The official website of educator Jack C Richards

Assessing Writing Skills


Submitted by Naima SAHLI from Algeria

How can a teacher assess learners’ writing skills?

Dr Richards responds:

Hughes (2003: 83) suggests that assessing writing involves three issues:
1. Writing tasks should be set that are properly representative of the range of tasks we would expect students to be able to perform.
2. The tasks should elicit writing that is truly representative of the students’ writing ability.
3. The samples of writing can be appropriately scored.

Many different writing tasks can be used to elicit examples of students’ writing ability. The length of text that students produce should be specified. For example:

• Writing a letter.
• Writing a description of something from a diagram or picture.
• Writing a summary of text.
• Writing on a topic to a specified length in words or paragraphs.
• Completing a partially written text.
• Writing a paragraph using a given topic sentence.
• Completing a paragraph.
• Writing a criticism or a response to a piece of writing.
• Writing a story, based on an outline provided.

Hughes emphasizes that a valid writing test should test only writing ability and not other skills, such as reading skills or creative ability. A test that contains a variety of writing tasks gives a more representative picture of a student’s writing ability than one that contains only one writing task. The most difficult part of producing a writing test, however, is developing the scoring procedures that will be used with the test. Many tests make use of an analytic scoring procedure; that is, a score is given for different aspects of a piece of writing, such as grammar, content and organization. Other tests make use of a holistic scoring method, where a single score is assigned to writing samples, based on an overall impressionistic assessment of the student’s performance on the test. Electronic support for scoring is also available with automated essay scoring (see and; last accessed 9 April 2013).

Portfolio assessment
Many writing teachers make use of portfolios for the assessment of student writing. A portfolio is a collection of students’ writing, assembled over time. It usually contains examples of the students’ best work and provides a collection of writing samples, rather than a single piece of work. It may also include a written reflection by the student on his or her progress in writing, as well as a self-assessment of his or her strengths and weaknesses in writing. The portfolio is used as the basis for a final grade.

Reference. Hughes. A. 2003. Testing for Language teachers.2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Do textbooks ‘enslave’ teachers?


Submitted by Radia Kherbouche,  Algeria

What is the relation between teachers autonomy and the use of textbooks in english classes? Do textbooks ‘ enslave’ teachers?

Dr Richards responds:

It really depends on both the book and the teacher. An expert and competent teacher uses the textbook as a resource, and adapts and modifies it to suit his or her teaching context. A teacher who is over-reliant on the textbook is doing little more than presenting the material in the book rather than using the book as a springboard for creative teaching. Teachers with little training and with limited English, however, may be more dependent on the book since it may serve to compensate for their limited level of training as well as their low level of English language proficiency.

Task-based teaching in primary school


Submitted by Danfer,  China

Can task-based teaching be used in primary school?

Dr Richards responds:

Young learners are more likely to learn through the experience of using the language rather than through studying rules and practising them. This means that their learning will be based on activities and using language that is linked to behavior, actions and the classroom context. They learn language as it occurs as a part of doing things. Young learners enjoy learning socially useful language, including phrases and longer utterances without understanding exactly what they mean. They learn language in chunks or whole phrases and may have little interest in knowing how the phrases were constructed and what their grammatical components were. Tasks are one kind of activity that can be used successfully with young learners, but many other kinds of activities will also be useful (songs, games, skits and play-related activities). Activities are needed that are engaging and purposeful and the teacher finds ways of linking language to activities. Tasks such as drawing a picture from oral instructions or working in pairs or groups and sequencing a series of pictures to complete a story are effective with young learners. For example if 9-year-old pupils carry out a survey on the color of eyes and hair among children in their class (and their parents), the language point could centre on have/has:

Ten children have brown eyes.

How many children have green eyes?

Here, the activity-based approach offers the opportunity for children to work on a practical task, and succeed at their own level, incorporating their own abilities and experiences. The results, created by the children, of this practical task can be used as the context within which language practice can take place. This contrasts strongly with language-based starting points, such as This is a pencil. Is the pencil green or red?


