The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

The Importance of Studying Linguistics

Question:

Submitted by Ali Abdulhussain, University of Maissan

What is the importance of studying linguistics for a language teacher?

Dr. Richards responds:

Linguistics is a very broad discipline and includes many different approaches to the study of language. Not all of them are relevant to language teaching. If by “linguistics” you mean a course that introduces information on the nature of language, how grammar and other levels of organization in a language work, as well as information of the core linguistic features of English – particularly those that are important in teaching, then this would be useful. Teachers need to know as much as they can about the subject they teach, and linguistics can be one source of this knowledge base. But how useful it is will depend on what kind of linguistics one is talking about and how it is taught. The framework developed by Halliday in his work on functional linguistics is often used in courses for language teachers. Unfortunately many people who may have a Ph.D  in linguistics may have studied linguistic theories that have little relevance to language teaching.

Mother Tongue Teaching vs. Foreign Language Teaching

Question:

Submitted by Gafur Khamroev, Uzbekistan

What is the difference between mother tongue teaching and foreign language teaching?

Dr. Richards responds:

In many countries when students come to school their mother tongue has already been established and teaching in this case may involve learning to read and write a language which the children can already speak. The children have already benefited from thousands of hours of contact with their mother tongue. In the case of a foreign language however, the starting point may be zero, and a limited amount of time may be available in school for foreign language instruction. In this case a careful structured and gradual introduction to the foreign language is normally used, based on a corpus of the most frequent words, phrases and structures.

Best Way to Translate New Words

Question:

Submitted by Mehrnoosh Panahandeh, Tehran, Iran

When a student gives you a word in his/her native language and asks you for the translation, what is the best solution?

Dr. Richards responds:

There is no reason not to give the translation of a new word. The mother tongue can be a useful resource in teaching and it is a natural reference point for learners.  Translation activities which involve students translating words can be the basis of fun activities such as games and group work tasks.  Remember however that students come to class to practice English so use translation when needed as a springboard to learn and practice using English.

Evaluation, Use, and Adaptation

Question:

Submitted by Mohamed Bakkas, Rabat, Morocco

What’s the difference between textbook evaluation, textbook use and textbook adaptation?

Dr. Richards responds:

Evaluation refers to the process by which a textbook is reviewed and assessed according to a set of criteria. There are a number of check-lists that have been developed for this purpose.

Textbook use refers to how a teacher implements a textbook in his or her class, and involved collecting information on how much time was spent on particular activities, what grouping arrangements the teacher made use of, and how he or she used realia and other course components. The focus is on description rather than evaluation.

Text book adaptation refers to changes the teacher made to the book to make it more suitable to a particular class. Changes could include adding or dropping activities, changing activities, replacing topics or content etc.

For further information see my book Key Issues in Language Teaching.

Kind Words

Question:

Submitted by Bahadori Rasol, Iran

I do not have any question I just want to say I love you so much and your books.

Dr. Richards responds:

Thanks for your kind words.

Discourse in Listening Comprehension

Question:

Submitted by Ali Abdulhussain, Iraq

What is the importance of discourse in listening comprehension? I usually notice many students that make sense of each sentence they listen to but cannot reconstruct meaning as a whole unit of discourse?

Dr. Richards responds:

The goal of teaching listening is to help students understand discourse, that is, to understand samples of authentic spoken texts. To achieve this, a listening course must gradually move from sentence-based listening, to helping understand texts.  This often involves taking learners beyond bottom up processing to make use of top down processing – listening that goes beyond the sentence level and that makes use of knowledge of the context, the topic, the setting, the participants and their purposes.

Learning Strategy vs. Classroom Task

Question:

Submitted by Hezi Brosh, USA

What is the difference between Language learning strategy and classroom task/activity?

Dr. Richards responds:

A strategy is the action a learner takes to resolve a particular learning issue or problem. So when reading a difficult text, skimming it first for a general idea of the content before reading it more closely, is an example of a reading strategy.

A classroom task or activity is something the teacher assigns the learners to do in order to achieve a specific learning outcome. Dictation is a task or activity, as is jigsaw listening or completing a cloze passage.

