Tomato-based language education

By Nathan Hall

Category: ELT Resources

I love tomatoes. As a child, I loved tomato-based foods such as ketchup and pasta sauce, but I hated fresh tomatoes. I am not sure when that changed, but now I love fresh tomatoes. I am certainly not alone. Tomatoes are one of the most loved types of fresh produce in the world, but it wasn’t always that way. In the late 18th century in Europe, tomatoes were thought to be dangerous, even deadly, and were not considered safe to eat. There are a number of reasons, but one of the main culprits had little to do with the plant, but on how they were served. At that time, it was not the food that was the problem, but the dish on which it was eaten. The pewter plates on which they were being served were leaching lead into the food due to the acidity in the tomatoes. Of course, only the rich and powerful were being affected, but news of the dangers of tomatoes stuck around for two centuries. Why? Simple, it was what they had been told to do and they just kept on doing it.

This is an example of the difference between correlation and causation. Yes, people did get sick and die after eating tomatoes, but the tomato itself was completely safe. It was the lead in the pewter that was deadly, something that could easily have been fixed by simply replacing the plate. Correlations need to be viewed with a very critical eye. There are some situations where it is almost impossible to test a hypothesis directly, so we are reliant on correlations. In these situations, we need to carefully test as many variables as possible to make sure that the conclusions we are drawing are correct. In the case of the tomato, it could have been tested by simply eating the tomato raw, directly from the plant. The problem here of course was that the lead poisoning happened over a long period of time, so the testing would also need to have been done over a similar timeframe. Time, situation, and other variables all need to be taken into consideration.


In the case of teaching and learning, there are so many other factors to take into account. Students and teachers both vary from day to day. Cultural and other biases also come into consideration. It is almost impossible to examine each of these elements making it even more important that we don’t take one single idea and apply it to all situations. We need to be vigilant in how we view our approaches to teaching and learning, making changes as need be.


When I was completing my MA TESOL, we were asked to write out our Philosophy of Language Education (POLE) as part of our final project. I found this to be a difficult task and spent many late nights trying to work out what it was that I actually believed about language education. While the task was hard, it was really rewarding. The problem lies in the fact that what I thought I knew and believed about language teaching and learning back then is actually constantly changing and evolving as I learn and experience more each day. To be honest, I think I need to spend time once again going through the process of figuring out what I know or think I know and what I believe to be true. As I peel back the layers, I suspect that I will find more and more areas of supposition and conjecture that I held to be true for so long.

In order to achieve this, I first need to isolate the various areas of language education and then dig into all that is comprised within that sphere. Here are some of the questions I will be asking myself as I go through the process.

  1. How do people learn languages?

  2. What role does memory and memorization play in language learning?

  3. What role does motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic, play in language learning?

  4. How much do personalities affect language learning?

  5. How much should I as a teacher be taking personalities into account?

  6. What kind of assessment works best in the various situations? Should all assessment be done by the teacher?

  7. How important are levels in learning? Should we be using them?

  8. What do I believe about homework? Is it necessary?

  9. How often should I be using group work? Should I be leaving time for students to work on their own?

  10. How much does culture affect language learning? Does it change expectations or is this more of a personal difference?

This could go on and on, but it gives you a picture of the type of brainstorming I will do before I start evaluating my knowledge and beliefs in language education. To explore these questions, I’ll start by answering these on my own before looking at what others say. This will help me to see if what I do believe is biased or based on solid facts. Once that is done, I will start to dig into the research. I will probably look at what others who are more experienced than me have said on the topic, but I also don’t want them interpreting the research for me if I can do it on my own. I would likely start with a search for studies done on this topic and not just those that support my beliefs. I need to keep an open mind, but remain critical no matter what the position.

This statement of knowledge and beliefs now becomes the basis on which you evaluate everything you do and use in the classroom. Consider these things as examples:

  1. Textbooks and other published materials

  2. Websites

  3. Cell phones

  4. Worksheets

  5. Interactive whiteboards

  6. Presentations

  7. Games

Again, the list almost seems endless, but it is something that you can address as you go since you have already done the work in thinking about the foundational pieces. You may find that it may even change as you find ways to articulate what you think you believe. It was in some of those moments that I realised that my bias was seeping in and was affecting what I believed. Putting it into words brought out those biases and helped me explain it to myself before I attempted to share it with others.

My hope is that this will encourage others to also take part in evaluating their beliefs regarding language learning and teaching through a similar process. If you have already done this, I would encourage you to keep it up, refreshing these statements from time to time in order to keep yourself from falling into the tomato poison trap.

About the author

Nathan teaches academic English for a college in Vancouver, BC, Canada and has taught in various countries around the world including a shipping company in Lithuania for four years. You can find out more about him here:

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