I 🙂

          Well, I try to avoid practical comments as a rule, they’re too face threatening but, as you asked so nicely, here’s how I use Grice in the classroom.

          I do a lot of the bottom up stuff other people have mentioned such as feeding in heads and tails for various situations and contexts and highlighting appropriateness of language choices in specific contexts, remodelling etc but, over the last three months or so, I’ve also developed a more front on lesson dealing with the Grician maxims.

          In the first class of a short intensive course, I introduce learners to a simplified version of the Grician maximums through a recording I made myself.

          These are: clarity, amount, appropriateness and relevance.

          Learners then take notes on why these things are important and discuss their own opinions.

          After that I present learners with a discourse model I learnt on a presentations skills course. This is called PEEP, standing for Point, explanation, example, recap point.

          This engages learners with a discourse structure that more or less requires fulfillment of Grician maxims.

          We then discuss the usefulness of this model and how far it can be taken. After that, we look at some interactions, such as newsnight or a ted presentation and try to identify the PEEP structure. I’ve found that this can be done more or less completely in all types of professional discourse including discussions as well as presentations.

          After that, learners receive some kind of functional language like I mean and for example and match them to stages of the PEEP model. We then go into a controlled practice where learners and heads and tails to the sentences of a PEEP style monologue before we practice with some kind of role play.

          I then refer to the PEEP model in feedback throughout the week. I’ve also found that learners comment on their own and other’s performance using the PEEP model and it seems to make a real difference to learners’ communicative performance.

          I understand pragmatic theorists may not be entirely happy with the simplifications I’m taking but I think if pragmatics is to take a leap into the centre of the classroom, where it should be, it does need to go through a stage of simplification before it’s ready.

          What do you think Chia?

        2. Thanks for sharing, Ed.
          I didn’t know anything about the PEEP model before this, and it does sound like a good starting point for looking at the discourse of presentations. Of course, discourse and pragmatics is such a wide area and the context, the situation, the interactants, the relationship between the interactants, the purpose of the interaction etc all play a part in dictating the pragmatics and discourse. Moreover, interaction is fluid and dynamic and these factors often change as the conversation unfolds, making it even harder to pin down the linguistic nuggets that we can help learners with.
          But certainly, raising awareness of the issue is a good starting point.

          I’d certainly be interested to hear more of your ideas about the applications of CP and such theories to the language classroom, especially in Part 3 of this series…


    2. Indeed, Phil, applying the theories of pragmatics and discourse into teaching can be much more difficult that trying to teach lexis and grammar, which are much more easily packaged into bite-size nuggets. Having said that, we know that presenting lexis and grammar in bite-size nuggets has no relevance to the learning that actually takes place, since teaching often does not equal learning, or acquisition, for that matter.
      (yes, Phil…it’s my favourite subject again)

      So taking all that into consideration, discourse and pragmatics might be difficult to ‘teach’ but the awareness raised from the theories might be worth discussing in class, don’t you think?
      Unless of course, you believe that the principles are universal and therefore should be transferable into the L2 easily and therefore does not merit classroom time?

      I will of course be discussing some of these issues in the next two parts of this…


  2. Thanks very much for this – I agree with Phil in that it can be interesting, useful and fun to think of how to use (or, maybe better: experiment with) theories from linguistics or philosophy of language, and that perhaps applied linguistics MAs should be far more playful and classroom-centred in this way. I really like this post (and some of the comments!), as it opens a path for lots of ideas about classroom activities using Gricean theories of meaning and conversational implicature. More, please! 🙂

    As an aside, there’s a really nice, fairly brief introduction to the whole field of pragmatics (seen through the lenses of analytical philosophy in general and recent philosophy of language in particular) at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatics/ (or, if your blog allows the embedding of links, here).

    All best wishes, and thanks again


    1. I think there’s a movement building here mate(s).

      I’ll give you an example I what I mean:

      On my MA there were a couple of ‘assistants’ hired to mark and manage online discussions. Fine, if they were qualified. Well, they had passed the MA with high scores but were probably doing Phds so they had gone from theory to, well, more theory. Yes, they could correct people’s understanding or quoting of the reading but practical applications and own thinking was another matter.

      This does show a difference between teachers who just rehash what they learned and those who have applied it versus those who never learned theory and just learned from doing. I train some of the latter. I don’t think they need to go through learning all those famous theories just to criticise them, then create their own blend and finally style. Why not cut out middle man and just see what works and go from there? Oh yes, that’s why, it would mean you wouldn’t enrol on a 7k a year MA, a 1k CELTA and god knows how much DELTA.

