The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Free Discussion Class

Question:

Submitted by Mahmoud Ali Ahmadi Pour, Kian Language Academy, Iran

  1. What are the characteristics of a good free discussion class?
  2. Is there a specific design for a free discussion class?
  3. What techniques can be applied to the free discussion class so that it helps improve the students English proficiency both in accuracy and fluency?

Dr. Richards responds:

Discussion skills may be important for students using English in school and academic settings, as well as for those using English for business communications. However ‘discussions’ have often been a substitute for a serious approach to the teaching of spoken English. An example of this is seen in the ‘so-called conversation’ classes that are often a feature of English programmes at both secondary and tertiary level in many countries. These are typically unfocused sessions organized around the topics of the day drawn from the media and other sources. While the goal is to find engaging content that will generate discussion such activities have little impact on the development of students’ oral skills. Poorly planned discussion activities allow stronger students to dominate, are unfocused and do not provide for systematic feedback. If discussion skills are to be taken seriously as an important component of a spoken English course, rather than as a filler-activity, their nature and features need to be addressed systematically.

A discussion is an interaction focusing on exchanging ideas about a topic and presenting points of view and opinions. Of course, people often ‘discuss’ topics in casual conversation, such as the weather or recent experiences, but discussions of that kind are often merely ‘chit-chat’ – a form of politeness and social interaction. They do not usually lead to ‘real’ discussions where more serious topics of interest and importance are talked about for an extended period of time, in order to arrive at a consensus about something, solve a problem or explore different sides of an issue. It is discussions of this kind that are the focus here, particularly those that take place in an educational or professional setting.

Skills involved in taking part in discussions include:

  • Giving opinions.
  • Presenting a point of view.
  • Supporting a point of view.
  • Taking a turn.
  • Sustaining a turn.
  • Listening to others’ opinions.
  • Agreeing and disagreeing with opinions.
  • Summarizing a position.

Approaches to teaching discussion skills centre on addressing the following issues

  • Choosing topics: Topics may be chosen by students or assigned by the teacher. Both options offer different possibilities for student involvement.
  • Forming groups: Small groups of four to five allow for more active participation, and care is needed to establish groups of compatible participants. For some tasks, roles may be assigned (e.g. group leader, note-taker, observer).
  • Preparing for discussions: Before groups are assigned a task, it may be necessary to review background knowledge, assign information-gathering tasks (e.g. watching a video) and teach some of the specific ways students can present a viewpoint, interrupt, disagree politely, etc.
  • Giving guidelines: The parameters for the discussion should be clear so that students are clear how long the discussion will last, what the expected outcomes
  • Evaluating discussions: Both the teacher and the students can be involved in reflection on discussions. The teacher may want to focus on the amount and quality of input from participants and give suggestions for improvement. Some review of language used may be useful at this point. Students may comment on their own performance and difficulties they experienced and give suggestions for future discussions.

Speaking Skills for Specific Purposes

Question:

Submitted by Surya Vellanki, Nizwa College of Technology, Oman

What methods are generally used in teaching speaking skills to English for specific purposes (ESP) business students?

Dr. Richards responds:

It will depend on the level of the students and their particular needs. A needs analysis would be the starting point to determine the kinds of speaking skills they need to develop, depending on their work contexts. Then tasks should be developed that focus on the kinds of speaking performance they need to master. No matter what methodology is chosen (content based, competency based, task based), students will need to be able to handle authentic spoken exchanges relevant to their working contexts. There are many useful sources on the internet that provide models and examples of different kinds of transactions that occur in business contexts.

Negotiation of Meaning

Question:

Submitted by Zhila Kamrani, Shiraz, Iran

How does negotiation of meaning facilitate learning?

Dr. Richards responds:

Negotiation of meaning refers to meaning that is arrived at through the collaboration of both people involved. This negotiation may take several forms:

  • The meaning may be realized through several exchanges, or turns, rather than in a single exchange.
  • One speaker may expand on what the other has said.
  • One speaker may provide words or expressions the other needs.
  • One person may ask questions to clarify what the other has said.

Interactions of this kind are believed to facilitate language acquisition, evidence for which may be seen both in short term as well as longer-term improvements in grammatical accuracy

Approach, Principles, Method & Technique

Question:

Submitted by Naseer, Afghanistan

What is the differences between approach, principles, method and technique?

