Monday, 17 January 2011


I was recently given an e-reader.

It was a great gift and instantly became my favourite gadget.

Suddenly, I had a portable library of 100s of books to take with me wherever I went.

I was smitten.

And because I have taken it everywhere with me, lots of other people have handled my e-reader too, mostly out of mild curiosity.

What has struck me about this is that everyone has tried to use the e-reader in the same way.

They have tried to turn the pages using their fingers on the screen, as if it were an iPad or some other touch screen device.

But it isn't.

The reason for this misunderstanding lies in the perceived affordance of my e-reader.

Affordance was a term coined by the psychologist JJ Gibson to refer to the actionable properties of an object in relation to a subject.

They are essentially the possibilities thrown up by the interaction between people and the world.

Perceived affordance was a development of this idea by the designer Donald Norman.

He argued that what is important in design is whether a user perceives some action as possible, rather than whether it actually is possible.

So all the people who touched the screen  of my e-reader, expecting it to have an effect, were doing so in accordance with the perceived affordance of screens on e-readers.

They weren't touching the screen because it could be touched - that would be mere affordance.

They were touching it because they perceived this was the right way to interact with it.

Naturally, I got to thinking what the perceived affordances are in BE.

The first one that struck me was the language itself - how a student's L1 sets up expectations about the way a language should be used.

Surely, if we were designing English from scratch, we would tweak the user interface to make it a little more student-friendly, giving it that touch-screen swoosh which needs no articles, present perfect, or 3rd person 's'.

Secondly, the perceived affordances of our learning environments are heavily, sometimes completely, influenced by school and university.

This can lead to students deploying inherited behaviours, such as those that come with expecting teacher-centred classrooms.

 It also alters the way BE is considered.

English is a school subject throughout much of the world and it therefore naturally collocates with classroom, teacher, homework, etc, but not with meeting room, trainer, personal development.

Thirdly, then, this affects what people expect from us and what we expect from ourselves and our clients.

Do you work for a school/university, or do you work for a company?

Are you a teacher, or, to borrow from Mark Powell, are you a linguistics solution provider?

And if you work for one or the other, act like one or the other, will your perceived affordances change, and if so, for the better or worse?


  1. Hi Tony - yes, a good point. Related to the much debated difference between calling ourselves teachers or trainers ...

    I used to be a big fan of ebooks - in fact, I even bought my kids their own ebooks. Then the "system" decided that it would no longer be possible for us to to buy ebooks online from UK bookshops because we are not resident in the UK ... so I joined a lot of very frustrated ex ebook users, and went back to buying paperbacks ... perceived affordance maybe?

  2. Hi Evan - yes, you have to wonder sometimes whether we live in a global economy or not. I've had the same experience with every type of digital media: you want to buy something, and they won't let you. It's little wonder fake IP address companies are thriving - now they really do define perceived affordance!