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15 reasons why PPP is so unfashionable

Anyone who has ever taught using the technique of presenting the language, practising it in a controlled way and then giving students the chance to use it in a free communication production activity will know that it is far from a perfect method, and some of the legitimate attacks on its theory and practice are […]

Anyone who has ever taught using the technique of presenting the language, practising it in a controlled way and then giving students the chance to use it in a free communication production activity will know that it is far from a perfect method, and some of the legitimate attacks on its theory and practice are dealt with below. It hardly seems more flawed than Suggestopedia or The Silent Way, though, minor approaches that are still written up with hardly a critical comment in books about the history of English teaching. Nor does PPP seem more logically inconsistent than the Task Based Approach, a vague concept that seems to shift every time you attack it. I have come to the conclusion, then, that there are sometimes other issues involved in those attacks. Here are some of the reasons, both justified and not, why PPP has got more than its fair share of abuse over the years.

1. There is no research funding available to investigate PPP
If a PhD student told their lecturer that they wanted to research PPP they would be laughed off the campus like a historian saying they wanted to do a Marxist analysis. Therefore no one in the academic community has anything to gain from defending it and everything to gain from comparing it unfavourably to the trendy new approach that they are becoming famous for.

2. The attack on PPP is an attack on grammar teaching
Many language teachers and researchers, especially ones of a very left-wing persuasion, are anti anything that involves the teacher teaching and telling their students what is right or wrong, much preferring students to always decide for themselves. Any approach that includes the teaching of grammar will therefore be attacked by such people, often without mentioning that it is the conscious teaching of grammar or classes being teacher led that they object to. Most especially, the Humanistic Language Teaching/ hardcore Communicative types of the 80s never liked PPP and are still a big influence on the industry under other names.

3. It’s been around a long time
Sooner or later something that is fashionable will become unfashionable and people who have been in the industry a long time will need a change just to keep themselves interested in teaching/ publishing/ lecturing etc.

4. It seems to make extravagant claims
Students rarely if ever master the grammar presented in the first part of the lesson well enough to use it in the production activity at the end of the lesson- in fact if they use the target language perfectly by the end of the class it is usually a sign they knew it before you presented it and therefore that you should have presented something different. Although few proponents of the PPP nowadays claim that such an improvement is possible in about an hour of class time, the format of a PPP lesson still seems to suggest that aim and no one has really found another consistent aim for a production stage at the end of the lesson. Fairly straightforward possibilities exist such as moving the production stage to make it more like a TTT or TBA lesson, but the lack of interest in PPP means that any solutions to these problems are unlikely to get much attention.

5. There is money to be made by the publishers from making a big switch to something else
If the publishers can persuade you to throw away all the Headway and Communication Games books they were selling you just a couple of years before because they are based on the apparently totally out of date PPP, you will have little option but to buy a whole new stack of books from them based on whatever the new teaching methodology is.

6. The university Applied Linguistics and TESOL departments gain from making a big switch to something else
Not only do they get to publish lots of books and papers on whatever the next paradigm is supposed to be (and get as much benefit from attacking the new thing as supporting it, as no one is interested in yet another attack on PPP), they might actually get taken seriously by the other university departments if the trendy new theory gets attention outside their field.

7. It never had a philosophical underpinning
Despite the appearance of being a system based on a logical theory of learning, PPP came about at a time when there was a reaction against the false claims of scientific infallibility of the Audio-lingual Approach etc. Things have now inevitably swung back the other way, and people are once again looking to science to tell them how they should and should not learn a language, and the essentially common-sense approach of PPP does not fit in with this desire.

8. It’s too simple
Anyone who has ever tried to learn a language knows that it is an inherently random hit and miss affair where it is impossible to predict what will be easy to remember and what will not in individual cases. Although many methodologies that take this into account have very similar stages to PPP (free communication, looking at language in detail and practising), the fact that they don’t seem to claim that the stages tie together in a neat little sequence makes them harder to attack.

9. It isn’t easy to research
Although I have at times been able to make the Task Based Approach work for my classes, what makes me suspicious of its popularity with TEFL theoreticians is that its main distinction seems to be that it is the perfect format for Applied Linguistics research projects. This is because you can get the students to do the same or a similar task again and compare how much they have improved, whereas in PPP the three stages are different and so you can’t easily get any data out of it. This doesn’t prove anything about the effectiveness of either method of teaching one way or the other.

10. It was always a messy compromise
Although it has been tidied up in various ways over the years to make it attractive to people who want a logical system, PPP is actually the bastard child of grammar teaching ala grammar translation (usually without the translation) and free communication ways of picking the language up. As it appears in most textbooks, it is in fact a version of the eclectic approach that is pretending to be something more systematic. The fact that it doesn’t make sense because of this doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t work.