Dr. Richards responds:

  • Approach: the theoretical framework that supports an instructional design
  • Principles: Guiding statements and beliefs based on the approach
  • Method: a teaching design based on a particular approach
  • Techniques: teaching procedures that are employed with a particular method

Technology Enhanced Language Learning

Question:

Submitted by Mahmoud Ali Ahmadi Pour, Kian Language Institute, Iran

As it is clear, using technology in language classrooms is trending these days. I would like ask you to kindly guide us on how to use TELL (Technology Enhanced Language Learning) activities in classrooms, so that we make the most benefit of them.

Dr. Richards responds:

It would take a whole book to answer this question. Please see the chapter on technology in my book Key Issues in Language Teaching (Cambridge 2015).

Best Use of Teaching Materials

Question:

Submitted by Jean Marie Vianney, Rwanda

How can the teacher best make use of teaching materials while delivering his/her lesson?

Dr. Richards responds:

If you are referring to textbooks, it’s important to remember that a textbook is intended as a support for teaching and should not dictate the way you teach. You can regard it as a springboard, from which you can add or develop follow up activities of your own that best reflect the needs of your learners. Remember it is the teacher that teaches, not the textbook or materials. You should look for ways of adapting the book, customizing it to fit your teaching context.

Encouraging Students

Question:

Submitted by Mohammad Javad Zare, Iran

How can I encourage students who have very little spoken, English, to develop their communication skills?

Dr. Richards responds:

In this case I would suggest the use of worksheets with a topic on each sheet and a set of 10- 15 simple questions on the topic (e.g. sport, music, hobbies etc.) First guide them through the questions and suggest possible answers or elicit answers form the class. They can practice in pairs. Encourage them to be creative in their answers. As they develop more confidence you can encourage them to ask follow up questions related to each question. Remember to first model the kind of answers you think they can manage, gradually removing teacher support as they develop their skills. They can also add their own questions to the list of questions you provide.

Autonomous Learner

Question:

Submitted by Urip, Indonesia

What is meant by an autonomous learner?

Dr. Richards responds:

Learner autonomy refers to the principle that learners should take an increasing amount of responsibility for what they learn and how they learn it. Autonomous learning is said to make learning more personal and focused and, consequently, is said to achieve better learning outcomes, since learning is based on learners’ needs and preferences. It contrasts with the traditional teacher-led approach in which most decisions are made by the teacher. There are five principles for achieving autonomous learning:

  1. Active involvement in student learning.
  2. Providing options and resources.
  3. Offering choices and decision-making opportunities.
  4. Supporting learners.
  5. Encouraging reflection.

In classes that encourage autonomous learning:

  • The teacher becomes less of an instructor and more of a facilitator.
  • Students are discouraged from relying on the teacher as the main source of knowledge.
  • Students’ capacity to learn for themselves is encouraged.
  • Students’ awareness of their own learning styles is encouraged.
  • Students are encouraged to develop their own learning strategies.

An example of the application of the principles of learner autonomy is the Council of Europe’s European Language Portfolio, which is intended to help support autonomous learning on a wide scale. The ELP has three components: a language passport, which summarizes the owner’s linguistic identity; a language biography, which provides for a reflective account of the learner’s experience in learning and using the foreign language; and a dossier, in which the learner collects evidence of his or her developing proficiency in the language. The ELP involves regular goal setting and self- assessment.

For many teachers, learner autonomy is an important facet of their teaching, which they seek to realize in a number of different ways – for example, through careful analysis of their learners’ needs, through introducing and modelling strategies for independent learning, through giving learners techniques they can use to monitor their own learning, through regular consultation with students to help learners plan for their own learning and through the use of a self-access centre where a variety of self-directed learning resources are available.

Teaching absolute beginners

Question:

Submitted by N. Kazemi, Iran

How should we start teaching English to absolute beginners who neither know even a single word in English nor have any literacy skills even in terms of recognizing the English alphabet?

Professor Richards Responds:

It will be necessary to start with vocabulary recognition, phonics, and then to build up a core recognition and productive vocabulary, using pictures and translation.  Production should be very limited initially until these core requirements have been met.

Objective of Teaching English to 7-10 year olds

Question:

Submitted by Adriana Patrus, Brazil

I teach English to primary schoolchildren in Brazil. The classes are monolingual and they range from 22 to 30 students. They speak Portuguese the whole time except for a few minutes of repetition, drilling, singing and an occasional speaking activity. They have been able to master quite a range of vocabulary but no attempt to speak it yet. Should we feel frustrated that they don’t try to speak the odd words they learn in the monolingual classroom? What should be ultimately the primary objective of teaching English to 7-10 year olds?