      1. Thanks Phil and Simon for starting this very interesting debate.
        I do agree that it is important for us to consider the practical applications of theory in the language classroom, and having been to academic conferences myself, I found myself quite frustrated at the lack of understanding or even acknowledgement of the practical uses of the theories that are bandied around.

        However, I do feel that practitioners with no understanding of theory suffer from a lack of depth in perspective as academics with no understanding of practice. This often results in teachers doing what they have experienced when they were students, or doing what they think works year after year without having the framework to examine their practices in light of the information we have, albeit theoretical about how languages are learnt.
        (This is the topic of my plenary for TESOL France this year! Shameless plug!)

        An exploration of theory in Applied Linguistics, I believe, helps us to become more aware of how language works and how it is used to facilitate interaction in society. Such an awareness helps us to understand what is important in terms of increasing our learners’ communicative competence, and influences the decisions we make in the staffroom, such as what language to focus on and how to prioritise our classroom time. Such knowledge helps us to deal with emergent language and scaffold our learners appropriately.

        So, yes, I do strongly believe the investment one puts into a Celta, a Delta and an MA does make a huge difference in the kind of teachers we become.


        1. But wouldn’t you say some of those courses are just milking it? Yes, there are the BIG theories and classic ones but studying old stuff with little application is very dated. I mean, I used to read about 1960/70/ even 80 studies and just think “this obvious” or “and how is this useful?” or “this isn’t true nowadays”.

          If you like conspiracy theories then you’ll be aware that professors get grants to do research and publish new ideas, they then write books they make their faculty use etc etc. In theory, this is pushing the field in new avenues but I know enough who aren’t.

          I found the MA a lot of theory, too much and some of it, such as old discredited teaching approaches, a bit daft to learn. Yes, I’ve been there too where I’ve had to pad out an Ma to fit 1 year and even heard people say “you just need it to pass the course”. Heard it on the CELTA too.

          I wonder what a real ‘essential needs to know’ CELTA or MA would contain? Maybe just starting with the teacher and their skills then building them.

          Also, how much on an MA is useful to an average teacher who has to use a book and has set courses imposed on them and even has a 70% book rule?

          Now, I lovvvvved Sociolinguistics on a personal level, fascinating. Yes, I do reflect on it when planning courses but I wouldn’t say it has directly influenced much. Sexist language, words used to impose and strengthen stereotypes, those used to assert power, become friendly etc. Very interesting.

          Another moan is jargon. They teach you all these terms and if you don’t use them you look stupid. Well, you can teach a parrot to repeat words, teaching one to think and create their own ideas is another matter.

        2. Wow, Phil, looks like we’ve opened a can of worms here, have we?
          I must say, I’ll continue to stand by my point of view with regards to the CELTA, DELTA and the MA.

          Let me try this analogy.

          Some say that we should get rid of grammar in Secondary Schools.
          Some say we should get rid of Algebra.
          The reason they give is that it is not practical or useful.
          They say that time is better spent on practical subjects like ‘Money Management’.

          I’m not saying that practicality isn’t important.
          But I’m afraid ‘they’ are missing the point.
          Most of us might never multiply x and y in real life, or need to label a verb or noun.
          But the training builds our mind to analyse and think in a certain way.
          It trains us to think logically and develops our mental facilities.

          So it’s not only about the actual equations or content that we are learning, but the mental training that comes with it.

          As we would say as language teachers, it’s more about the process, and not the product.
          And through honing this process, teachers can apply and create their own products for their own contexts.

          That to me is what the CELTA, DELTA and MA is about.
          Informing us so that we can go on to make informed decisions and not just ‘turn and burn’ coursebook pages.

          And after all, isn’t the most important quality of a teacher ‘curiosity’?

          So if we are curious, we’d want to learn more and not just do the same thing we’d done for the last 15 years…

          Certainly CPD (Continual Professional Development) is not simply about learning new activities and copying lesson plans that we’ve come across but actually being able to create our own based on good solid theory. Surely, it’s about learning to be judicious even when we have to use 70% of the coursebook?

          Shall we do a DA on this, PHil?
          ; )


        3. Money making!! I’ll stand by that one. 3 term MA, you need 10 units/classes/topics. You start with what’s essential then pad it out. What IS interesting is to compare different unis to see what they cover. I bet some or a lot i related to the people teaching it. I had the same on my BA. This woman wrote a book, no 2 women. We had to buy them and use them in every lesson and if we got something wrong they quoted their book. Had the same on the MA too.