Improving Interview Skills

Question:

Submitted by Dr. Sunil Sagar, India

India has a large number of Engineering Colleges. Students graduating from these colleges need to face an interview at the end of their degree program for securing placement. Majority of these students come from vernacular medium and struggle to acquire proficiency in English. Teachers of English working in these engineering colleges are constantly under pressure to ensure that students begin to articulate their ideas in English so that it ensures better placement for them. As placement affects the brand image and economics of the engineering college, teachers of English have to find a way out of this in some way. However, it is not clear as yet how teachers should approach this. Since grammar translation method is still heavily used, I wonder what you would recommend for improving the proficiency of these students with respect to English. Will direct teaching of grammar solve this? Or whether it is about Input Hypothesis, wherein we provide the comprehensible input, create the environment and they ‘acquire’ the language. It would be a great help for teachers of English across India if you could shed light on this issue.

Dr. Richards responds:

If your main interest is helping students perform better on an interview, then you should focus on helping them acquire interview skills. A focus on general English, whether taught through grammar translation or any other method is not needed, but rather an ESP approach. This focuses on the language and skills they need in a particular context.

Should Learners Produce Whole Sentences?

Question:

Submitted by Kemal, Turkey

Should we ask learners to produce whole sentences when answering questions? For example, when I ask “Who is late for school?” they only say “James”.

Dr. Richards responds:

Short responses are more natural than complete sentences, since a complete sentence repeats information the speaker already knows. One of the maxims of conversational interaction is to provide sufficient information to be understood but not too much information. Providing too much information sounds pedantic. An adult who does this is known as a bore.

Grammatical Knowledge vs. Grammatical Competence

Question:

Submitted by Deborah, Israel

Dear Professor Richards,
I am reading some of your excellent articles on grammar and have a question about terminology.
Grammatical knowledge, grammatical ability, grammatical competence and communicative competence.
You have explained the first two terms very clearly in Richards and Reppen 2014. Is grammatical knowledge synonymous with grammatical competence? Is grammatical ability synonymous with communicative competence (Richards, 2006 on CLT)?

Dr. Richards responds:

Yes, I think it is fair to say that grammatical knowledge and grammatical competence refer to the same thing.  Grammatical ability refers to knowing how grammar is used in communication. Communicative competence in the Canale and Swain model includes three dimensions:

  • Grammatical competence: the knowledge of grammar, lexis, morphology, syntax, semantics and morphology
  • Sociolinguistic competence: the knowledge of the sociocultural rules of language and rules of discourse
  • Strategic competence: the knowledge of how to overcome problems when faced with difficulties in communication.

Curiosity in Students’ Learning

Question:

Submitted by Juriah, Indonesia

What is the role of curiosity in students’ learning and how to activate it?

Dr. Richards responds:

I am not aware of research on this topic specifically in relation to second language learning, however if you do a google search you will discover a host of articles on this topic, ranging from pop psychology to more serious discussions of the topic.

Benefits of Instructional Materials

Question:

Submitted by Jeffrey, Philippines

What are the benefits of instructional materials to teachers, learners and to teaching learning process?

Dr. Richards responds:

This kind of question is too general to be meaningful, and is rather like asking, “what is the role of motherhood?”.  What is the context for the question? In relation to what kinds of situations and with what kinds of learners?

Collaborative & Cooperative Learning

Question:

Submitted by Meriem, Algeria

What is the difference between collaborative learning and cooperative learning? What is their relation with Competency Based Approach?

Dr. Richards responds:

Collaborative learning and cooperative learning mean the same thing and are part of an approach that emphasizes maximum use of cooperative activities involving pairs and small groups of learners.Neither have anything to do with competency-based instruction, which is an approach to curriculum development that organizes teaching in relation to learning outcomes that are described in terms of competencies or observable skills.  For further information see Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching: Richards and Rodgers 2014.

Strategy Development for Better Listening

Question:

Submitted by Muhammad Shujaat, Saudi Arabia

In coursebooks, usually the sequence of a listening lesson proceeds from the general to the particular and then the students pair-check their answers. Is this proof enough that students are developing their listening or does there have to be another dimension of the strategy development for better listening?

Dr. Richards responds:

It depends on the kind of text students will listen to and what their purposes for listening are. Listening to a news story involves a different approach to listening than listening to casual conversation. So first one has to consider the type of text, the level of complexity of the text, what background knowledge students bring to the text, and the listening purpose.  The choice of listening task or activity that you use should provide guided practice in listening. Support for listening can be given through pre-teaching key words, by activating background knowledge, and by establishing an appropriate listening purpose. A series of tasks can be used that first require global listening, and then move to more detailed listening.

