The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards


Dr. Richards discusses books on language teaching that he recommends…

ESOL: A Critical Guide

Melanie Cooke & James Simpson. Oxford University Press, 2008

This book is aimed at teachers working with immigrants in English dominant countries, particularly in the UK. The world of adult immigrants provides the context in which a number of the issues central to migrant education are discussed. Rather than a narrow focus on linguistic and pedagogic issues, the authors offer a compelling and insightful account of the complexity behind the lives and needs of adult migrants in global cities such as London. The assumptions and ideologies underlying conventional approaches to migrant education are reviewed and language learning is related to issues such as identity, power, and social inclusion. Throughout, vignettes and examples drawn from the authors’ experiences working with ESOL teachers and students in the UK are used to present the voices of those the authors write about.

A recurring theme in the book is the diversity of contexts in which ESOL courses are delivered. Classes are characterized by learners with different cultural and educational backgrounds, with diverse needs, goals, and attitudes towards language learning but often sharing a sense of marginalisation as a consequence of their status as refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Against this background the authors describe what it means to “teach” English. English teachers are not simply language teachers – they are also counselors, interpreters and providers of means of empowerment. ESOL teaching is hence political and poses challenges to an understanding of professional identity. ESOL teachers not only have to manage classes characterized by diversity and help learners cope with emotional stress and social needs, but also  meet the bureaucratic requirements of funded language programs.

The authors stress the need for a flexible approach to teaching. Rather than depend on a prescribed method they advocate “principled pragmatism” – the use of principles developed from language learning theory and the teaching context. Commercial textbooks often contain content unsuitable for use with migrant learners and examples are given of how textbooks can be supplemented by the use of student generated content. The teaching of oral communication skills needs to acknowledge the difficulties faced by low-level speakers of English in work and social settings and the effects that limited contacts with expert speakers of English has on their speaking and listening abilities. Classroom activities are illustrated that seek to provide learners with opportunities to take control of classroom discourse. Use of transcripts of authentic interactions are also suggested.

Discussion of the nature of literacy in adult ESOL learning makes the point that  literacy acquisition is not simply about learning the skills of reading and writing but should address the social practices associated with literacy, in other words, it should prepare students for the encounters they have with written texts in their daily lives, including those in the domain of electronic literacy. The final chapter deals with teacher professional development and compares the institutional view of professionalism – based on standards and institutional requirements – with personal professionalism that is based on a sense of professional vision. This comes about through critical reflection on teaching practices through observation, classroom research, exploratory teaching and action research.

ESOL: A Critical Guide is an outstanding book that is required reading for any teacher working with adult migrants or any teacher-in-training who plans to work in this context. It provides a useful account of how language teaching policies and practices have evolved in the UK as a result of changing migrant numbers and perceptions of what the goals of migrant language education should be. It illustrates the tensions between government policy makers and ESOL providers, the one stressing the need for English as a means of integration and national identity and to enable migrant to fill workplace needs -– the other often concerned with empowering adult migrants with the language resources they need to negotiate their lives in a new environment. But in addition it provides a powerful and thoughtful account of the experience of teaching adult migrant language learners – one that will challenge us to rethink many of the assumptions we have about teaching English to migrants.


Second Language Teacher Education: a Sociocultural Perspective

Karen E. Johnson. Routledge, 2009

Johnson describes this book as  a statement of the “core epistemological underpinnings” that shape her work in L2 teacher education, beliefs that have been shaped by a sociocultural perspective on teacher learning, one which she elucidates with great clarity and conviction in this short book. In the book she presents a case for re-orienting the field of L2 teacher education through adopting a sociocultural perspective on L2 teacher learning, language, L2 teaching, and L2 professional development.

She begins by contrasting a sociocultural perspective (i.e. one which “defines human learning as a dynamic social activity that is situated in physical and social contexts, and is distributed across persons, tools, and activities” p.9) with cognitive and positivist views of learning that situate learning as internal mental processes that can be understood without considering the social context and social dynamics of learning. She restates the case that she and others have made elsewhere, namely that in L2 teacher education the positivist paradigm has led to the separation of the knowledge-based of L2 teaching from teaching itself. Johnson argues that the sociocultural perspective shifts attention to the learning of L2 teaching, emphasizing the socially and situated nature of teaching and the social as well as cognitive processes that underpin it.

She illustrates these processes at work through citing several teacher-authored accounts of professional development. These demonstrate the power of narrative inquiry and are presented as examples of Vygotsky’s concept of “internalisation”, “the process through which a person’s activity is initially mediated by other people or cultural artefacts but later comes to be controlled by himself/herself as he or she appropriates and reconstructs resources to regulate his or her own activities”( p.18). Johnson suggests that internalization occurs through dialogic processes involving transformation, the zone of proximal development, strategic mediation, scaffolding, and concept development, and uses these concepts to reveal the cognitive and sociocultural processes that shape the teachers’ learning and understandings.

