The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Teaching absolute beginners

Question:

Submitted by N. Kazemi, Iran

How should we start teaching English to absolute beginners who neither know even a single word in English nor have any literacy skills even in terms of recognizing the English alphabet?

Professor Richards Responds:

It will be necessary to start with vocabulary recognition, phonics, and then to build up a core recognition and productive vocabulary, using pictures and translation.  Production should be very limited initially until these core requirements have been met.

Teaching Materials

Question:

Submitted by Monsume, Azerbaijan

Are visual aids and technological resources included as teaching materials?

Professor Richards Responds:

Yes indeed. Teaching materials refers to any of the resources that the teacher makes use of to support his or her teaching. This includes a wide variety of print and technology-based resources.

Objective of Teaching English to 7-10 year olds

Question:

Submitted by Adriana Patrus, Brazil

I teach English to primary schoolchildren in Brazil. The classes are monolingual and they range from 22 to 30 students. They speak Portuguese the whole time except for a few minutes of repetition, drilling, singing and an occasional speaking activity. They have been able to master quite a range of vocabulary but no attempt to speak it yet. Should we feel frustrated that they don’t try to speak the odd words they learn in the monolingual classroom? What should be ultimately the primary objective of teaching English to 7-10 year olds?

Professor Richards Responds:

Yes I think frustration would be an approriate response.  I suggest use more activities that require production of simple phrases and words that they have learned, such as games and simple dialogs. The following are examples of goals for courses for young learners:

  • To develop a set of core vocabulary and expressions for use in simple conversation
  • To build confidence
  • To provide the motivation to learn English
  • To encourage ownership of language
  • To encourage children to communicate with whatever language they have at their disposal (mime, gesture, key word, drawings, etc.)
  • To encourage children to treat English as a communication tool, not as an end product
  • To show children that English is fun
  • To establish a trusting relationship with children and encourage them to do the same with their classmates
  • To give children an experience of a wide range of English language in a non-threatening environment

Bottom-up, Top-down or Interactive Processing

Question:

Submitted by Hannah, Korea

I wonder if the activity below makes use of to bottom-up processing,  top-down processing or Interactive processing.

Task: Read a sentence and then listen to a sentence on tape to decide if the meaning is the same or different.

Professor Richards Responds:

In order to complete this task the listener has to hold the spoken sentence in short term memory, decode its meaning, and then compare the result with his or her understanding of the written text. The extent of bottom-up or top-down processing involved will depend on the contents of the sentence, since it may or may not draw on background knowledge or culturally specific schemata. No interactive processing is involved if we use this term to refer to interaction with a speaker.

New Key Issues in Language Teaching book

Question:

Submitted by Muhammad Shujaat, Saudi Arabia

When will your new book Key Issues in Language Teaching be launched?

Professor Richards Responds:

Publication of the book has been delayed due to difficulties in clearing permissions for many of the citations that occur through the text, of which there are several hundred. Some greedy publishers have been asking up to $1000 to cite a 45 word extract from a journal article, and some have not yet responded to requests to cite from sources they hold the copyright for. In many instances I have hence had to rewrite and rephrase citations due to copyright restrictions. My publisher has informed me that she has set March 22 as the deadline to clear copyright issues, and anything not clarified by that date I will have to rewrite. She is now suggesting a June 2015 publication date for the e-book and a July date for the print book. WATCH THIS SPACE!

Course book versus Textbook

Question:

Submitted by Elaine Borges, Brazil

Is there is a difference between the definition of “course book” and “textbook” for teaching second/foreign languages?

Professor Richards Responds:

No these two terms are used interchangeably.

Teaching Young Learners

Question:

Submitted by Niloofar, Iran

What would you recommend for someone wanting to learn more about teaching young learners?

Professor Richards Responds:

There is a module on young learners as part of the TKT test, which you can access on-line.

Traditional versus Digital Media in Teaching

Question:

Submitted by Rizky Amelia Banjarmasin, Indonesia

In this global era, the use of media involving technology in teaching English is increasing. As a result, traditional media seems to be ignored. Therefore, I would like to ask what are the benefits of traditional media in contrast to digital media and how to maximize traditional media?

Professor Richards Responds:

Technology is certainly having a considerable impact on language teaching today but does not necessarily replace the use of more traditional media. What today’s technology does do is provide opportunities for learners to extend their contact and use of English beyond the classroom, and hence enables learners to make use of out-of-class autonomous learning based on their interests and needs. For examples and more detailed discussion see my the recent article on my website entitled “The changing face of language learning”.