Professor Richards Responds:

Yes I think frustration would be an approriate response.  I suggest use more activities that require production of simple phrases and words that they have learned, such as games and simple dialogs. The following are examples of goals for courses for young learners:

  • To develop a set of core vocabulary and expressions for use in simple conversation
  • To build confidence
  • To provide the motivation to learn English
  • To encourage ownership of language
  • To encourage children to communicate with whatever language they have at their disposal (mime, gesture, key word, drawings, etc.)
  • To encourage children to treat English as a communication tool, not as an end product
  • To show children that English is fun
  • To establish a trusting relationship with children and encourage them to do the same with their classmates
  • To give children an experience of a wide range of English language in a non-threatening environment

Bottom-up, Top-down or Interactive Processing

Question:

Submitted by Hannah, Korea

I wonder if the activity below makes use of to bottom-up processing,  top-down processing or Interactive processing.

Task: Read a sentence and then listen to a sentence on tape to decide if the meaning is the same or different.

Professor Richards Responds:

In order to complete this task the listener has to hold the spoken sentence in short term memory, decode its meaning, and then compare the result with his or her understanding of the written text. The extent of bottom-up or top-down processing involved will depend on the contents of the sentence, since it may or may not draw on background knowledge or culturally specific schemata. No interactive processing is involved if we use this term to refer to interaction with a speaker.

Using CLT during short lessons

Question:

Submitted by SM Hosseini, Iran

We have only a session (75 minutes) in a week to teach English in junior schools and are asked to use CLT as the approach? What is your view?

Professor Richards Responds:

It is not possible to learn a language with only 75 minutes a week of classroom input. Under those circumstances very specific and restricted targets should be established, in terms of what is reasonable to expect in terms of vocabulary acquisition, reading, and so on. CLT is a general approach that is based on the principle that one learns a language through communication and that classroom activities should involve interaction and communication through English. However a reasonable level of proficiency is needed before this is possible so it would be unrealistic to expect CLT principles to be very effective in these circumstances. Perhaps reading ability would be a more realistic goal.

Non-native English speaking teachers in the ESL/EFL classroom

Question:

Submitted by Arwa Abdelhamid, The United Arab Emirates

What are some positive elements of language teaching and learning that a non-native English speaking teacher can bring to the ESL/EFL classroom?

Professor Richards Responds:

His or her understanding of the cultural and linguistic background of the learners will be very useful, as well as his or her experience as a second or foreign language learner.

How important is the teacher’s book in teaching?

Question:

Submitted by Jamal Zakeri, Iran

How important is the teacher’s book in teaching?

Professor Richards Responds:

A good teacher’s book lays out the basic principles of the coursebook and the recommended procedures for using the book. As such is it a guide for teachers, particulalry novice teachers who may have little teacher training or classroom experience.  It is like the instruction manual that comes with a new car. Once you are familiar with the car you won’t need to consult the manual very often. However with a course book the situation is a little different, since books are used in many different contexts and the information in the teacher’s book is likely to be very general and may need to be adapted to match the specific school context. It should be regarded as a springboard  to support creative teaching rather than a straight-jacket.

What are the stages of a speaking lesson?

Question:

Submitted by Tourya Saada, Morocco

What are the stages of a speaking lesson?

Professor Richards Responds:

It depends of what kind of speaking activity it is and what the demands are of that activity. For example in their Book Teaching Speaking, Goh and Burns recommend a seven-stage cycle of activities in a speaking lesson:

    1.     Focus learnersattention on speaking: Students think about a speaking activity, what it involves and what they can anticipate.

    2.     Provide input and/or guide planning: This may involve pre-teaching vocabulary, expressions or discourse features and planning for an activity they will carry out in class (e.g. a presentation or a transaction).

    3.     Conduct speaking task: Students practise a communicative speaking task with a focus on fluency.

    4.     Focus on language/skills/strategies: Students examine their performance or look at other performances of the task, as well as transcripts of how the task can be carried out, and review different features of the task.

    5.     Repeat speaking task: The activity is performed a second time.

    6.     Direct learnersreflection on learning: Students review and reflect on what they have learned and difficulties they encountered.

    7.     Facilitate feedback on learning: Teacher provides feedback on their performance.

Specific Method or Eclectic Approach

Question:

Submitted by Hanene Turqui, Algeria

Should a teacher to implement a specific method or adopt a more eclectic approach?

Professor Richards Responds:

Many different approaches and methods have been adopted at different times in language teaching. Perhaps the quest for more effective methods in language teaching reflects the fact that large-scale language programmes seldom meet the expectations of learners, employers and educational planners. Hence new language teaching proposals typically claim to be more effective than the ones they replace. However the adoption of new curriculum innovations in teaching is dependent upon a number of factors. These include:

  • the extent to which an approach or method is officially adopted by educational authorities and educational organizations,
  • the support it receives by authority figures or experts, such as academics and educational specialists,
  • the extent to which it can provide the basis for educational resources, such as textbooks and educational software,
  • the ease with which it can be understood and used by teachers;
  • and the extent to which it aligns with national curriculum and assessment guidelines.

During their initial teacher training, teachers are often introduced to different teaching methods and approaches. It is sometimes suggested that they should pick and choose, or blend different methods, when they start teaching. In fact, method decisions are often made for them. If they teach in a private institute and are teaching courses in general English, it is likely that they will teach from a commercial textbook series based on the communicative approach. If they are teaching English for specific purposes (ESP) or English for academic purposes (EAP), they may find that the course is organized around skills, text types or project work – in which case, they will need to learn how to teach within the chosen framework. If they are preparing students for content classes taught in English, a content-based approach is likely to be recommended. And if they teach a course in a particular skill area, such as a reading course or a conversation course, they will need to familiarize themselves with the approaches and methods that are typically used in these types of courses.

Despite the differences in how course designers, materials’ writers and teachers approach how they plan and organize their teaching, once lessons begin, plans are transformed through the interactions between teachers and students during the lesson . Through these processes, teachers create lessons that are right for the moment, but which might not be right for the next lesson they teach. Allwright stated this forcefully many years ago when he wrote (1988: 51):

The method probably doesn’t matter very much … but what happens in the classroom still must matter. All the research so far has involved the implicit assumption that what is really happening in the classroom is simply that some particular method or technique is being used, and that more or less efficient learning might be taking place accordingly. It is however clear that much more is happening. People are interacting in a multiplicity of complex ways … We need studies of what actually happens – not of what recognisable teaching methods, strategies or techniques are employed by the teacher, but of what really happens between teacher and class.

In addition, teaching is ‘situated’; that is, it reflects the contexts in which it occurs, and, for this reason, there can be no ‘best method’ of teaching. Dogancay-Aktuna and Hardman (2012: 113) thus conclude:

One cannot identify a ‘best practice’, even for a given context. The situatedness of language teaching involves not just the matching of particular pedagogies with particular settings, but seeing good pedagogy as emergent from those settings.

The next chapter will examine the knowledge and skills teachers need to develop, in order both to match appropriate approaches to their settings and to reflect on and refine their pedagogy as they teach.

  • Allwright, D. (1988) Observation in the Language Classroom, London: Longman.
  • Dogancay, Aktuna, S. and_Hardman, J.(_2012_).‘Teacher_education for EIL:_ Working toward a situated meta-praxis’. In A. Matsuda (ed.) Principles and Practices of Teaching English as an International Language, Bristol: Multilingual Matters, pp. 103–118.

Drills in Language Teaching

Question:

Submitted by Sopich Pin, Cambodia

Do drills still have a place in language teaching today?

Professor Richards Responds:

It is useful to distinguish between three different kinds of practice in teaching – mechanical, meaningful, and communicative.

Mechanical practice refers to a controlled practice activity which students can successfully carry out without necessarily understanding the language they are using. Examples of this kind of activity would be repetition drills and substitution drills designed to practice use of particular grammatical or other items. Activities of this kind are of limited value in developing communicative language use.

Meaningful practice refers to an activity where language control is still provided but where students are required to make meaningful choices when carrying out practice. For example, in order to practice the use of prepositions to describe locations of places, students might be given a street map with various buildings identified in different locations. They are also given a list of prepositions such as across from, on the corner of, near, on, next to. They then have to answer questions such as “Where is the book shop? Where is the café?” Etc. The practice is now meaningful because they have to respond according to the location of places on the map.

Communicative practice refers to activities where practice in using language within a real communicative context is the focus, where real information is exchanged, and where the language used is not totally predictable. For example students might have to draw a map of their neighborhood and answer questions about the location of different places in their neighborhood, such as the nearest bus stop, the nearest café, etc.

