Wednesday, 2 December 2009

How did PPP become a dirty word?

Recently I’ve been doing quite a lot of walk-throughs – presentations which involve guiding an audience through a unit of a course book to explain the deeper methodology behind it, to show how exercises build up to achieve a sub-aim, sub-aims build up to achieve aims and aims build up to create a coherent section in a coherent unit. Another reason for these walk-throughs is to elicit ideas for how to use the materials in class – supplementing, personalising, adapting, that sort of thing.

The first time I did it was in my analysis of Business Opportunities and Business Objectives, and a couple of weeks ago I walked through a unit of Introduction to International Legal English (see photo below, taken by one of the co-athors of that book, Matt Frith). And I was at it again at the BESIG conference, walking through our wonderful new book, Cambridge English for Nursing Pre-intermediate. This afternoon I’m flying off to Austria for a training event in Klagenfurt tomorrow, doing yet more walk-throughs for two of the books in my series, Cambridge English for Engineering and Nursing Intermediate+.)

But there’s something worrying me in the back of my mind as I’m talking about the wonderful methodology. I feel guilty every time I mention or even hint at the idea of presentation-practice-production – the famous PPP model that we were all taught on our initial teacher training (like my CTEFLA, or the CELTA as it is now).

On my diploma course we learnt that the PPP model is actually extremely naïve and something to avoid at all costs. It’s as if these staples of English teaching methodology are an embarrassing relic from the bad old days.

Or at least that’s the message I took away from my training – perhaps my trainer was les extreme and I got overexcited.

So is PPP dead? Well, certainly, the purest form of PPP would be a disaster. Teacher stands at front of class and gives a presentation. Students do a solitary practice exercise. Students do a freer productive task to demonstrate what they’ve learnt, but … ooops, they haven’t learnt anything.

But does anybody really teach like that? And just because the pure form is rubbish, we shouldn’t dismiss the model. We just need to fix it.

If you think about it, PPP, if done properly and sensitively, is a completely logical way of going about things. Of course many teaches make a hash of it (as I’ll explain below), and of course there’s much, much more to teaching than PPP.

But as long as there is actually some sort of input involved in teaching (and it’s not all student-generated self-teaching), that input needs to presented somehow. It needs to be practiced somehow. And students need a chance to use in a more natural situation. And … er … those three steps need to be in that order.

(Before you start spitting at the screen, I’ll deal with that issue of order in a second when I mention TTT).

Imagine you want to learn to paint, or to be a belly dancer, or whatever. You go along to your evening class and what do you expect? Well, perhaps someone to show you what to do, then a chance to analyse it and master it, and then a chance to apply your new skills in as natural, integrated situation.

(My big sister’s a world-class belly dance instructor – I’ll ask her one day if that’s how she does it).

So what’s wrong with PPP? Let’s look at the stages in order, starting with the presentation

I once observed a lesson taught by a very nice but rather inexperienced teacher. The lesson started with her drawing all sorts of wonderful timelines on the board (past simple and past continuous, if I remember correctly), with plenty of example sentences and counter-examples. I got a lot out of it, but I’m not sure if the students did. The teacher forgot (a) to find out what they already knew – perhaps they already knew all of this already, and (b) to involve them in the presentation. If the teacher had done those two things, she could still have done the same presentation but it would have been much better. The students would then have been happy to be confirming what they knew – even showing off to the teacher about how good they were, and much more ready to ask about things they didn’t understand.

A presentation doesn’t have to be teacher-led, and it doesn’t have to involve timelines. Everything we teach, be it vocab, phrases, pronunciation techniques, business skills, collocations, learner training skills, whatever – there’s always some form of presentation.

One of the simplest techniques involves teaching useful phrases from an audioscript. After they’ve listened, students read the script to underline useful phrases. Or you could give them the phrases with the words on slips of paper to sort. Or present them as a gapfill. It doesn’t really matter. There’s useful language in there, and it’s the teacher’s role to make the students aware of it. Ideally, the student should be fully involved in discovering the useful language and selecting whether it is in fact useful. But they still need support and guidance from the teacher.

What of TTT (test-teach-test)? This is often presented as an alternative to PPP, but it’s not – it’s just a sensible extension of it. The initial test could be a role-play or exercise or game or discussion, where the teacher has a good laugh at how badly the students perform the task. Or sees that the students can already do the job really well, and therefore abandons the presentation and pulls plan B out. (Stick a video on, perhaps). The test informs the presentation, practice and production – in other words the teach and test stages. So TTT is just TPPP.