          This also brings to light why there’s no teaching practice on most MAs. Why? Cos there are tons of people just graduated who’ve never taught or that not much is practical. Also, how many FT professors have taught EFL recently? Not many. As for an MA in Linguistics, well for years that was all there was but thankfully we now have MAs in TESOL/TEFL/EFL/ELT material development/ELT Tech etc. We need more and the same for Phds too.

      2. I think it’s actually a big problem in ELT: all these expensive qualifications are mostly due to employers demanding them (and the need to differentiate yourself from the number of people who think that, as they can speak English, therefore they can teach it), aren’t they? Yet the more academic ones are unlikely in themselves to have much affect on your teaching; and the more practical ones (the CELTA, DELTA, etc) can only help in a limited way, as they are so brief.

        I also think that many MAs in particular are mis-sold by universities (because, by themselves, they probably won’t help you develop as a teacher that much), and that too much emphasis is placed on them (particularly, and unsurprisingly, by other universities).

        But I think understanding why we are encouraged to teach in certain ways, and why coursebook materials are presented as they are, is crucial to developing as a teacher; and that means learning about and critiquing the theories that underpin current methodologies. The trouble is, the whole purpose of such critiques would be to understand where you’re going wrong, or serving your students badly, so you can teach better; yet there really isn’t much agreement about how languages are learnt, or how best to teach them (as an aside, I think this disagreement will continue as long as there’s no real solution to the hard problem of consciousness, which probably means it will continue as long as there are conscious creatures – and so, I suppose, that wherever there are conscious creatures in the universe, there will be serious disagreements about how best to teach them!). And current theories of SLA and language teaching are unsatisfactory to the extent that we don’t have enough information to assess them properly.

        I find it’s a frustrating business, this SLA and methodological research, and I totally agree with (what I think is) your idea that learning by guided doing – as an apprentice learning from more experienced practitioners – is by far the best way to go about teaching. The problem is, who says these more experienced practitioners know what they’re doing, either, or that the way they’re evaluating their trainees will really help them improve?

        All best wishes,


        1. Yep, I do love paying money to learn theories that are then criticised and finally being told that we know nothing and nought.

          The use of an MA? Well, to do a Phd or work at uni. Several schools turned me down for senior teacher jobs cos I didn’t have DELTA. Their reason was that the Ma was too theoretical and there was no proof that I could teach.Hmmmm. Now, some ask for both.

          Also,how useful is guidance from a teacher who did a 2 year MA, a 4 year FT Phd and then sat in an office and gave lectures on what they learned or what they had researched?

          My old office mate used to get funding to research film studies but gave classes on TOEIC prep. He gave 1 class about films but it was just a doss. He only did the job so he could go to conferences end enjoy his “real passion”. That’s not what we want. It wasn’t all his fault though as the director and others just wanted English courses and nothing more. Real waste of potential there if you ask me.

        2. I totally agree that an academic who has done an MA or PhD and has no practical experience is not very helpful to the teaching industry.
          This is why I am so passionate about applying the linguistic theories that we learn and bridging that gap between theory and practice. The two should go hand in hand and not be misinterpreting each other or be in battle with each other.

          At the end of the day, it’s not the qualifications’ responsibility to make sure that teachers learn and put what they have learnt into practice.
          After all, as we know, Phil, teaching does not equal learning.
          ; )


        3. I agree with you about the value of experienced guides or mentors; but I believe (and, I think, agree with Chia here) that the point of exploring the theories behind the practice is so that you are better able to judge for yourself what is worthwhile and what isn’t, rather than relying on someone else’s judgement. For me, the main problem seems to be that we have too little information (perhaps permanently, if I’m write about the indissolubility of the hard problem of consciousness and its relevance to ELT) to properly evaluate these theories of SLA and language teaching, at least in terms of their effectiveness in acquiring an L2 or in self-development and learning more generally.

          Another way of saying is: there are huge philosophical problems in language teaching, and linguistics, which do not admit of easy answers (how do we learn languages? What are effective ways of teaching an L2? How much learning depends on the learner themselves, how much on their environment, and how much on their biology? What makes a good student or teacher? What should we teach? etc.) – this suggests we should find out as much as we can about methodology and theories related to SLA and ELT, and think about these critically, to make our own judgements about them as best we can; yet we can’t adequately judge the value or otherwise of most (all?) of these theories as we don’t have enough information to go on.

