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.

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.

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.

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.

Methods and Techniques for Young Learners

Question:

Submitted by David Chacha, Tanzania

Can you suggest methods and techniques for young learners?

Dr. Richards responds:

A number of principles can inform the following approaches to teaching young learners.

  1. Build teaching around activities and physical movement.
    Link language learning to physical activities by having children use and hear English for making things, drawing pictures, completing puzzles, labelling pictures, matching words and pictures, playing games, acting out movements in response to instructions and other activities that involve hands, eyes and ears. Teachers often make use of TPR activities (activities based on linking language with actions, drawing on the method known as total physical response). Many listening activities for young children use this principle, such as activities in which children listen and respond to commands (e.g. ‘sit down’, ‘turn around’, ‘touch your nose’), listen and choose a picture, listen and draw a picture or listen and number a sequence of actions in a picture. Similarly, speaking activities with young learners may involve use of songs, dialogues, chants and fixed expressions that students can practise in different situations.
  1. Build lessons around linked activities.
    Since young learners have limited attention spans, it is important to include several short activities in a lesson and to move quickly from one activity to another. Activities of five to ten minutes in length are most successful. A balance between the following kinds of activities is often useful:
  • Quiet / noisy activities.
  • Different skills: listening, talking, reading / writing.
  • Individual work / pair work / group work / whole-class activities.
  • Teacher–pupil / pupil–pupil activities.
  1. Build lessons around tasks.
    A task is a meaning-focused activity that requires learners to draw on and use their existing linguistic resources to complete a task, such as drawing a picture from oral instructions, or working in pairs or groups and sequencing a series of pictures to complete a story. The key features of classroom tasks for young language learners are:
  • They have coherence and unity for learners (from topic, activity and/or outcome).
  • They have meaning and purpose for learners.
  • They have clear language-learning goals.
  • They involve the learner actively.
  1. Provide scaffolding.
    Scaffolding refers to how a child learns through collaboration with a more knowledgeable partner (a parent, a classmate, a teacher). When children work collaboratively on tasks (such as sequencing pictures in a story, completing a puzzle or completing an information-gap task), more proficient learners can often provide the scaffolding less proficient learners need.
  1. Involve students in creating resources that support their learning.
    Learners can draw pictures of the characters they hear in a story or create puppets to help retell a story. They can colour pictures of items and characters from stories. They can find pictures in magazines, related to a theme or topic in a lesson, and bring them to class. In my Quebec primary classes mentioned earlier, we did not use a textbook. The children created their own coursebook, as the course developed, using the resources that formed the basis of the course.
  1. Build lessons around themes.
    Lessons can be built around topics or themes, such as animals, friends, food or family, for very young learners; and for older learners, themes can be drawn from subjects in their other classes and the community, such as transport, country life, travel and famous people. Theme-based lessons provide continuity across activities and enable English learning to be connected to the children’s lives.
  1. Choose content children are familiar with.
    Teaching can also be built around familiar content from the children’s culture, such as stories and events (e.g. national holidays or cultural practices). Since the learners will be familiar with talking about these topics in their native language, it will be easier for them to connect with how they can talk about them in English.
  1. Use activities that involve collaboration.
    Children enjoy socializing with other children, and activities that work best with young learners are those in which children are working with others in pairs or groups, rather than remaining in their seats, listening to the teacher. Activities that involve collaboration require careful preparation to ensure that children have the words and expressions they need in order to carry out an activity.
  1. Create a supportive learning community in the classroom.
    A class of young learners needs to become a community of learners – that is, a group of learners with shared goals, needs and concerns. Thinking of a class as a community means seeing it as a place where each child in the class cooperates and collaborates to achieve the class’s common goals. This leads to more productive learning. Children who interact and collaborate with other learners develop a more positive attitude towards learning and a greater sense of self-confidence than those in other learning arrangements.
  1. Use enjoyable activities that children can accomplish without frustration.
    Young learners enjoy taking part in activities that they can successfully achieve, but which also offer some kind of challenge. Activities of this kind depend on the teacher providing language input and modelling for young language learners, where the teacher and the materials are the primary source of language.
  1. Provide rich language support.
    Since the learners will have little knowledge of English to call upon, they need careful language support for learning activities. Success will depend on the teacher providing language models, demonstrating the way the activities can be carried out in English and providing the language support an activity depends upon.
  1. Give clear goals and feedback.
    Children like to be successful at things they do in class. In order to achieve this, it is important to set clear goals for children and to let them know when they have been successful, or if not, why not. Praise for success is very important for young learners, for example, by using stars, stickers, points or smiley faces.
  1. Use English for classroom management.
    Use English for instructions, for routines such as forming groups, for introducing activities, for giving feedback and for other teaching processes.
  1. Use the mother tongue when needed.
    While the goal of teaching young learners is to use as much English in class as possible, when teaching homogeneous classes, it is quite appropriate to use the mother tongue when necessary to explain the meaning of words and expressions and to help explain activities. Occasional use of the mother tongue provides a comfort zone for young learners, though the teacher and students should not become over-dependent on it.
  1. Bring speakers of English to class.
    Where possible, it is useful to invite speakers of English to class to meet the learners. These could be children from an international school or older children who are now quite advanced in English. They can ask and answer simple questions, take part in a role play and do other activities that will interest and motivate the learners.