The second P is practice. My diploma trainer used to say PPP stood for piss-poor practice. (He was much more vulgar than me – sorry about that). But of course that’s incredibly easy to fix.

Er … just do more and better practice. Loads of it. Not just gap fills and error correction but controlled speaking, less controlled speaking, moving-bits-of-paper-around games, moving-students-around games, vocab revision games, …

The key is this: as long as the practice activities are useful and varied and fun, you can do no end of them. You can also do them in a non-linear way – so when you’re in the middle of unit 4, you can go back and do more practice from unit 1 and unit 3.

Moving on to the third P, practice. (I feel like I’m doing a conference presentation … there’ll be time for questions at the end).

As a new teacher, I was always disappointed when students completely failed to use target language in their free practice activities (discussions, role-plays, simulations, etc.). As soon as they relax, they fall into their old bad habits, their lazy, safe, easy ways of speaking. Simple tenses, simple vocab, simple phrases (“I disagree”, rather than “I’m not sure I completely agree with you”).

Well, that’s just one of the hazards of teaching, and we need to get over it. We’ve absolutely got to provide lots of practice opportunities, and we’ve got to encourage students to use target language (if, of course, it really is useful to them, which is a completely different issue – but a very important one). Tell them explicitly that you’ll be listening out for the target language during the production task, or get them to listen out or each other. Praise the students that use the target language, and gush about how wonderful it sounds. And keep noticing it, praising it and nagging about it in all subsequent speaking tasks.

One of my old favourite games is to print the target phrases on slips of paper. Before the speaking exercise, students have done something with the slips (like sort them into categories according to function or level of formality or whatever). Then during the speaking activity, they have to use as many of the phrases as possible. When they use one in an authentic way, they can take the slip of paper from the desk. At the end, the one with the most slips is the winner. Of course some students will be silly and overuse the phrases, but even so, the results usually sound great. Again, praise the students – tell them how nice it sounded, even though it was only a game.

So, to recap, PPP is fine, as long as it’s done intelligently. In fact, as long as there’s still some teaching involved in teaching, it should be a staple tool for all teachers.


  1. Totally agree. Here's my attempt to answer your initial question:

    and then there's this:

    and many of the same solutions as you here:

  2. It was quite hard to write this comment with all the spit on the screen. J/K :)

    I think PPP can be useful because it presents information in a format most students are incredibly comfortable with. It's also very easy to use and design lessons for, so it's good for newer teachers. Other than that I see very little value in it.

    I think it's false to assume learning belly-dancing and learning a language need to be taught in the same way. The needs are different in my opinion. Actually, I think most teaching should take more of an inductive approach with a lot of learner control and maybe some guided discovery by the teacher. We grow up with a PPP style in all our lessons from Science to Art, but I think even these subjects could be taught more effectively using other methods.

    Imagine a science class where you are given dissected frogs in various stages and other materials like diagrams are posted around the room. The class then works backward from the info they have and tries to recreate the dissection with their own frogs. The teacher presents no info at the beginning of class, but simply helps students when they get stuck. At the end, the class discusses their thoughts, processes used, things learned, etc. Personally I think the learning potential is much greater here. Perhaps it' s a slower approach, but it's not just copy and regurgitate. Students are teaching themselves and learning a ton of other skills.

    The first problem with PPP for me is that it's teacher-centered. The class looks to the teacher and expects them to hand down knowledge. This is not a dynamic I want to encourage in my classes.

    The 2nd is it has a focus on grammar and vocabulary. Yes, we are supposed to always presents things in context, but this still gives students the idea that grammar and vocab are more important than skills. The students focus more on the grammar and vocab than on the context you provide anyway.

    Following this, it tends not to be experiential or intuitive learning. I don't care how clearly you present material, students will right down rules and structures, but not understand how to truly use anything or, more importantly, why a and when it's used. Starting off with a presentation of target language seems to promote tranlsation and rule memorization rather than internalize usage patterns or accustom students to using it.

  3. Students often think they have to understand something analytically before they can use it and of course this is far from the truth. Most speakers of a language speak without understanding the underlying logic. Most people in the world know "my name is..." without understanding SVO, possessive adjectives, present simple, or subject-verb agreement. In the same way, I want my students to acquire all language without focusing on the mechanics. They should use it because it's appropriate to the situation and it comes naturally, not because they have to think about all the rules before they speak.

    The practice portion of a PPP lessons lends too many teachers to assuming we should do worksheets or the bite-size book activities, the majority of which I find to have little value. Like you said, we can do it in other ways, but I find practice sessions are better done at the end of a lesson after students have tried to use the language, understand the context, and where I've been able to get a feel for problem areas.