Johnson also argues that our understanding of the nature of language itself (and by implication, of second language acquisition), is also challenged by a sociocultural perspective. Rather than viewing language as a system of rule-governed and hierarchically ordered forms located in the mind of the individual speaker, a scoiocultural perspective on language centers on the concept of language as social practice, a view she associates with the work of Halliday and Gee.  Meaning is not found in the abstract systems of language but is located in the everyday activities that people engage in and is dependent upon the context of use (p.45). In L2 teacher education Johnson illustrates the use of activities in which classroom language is examined in order to understand how the contexts for its use and what is being accomplished through the activities associated with it, shapes its form and meaning.

Johnson stresses that she does not see a sociocultural perspective as offering a new “approach” to L2 teacher education nor as offering a new methodology for “doing” teacher education, but rather a different conceptualisation of the content and process of L2 teacher education. Not withstanding this disclaimer, however, the most interesting parts of the book for many readers will be the examples of how she and others apply this perspective in their teaching. She emphasizes that teacher education activities “must have at their core opportunities for dialogic mediation, scaffolded learning, and assisted performance as teachers participate in and learn about some relevant aspect of their teaching” (p.65), and illustrates this with an example of how she teaches the introductory ESL Methods course in the MATESOL program at her university. Another chapter in the book reviews inquiry-based approaches to L2 teacher education including critical friends groups, peer coaching, lesson study, cooperative development, and teacher study groups. However she suggests that  these approaches should be considered from a critical perspective, asking “to what extent does the collective sharing and collaborative analysis of teachers’ accounts of classroom experience actually foster productive teacher learning and improvements in teaching practice?” (p. 96).

In the final chapter of the book, Johnson poses a dilemma that a sociocultural perspective raises, namely, that it cannot be claimed to bring about better learning outcomes in second language learners. This might seem to undercut much of the argument that is made so eloquently throughout the book, since the goal of teacher education is ultimately to improve the quality of student achievement. Johnson however sees the relationship between teaching and learning not as one of causation, but rather, one of influence. It seeks to frame teaching and learning in terms of reasons rather than causes. Thus she states “ a major challenge for the future of L2 teacher education will be to uncover how teachers’ professional learning influences their teaching, and, in turn, how that teaching influences their students’ learning” (p.116).

Second Language Teacher Education: A Sociocultural Perspective provides a valuable map of the territory included in a sociocultural perspective on L2 teacher education. Karen Johnson’s work is renowned for the clarity with which she is able to explore concepts and issues from a literature that extends much beyond the boundaries of conventional TESOL and applied linguistics, and this book is no exception. It is the clearest and most convincing account to date of what “sociocultural” means in the context of L2 teacher education, and what the implications of this perspective are for the content and process of L2 teacher education.


Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom

Zoltan Dornyei. Cambridge University Press, 2001

The title of this outstanding book might lead one to expect that it deals mainly with techniques for  motivating reluctant language learners. In fact it is really much more than that, because it is a book about effective teaching strategies – strategies that apply to the teaching of any subject matter – and language teaching per se is only a relatively minor strand of the book. Donryei takes a broad view of motivation and examines it in relation to key aspects of teaching, including goal setting, use of tasks, the role of materials, group work, and error correction. He makes use of a useful four-part framework for discussing motivational strategies in teaching: creating the basic motivational conditions, generating initial motivation, maintaining and protecting motivation, and encouraging positive self-evaluation. Each section of the narrative is illustrated with extensive practical tips or strategies, many supported by research from the general educational literature as well as the author’s own teaching experience. Rather than suggesting teachers should work their way through the list of strategies, he sensibly recommends teachers review their own use of motivational strategies and try out new approaches based on a review of their current practices. To assist the teacher in this process the book concludes with an invaluable and extensive checklist reviewing all of the strategies presented throughout the book which the teacher can use to further explore his or her own use of motivational strategies.

This is an original, accessible, and stimulating book, written in a lively and engaging style and is essential reading for every ESOL teacher. It could be used as a companion text in a methodology course because it broadens one’s understanding of language teaching to focus on the essence of teaching itself, something we often lose sight of when we focus exclusively on the teaching of language.


