Why am I skeptical about PPP

This article was written when I mentioned my skepticism regarding PPP to one of my colleagues and she was puzzled as CELTA had taught her to use PPP. It took, however, more than 3 months to write… Not because I was doing any research – this one is in no way a well-grounded scientific paper. It is, rather, some summary, more or les structures, of my thoughts about the subject. It’s for my school’s teachers, and anyone interested.


a). What do we present? How do we decide what language exactly is needed by the student? One option is to be based on the course book. Course books have been designed by clever people, you know. Respectable institutions are working on the syllabuses, why bother and invent the bicycle?

Without trying to underestimate the immense work done by linguists on developing standards and designing coursebooks, I have to admit that I personally have to amend at least 40 to 70(!) % of ANY coursebook I have used (and I have used a lot of coursebooks.).

  • Too little attention is still given to widely spread patterns such as for-to construction, complex object, cleft sentences, emphatic constructions – you name it. This leaves the students handicapped until very late, upper-intermediate or even advanced stages, and if you keep noticing that, despite their hard work for a year or so, your pre-intermediate students are struggling and become demotivated, think – isn’t it due to you following the standard syllabus which leaves so many useful, no – indispensable! –  things – until later?
  • The same is true about vocabulary, prepositions, set phrases with articles, etc, etc.
  • No mother tongue specifics are taken into consideration. Yet, what is easy for a French person, may be beyond comprehension for a Russian, and vise-versa.

>One way I try to deal with it is introduce an array of useful patterns, normally taught at later stages, rather early, the result being SS slowly but surely acquiring more tools for expressing themselves, and the effectiveness improving.

> I try to make room for these additional patterns by omitting whole sections of a coursebook, such as too much work on narrative tenses, or reported speech, which can easily be simplified or done without (as we see real English used  in real life). Some topics, some boring texts – lots can be, indeed, omitted harmlessly.

> I am still constantly faced with the ever-growing “syllabus tree”, with the additional patterns I need, since  every topic will call for more and more essential constructions. That eventually becomes difficult to handle, and better coursebooks are, perhaps, needed to help us cope.


b). When we base our presentation on recorded or printed texts, coursebooks force us to focus on the pattern in question, plus, maybe, a handful of topical vocabulary. Look at the text, however. There’s in fact a wealth of useful and necessary stuff. The PPP lesson framework will simply allow no room for working with those. That will leave so many questions unanswered, so many hypotheses unverified and so many patterns unacquired. Is that efficient? I doubt it.


c).Some more recent coursebooks are trying to cope with these deficiencies by highlighting additional patterns. Yet, even all of those taken together, that is not nearly enough to really move from level to level. The extra tidbits will be highlighted – but what about acquiring them?  Imagine we had to work with every single pattern we need using the PPP model. That will add at least several dozens of lessons to the course book. Is that possible at all? We therefore have to invent more intensive ways of getting SS to acquire the necessary patterns.


2.       PRACTICE.

It is assumed that practice will make the subsequent usage of the patterns automatic. If the practice is meaningful, the usage is supposed to be meaningful. And automatic. There are different ways to practice whatever:

  • Receptive practice (listening and reading comprehension highlighting the target structure)
  • Written drills (gapfills, sentence transformations, etc)
  • Oral drills (repetition, substitution, communicative drills)
  • Writing paragraphs and longer chunks, etc.

However, armed with PPP as our main tool we will need to drill EVERY SINGLE variant that a student may need. Eg, make an “I’m wearing… ” sentence with every single item of clothing they have learned, + repeat the same for other persons, singular and plural… Is that ever possible? Something like that used to be done back  in the 60-ies as part of Audio-Lingual method and was largely abandoned (as too immense a task). A course book today will offer a couple of exercises of 7 – 15 sentences (phrases) in each per pattern plus a few in the workbook plus another one on-line, which is not nearly enough even for “rough” practice using PPP. Additional materials will help, but how much time will it take to drill everything that needs drilling?  Will uttering/writing every possible variant once only be enough to make it automatic? The answer is, NO. What is the purpose of the practice exercises then? In no way is it also possible to do that within a 2-hour lesson. Every teacher has faced that.

“Why are some of my students coping so much better than others in the same group then – PPP seems to be working pretty well for them? “ – you may ask. In my observation, those coping better are in reality at a different stage of their learning – eg, they’d been studying English for 4 years prior to enrolling in your group, but with fewer chances to practse their theory. What they are doing at your lessons is largely reinforcing and really practising the patterns. Others struggle.