Mother tongue use in the classroom


Submitted by Diani Nurhajati,  Indonesia

In Indonesia English is now introduced  at elementary school but elementary school students rarely use the language outside the class. Do you think teachers should use both English and Indonesian to communicate with the children during the teaching-learning process?

Dr Richards responds:

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.

Giving Verbal Feedback


Submitted by Mehdi Mahdiyan, Iran

I have been teaching English for ten years. In my classes, I often notice while giving the students verbal feedback in guided speaking tasks, they don’t react positively. I think they don’t want to be corrected by me. However, when I use their mother tongue (Persian) for giving feedback, they react less negatively. Can you comment?

Dr Richards responds:

Two issues are relevant here. One is anxiety and the other is willingness to communicate.
Anxiety is a product of many language learning and language using situations and has an obvious impact on learners’ learning/and or production of a second language (Horwitz 2010) and on their response to feedback. For example when a learner tries to use English or makes errors and is corrected, issues of face are involved: How will I appear to others? Will I come across as awkward? What will they think of my English?

In lessons the learner may also be concerned about his or her understanding of how the class functions, how typical classroom tasks such as group work, unfold, what his or her role should be in the class, and whether he or she has correctly understood the teachers’ intentions. And when the learner has to answer a question or perform an activity in front of the class he or she may be worried about how well he or she may respond. Will I do it correctly? Can I give the correct answer? Anxiety can thus influence how willing a learner is to use his or her English, to take risks, or to speak up in class. Anxiety is thus a factor that can affect a learner’s willingness to use English both inside the classroom and outside it and how the learner responds to feedback. Use of the mother tongue may lower the anxiety level.

In teaching English it is therefore important to consider the emotional demands that learning a language involves – both during in class and out of class occasions – and to help students develop the emotional skills needed to use English in both these situation.

Another issue that can affect students’ classroom participation is their willingness to attempt to use English in the classroom (MacIntyre 2007: Peng and Woodrow 2010), 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.

“ …learners who have higher perceptions of their communication competence and experience a lower level of communication anxiety tend to be more willing to initiate communication”(Peng and Woodrow 2010, 836). However other situational factors are also involved, such as topic, task, group size, and cultural background. For example in some cultures, students may be more willing to communicate or accept feedback in front of their peers in the classroom than in other cultures. A student may believe that if he or she speaks up in class this may not be valued by other students since it is judged as “showing off” and an attempt to make other students look weak. And if students are very exam oriented and do not see that communicative activities will help them pass an exam they may have little motivation to communicate in a communication-oriented class.
Horwitz, Elaine 2010. Foreign and second language anxiety. Language teaching, 43 (2), 154-167.
MacIntyre,P.D. 2007. Willingness to communicate in the second language: Understanding the decision to speak as a volitional process. Modern Language Journal, 91 (4),564-576.
Peng Jian-E and Lindy Woodrow. 2010. Willingness to communicate in English. Language Learning, 60 (4), 834-876.

Using authentic materials in the efl classroom


Submitted by Laura Haug, Czech Republic

What are the pros and cons of using authentic materials in the efl classroom?

Dr Richards Responds:

English language textbooks are a source of activities for teaching English. As such they provide information about English and examples of how English is used. They also contain real-world information: the texts and other materials they make use of intentionally or unintentionally present information about countries, cultures, people, life styles, beliefs and values. Two important issues textbooks raise thus have to do with the authenticity of language they contain, and the representations of content that they provide.

Authenticity of language: there has been a great deal of discussion and debate in language teaching over the issue of the kind of language that is presented in textbooks and the role of constructed versus authentic language examples.

Traditionally the writers of textbooks generally employed their own intuitions about language use as the basis for writing dialogs, developing scripts for listening texts, and creating reading passages. This was often justified on the grounds that using authentic texts taken from real life would expose learners to language that was unnecessarily complex and would not allow the writer to provide a specific language focus to texts that are designed to support instruction. The result has sometimes been the charge that textbooks that contain unnatural or “artificial” language, such as we see in the following dialog that introduced different forms of the verb sing:

A: When did you learn to sing?

B: Well I started singing when I was ten years old, and I’ve been singing everyday since then.