How to Teach Listening

J.J.Wilson. Pearson, 2008

If you have room for only one book on teaching listening in your bookshelf, then this is the one. The latest title in the excellent “How to teach” series edited by Jeremy Harmer, the author offers a rich overview of approaches to the teaching of listening, maintaining a nice balance between theory and practice but with a primary emphasis on practical applications.  The key chapters for most teachers and teacher trainers will be those dealing with listening texts and strategies, listening sources and tasks, activities for pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening, and the chapter on preparation and planning. Wilson unpacks these topics in an accessible and lively way, without oversimplifying the complexity of the issues involved. The organization and style of the book, like others in the series, is very user-friendly, and each chapter contains a wide range of interesting and creative classroom suggestions. A particularly strong feature of the book is a file of activities that could be used for self-study or in a training course, together with an accompanying audio CD. I highly recommend this book, particularly for undergraduate or diploma-level courses.

Cambridge Grammar of English.

Ronald Carter & Michael McCarthy. Cambridge University Press, 2006

It is not often that a new comprehensive grammar of English is published, and when two scholars with the status of Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy publish such a book it is bound to be something special. And it certainly is. This magnificent new grammar, while over 900 pages long, has a number of features that make it stand out. Firstly, the information it contains about how English works is based on an extensive corpus of spoken and written English. The corpus provides a huge amount of new information about how English is actually spoken and written, and the authors have drawn on this extensively in their commentaries on the intricacies of English grammar. Secondly, throughout, typical learner errors are highlighted, making the book a valuable resource for teachers and students. Thirdly, an accompanying CD-ROM contains the whole book in a user-friendly searchable format, audio recordings of all examples in the book, and links to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. And lastly, the book is beautifully organized and very easy to use. Everyone involved in teaching or learning English or simply interested in learning more about the English language will find this an indispensable guide to English grammar and usage.


Michael Swan. Oxford University Press, 2005

This short book is one of the latest titles in the wonderful series Oxford Introductions to Language Study, edited by Henry Widdowson. Michael Swan is the well known author of many widely used grammar reference books and  course books (and has recently written an excellent critique of task- based language teaching, in the journal Applied Linguistics). In his latest book in 80 pages he provides a very readable but comprehensive survey of the nature of grammar, drawing on views of grammar found in linguistics, historical linguistics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, and other sources, and throws light on a wide range of fascinating issues that are central to our understanding of what grammar is and it’s role in language use. These include: “What, in fact, is grammar? Why does it get so complicated? What are different ways in which the world’s languages exploit it? How does it relate to other aspects of language, and to the outside world? How is it involved in language change? What are the implications of ‘grammatical correctness’ for education and society? What, if anything, do we know about how grammar is represented in the mind and stored in the brain?” Swan’s discussion of these issues is always insightful and fascinating, and demonstrates that there is nothing dull about the study of grammar. Like other titles in this series, the book contains a set of short readings by different scholars, a selection of annotated references, and a glossary of terms used throughout the book. Both experienced teachers and those new to the field will find this book a valuable overview of what grammar is and the role it plays in communication.

Ideas and Options in English For Specific Purposes

Helen Basturkmen. Routledge, 2006

This book is intended for graduate level TESOL courses and would also be invaluable for practitioners in the fields of ESP course design. It is a clearly written and very original overview of issues involved in designing and teaching ESP courses. Questions addressed include;” What types of ESP teaching are practiced? What are the alternatives in ESP course design and what ideas about language and learning are they based on? What different roles can ESP teaching play? What kinds of research are carried out into the communicative practices of professional, academic, and workplace groups? How are theories from second language acquisition (SLA) reflected in ESP? What links are there between the emergence of a sociopolitical awareness in education and ESP?” The wide scope of issues addressed in the book reminds us therefore that there is a lot more to ESP than needs analysis and case studies. Basturkmen demonstrates that ESP draws on a  variety of theoretical and research-based sources and it is the reference to theory throughout that distinguishes this book from other overviews of ESP. A special feature of the book is the wide range of examples it contains of ESP course and materials design from around the world, including English for Academic Purposes, English for Professional Purposes, and English for Vocational Purposes. I regard this book as a “must read” for anyone seriously interested in the teaching of English for Specific Purposes.

Applied Linguistics and Language Teacher Education

Nat Bartels (editor).  Springer, 2005

This book reminds us that the field of second language teacher education has come of age. It contains 21 papers by different scholars and researchers who seek to answer a fundamental question in second language teacher education, namely, how do teachers, particularly novice teachers, make use of the theoretical knowledge which forms much of the basis of their graduate TESOL courses? As anyone who has taught on or participated in a graduate TESOL course can attest, the relevance of the core knowledge base of our profession (e.g. second language acquisition, methodology, syntax, pragmatics, testing etc) is largely taken for granted. How such knowledge contributes to a teacher’s professional development has hardly been considered. This book therefore is a timely attempt to address this issue by providing a “state-of-the-art summary of research on knowledge acquisition and use which provides applied linguists with a solid base for developing their ideas about their students’ learning and use of the knowledge presented in their classes.” The contributors employ a range of quantitative and qualitative research methods to examine how different areas of content in a typical MA course, and understood and used by teachers, both during the course and after they graduate. The book will be of great interest to those who teach on graduate TESOL course, as well as those who are interested in learning more about the field of second language teacher education.