3.       PRODUCTION.

Production is supposed to result from practice. IT DOES NOT.

  • We have all seen and felt that the practice stage cannot fit into a 2-hour lesson, and that even huge homework may not be enough for the SS to stop making errors in the pattern in question, and that there is a wealth of patterns in English which can possibly not be practiced “audio-lingually” or in written form to ensure their automation.
  • Production results from acquisition. Acquisition does not directly result from learning.
  •  Hence, production is not the result of learning (P – P – P fashion). (If puzzled – please consult the link. Then, come back).

Have you ever noticed sudden breakthroughs in your students? Sudden surges in understanding, insights, fluency rocketing overnight, as it seems, after months of “two steps forward – one step back” learning?  If not – keep a closer eye on your students – and you will.  On a graph, a learner’s progress will most often be shown as a series of stairs rather than a continuous curve or a slanted line. Slow-slow-slow – ROCKET! Then, slow-slow again…  We mothers  have noticed that in our children learning their own language. The same is true about adults, in fact. Are those surges helped by constant practice? Yes and no. Rather, in my opinion, they are a result of very complex interactions of various cognitive and emotional mechanisms, of which logics and thinking are only a small part. And – EXPOSURE.

  • PPP rushes the students into production far too early. It ignores the need to HEAR and SEE the target structures in comprehensible contexts many, many, many times prior to acquiring them and becoming capable of producing them.
  • I have found that PPP works best with students taking the same level a second time. They SAW and HEARD the language the previous year – but, as should have been expected – were struggling using them. This time, having had enough exposure, they start actually using the language as PPP refreshes the knowledge, makes it more systemic, boosts confidence and fosters production.

What practical implications are there? – to be continued soon.


3 comments on “Why am I skeptical about PPP

  1. Kate, you are great! I’m on the same page with you on the things you’ve written. I myself quit using PPP more than 8 years ago for the reasons you’ve mentioned. Learning (eg studying) is a conscious process, whereas acquisition is a subconscious process. The sad thing is that MOST(!) teachers focus primarily on SS learning, assuming that acquisition will happen automatically. It will/may not. But when and if it does, it seems exactly as in you metaphor “slow-slow-rocket”.
    And there’s more to that. As Krashen writes in one of his studies, “human’s brain is immune to the deliberate teaching”. So the idea is to make teaching seem so brain-friendly that acquisition will occur.

    • waykate says:

      Yes – but the real problem is, it’s not always the teachers who impose the deliberate and linear teaching. It’s most often the learners who insist on it as they want to be taught, not just immersed, they want to be told – not prompted, and they want every little bit to be in control – “structure”. Hence – PPP, as it proved the simplest and easily marketed classroom mechanics that (to some extent) works and can be easily sold.

  2. Caroline says:

    Hi Kate, I came across this blog post via your Facebook group and found your views really interesting. I agree with parts of your comments on PPP – in my view, it is unrealistic for teachers to expect that students will be able to produce a grammatical construction or vocabulary item correctly at the end of one ’round’ of PPP. You are right – it takes several encounters for students to work items into their own speech or text unprompted. However, I still think that production is an important part of a language lesson because – particularly when students interact with each other – they encounter the language point more often, and are thus more likely to ‘acquire’ it (provided that the teacher is monitoring successfully and can nip serious errors in the bud!).

    As for CELTA – I did mine a few years ago and, when I went out into the big, bad world of EFL teaching, I initially found it difficult to accept when other colleagues ‘broke’ the rules of CELTA. PPP might not always be the most efficient way of learning (and happily there are many experimental EFL teachers out there who are constantly developing and sharing new ways of working), but it IS one of the simplest methodologies for new teachers to understand and use successfully. And, as you say, coursebooks are generally designed with PPP in mind.

    Which books do you find most frustrating to use with PPP? I noticed that one thing that sometimes frustrates you is the absence of any links between English and L1. Unfortunately there’s not much that can be done about this, as books are normally published to be sold across a wide range of markets. Market-specific books (often for teenagers, and linked to national school curricula) tend to involve more L1 and often consider EFL difficulties specific to speakers of that language.

    EFL books published by Russian publishing houses might be able to assist you in that case.

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