The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Collecting Data for Language Research

Question:

Submitted by Anna, Instituto Superior Cristal Dili, Timor-Leste

If we conduct language research… what is the technique and procedure to collect the data?

Dr. Richards responds:

Two different kinds of approaches can be used in conducting research, quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative measurement refers to the measurement of something that can be expressed numerically. Many tests are designed to collect information that can be readily counted and presented in terms of frequencies, rankings, or percentages. Other sources of quantitative information are checklists, surveys, and self-ratings. Quantitative data seek to collect information from a large number of people on specific topics and can generally be analyzed statistically so that certain patterns and tendencies emerge. The information collected can be analyzed fairly simply because subjective decisions are not usually involved. Traditionally, quantitative data are regarded as “rigorous” or conforming to scientific principles of data collection, though the limitations of quantitative information are also recognized; hence the need to complement such information with qualitative information.

Qualitative measurement refers to measurement of something that cannot be expressed numerically and that depends more on subjective judgment or observation. Information obtained from classroom observation, interviews, journals, logs, and case studies is generally qualitative. Qualitative approaches are more holistic and naturalistic than quantitative approaches and seek to collect information in natural settings for language use and on authentic tasks rather than in test situations. They are normally more exploratory and seek to collect a large amount of information from a fairly small number of cases. The information obtained is more difficult to analyze because it is often open-ended and must be coded or interpreted. Qualitative data are sometimes regarded as “soft” or less rigorous than quantitative data, but such information is essential in many stages of program evaluation.

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

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.

Teaching English Privately

Question:

Submitted by Masoud Forghani, Iran

What advice would you give to someone who wants to teach English privately, but who has little experience?

Dr. Richards responds:

I would hesitate to recommend a learner to take private lessons with a teacher unless the teacher was well qualified and had relevant experience. If the teacher was qualified to teach privately his or her first task would be to find out what the learner’s level was, and what were his or per specific needs. Then the teacher should choose appropriate materials that could be used as the basis for one-to-one teaching. These could be published materials or materials developed or chosen by the teacher.

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.

Approach, Principles, Method & Technique

Question:

Submitted by Naseer, Afghanistan

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

Dr. Richards responds:

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

Technology Enhanced Language Learning

Question:

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

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

Dr. Richards responds:

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

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?’

Qualifications

Question:

Submitted by L.K., Sri Lanka

Are qualifications such as CELTA and similar qualifications necessary to be an English teacher?

Dr. Richards responds:

Despite the fact that many people, whose only asset is their knowledge of English, still enter language teaching with no training or experience, English language teaching is not something that anyone who can speak English can do. It is a profession, which means that it is a career in a field of educational specialization. It requires a specialized knowledge base, obtained through both academic study and practical experience, and it is a field of work where membership is based on entry requirements and standards.

The professionalism of English teaching is seen in the growth industry devoted to providing language teachers with professional training and qualifications such as CELTA – a recognition of the fact that employers and institutions have come to realize that effective language-teaching programmes depend on teachers with specialized training, knowledge and skills. This professionalism is reflected in continuous attempts to develop standards for English language teaching and teachers and in the proliferation of professional journals and teacher magazines, conferences and professional organization. CELTA and similar qualifications are entry-level qualifications and are not equivalent to a university degree.

However not all university degrees are relevant to a career in teaching English. A degree in literature, for example, will not prepare a teacher to design and use teaching materials, prepare valid and reliable tests, use appropriate teaching methods, design curriculum and materials and so on, any more than a degree in history or geography would do so.

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

Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Question:

Submitted by Kawthar A. Nahi, M.A. student at University of Basra, Iraq

What is the role of Neuro-Linguistic Programming in Language teaching?

Dr. Richards responds:

There is no research evidence to support the claims of NLP, which is a blend of new age pop psychology and 70s psychobabble. There are extensive critiques of it on the internet, which I need not repeat here. It is certainly not worth wasting time on for a master’s thesis, and despite its possible appeal to the untrained, NLP is not supported by SLA or any other field of related research in applied linguistics.

Best Use of Teaching Materials

Question:

Submitted by Jean Marie Vianney, Rwanda

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

Dr. Richards responds:

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

Encouraging Students

Question:

Submitted by Mohammad Javad Zare, Iran

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

Dr. Richards responds:

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

Autonomous Learner

Question:

Submitted by Urip, Indonesia

What is meant by an autonomous learner?

