Using PPP as a Lesson Format

This article is adapted from material previously used on our Delta Module One Course. It focuses on PPP (Presentation, Practice, Production) as a lesson format. If you're not familiar with the principles behind PPP, click on the link above before continuing.

This article considers three questions.

a) what criticisms have been made of the format?

b) what alternatives exist which avoid those criticisms?

c) with what learner types and learning contexts would and wouldn't it be useful (and why)? 


a) Criticisms of PPP

1. That it focuses on “Grammar McNuggets” (Thornbury) - ie preselected linguistic items to be learnt in a specific order - and that this may not be realistic in terms of the actual processes of second language acquisition. Many writers (Thornbury, as above, but also eg Krashen) argue that acquisition does not occur in this “predictable” way. Krashen suggests that each learner will be ready to acquire the “next” item naturally if exposed to comprehensible input but we have no way of predicting what this item is.

2. Similarly it may not be realistic to expect learners to acquire the item immediately in one lesson, moving during the lesson from no knowledge of the item to its spontaneous use in a production stage. This recurrent problem led to the contradiction in the approach where some proponents argued that it “didn’t matter” if the TL was not used in the Production stage. However, logically this would seems to make them irrelevant to the lesson. Others argued that the Ls still be should be “pushed” into using the TL  - but this again shows that expecting acquisition to take place immediately was an unrealistic aim.

3. Even when Ls did seem to have mastered the item within the lesson, it was frequently noted that in subsequent lessons it had been forgotten and no longer used spontaneously where it would have been appropriate (Willis and Willis, 1996). This suggested that there was something wrong about or missing from the approach.

4. PPP could be appropriate for dealing with grammar, but did not focus in any depth on skills development, and downplayed a focus on lexis.

5. PPP could be very T-centred – the presentation stage was generally T-led, with the T. setting up a context, feeding in the TL, and then asking concept questions to elicit rules of form and use. These would often be answered by the strongest Ls in the class (especially in larger classes and/or if the T didn’t nominate), leaving the others fairly uninvolved.


b) Alternatives to avoid those criticisms

6. Task Based Learning: There are many versions of this but all started by asking learners to perform a meaningful task in the L2 and saw learning as process rather than product. In other words learners would not necessarily acquire a language item the first time it came up in the course, but would do so gradually over the course as they found they needed it again and again, or heard it being used frequently in the input (which was often a recording of proficient speakers doing the same task as the learners had just carried out, and allowed them to compare their own use of language with the “model” version”).  (Avoids criticisms 2 and 3) 

7. Krashen proposed a method known as “The Natural Approach” which was based on constant exposure to “roughly tuned input” – ie language that the learners would understand (so which was comprehensible) but which would naturally contain language likely to be the next item which the learner was ready to acquire. He termed this "i+1", where "i" is the learner's current competence and "1" is the next item they are ready to acquire. (Avoids criticism 1)

8. Though The Natural Approach has not become mainstream, most current published coursebooks contain far more input (in the form of reading and listening texts) than was common in the late 20th century when PPP was at its most popular. This is also a result of the influence of the Lexical Approach (Lewis) which emphasised the need for constant exposure to and learning of lexical chunks. (Avoids criticism 4). Some courses, like the Business Matters series (Powell) use “lexically enhanced” texts which are originally authentic texts rewritten to include as high a proportion of lexical chunks as possible, and therefore maximum exposure to the same.

9. This sort of Text-Based Learning usually replaces the “presentation” stage with a guided discovery activity which the Ls do in PW/GW. The examples of the TL  are taken from a text which the Ls have previously done comprehension work on, and the concept check questions are in the book. The use of PW/GW ensures that all the Ls are involved and working actively on understanding the rules of form and use. This greater cognitive involvement is liable to lead to greater retention. (Avoids criticism 5).

10. Dogme (Thornbury and Meddings) allows learners to use any language at their disposal to discuss topics, situations etc and all language focus and practice “emerges” from the language used during the discussion. The T. may correct, explain or upgrade language and may then provide on-the-spot practice activities (Thornbury – P is for Push).The argument here is that, as the language focused on is that which the learners have wanted to use to express personal ideas, the input will be more engaging and processed at greater cognitive depth than language chosen by the teacher – thus resulting in greater retention, ie learning. (Avoids criticisms 1 and 3).


c)  Useful with/because :

11. Learners with a preference for systematic lessons where they first fully understand the rules of form and use of the language (Analytic learners - McCarthy), and then are asked to manipulate and finally use it in activities which increase only gradually in level of communicative challenge. The inclusion of the CP (or manipulation) stage would therefore suit Serialist learners (Pask) who would be uncomfortable with approaches where they were “thrown straight in” to communicating – eg TBL.

12. Very large classes where a lockstep approach makes it easier for the teacher to check that every learner has understood, produced correct answers etc.


c) Not useful with/because:

13. Very young or primary age learners who are not analytic and have not yet developed the cognitive skills necessary to cope with abstractions such as rules of form and use. These Ls are still able to acquire the language in the same way as they acquired their L1 – by exposure to meaningful language use.

14. Learning contexts such as summer courses in Britain where the class members all come from different backgrounds and, even if their general level has been ascertained,  the T cannot be sure exactly what each person does/does not know. Using an approach based on a pre-determined syllabus might therefore mean that a lot of the learners were covering items which they had already acquired. 


References and Further Reading

From the Notebook:


Willis D and Willis J (1996) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching Macmillan Heinemann