The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Translating New Words

Question:

Submitted by Amin

Is it appropriate for an English teacher to translate new words into the students’ mother tongue? If so, how much and how many words?

Dr. Richards responds:

Translating new words into the mother tongue is sometimes an obvious and useful strategy when students encounter unknown words in a text. However, before deciding to use translation the teacher should ask:
How important is this word in the text?
Is it a word that the students will need for active use or simply for recognition?
Is it a low frequency word that the students are unlikely to need and that they may not encounter often again?

If the teacher decides that the word is useful and important, he or she should also ask:
Can the meaning of the word be inferred from the context or because it is similar to a word in the students’ mother tongue?
Can the students make an intelligent guess about the meaning of the word?
Can they check the meaning of the word in their dictionary?

If after reviewing the options the teacher decides that translation is a quick and effective way of introducing a new and useful word, the students can write the translation of the word on the margin of the text or in their workbook.

If it is a low frequency and not very useful word, quickly provide the translation and move on.

Grammar-Translation Method and The Direct Method

Question:

Submitted by 孙赫, Luoyang Normal University, China

  1. What are the teachers’ role and the students’ role in Grammar-Translation Method and The Direct Method?
  2. What are some common classroom activities in Grammar-Translation Method and The Direct Method?

Dr. Richards responds:

Grammar translation:
Teacher’s role: to provide translation of new grammatical items, to answer students’ questions about the meaning of items, to monitor students’ work for grammatical accuracy, to develop translation activities:
Students’ role: to learn and practice grammar rules, to try out new grammar items in spone and written texts
Common classroom activities: translation of sentences from one language to another: writing sentences using the new grammar

Direct method:
Teacher’s role: to present new items through the use of questions and demonstration, to monitor students’ production for accuracy, to avoid use of the mother tongue
Students’ role: to listen and repeat, to ask and answer questions
Common classroom activities: drills and repetition activities: question and answer activities

Vocabulary for Designing Textbooks

Question:

Submitted by Italo, The University of Queensland, Australia

How you know what vocabulary should be taught when designing your textbooks. How do you decide which words are appropriate for some levels and which aren’t?

Dr. Richards responds:

Textbooks writers usually consult any of a number of word lists that group words according to level and frequency. (Paul Nation’s vocabulary level’s test is a useful reference here). Increasingly reference is also made to corpus studies of word frequency.

In discussing knowledge of words, an important distinction is usually made between a person’s active, or productive, vocabulary and their passive, or receptive, vocabulary, since our passive vocabulary is generally much larger than our active vocabulary. In spoken English, for example, native speakers may use a relatively small number of words in daily conversation – as few as 1,500 different words – though they recognize far more words than they use. For passive vocabulary knowledge, researchers suggest that knowing a minimum vocabulary of 3,000 word families (which equals some 5,000 words) is required to enable a person to understand a high percentage of words on an average page of a text, and that 5,000 word families (some 8,000 words) is required to be able to read for pleasure. Twice as many words may be needed to read first-year university materials. It is also important to distinguish between knowledge of content words (those that carry the main meaning of sentences, such as nouns, main verbs, adverbs, adjectives and question words, e.g. why, when, what), demonstratives (this, that, these, those) and function words (those that express grammatical relationships, such as articles, prepositions, auxiliaries, pronouns, conjunctions and relative pronouns). There is a small, finite list of function words in English, but a very large set of content words. When people expand their vocabulary knowledge, they add to their knowledge of content words.

O’Keeffe et al. (2007: 37–47) suggest that based on their research on the frequency of items in spoken English, a basic or core spoken English vocabulary for second language learners contains several different categories of words:

  • Modal items: These describe degrees of certainty or necessity and include modal verbs, such as can, must, should, may, etc.; lexical modals, such as look, seem, sound; and adverbs, such as probably, definitely and apparently.
  • Delexical verbs: These are words with little lexical content but high frequency, such as do, make, take, get, and their collocations with nouns, prepositional phrases and particles.
  • Stance words: These communicate the speaker’s attitude towards something and include words such as just, whatever, actually, really, basically, clearly, honestly and
  • Discourse markers: These are words that are used to organize talk and monitor its 
progress, such as you know, I mean, right, well, good and
  • Basic nouns: These are nouns referring to common activities, events, situations, places and people, such as person, problem, trouble, birthday; days of the week; family members; and colours.
  • General deictics: These are words that relate the speaker to the world in terms of time and space, such as here, there, now, then and
  • Basic adjectives: These are words that communicate everyday positive and negative evaluations of situations, people, events and things, such as lovely, nice, horrible, brilliant, terrible and
  • Basic adverbs: These are adverbs of high frequency referring to time, frequency and habituality, such as today, tomorrow, always, usually, suddenly and
  • Basic verbs for actions and events: These are verbs describing everyday activities, such as give, leave, feel, put and
  • Some of these types of words are not found in vocabulary lists for ESL/ELT learners because such lists have often been based on frequency counts of written language, rather than spoken English 
Beyond the core vocabulary, O’Keeffe et al. (2007: 48–9) suggest the following targets for vocabulary learning: 
A receptive vocabulary of some 5,000 to 6,000 words would appear to be a good threshold at which to consider learners at the top of the intermediate level and ready to take on an advanced programme. Such a programme would ideally have the following aims:
    • To increase the receptive vocabulary size to enable comprehension targets above 90% (e.g. up to 95%) for typical texts to be reached.
    • To expose the learner to a range of vocabulary at frequency levels beyond the first 5,000– 6,000 word band, but which is not so rare or obscure as to be of little practical use.
    • To inculcate the kinds of knowledge required for using words at this level, given their often highly specific lexical meanings and connotations.
    • To train awareness, skills and strategies that will help the learner become an independent vocabulary learner, and one who can continue the task for as long as he or she desires.

For further information see the chapter on vocabulary in my book Key Issues In Language Teaching (Cambridge University Press 2015) and also:

  • Nation, I. S. P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in a Second Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • O’Keeffe, A., McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (2007) From Corpus to Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Applied Linguistics’ Position and Future

Question:

Submitted by Mehran Darabi, Azad University, Iran

  1. What is the position of applied linguistics in relation to other language-related disciplines?
  2. What are some future directions in applied linguistics? Are corpus linguistics and CALL possible future directions?

Dr. Richards responds:

Applied linguistics refers to the study of language in relation to real-world issues. Language teaching is one branch of applied linguistics, but applied linguistics also sometimes includes such things as language and the law, language planning, and language in the media. Applied linguistics differs from other fields of language study that may have a descriptive or explanatory purposes but do not seek to resolve issues in education or society.

Corpus linguistics and CALL have been a part of applied linguistics for many years.  More recent issues in applied linguistics include World Englishes, the use of technology and the internet in language learning and teaching, translanguage language use as well as identity in language learning.

Principles of the Eclectic Approach

Question:

Tina, Ridgeway Campus UNZA, Zambia

What are the principles of the eclectic approach?

Dr. Richards responds:

The term “eclectic approach” refers to a teaching approach that is not based on a single method (e.g. task-based teaching, or CLIL) but that draws on several different method principles that are made use of in practice. It is a problem-based approach to teaching that is based on the following principles:

  • What particular problem do my learners encounter in mastering this aspect of language or language use?
  • What procedures can I make use of from available methods and approaches that could be used to address this problem?

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.