          Hmm – you and Chia might be good people to ask for some last-minute advice, too! I’m going to do an MA in ELT or Applied Linguistics, starting in about 2 weeks’ time; but I don’t know if it’s a better idea to do it at Portsmouth (where I know some of the faculty, and there’s the possibility of getting some of my language classes observed and assessed, provided I can find some students) or King’s (where there’s no teaching practice, but where I can maybe afford to do a part-time DELTA alongside the full-time MA, as I’d be living on the cheap, with family). I’m worried that Portsmouth could turn into a financial nightmare if I can’t find part-time work, and that I may not be able to manage the part-time DELTA and do a full-time MA (and do a little bit of work) in the same academic year. Any thoughts on the matter would be gratefully received – I’ve been weighing things up for about two months, and still can’t decide; and I really ought to let the universities know by tomorrow!

          Cheers and best wishes,

        4. I used to sneak into their EFL lectures on the odd occasion..It seemed ok.Smalllecture room and some interaction but all we did was look at linguistic terms.I think the best stuff was in seminars.I think they do an online one.

        5. Cheers, Phil! I presume you’re talking about King’s?

          Do you reckon it’s possible to do both a full-time MA and a part-time DELTA in the same academic year?

        6. Nope. Portsmouth. I used to walk past Kings. i applied for a job there but they seemed to want local people I think. There was a big turnaround probably. I think some of the IH DELTA tutors work there so DELTA or MA you might get the same teachers.

          Check the site. I did a distance FT MA, well 16 months. PT DELTA? Too much probably and too much crossover. Anyhow, if you have the DELTA you can skip the first term of the MA and do it FT in less than a year. Do DELTA first intensive for 3 mths then MA 2 terms and finish in a year.

        7. Not really, Phil.
          One of the professors at King’s, Dr. Martin Dewey, used to be a Teacher Trainer at IH London, but now he only works for King’s. There aren’t any tutors at IH that lecture at King’s, although quite a couple of teachers who did the MA at King’s did go on to work in their EAP department.

          As for the DELTA, I totally recommend the Distance Delta. Gives you time to actually learn and research rather than just produce essays trying to prove you have known all along…


        8. Johnathan was my DELTA tutor! Yay! He’s great! But no, he’s no longer at IH London.
          And as you said, he’s a coordinator at the English Language Centre, not the MA in Applied Linguistics.
          That’s like the EAP department for foreign students who need help with their English.


        9. Hmmm, using old famous people to advertise a course eh???

          EAP? Grrr. I think that was the dept I applied for actually. Never even got an interview.Sob sob.

          Don’t start me on EAP. Yes, it’s useful but a full year foundation course? OOOh. Or is that just “you only got 5 in IELTS,you need 5.5 so you have to do a full expensive foundation course for 1 year”.

          Hey, who cares. What about London Met then? How come it’s just them? Everywhere has dodgy students ho disappear. Something fishy there.

        10. Wow, you’re on fire today, Phil!
          Has it got to do with yesterday’s Woolly Mammoth?
          Why are you not at the BESIG weekend webinar with Andreas?
          We’re there waiting for you…!


        11. I’m writing and online researching stuff for a new crash course. 10 hr from A2 to B2. No book, handouts etc, just an ipad which I don’t understand.

        12. What have I started?! Thanks A LOT for your advice, Chia and Phil. Having processed it in my usual wonky manner, I’ve decided to say “yes” to King’s, and try and do the first part of a DELTA at Oxford House College (‘cos it’s cheap and ‘cos I hope they’ve learnt a bit since the first time they offered the DELTA, when apparently everyone failed…), then see how I’m doing and maybe try modules two and three via the Distance DELTA course.

          Must be bloody boring marking all those DELTA and CELTA essays, isn’t it?

          Thanks again!


        13. I would definitely suggest you do your modules 2 and 3 on the Distance Delta. I found it very useful and to be honest, it changed my life. That’s why I am so passionately arguing away with Phil…


        14. Yes, I like the idea of having extra time to think things through properly on the Distance DELTA. And of course you’re right about never being too old (and in fact I’m not all that hoary and ancient just yet); but I’ve been teaching and learning about teaching for about 6 years now and it really is about time I got more qualified 🙂

    1. Thanks a lot for your advice, Phil!

      I’d love to do an intensive DELTA and then do the MA in two terms: the trouble is, the way the King’s course is structured (and it seems the one at Portsmouth), you’d have to do the DELTA first, then wait a bit and do the MA part-time in 4 terms instead. That would be too expensive for me (don’t want to stay in London indefinitely) and anyway I’m feeling old, so want to get as much done in a year as possible! It probably would be too much to do the DELTA and MA at the same time, tho a lot of crossover might actually make things easier!

      Thanks again – you’ve given me some very useful food for thought!

      Going to stop hijacking this thread about pragmatics, now, too – sorry, Chia! 🙂

      1. Well, apply for a distance MA, do the DELTA intensive before and then jump to term 2. You’ll have 3 options and then the MA paper. Easy. DELTA over the summer then MA in January until October.