Dr. Richards responds:

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

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

In classes that encourage autonomous learning:

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

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

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

Conscious Awareness of Language

Question:

Submitted by Tri, Indonesia

Does conscious awareness of language features play a role in language learning?

Dr. Richards responds:

It has been proposed that some aspects of language are learned more easily if the learner is consciously aware of them in the language he or she hears – i.e. the learner ‘notices’ them (Schmidt, 1990). This is known as the noticing hypothesis. Schmidt proposed that for learners to acquire new forms from input (language they hear) it is necessary for them to notice such forms in the input. Consciousness of features of the input can serve as a trigger that activates the first stage in the process of incorporating new linguistic features into one’s language competence. Schmidt  further clarifies this point in distinguishing between input (what the learner hears) and intake (that part of the input that the learner notices). Only intake can serve as the basis for language development. In his own study of his acquisition of Portuguese, Schmidt found that there was a close connection between noticing features of the input, and their later emergence in his own speech. The extent to which a learner notices new features of language in the input (for example, the use of the past perfect tense in a narrative) may depend upon how frequently the item is encountered, how salient or ‘noticeable’ it is, whether the teacher has drawn attention to it or the nature of the activity the learner is taking part in. Schmidt found from a detailed longitudinal study of his own acquisition of Portuguese that new forms appeared in his Portuguese only after he had become aware of them in the Portuguese he was exposed to. On the other hand, forms that were frequent in the input he was exposed to, but that he was not consciously aware of (i.e. that he had not noticed) did not appear in his use of Portuguese. The noticing hypothesis emphasizes the role of awareness in language learning and has implications both for the teaching of grammar as well as the teaching of listening.

Role of Schema

Question:

Submitted by Satoshi, Japan

What role do schema play in language learning?

Dr. Richards responds:

The notion of schemas  refers to cognitive aspects of learning. Schemas are mental models, or frameworks, which organize information in the mind and represent generalized knowledge about events, situations, objects, actions and feelings. They are part of prior knowledge that learners bring to new experience. For example, the schema of ‘the evening meal’, for some people, will consist of information about the time of the meal, where it takes place, the sequence of activities involved, the food items eaten and utensils used, and the participants and their roles and actions. Such a schema may differ considerably from one culture to another and may need to be revised as new experience is encountered.

Schema theory has had a significant influence on our understanding of the nature of listening comprehension and reading in a second language, and on approaches to teaching both of these skills. It has emphasized the role of prior knowledge in comprehension, and the importance of pre-listening and pre-reading activities in preparing students to understand spoken and written texts. Teaching schemas involves helping students develop the interconnected meanings and relationships that make up schemas, and an understanding of the hierarchies of meanings and connections that underlie many concepts. The role of prior knowledge in learning is a core feature of constructivist theories of learning – one kind of cognitive approach to learning. Constructivist theory emphasizes that new learning is built upon existing knowledge and understanding. In second language learning, the process that results when new learning builds on existing knowledge is known as restructuring.

Contrastive Analysis

Question:

Submitted by Syvia, Brazil

Is contrastive analysis still relevant in language teaching?

Dr. Richards responds:

The contrastive analysis hypothesis (CA), states that where the first language and the target language are similar, learners will generally acquire structures with ease, and where they are different, learners will have difficulty. CA was based on the related theory of language transfer: difficulty in second language learning results from transfer of features of the first language to the second language. Transfer (also known as interference) was considered the main explanation for learners’ errors. Teachers were encouraged to spend time on features of English that were most likely to be affected by first-language transfer. Today, transfer is considered only one of many possible causes of learners’ errors. However, in the 1960s the contrastive analysis hypothesis was criticized, as research began to reveal that second language learners use simple structures ‘that are very similar across learners from a variety of backgrounds, even if their respective first languages are different from each other and different from the target languages’ (Lightbown and Spada, 2006.) My early work on error analysis supported this view (Richards, 1974). Behaviourism as an explanation for language learning was subsequently rejected by advocates of more cognitive theories of language and of language learning that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the first people to develop a cognitive perspective on language was the prominent American linguist Noam Chomsky. His critique of Skinner’s views (Chomsky, 1959) was extremely influential and introduced the view that language learning should be seen not simply as something that comes from outside but is determined by internal processes of the mind, i.e. by cognitive processes.