11. An attack on PPP is a hidden attack on textbooks
Many of the people who attack textbooks for using PPP are actually against the whole idea of having a textbook due to other reasons such as the conservative social values that have to be included in them to pass government education boards all over the world.

12. It’s a victim of dissatisfaction with the general state of English teaching theory and practice
If a teacher who has been teaching PPP becomes dissatisfied with how well their students are learning the language it seems just as sensible to blame the teaching methodology as it does to blame student motivation, the school system they went through before reaching the class etc. Sometimes they are right to focus on PPP as the main problem, sometimes it is only part or even a small part of the problem.

13. An attack on PPP is an attack on the CELTA
People who think the 4-week CELTA is an inadequate training scheme for beginner teachers or have a commercial interest in reducing its reputation often focus on the fact that teachers are taught to use the untrendy PPP method of teaching. When that is the case it could be a valid question, but often people’s issues come from other aspects of the course and they are just using PPP as an easy target.

14. They are attacking a PPP that doesn’t exist
As PPP has never been particularly based on theory and there is no one standard text on how to use it, people tend to attack PPP by the one thing everyone agrees on- what the three letters of PPP stand for. Few teachers and few textbooks nowadays interpret the method as an endless succession of those three stages, however, with revision activities, progress tests, skills work, functional and situational language, free discussion lessons, needs analysis and diagnostic tests being totally standard things that fit around the PPP format but are not included in the most basic descriptions of what it is.

15. There is nothing to excite you about PPP
PPP is the Ford Escort/ Toyota Corolla of teaching methods- however long you use it and however well it works for you, you just can’t get excited or sentimental about it.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
May 2008 | Filed under Teacher Technique
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

7 Comments on “15 reasons why PPP is so unfashionable”

  1. jesus smith Says:

    I have recently done a celta course. I am very sceptical about PPP. It sounds like something that could have been devised by accountants.

    maybe it is POSSIBLE to use PPP in a good way, but unfortunately I did not see this in the celta course. I thought it was a load of hogwash.

  2. Gavin Keir Says:

    I also found this site while looking up PPP.
    Great article.
    I have used PPP for a number of years, and I would recommend it, although the trend these days is to focus on communicative and task-based activities (as you pointed out) – I think that these however can often be unstructured, lack focus, and may reduce the context for sufficient teacher-guided instruction. So, while it goes without saying that students are capable of learning a number of things at the same time and out of sequence, I can find that the PPP approach’s good points are, that it:
    1) provides a methodogical framework for the direction of the learning focus/agenda; for both the teacher and students,
    2) allows for attention to discrete elements of language (grammar, etc.) from which learners can first understand and then develop their productive competence; as all language learning should incorporate both grammar and productive competence focuses, in my mind.

    I hope that people reading this can be encouraged to utilise the PPP approach – in practice, it has worked better for me than other forms I have used.

    It is also to be noted that as PPP can be too focused on one particular aspect of language, it may be worth integrating three language items (be it grammatical tense, words commonly used together in sentence pattern combinations, thematic aspect) in the lesson. Being ecclectic in your approach (mixing it up) can help make your lessons more interesting for the learner and help provide a change of focus, to look at new aspects of language, and give students new starts to language learning.

  3. Rob McLean Says:

    I was brought up on PPP, and will say this for it: it enabled me to present an acceptable lesson in the early days of my teaching, one in which learners understood the goals – sorry, learning outcomes – of the session.

    I think this clarity is important for elementary level learners. As Gavin Keir implies, using other methodologies (when appropriate) is important if students – sorry, learners – are to remain interested.

    Jesus, Smith sounds a bit indoctrinated. Who were your teacher trainers??

  4. VallyP Says:

    I’ve been teaching EFL for years, but have only just done a TEFL course. In my early years, however, I worked for a Business English school, and PPP was THE way to organise the lessons. Like Rob McLean, I found it gave me a good structure to work with and in fact I still use it, but now more as part of my lessons than the whole time. I like the ESA approach, but find PPP is useful if the S part of it ;-) Don’t you just love all these letters? In fact a short Engage section as a warmer, then a PPP lesson, ending up with a group Activity is what I like to do best. So, fashionable or not, I think it still has its place!

  5. VallyP Says:

    That’s meant to be ‘for the S part of it’, not ‘if’. Sorry!

  6. Ahmed Says:

    VallyP .. i totally agree with you .. a cunning blend of ESA and PPP would do just fine .. teachers are supposed to be equipped with such tools and more .. don’t you just love all these letters? sure do :))

  7. Steve Says:

    PPP? Well, at least it’s better that grammar translation.

    What PPP really does is remove any semblance of authentic ‘purpose’ out of communication, especially when combined with its best mate ‘role play’.

    Purpose – that’s the ‘P’ I work at putting in my classes.

    There is no point in compartmentalizing language into functions apart from making your lesson plan nice and neat.

    Let it go, do something genuinely real and engaging instead.

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