        1. That’s a whole year away and I’ll be far too old 🙂 Though it’s true it would have been the best option if I’d managed to work everything out in time.

          Thanks again, and good luck with the iPad.


  3. Hi all! Interesting discussion you have going on here and it made me want to say something. Just to clarify, I’m in the midst of an MA in AL and hoping to get on the DELTA module 3 this month, so I’m going through the process of all this.

    Here we go bullet point style:

    Talking about relevance of teaching quals to the industry points back to the industry itself, which is highly questionable in many aspects and based on incoherent models.

    I do believe qualifications make a difference but let’s be clear: entering an MA program as a starry eyed applicant or some sort of tabula rasa will lead to many confused candidates (imo) wandering around in the wilderness and trying to make sense of things and a type of discourse and logic they have never seen before. Hence they will be presented with theories and schools of thought without the necessary background to be critical of them, see how they fit together and contrast each other, or be able to apply and integrate them in their practice.

    Likewise I see many talented and very experienced teachers without qualifications who have serious limitations in talking about their own practice and making conceptual links between connected areas. I believe they can suffer limitations in being able to articulate concepts, communicate, and innovate in their practice and the industry. Maybe it could even effect their vision in the classroom.

    AL/TEFL is vast territory with not all sub-disciplines necessarily being of equal value or relevance, depending on who’s talking and their context/practice. It takes a lot of reading before one begins to develop an awareness of the field. What this means (imo) is that for many MA candidates is that their exposure to theory is often “unthinking” or somewhat decontextualized – they are really learning about the theory and academic discourse on the MA itself.

    You may say this is precisely what the MA is for, but I would respond that this is true only to a certain extent. If you want your MA to be really relevant and cutting edge, you should already know what you want to do beforehand in somewhat specific terms. You need to have vision and intelligence. This is true for all disciplines, not just AL/TEFL. You need to capture synergies in your practice and theoretical studies. The MA can be an amazing tool precisely if you know how to use it. Otherwise the experience can be mediocre and you will be following shadows on the wall to some extent.

    If you know what you are doing, you can shape your learning in the qualification process. The issues being brought up in this discussion are not easily generalizable, but I believe the key is striking a balance between everything, and you can operate at a very high level indeed if you can think and learn on your feet and get yourself organized.

    I had the fortune to see Willy Cardoso’s workshop a month and a half ago at Braz-Tesol, and for me it was the highlight of the conference. Funnily enough, the topics he talked about hit me in the head like a shovel: complex dynamical systems and sociocultural theory, which were precisely the two areas I tried to synthesize in one of my MA modules a year and a half ago in an ethnographical diary study of learner motivation. For me, it was an profound correspondence of my thinking and an articulation of ideas and practice which I had previously thought perhaps existed only in my head, and helped raise further questions of epistemological congruence (or lack of) between the two fields. This type of communication and articulation is inspiring for me and cutting edge, and we need reflection and theory to do it.

    My twopence worth for today!

    1. Hi Jonathan,
      Thanks for taking time to comment and making some very good points here.
      I think at the end of the day, part of what one gets from training depends on what one does with the training.
      And one can benefit greatly if one approached it with curiosity and academic rigour.

      I went into the Delta and the MA with a slightly different stance to yours, i.e. without knowing specifically what I wanted to do beforehand.

      No doubt, there were things I was interested in and at first, I thought those were topics I was going to pursue.
      But I wanted to learn about things I didn’t know about.

      And in the end, I ended up pursuing areas that I didn’t even know existed when I started those courses.
      As a result, I read about things I would have never read about, got interested in all sorts of new fields, and thought a lot about how they apply to my teaching context and tried them out to see how I could use them in practice. I got a lot out of both my Delta and my MA, and I thoroughly enjoyed the learning process.

      BTW, I went to Willy’s talk at IATEFL Glasgow too. And I totally agree that he combines theory and practice wonderfully…although I’m not quite sure if it was the same talk he did.
      Here’s a summary of his IATEFL Glasgow talk

      Once again, thanks for these insightful comments.


  4. Hi Chia,

    I certainly agree with you about the advantages of learning new and unexpected things; I’m doing it myself, as I’m sure everyone does! I guess my point is that we can take conscious control of the learning process and shape it to our own liking as well.

    Willy’s talk was different this time I think; he talked about complex adaptive systems and sociocultural theory. I don’t think they are easy bedfellows because of their epistemological bases, but there are good reasons for talking about them both. Somehow there is an almost irresistable and strange attraction to them if you want to talk about group dynamics and the learning process.


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