Sources for Teaching Adult Learners

Question:

Submitted by Farid Bozorgmehr, Iran

What sources can you recommend for teaching English to adult learners?

Professor Richards Responds:

  • Marshall, B. (2002) Preparing for Success: A guide for Teaching Adult English Language Learners, McHenry, IL: Delta Systems, Inc. and Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
  • 
Murray, D. E. (2005) ‘ESL in adult education’, In E. Hinkel (ed.), Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 65–84.
  • 
Orem, R. A. (2012) ‘Teaching adults’, In A. Burns and J. C Richards (eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Pedagogy and Practice in Language Teaching, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Direct & Indirect Approaches to Teaching Speaking

Question:

Submitted by Yanina Valdez, Argentina

What is the difference between direct and indirect approaches to speaking?

Professor Richards Responds:

An indirect approach to the teaching of speaking is one in which oral competence is acquired incidentally as a bi-product of engaging in communicative tasks. No specific aspects of speaking may be targeted. A direct approach is one in which specific aspects of speaking (e.g. turn taking, back-channeling) are targeted through focused instruction directed at these features.

Using CLT during short lessons

Question:

Submitted by SM Hosseini, Iran

We have only a session (75 minutes) in a week to teach English in junior schools and are asked to use CLT as the approach? What is your view?

Professor Richards Responds:

It is not possible to learn a language with only 75 minutes a week of classroom input. Under those circumstances very specific and restricted targets should be established, in terms of what is reasonable to expect in terms of vocabulary acquisition, reading, and so on. CLT is a general approach that is based on the principle that one learns a language through communication and that classroom activities should involve interaction and communication through English. However a reasonable level of proficiency is needed before this is possible so it would be unrealistic to expect CLT principles to be very effective in these circumstances. Perhaps reading ability would be a more realistic goal.

Non-native English speaking teachers in the ESL/EFL classroom

Question:

Submitted by Arwa Abdelhamid, The United Arab Emirates

What are some positive elements of language teaching and learning that a non-native English speaking teacher can bring to the ESL/EFL classroom?

Professor Richards Responds:

His or her understanding of the cultural and linguistic background of the learners will be very useful, as well as his or her experience as a second or foreign language learner.

Preparing instructional materials for language courses

Question:

Submitted by Maria Giselle Agustin, Philippines

What are the criteria in preparing instructional materials for language courses?

Professor Richards Responds:

The following issues need to be addressed and how they are answered will determine the design for the instructional materials.

  •         What needs are the materials intended to address?
  •         What kind of syllabus will they be based on?
  •         What kind of teachers, learners and institutions are the materials intended for?
  •         What features are they likely to look for in the materials?
  •         What approach will the materials be based on, and what principles of teaching and learning will they reflect?
  •         How many levels will be involved, and at what level will the materials start and end?
  •         How will the material in the course be organized?
  •         How many units will it contain, and how many classroom hours will be needed to teach it?
  •         What  components will be involved, such as teacher’s book, workbook, tests, audio component, video component, digital and online components, and who will develop these?
  •         What will the format of units be, and what kinds of exercises and activities will be used throughout the material?

Teaching speaking for interactional versus transactional purposes

Question:

Submitted by Jun Clifford M. Mape, Philippines

What are some of the issues involved in teaching  speaking for interactional versus transactional purposes?

Professor Richards Responds:

Small talk and conversation are examples of interactional talk, which refers to communication that primarily serves the purpose of social interaction  Small talk consists of short exchanges that usually begin with a greeting, move to back-and-forth exchanges on non-controversial topics, such as the weekend, the weather, work, school, etc. and then often conclude with a fixed expression, such as See you later. Such interactions are at times almost formulaic and often do not result in a real conversation. They serve to create a positive atmosphere and to create a comfort zone between people who might be total strangers. Topics that are appropriate in small talk may differ across cultures, since topics that are considered private in some cultures (e.g. marital status or religion) can be considered as appropriate topics for small talk in other cultures. While seemingly a trivial aspect of speaking, small talk plays a very important role in social interaction. Learners who cannot manage small talk often find they come away from social encounters feeling awkward, or that they did not make a good impression, and, consequently, may avoid situations where small talk is required.

Skills involved in mastering small talk include:

  •  Acquiring fixed expressions and routines used in small talk.
  •  Using formal or casual speech depending on the situation.
  •  Developing fluency in making small talk around predictable topics.
  •  Using opening and closing strategies.
  •  Using back-channelling. 
Back-channelling involves the use of expressions such as really, mm, Is that right?, yeah, etc., nodding of the head, and, very commonly, short rhetorical questions, such as Do you? Are you? or Did you? Such actions and expressions reflect the role of an active, interested and supportive listener.