 

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)

Improvisation in Teaching

Question:

Submitted by Carlos, Tanzania

What are your views on improvisation in teaching?

Dr. Richards responds:

When one observes experienced teachers in their classrooms, one is struck by their apparent effortless management of the different dimensions of lessons. They may not need to refer to a lesson plan, because they are able to create effective lessons through monitoring their learners’ response to teaching activities and can create learning opportunities around important teaching moments. Their teaching can be viewed as a kind of skilled improvisation. Over time, experience leads to the development of routines that enable classroom activities to be performed fluently, automatically and with little conscious thought and attention, enabling the teacher to focus on other dimensions of the lesson . Experienced teachers engage in sophisticated processes of observation, reflection and assessment, and make ‘online’ decisions about which course of action to take from a range of alternatives that are available. These interactive decisions often prompt teachers to change course during a lesson, based on critical incidents and other unanticipated aspects of the lesson. For example, the principles which prompt teachers’ improvisations could includes:

  1.  Serving the common good: Change focus to a problem that many learners experienced in the class.
  2. Teach to the moment: React to immediate opportunities that arise during lessons.
  3. Furthering the lesson: Move the lesson on when possibilities are exhausted.
  4. Accommodating different individual learning styles: Improvise with different teaching strategies.
  5. Promoting student involvement: Allow space for students to participate.
  6. Distribute the wealth: Stop particular students from dominating the class, and 
encourage other students to take turns.

As teachers accumulate experience and knowledge, there is, therefore, a move towards a degree of flexibility in teaching and the development of the ability to improvise.

When the Teacher Doesn’t Know the Answer

Question:

Submitted by Elham, Bushehr, Iran

How do you respond when someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer? Should a teacher say he or she doesn’t know the answer?

Dr. Richards responds:

I suggest where they can look to find the answer. Teachers are not walking encyclopedias. You should be frank and say, “I’m not sure of the answer to your question but let me check and get back to you on that one.” Students appreciate teachers who are honest and who accept that they still have things to learn.

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.

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.

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

Effective Teaching Materials

Question:

Submitted by Sokun Chea, National Institute of Education, Cambodia

What are the qualities of effective teaching materials?

Dr. Richards responds:

Effective materials do many of the things a teacher would normally do as part of his or her teaching.

These include:

  • Arouse the learners’ interest.
  • 
Remind them of earlier learning.
  • Tell them what they will be learning next.
  • Explain new learning content to them.
  • Set clear learning targets.
  • Provide them with strategies to use in learning.
  • Provide opportunities for meaningful practice.