Tissue rejection in language education

One of the problems that comes up often in my language teacher education courses is why don’t seem to be able to find any teaching methods that are universally effective. Or, put differently, why is it that methods which seem to work in some cases, demonstrably fail in others. One of the most effective ways to describe this phenomenon is the ’tissue rejection’ metaphor. Here’s what it’s all about:

What is meant by tissue rejection in language teaching methodology?

‘Tissue rejection’ is an evocative metaphor that was used by Adrian Holliday (1992) to describe what happens when a teaching method, which is known to work in a particular educational setting, is introduced into a different setting, where it fails to catch on.

In Holliday’s early writings, a distinction was made between what he called BANA and TESEP models of instructed language learning. In BANA (British, Australasian and North American) settings, learning tends to take place in private language schools or language learning centres affiliated to universities, and there is often ‘relatively clear contract between institutes and mainly adult groups who come specifically to learn English’. By contrast, in the TESEP model, derived from the words Tertiary, Secondary and Primary, language learning does not usually have an instrumental objective (Holliday 1998: 12). Holliday has since moved on from this rigid binary distinction, but I will continue to use it in this post because it helps to more clearly illustrate the ’tissue rejection’ metaphor.

Each of these two models has evolved different methods, which are in line with local cultural expectations, learning materials and resources, classroom arrangements and so on. For instance, BANA education is often underpinned by what Holliday defined as the ‘learning group ideal’, which sets the conditions for ‘a process-oriented, task-based, inductive, collaborative, communicative English language teaching methodology’ (ibid.: 54). TESEP educational settings, on the other hand, might privilege a more traditional, transmissive, form-focused approach to language learning, which is closer to the norms of mainstream education in those settings.

The problem, Holliday argues, is that there is a tendency for TESEP to be perceived as less-than-effective, and the remedy is thought to be the adoption of BANA models. This is, in a sense, similar to a situation where a patient undergoes an organ transplant. However, when such innovations take place, we do not (and cannot) replicate the entire BANA model in the new setting. Rather, what is transferred is a limited selection of methods, which often do not fit very comfortably in the new context where they are transplanted. The new method (the ’tissue’), which was effective in its original setting, then becomes a source of disruption in the new setting.

Tissue Rejection
Figure 1. Relative positions of the language learning ideal in different environments (from Holliday 1994: 105)

A common scenario of ’tissue rejection’ is when a language teacher tries to introduce pair-work or group-work activities in a class where learners have been accustomed to working individually, under their teachers’ guidance. In such a case, it’s likely that the learners start engaging in off-task behaviour, or become disruptive; fellow teachers might complain about the noise levels in the language class; and parents might question the language teacher’s professionalism.

The key thing to remember in this case, is that the problem does not stem from the teachers’ classroom management skills. Rather, it is rooted on the mismatch between the culture from where the method originated and the culture where it is being implemented. Returning to Holliday’s metaphor, it is similar to what happens when a patient’s immune system attacks an otherwise perfectly good organ that has been transplanted into to said patient’s body.

The ’tissue rejection’ image is a powerful metaphor that helps us to understand the social and cultural intricacies involved in teaching English worldwide. Although the premises on which it was originally grounded (i.e., the existence of two incompatible English Language Teaching models) have given way to more nuanced thinking, the spectre of tissue rejection is still relevant in at least two ways. Firstly, it highlights the need for language educators to be aware of, and sensitive to, the subtleties of local educational cultures. And secondly, it serves to remind us of the complex, and often unpredictable, ways in which different cultures of learning interact.


I hope that you enjoyed reading this post and that it was helpful to you. I would really be interested in reading about any stories of ’tissue rejection’ from your teaching experience. You can share your stories in the comments below — and also feel free to use the social sharing buttons to send this story to anyone who might be interested!

If you have other questions about language teaching and learning that you think I might be able to answer, I’d be happy to hear from you.


About this post: This post was originally written in July 2015, in response to a question from a  reader of this blog. It was revised with a new introduction in September 2018. The featured image was taken by Twin Work & Volunteer @ Flickr and is shared under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

4 Replies to “Tissue rejection in language education”

  1. Of course, more often than not, the rejection is (also/mainly) due to the way the transplanted methodology is perceived and used by teachers. That is, the methodology may well be compatible; it’s just interpreted and ‘applied’ in half-baked, misguided ways. In my teacher training days (in Greece), I used to present this to student-teachers as the “Shut up and do your pairwork” approach (to avoid).

    For a good discussion, see: Karavas-Doukas, E. (1996). Using attitude scales to investigate teachers’ attitudes to the communicative approach. ELTJ, 50(3), 187-198. doi:10.1093/elt/50.3.187.

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