One of the most important aspects of conversation is managing the flow of conversation around topics. Whereas topics are only lightly touched on in small talk, as we noted above, conversation involves a joint interaction around topics and the introduction of new topics that are linked through each speaker’s contributions. The skills involved include:

  • Initiating a topic in casual and formal conversation.
  • Selecting vocabulary appropriate to the topic.
  • Giving appropriate feedback responses.
  • Providing relevant evaluative comments through back-channelling.
  • Taking turns at appropriate points in the conversation.
  • Asking for clarification and repetition.
  • Using discourse strategies for repairing misunderstanding.
  • Using discourse strategies to open and close conversations.
  • Using appropriate intonation and stress patterns to express meaning 
Learners need a wide range of topics at their disposal in order to manage the flow of conversation, and managing interaction and developing topic fluency is a priority in speaking classes. Initially, learners may depend on familiar topics to get by. However, they also need practice in introducing new topics into conversation to move beyond this stage.

Agenda management and turn-taking are also important features of small talk and conversation. The former refers to the participant’s right to choose the topic and the way the topics are developed, and to choose how long the conversation should continue. This includes strategies for opening, developing and closing conversations, and for introducing and changing topics. This process is often jointly managed by the participants, depending on the social relationship between them (e.g. teacher– student, friend–friend, employed–employee). Turn-taking involves providing opportunities for another person to take a turn in speaking and recognizing when another speaker is seeking to take a turn.

Another important communication skill is the ability to use English to accomplish different kinds of transactions. A transaction is an interaction that focuses on getting something done, rather than maintaining social interaction. (In communicative language teaching, transactions are generally referred to as functions, and include such areas as requests, orders, offers, suggestions, etc.) A transaction may consist of a sequence of different functions. Two different kinds of transactions are often distinguished. 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. Talk in these situations is often information- focused, is associated with specific activities and often occurs in specific situations. The following are examples of communication of this kind:

  •   Ordering food in a restaurant.
  •   Ordering a taxi.
  •   Checking into a hotel.
  •   Changing money at a bank.
  •   Getting a haircut.
  •   Buying something in a store.
  •   Borrowing a book from the library.

Transactional activities can be thought of as consisting of a sequence of individual moves or functions which, together, constitute a ‘script’. For example, when people order food in a restaurant, they usually look at the menu, ask any necessary questions and then tell the waitperson what they want. The waitperson may ask additional questions and then repeat their order to check. When people check into a hotel, the transaction usually starts with a greeting, the clerk enquires if the person has a reservation, the client confirms and provides his or her name and so on.

In using language in this way, the goal is to carry out a task. Communicating information is the central focus, and making oneself understood, unlike small talk or conversation, where social interaction is often as important as what the participants actually say. In addition, the language used in carrying out transactions is often predictable, contains many fixed expressions and routines, and, as we noted in the earlier example, and may contain elliptical or short forms instead of fully-formed sentences ,since transactions can often be performed using key words and communication strategies, but not necessarily employing grammatically appropriate language. Communication strategies are tactics learners use to compensate for limitations in their linguistic skills and that enable them to clarify their intentions, despite limitations in grammar, vocabulary or discourse skills.

The skills involved in using English for transactions thus include:

  • Selecting vocabulary related to particular transactions and functions.
  • Using fixed expressions and routines.
  • Expressing functions.
  • Using scripts for specific transactions and situations.
  •  Asking and answering questions.
  • Clarifying meanings and intentions.
  • Confirming and repeating information.
  • Using communication strategies.

Advice on developing a new teaching unit

Question:

Submitted by Zainab Jaafar, Iran

I’m working in a scientific research centre in which the majority of the staff have very limited capacity in English language. This is due to receiving their undergraduates syllabus in the mother language (i.e. Arabic).

I am planning to start a unit for developing their English qualifications. I would like to have your advice in where & how to start, taking in consideration their different specializations such as chemistry, physics, invertebrates, geology, and biology. 

Professor Richards Responds:

I would suggest starting with a general English course to bring up their proficiency to at least a B1 on CEF. Then you could move to more of an ESP approach. A very good resource to use would be Helen Basturkmen’s book, Developing Courses in English For Specific Purposes.

Teacher Training

Question:

Submitted by Paresh Kumar Bhoi, India

1.What goes into the pre-service training of a language teacher at the elementary level?

2. What skills and knowledge-bases are required to be a part of a pre-service teacher training programme at the elementary level?