A: I wish I could sing like you. I’ve never really sung well.

B: Don’t worry. If you start singing today, you’ll be able to sing in no time.

A: Thank you. But isn’t singing very hard?

B: I don’t think so. After you learn to sing, you’ll be a great singer.

Proponents of the use of authentic language in textbooks also suggest that the linguistic information and grammar contained in textbooks is often based on author intuition and may not reflect the findings of research into how the language is really used.

From the 1980s there has thus been a movement towards the use of authentic language in textbooks drawing on information derived from discourse and corpus analysis of authentic speech.

No textbook writer or publisher of course would advocate the use of using texts or language models that provide incorrect or inaccurate information about how English is used. The goal is to use texts and discourse samples that show how language is used and that also enable learners to use authentic cognitive, interactional and communicative processes when carrying out activities. A dialog in a textbook or prepared by a teacher for example may have been written by the textbook author or teacher, but may have been constructed to reflect features of authentic conversational interaction. It these features, rather than the text itself that form the focus of classroom activities.

In choosing texts for use in reading and listening textbooks, sometimes texts taken from real world sources may suit the writer’s needs. At other times however it may not be possible to find texts that are at the right length, at the right level of difficulty, reflect the reading or listening skills that are being addressed and are on a topic relevant to the unit. In this case the writer may adapt or create a text but make sure that it requires the use of the processes the text is intended to practice, such as listening to make inferences or reading to identify causes and effects. What is important here then is authenticity of process rather than authenticity of text.

Classroom discipline


submitted by Douglas MacQueen, Cambodia

What advice can you give about classroom discipline?

Dr Richards Responds:

Nobody can learn effectively in a class that is rowdy, where students come and go as they please, where the teacher sometimes arrives late, where students pay little attention to what the teacher is trying to say or do, use their cell phones or send text messages during the lesson or insist on using their mother tongue in class as much as possible rather than making any attempt to use English among themselves. A well-behaved class respects an understanding of the spoken and unspoken rules that govern the norms of acceptable classroom behavior. These “rules” may differ with students from different cultural backgrounds, so it is important that the teacher and students agree on what the rules for acceptable behavior are early in a course. Experts recommend that norms for acceptable classroom behavior need to be established early on with a new group of students and suggest that in order for the teacher to be able to exercise his or her authority in the classroom it is important to be consistent, to be fair, and to avoid direct confrontation. In this way an atmosphere of mutual trust can be established and maintained. When a disruptive form of behavior does occur (such as when a student continues to speak to another student while the teacher is talking), experienced teachers often respond in a humorous way (e.g. with a humorous gesture) rather than by expressing anger. In some classes there may be one or two students whose behavior is sometimes disruptive. An overenthusiastic student may dominate questions or answers, a student may not co-operate during group work, or there may be a student who distracts those around him or her.  Group pressure is the best response in these situations. If norms of acceptable behavior have been agreed upon, the teacher can  gesture to another student to remind the disruptive person of appropriate classroom behavior.

Dornyei  in his excellent book on motivation gives the following example of a set of class rules.

For the students:

  • Let’s not be late for class.
  • Always write your homework.
  • Once a term you can “pass”, i.e. say that you have not prepared.
  • In small group work only the L2 can be used.
  • If you miss a class, make up for it and ask for the homework.

For the teacher

  • The class should finish on time.
  • Homework and tests should be marked within a week.
  • Always give advance notice of a test

For everybody

  • Let’s try and listen to each other.
  • Let’s help each other.
  • Let’s respect each other’s ideas and values.
  • It’s OK to make mistakes; they are learning points.
  • Let’s not make fun of each other’s weaknesses.
  • We must avoid hurting each other, verbally or physically.

Motivating students


submitted by Jessy Hernandez, State University, Mexico

I have been working with law students in Mexico who think English is difficult, boring and unnecessary to learn. I haven’t found a good way to  motivate them. Can you give me a tip, please?

Dr Richards Responds:

There are no simple tips to address this kind of situation. If there were you would no doubt have managed to sort it out by yourself. However I recommend an excellent book on motivation in the language classroom: