The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Teaching Speaking

Question:

Submitted by Yassin Elidrissi, Morocco

Some methodologists choose the following model to teach speaking: setting up, speaking practice, and feedback. Is this model conducive to a better mastery of the speaking skill?

Dr. Richards responds:

Yes, it is. Speaking activities can either have an accuracy focus or a fluency focus, or sometimes both. The “setting up” involves careful modeling, guided practice, leading to freer practice.

Reasons for Poor Speaking Skills

Question:

Submitted by Octavio Americo Blamssone, Universidade Pedagogica, Mozambique

What are the reasons for poor speaking skills among second language learners?

Dr. Richards responds:

There are many reasons that may account for difficulties learners sometimes have with mastering speaking skills. These could include:

  • Inadequate classroom conditions (too many students in a class)
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor quality teaching
  • Poor quality materials
  • Little opportunity provided to practice speaking
  • Personality factors (anxiety, shyness etc)

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.

Functional Communication vs. Social Interactional Activities

Question:

Submitted by Negar Ganji, Hermes institute & Azad University, Iran

What is the difference between “functional communication activities” and “social interactional activities”?

Dr. Richards responds:

A landmark publication in the literature of functional language use was Brown and Yule’s book Teaching The Spoken Language (1983), which made a distinction between interactional and transactional functions of language, the former concerned with maintaining social interaction and the later with carrying out real-world information-focused functions. Interactional uses of language including greetings, small talk, openings, closings and other uses of language that serve to maintain social contact.  Transactional functions of language may be of two kinds. One type refers to transactions that occur in situations where the focus is on giving and receiving information, and where the participants focus primarily on what is said or achieved (e.g., asking someone for directions or bargaining at a garage sale). The second type refers to transactions that involve obtaining goods or services, such as checking into a hotel or ordering food in a restaurant.  Activities that teach transactional functions can also be referred to as functional communication activities, whereas those that deal with social interaction are also called social interactional activities.

Psychological Barriers in Speaking English

Question:

Submitted by Fatima Zafar, AIOU Islamabad, Pakistan

What are the psychological barriers in speaking English as second language?

Dr. Richards responds:

An internet search should help you answer this question as well as the writings of Zoltán Dörnyei (Zoltán Dörnyei is a Professor of Psycholinguistics at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. He is renowned for his work on motivation in second-language learning and has published numerous books and papers on this topic.)

One important issue relates to affect. Affect refers to a number of emotional factors that may influence language learning and language use. These include basic personality traits, such as shyness, and long-term factors, such as attitudes towards learning, as well as constantly fluctuating states, such as anxiety, boredom, enthusiasm, apathy and so on. Emotions are often a feature of language classes. In some classes, one senses a feeling of positive interest and enthusiasm for learning. In others, there may be negative feelings of disinterest and boredom. And many classroom activities, such as tests, evoke stress and anxiety. Researchers such as Dörnyei are interested in how affective factors influence cognition or learning. And since language learning is primarily a social activity – it involves interaction with others – it is bound to arouse emotions, some of which may be obstacles to successful learning and teaching

Another factor that can affect students’ classroom participation, closely related both to learning styles and affective factors, is their willingness to attempt to use English in the classroom (also referred to as WTC) (MacIntyre, 2007; Peng and Woodrow, 2010). WTC is a factor that has been linked to variables such as personality, self-confidence, attitudes and motivation, and is linked to anxiety, as well as learners’ views of their own communicative competence. However, other situational factors are also involved, such as topic, task, group size and cultural background.

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

High-Intermediate in Six Months

Question:

Submitted by Ehsan Khorani, Ministry of Education, Iran

Is it possible to enable a typical false beginner to become a high-intermediate one in half a year?

Dr. Richards responds:

Mostly probably not, unless the learner is receiving full-time instruction with optimal teaching and learning conditions.

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).

The Purpose of Second Language Teaching

Question:

Submitted by Muhammad Jamil, Jubail, Saudi Arabia

  1. What is the purpose of second language teaching? (a) to enable students to be able to communicate in the target language (b) to prepare them to be achieve native like fluency?
  2. Is it practically viable to train second language learners like natives? If not then why is there so much stress on native-like fluency?

Dr. Richards responds:

In formulating language policy towards the teaching of English in a country, a variety of options are available to educational planners. For example, English could be positioned as the language of English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Australia and be linked to the cultures of those and other English-speaking countries. Another option would be to emphasize its role as an international language and as a means of communication with the world beyond a country’s borders. A different function for English would be to position it as a tool for providing access to information needed for technical, scientific and economic development within a country, i.e., as a form of economic capital. English is learned for many different reasons. It may be an essential tool for education and business for some learners; it may be the language of travel and related activities of sightseeing for others; and it may be needed for social survival and employment for new immigrants in English-speaking countries. For some, it may be a popular language for the media, entertainment, the internet and other forms of electronic communication. For many, however, it may merely be a language that they are obliged to study, but which they may never really have any obvious need for. So to answer you first question, the goals will depend on the context and will differ accordingly.

Regarding the second question, today it is no longer assumed that learners need master a so-called “native-speaker” variety of English. When it was taken for granted that the variety of English which learners needed to master was a native-speaker one, the choice was often determined by proximity. In Europe, due to its proximity to the United Kingdom, British English was usually the model presented in teaching materials. In many other parts of the world, North American English was normally the target. In some places (e.g. Indonesia), learners are more likely to encounter Australian English, and this may be the variety of English they feel most comfortable learning. However, in recent years, there has been a growing demand for North American English in places where British English was the traditional model, particularly among young people for whom American English is ‘cool’. It seems, perhaps, that it more closely resembles their ‘idea’ of English.

The two schools of thought concerning how closely learners should try to approximate native-speaker usage can be summarized as follows: The traditional view is that mastery of English means mastering a native-speaker variety of English. The presence of a foreign accent, influenced by the learner’s mother tongue, was considered a sign of incomplete learning. Teaching materials presented exclusively native-speaker models – usually spoken with a standard or prestige accent – as learning targets. The second school of thought is that when English is regarded as an international language, speakers may wish to preserve markers of their cultural identity through the way they speak English. In such cases, learners may regard a French, Italian, Russian or Spanish accent in their English as something valid – something they do not want to lose. This is a question of personal choice for learners, and teachers, therefore, should not assume that learners always want to master a native-speaker accent when they learn English. As one learner puts it, ‘I am Korean, so why should I try to sound like an American?’

Universal Grammar and Learning a Second Language

Question:

Submitted by Burree Sultan Ray, University of Sargodha, Pakistan

If there is such a thing as universal grammar, why is learning a second language more difficult than learning a first language?

Dr. Richards responds:

The notion of universal grammar is merely a theory advocated within a Chomskian framework of cognitive linguistics. It does not speak to the query you raise. There are many factors that account for differences between L1 and L2 learning and that account for the fact that the former is generally successful but not necessarily the latter, and there is no need for a theory of universal grammar as a reference point.

Such factors include:

  • Distance between the L1 and the L2
  • Intensity and amount of exposure and practice
  • Learning contexts, meaningfulness of use
  • Motivation, and differences in communicative needs