Exercise sequences in many communicative course book take students from mechanical, to meaningful to communicative practice but give priority to meaningful and communicative practice.

What is CBLT?

Question:

Submitted by Luc Danon from Cote D’ivoire

What is CBLT? What are its didactic implications?

Dr Richards responds:

Competency-based instruction is an approach to the planning and delivery of courses that has been in widespread use since the 1970s. What characterizes a competency-based approach is the focus on the outcomes of learning, as the driving force of teaching and the curriculum. The application of its principles to language teaching is called competency-based language teaching. Because this approach seeks to teach the skills needed to perform real-world tasks, it became widely used, from the 1980s, as the basis for many English language programmes for immigrants and refugees, as well as for work-related courses of many different kinds. It is an approach that has been the foundation for the design of work-related and survival-oriented language teaching programmes for adults. It seeks to teach students the basic skills they need in order to prepare them for situations they commonly encounter in everyday life. Recently, competency-based frameworks have become adopted in many countries, particularly for vocational and technical education. They are also increasingly being adopted in national language curriculums.

CBLT is often used in programmes that focus on learners with very specific language needs. In such cases, rather than seeking to teach general English, the specific language skills needed to function in a specific context is the focus. This is similar, then, to an ESP approach. There, too, the starting point in course planning is an identification of the tasks the learner will need to carry out within a specific setting and the language demands of those tasks. (The Common European Framework of Reference also describes learning outcomes in terms of competencies). The competencies needed for successful task performance are then identified, and used as the basis for course planning. Teaching methods used may vary, but typically are skill-based, since the focus is on developing the ability to use language to carry out real-world activities.

How should I manage a discussion class?

Question:

Submitted by Nafas from Iran

How should I manage a discussion class, in an intermediate level?

Dr Richards responds:

Approaches to teaching discussion skills centre on addressing the following issues :

Choosing topics: Topics may be chosen by students or assigned by the teacher. Both options offer different possibilities for student involvement.
• Forming groups: Small groups of four to five allow for more active participation, and care is needed to establish groups of compatible participants. For some tasks, roles may be assigned (e.g. group leader, note-taker, observer).
Preparing for discussions: Before groups are assigned a task, it may be necessary to review background knowledge, assign information-gathering tasks (e.g. watching a video) and teach some of the specific ways students can present a viewpoint, interrupt, disagree politely, etc.
Giving guidelines: The parameters for the discussion should be clear so that students are clear how long the discussion will last, what the expected outcomes are, roles of participants, expectations for student input and acceptable styles of interaction.
Evaluating discussions: Both the teacher and the students can be involved in reflection on discussions. The teacher may want to focus on the amount and quality of input from participants and give suggestions for improvement. Some review of language used may be useful at this point. Students may comment on their own performance and difficulties they experienced and give suggestions for future discussions.

How can you define strategy instruction?

Question:

Submitted by Nadjet Khenioui from Algeria

How can you define strategy instruction? And in what ways is it beneficial for university students?

Dr Richards responds:

Language learning strategies can be defined as thoughts and actions, consciously selected by learners, to assist them in learning and using language in general, and in the completion of specific language tasks. However, learning strategies have a broader role in language learning and suggest an active role for learners in managing their own learning – one that may be used in conjunction with, or independently from, the method or approach the teacher is using.

The relevance of strategy theory to teaching is that some strategies are likely to be more effective than others, and by recognizing the differences between the strategies used by expert and novice language learners or between successful and less successful learners, the effectiveness of teaching and learning can be improved. Methods and approaches implicitly or explicitly require the use of specific learning strategies; however, the focus of much strategy research is on self-managed strategies that may be independent of those favored by a particular method. In order to give learners a better understanding of the nature of strategies and to help them develop effective strategy use, four issues need to be addressed:

1. Raising awareness of the strategies learners are already using

2. Presenting and modelling strategies so that learners become increasingly aware of their own thinking and learning processes

3. Providing multiple practice opportunities to help learners move toward autonomous use of the strategies through gradual withdrawal of teacher scaffolding, and

4. Getting learners to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies used and any efforts that they have made to transfer these strategies to new tasks.

In teaching strategies both direct and indirect strategies are used. With a direct approach, strategy training is a feature of a normal language lesson and a training session includes five stages: preparation, presentation, practice, evaluation, and expansion.

The notion of strategies is relevant to learners at all levels.