    The final problem I have is the idea that something new needs to constantly be presented. Many of my lessons are simply language practice. There are target skills and language I'm working on, but they are often things we've already done. The learners need to use and see the language over and over again before they are comfortable with it. PPP can be useful for presenting new material now and again, but presenting something new should not be the goal of every class and what's the point of a PPP format if students already know the info being presented and practiced?
    Ultimately, I rarely present anything in the class besides giving students an idea of what we're doing at the moment. Analysis of material is done after it is used, but the learners generally have to tell me about it. I simply confirm or deny their analysis. The closest I get to presenting material is when I do auxiliary vocabulary or if I'm giving the students language they need to look at and analyze. Still, before we analyze it, we use it a lot.

    Unrelated, I like the slips of paper activity.

  4. Excellent post, PPP gets a bad rap, and I believe that it's, as you suggest, the 2nd P that's the great cause of all this--for a "PPP" type lesson to be effective, the "practice" section has to be more than just exercises from the book.

    In fact I just recently did a proposal for a workshop on activities for "controlled speaking" and "less controlled speaking" as you call it (I think the term I invented for myself was 'controlled fluency practice', a bit oxymoronical perhaps but that's the beauty of it)--with a specific emphasis on using these stages as opportunities for recycling previous language, as you also mentioned. Of course, my proposal was promptly ignored, but hey.

    Also, Nick's comment about the dissected frogs made me almost throw up in my mouth a little. :) Not sure if I buy the "discovery" method of teaching anatomy and biology at all, but I see his point as applies to language.

    But, at the end of the day, a presentation lesson is a presentation lesson, and a skills practice lesson is a skills practice lesson. The tools and techniques we use to give form to those lessons clearly have to differ in some way. No sense discarding one in favor of the other when the two can easily co-exist.

  5. Sorry all for taking a few days to respond. I was away last week and snowed under with deadlines this week. I'm still horribly busy, so I'll be very brief.

    Alex: Glad to see someone else has been thinking about this. In fact, judging by the number of links you've attached, I could have saved myself the effort of writing and just provided the links! I'll read all your articles properly if and when I emerge from deadline hell.

    Nick: Hope the spit wiped clean nicely. Thanks for all your comments. I actually think we agree with each other to a greater extent than we disagree. For example, I did say "there’s much, much more to teaching than PPP". That double 'much' was deliberate - most skills work, for example, has nothing to do with PPP.

    And I also think that the importance of PPP decreases dramatically as we move up through the levels. My recent presentations have been about teaching ESP at very low levels (e.g. at BESIG it was about teaching pre-int nurses the skills they need to cope in their job at their current level; in the photo I'm talking about intermediate level lawyers). For these people, there must be some sort of presentation (however that's defined). At higher levels, fluency and confidence and student-generated content and all the other things take over.

    I think the area where we disagree is on the definition of 'presentation' - that's probably my fault for stretching it beyond its normal limits. to my mind, your frog disection lesson is an example of a very sucessful presentation. You present an 'inductive approach' as an alternative to the first P, but I'd argue it's just a sensible way of presenting language. In other words, a type of presentation.

    I did say in my post 'Ideally, the student should be fully involved in discovering the useful language and selecting whether it is in fact useful. But they still need support and guidance from the teacher.' That sounds very much like your frog lesson to me.

    Actually, reading through your comments again, there's nothing I'd disagree with. You're absolutely right - too much teaching is teacher-focused, or grammar/vocab oriented. All I'm saying is that we can fix those problems within a framework of (from time to time, especially at lower levels, and not at the expense of skills and fluency and student-generated stuff) something like PPP.

    Nicky: Again, lots of very sensible points. Sorry Nick's comments nearly induced vomit ... i trust it was the idea of those little forgs wriggling to free themselves beneath the glinting scalpel, rather than Nick's methodology, that made you nauseous.

    So, there you have it - spit, vomit and frog innards - PPP in a nutshell. I'm sure there's a theory in there somewhere.

  6. Hi Jeremy,

    I really think you are bang on about getting students to use the target language in production. That's practice, that's an objective (or what's a heaven for?).

    But I've learned there is no "set playbook" for learning (which is teaching). Depends on your objectives, students, time, teaching style, resources etc... Teaching is an art. All those preporting to have a system are selling something and it stinks. Use your experience and instinct. For me, the only thing teachers should do more in terms of the sequence of delivery is to be more inductive. Give students a chance to produce the target language freely at first. Then and only if necessary, make a lesson of it. Like seeing if they can parallel park instead of first teaching it. ( and let's face it, we SHOULD try, nobody's going to be killed).

    but great thoughts...