The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language

Adrian Holliday. Oxford University Press, 2005

This is one of the most interesting books I have read this year, and one which raises many challenging and at times, disturbing questions for TESOL professionals. It belongs to the school of “critical pedagogy”, since the author seeks to explore and question some of the hidden values, assumptions, and beliefs which provide the basis for many long accepted principles and practices in our profession. Central to these is the notion of “native-speakerism”, which leads many western-educated TESOL professions to unwittingly impose a culturally-biased set of beliefs and practices on their students. Holliday sees an element of struggle and confrontation when the western-dominated culture of TESOL interacts with other cultures. Holliday seeks to deconstruct the thinking and assumptions behind such notions as learner-centredness, learner autonomy, needs analysis, and communicative classroom practices and poses the question of what is a morally acceptable position to take as  TESOL professional when promoting the use of English as an international language. This beautifully written and highly original book should be required reading on graduate TESOL programs since it prompts a rethinking of many of our working assumptions and practices.

How To Teach Grammar

Scott Thornbury. Pearson Education, 1999

This is one of the most intelligent and useful books on teaching of grammar that I have read in a long time. (The fact that the author is a fellow expatriate New Zealander should not be considered a bias on my part!). While many regard the teaching of grammar as an issue that disappeared with Communicative Language Teaching, the practical realities are that any well planned language course has to give serious attention to the role of grammar and the way accuracy is dealt with. In this very well researched and highly readable book, Scott clears away a lot of the confusion concerning exactly what we mean by grammar, outlines a theory of grammar that is compatible with current linguistic theory as well as second language acquisition research, and then explores the various options available in teaching grammar. He gives sample lessons for a wide variety of approaches to the teaching of grammar and offers very creative suggestions for dealing with common questions related to grammar teaching. The suggestions are firmly grounded in sound classroom practice and cover a variety of teaching situations from elementary to advanced levels. This book will be invaluable as a resource book for classroom teachers, and will also be a core text on postgraduate TESOL programs.

Grammar for English Language Teachers

Martin Parrott. Cambridge University Press, 2000

Unlike Scott Thornbury’s book, which is a book on the methodology of teaching grammar, Parrott’s book is a reference book for teachers and teachers in training who need to know more about the nature of English grammar. Since English is the subject matter of TESOL, clearly an educated language teaching professional needs to have a clear understanding of how English works at the level of grammar, and this is one of the best books I have seen for this task. At 514 pages it is not a book you will carry to class, but is a must for the teacher to have on his/her desk or for the school library. The book sets out to help teachers develop their understanding of English grammar, provides an accessible reference for planning lessons and clarifying learner’s problems, and examines typical difficulties learners have with different areas of English grammar.

I think this is an outstanding teacher resource book on several counts:

  1. 1. it is very user friendly – extremely clear explanations and organization
  2. 2. well researched and accurate – Parrott clears away some common misconceptions about many aspects of grammar and present the results of recent research on grammar
  3. 3. it contains exercises to help consolidate the information it presents

This is clearly not a book designed to be read from cover to cover but to be consulted when needed. On the other hand for those with a shaky knowledge of grammar it constitutes an excellent self study course that can be completed on one’s own.

Teaching English as an International Language

Sandra McKay. Oxford University Press, 2002

We hear a lot about English as an “international” language these days, but what does the term mean? It refers to the fact that English today is no longer the property of the English speaking countries but is now a world commodity, used as the basis for international business, travel, media and cross cultural communications. The changed status of English raised many important issues in language teaching. What variety of English should we teach? Whose culture does English reflect? What do we mean by a native speaker? What teaching methods are appropriate in view of the changed status of English? In this relatively short (150 pages), well written, and extremely informed overview of the issues, Sandra Mackay explores these and other issues, gently criticizing many commonly held assumptions about the role of English and the privileged status English has in some parts of the world. Essentially Mackay is arguing that any approach to the teaching of English must be sensitive to the context in which it is being taught, the status of English in that context, and the local knowledge and values operating in the context.

Every English teacher will come away better informed about the nature of English teaching in a global context after reading this book.