 

Difference Between Testing and Assessment

Question:

Submitted by Laleh Kohandel, Iran

What is the difference between Testing and Assessment?

Dr. Richards responds:

A test is one form of assessment and refers to procedures used to measure a learners’ learning at a specific point in time and often involves collecting information in numerical form. Common forms of tests are multiple choice questions and gap-fill or cloze tests. In English classes, teachers also need to assess their students’ learning to determine the effectiveness of their teaching and of the materials they use. Assessment refers to any of the procedures teachers use to do this, which may include interviews, observations, administering questionnaires and reviewing students’ work.

Assessment covers a broader range of procedures than testing and includes both formal and informal measures.

 

English in the Classroom Compared to a Native-Speaker’s English

Question:

Submitted by Ali Abdulhussain, Iraq

What is the difference between the language we teach in schools, language institutions, coursebooks etc and the daily language spoken in an English-speaking country?

Dr. Richards responds:

In schools there is a very limited amount of time available to teach English so a very restricted range or words, structures etc can be taught. Obviously native-speaker- English is very different, since it has been acquired over many years and is used in many different contexts and for many different purposes. There will hence be a big gap between the language of the classroom or textbook and the language people use in English-speaking countries. These days media, technology and the internet enable learners to access authentic uses of English outside of the classroom.

 

Commercial vs Teacher-Made Materials

Question:

Submitted by Abdu, Yemen

What are the virtues and the weaknesses of the commercially-produced materials as opposed to the localized teacher-made materials?

Dr. Richards responds:

Commercial materials are usually intended for a diverse audience of teachers and learners, so will often not be directly applicable to a local context and may need to be adapted and localized.  Teacher-made materials have the advantage of reflecting the specific context and the needs of learners in that context. An advantage of commercial materials is that they are usually prepared by experts and carefully edited and field tested before publication. With teacher-made materials there is no guarantee that the quality will match those of commercial textbooks, since teachers may not have had any training in materials’ preparation.

 

Using Authentic Materials

Question:

Submitted by Weldehaweria Gebrekrstos, Ethiopia

We teachers are required to use authentic materials to enrich learners’ use of the language. What advice can you give?

Dr. Richards responds:

When textbooks and commercial materials were the primary sources of classroom teaching and learning, a debate that emerged was the use of authentic materials versus created materials. Authentic materials refers to the use in teaching of texts, photographs, video selections, realia, and other teaching resources that were not specially prepared for pedagogical purposes. Created materials refers to textbooks and other specially developed instructional resources that have been prepared to include examples of specific grammatical items discourse features. Dialogs in course books, for example, might be specially written to highlight certain grammatical choices or to illustrate specific conversational strategies. Hence, it was often argued that authentic materials are preferred to created materials because unlike the often rather contrived content of much created material, they contain authentic language and reflect real-world uses of language.

Typical claims for and against the use of “authentic” materials are:

For

  • They have a positive effect on learner motivation.
  • They provide authentic cultural information about the target culture.
  • They provide exposure to real language.
  • They relate more closely to learners’ needs.
  • They support a more creative approach to teaching.

Against

  • Created materials can also be motivating for learners.
  • Authentic materials often contain difficult language.
  • Created materials may be superior to authentic materials because they are generally built around a graded syllabus.
  • Using authentic materials is a burden for teachers.           

In many language programs, teachers use a mixture of created and authentic materials because both have their advantages as well as limitations. Furthermore, the distinction between authentic and created materials is increasingly blurred because many published materials incorporate authentic texts and other real-world sources. And today many books take on the aura, if not the actuality, of authenticity, containing considerable amounts of photographically reproduced “realia”, in the form of newspaper articles, maps, diagrams, memo pads, menus, application forms, advertisements, instructional leaflets and all the rest. Some books, indeed, almost entirely consist of authentic material, including illustrations, extracted from newspapers, or magazines.

In addition, this debate has become less relevant in today’s world since the Internet provides ready access to authentic materials of every kind. Classroom teaching and classroom materials hence serve to prepare learners to navigate, explore, and access authentic materials related to their needs and interest through the Web, as we discuss further below. There is no reason, therefore, why textbooks and other classroom materials should not contain a mix of authentic and created texts depending on the intentions of the materials.

When choosing authentic materials care must be taken to ensure they are at an appropriate level for learners, and that that they are used in a way that supports learning rather than causes frustration for learners.