  7. I agree about the PPP : it should be done cleverly. I agree too with Nick Jaworski : you can't compare learning a language with learning belly dancing. Everyone has an experience of learning a language, if only one's own language.
    I also think there is not enough space for reactivation in PPP. Reactivation should be more stressed on, it gives the learner familiarity and reassurance, two important ingredients to learn effectively.
    Alice M

  8. Great post and responses.
    Jeremy and Alex, I’d like to sling another idea in to your excellent lists of reasons why PPP might get a bad rap.
    As teachers we might want to surprise and vary things a lot - a skills lessons one day, ppp another, perhaps start with a game or task the next and so on. But if you’re the editor of a course book, you’re going to want to have consistency and regularly recurring headings and sections. You can still do that, as you and other folks here have pointed out. But add another constraint of ‘We’d like one lesson to be one double page spread’ (which seems to be coming up more frequently these days), and there’s a greater tendency for ppp to emerge in course books.

  9. My argument can basically be summed up that PPP as we teach it (e.g. in Headway, which many people name is the worst offender) is nothing like the straw man that PPP attackers lay into, e.g. because in reality it is almost always PPP with the discovery approach and skills lessons and in a form that can easily be changed into Test Teach Test or even task based. As Vicki says, though, the movement of the 2 page format of short courses into more and more textbooks, and often a version of it that seems to be "Well, that point is done, let's move on", means that it is perhaps a straw man no longer. Still don't know why people blame the Soarseses though. For one thing, Headlice Intermediate and Upper are now Test Teach Test (if a strange version where you apparently test and then move straight into teaching it in the same lesson, not sure how you would properly plan for that!) Could it be that what they really want to attack is a grammar based syllabus. If so, have they actually looked at other books like Cutting Hedges before deciding that they are better??

  10. Wow, more great comments. I'm glad I brought up this topic. Again, apologies for taking a while to get back to you. Still deep in deadline hell.

    David: I think you're also bang on. Teaching is an art, and as experienced teachers we can afford to do away with the playbook. It mostly comes down to common sense and experience. But newly qualified teachers do still need a lot of guidance on those issues. What for us is common sense might be far from obvious for them. And of course such teachers also have to deal with unhelpful advice (like "always use PPP" or "never use PPP").

    Anonymous: OK, fair enough about the belly dancing. I only included it as an example because I'm proud of my big sister.

    As for there being no room for reactivation, I suppose that's up to the teacher and course designer to decide what there's room for. The issue of non-linear teaching (which I'm assuming is related to the idea of reactivation) is a topic I've been thinking a lot about lately, and I'll be blogging about soon. All I'll say here is that coursebooks are linear almost by definition (unit 1 first, then unit 2, etc.), but teaching absolutely doesn't have to be.

    Vicki: Ach, if in doubt, blame the editor! (Only kidding - I read your article about your fantastic editor). I guess I'd repeat what i said to Anonymous above - just because the course book does it that way, it doesn't mean teachers have to do it the same way. Perhaps that's the responsibility of writers like you and editors like me - to make sure teachers get the message that they're allowed, or even expected, to jump around our books, to supplement them, to skip things, even (heaven forbid!)

    PS As an editor, I've been very careful to avoid 2-page spreads for their own sake. In one or two of my books, the spreads have ended up nice and uniform, but in most of them the priority has been the lesson aims, not the layout.

    Alex: Same point really - it's not fair to blame the coursebooks (up to a point). If you think about it, how could a book follow TTT properly. The whole point of TTT is that the teaching depends on the outcome of the testing. A book can't do anything about that (although it'll be interesting to see how e-learning materials deal with that possibility).

    As I've said elsewhere on this blog, I've got a class working through Headway Pre-Int at the moment, and I really don't have a problem with it. Sure, I need to adapt it, sometimes quite heavily, but my students are happy and making great progress.

    Thanks again for all the great comments.

  11. I've got no problems with Headway either. Language to Go, however...

  12. Fair points. The issue with PPP (pants pants pants as I vulgarly styled it) is that it is seized upon by newby teachers as a panacea - a way to teach anything to anyone with minimal preperation (at least after you've done your chosen coursebook once through).

    I agree that if the teacher uses the method judicously and well, involving students and knowing or finding out what they know, it can/could work very well.

  13. I like that ... pants, pants, pants.

    And of course, you're absolutely right. But I suppose those newbies have to have some sort of crutch to get through those first few traumatic years when the students seem to know more than they do! If not PPP, is there another quick fix to get them through?

    Thanks for the comment.