Professor Richards Responds:

Teacher training normally involves providing novice teachers with the practical skills and knowledge needed to prepare them for their initial teaching experience. Teacher training involves processes of the following kind:

  • Understanding basic concepts and principles as a prerequisite for applying them to teaching.
  • Developing a repertoire of classroom techniques, routines, skills and strategies.
  • Having opportunities to try out different strategies in the classroom.
  • Developing ability to teach using a textbook and classroom technology.
  • Monitoring oneself and getting feedback from others on one’s practice.

Training involves the development of basic concepts, theories and principles and a repertoire of teaching skills, acquired through observing experienced teachers and engaging in practice-teaching in a controlled setting, e.g. through micro-teaching or peer teaching. Taking this perspective, good teaching is seen as the mastery of a body of basic knowledge and a set of skills or competencies. Qualifications in teacher training such as the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) are typically offered by teacher-training colleges or by organizations such as the British Council, and provide novice teachers with a recognized entry-level qualification as an ESL/ELT teacher. The worldwide demand for qualifications of this kind has led to the development of many courses, available both in face-to-face formats or online. For example, the Teaching Knowledge Test (TKT) is a test developed by Cambridge English Language Assessment for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. The TKT tests knowledge of concepts related to language, language use and the background to and practice of language teaching and learning. TKT consists of three core modules: language and background to language learning and teaching; lesson planning and use of resources for language teaching; and managing the teaching and learning process. There is also a practical module and a further three specialist modules (Knowledge About Language, CLIL, Young Learners).

Teacher development serves a longer-term goal and seeks to facilitate growth of the teacher’s general understanding of teaching, of the teaching context and of his or her performance as a teacher. It is often the focus of in-service education. It thus builds on the initial knowledge and skill base acquired through teacher training. One aspect of teacher development involves developing a deeper understanding of the knowledge base of language teaching. This has typically meant mastering the discipline of applied linguistics and developing a more advanced and theory- based body of knowledge, not linked to a specific teaching context. Applied linguistics encompasses the language-based subjects (e.g. grammar, phonology, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis), the learning-based subjects (e.g. second language acquisition, psycholinguistics, learning strategies), the teaching-based subjects (e.g. methodology, teaching the four skills) and the curriculum-based subjects (e.g. course design, materials design, assessment). 
Another dimension of teacher development, however, deals with the examination of different dimensions of one’s own practice as a basis for reflective review, and that can hence be seen as practitioner-driven. Qualifications in teacher development such as the DELTA course or an MA degree, are offered by training organizations and universities and are intended for teachers who have already developed their practical teaching skills and now wish to acquire the theory and knowledge base that supports these skills. Many such courses today are also available online or in distance mode, to suit the circumstances of the many practising teachers who are unable to take time off for full-time study.

CBLT – Is the focus of this approach on process or product?

Question:

Submitted by Nawal Amerioui, Algeria

It is said that CBLT is out-come oriented, yet they say that it is process-driven. Is really the focus of this approach on process or product?

Professor Richards Responds:

Competency-based language teaching is an example of an out-come based approach, or an example of backward design. See the article Curriculum Approaches in Language Teaching for more information.

Constrastive Analysis

Question:

Submitted by Eliana Santos de Souza, Brazil

How do you do contrastive analysis of the written texts ( first draft, second draft or revising, and editing) produced by students in the process writing in EFL?

Professor Richards Responds:

Contrastive analysis has no role to play here.  If you wish to see how a student has modified a piece of wiritng during the different stages of the composition process, then you should look at the different aspects of writing that are involved. The different kinds of knowledge and skills learners need to acquire to become effective writers are summarised by Ken Hyland (Second Language Writing: Cambridge University Press 2003) as follows:

  • Content knowledge: How can topics for writing activities be chosen? Can students be involved in selecting topics to write about? And do students have the necessary background knowledge to write about topics they may choose or be asked to write about?
  • System knowledge: How will grammar be used to support their writing needs? What areas of grammar will be most useful to them?
  • Process knowledge: How will students get ideas and information to use in writing? Will they make use of the internet, group discussion, library research, etc.?
  • Genre and text knowledge: What kinds of texts will students learn to write? Do they need to improve their skill in composing particular kinds of texts, such as essays, business letters or reports? How will students become aware of the principle of organization underlying different types of writing, such as recounts, descriptions or business letters?
  • Context knowledge: How will students develop awareness of the influences on the writing context for the type of writing they engage in, as well as awareness of cultural factors that affect expectations about the nature of appropriate written texts?

How important is the teacher’s book in teaching?

Question:

Submitted by Jamal Zakeri, Iran

How important is the teacher’s book in teaching?

Professor Richards Responds:

A good teacher’s book lays out the basic principles of the coursebook and the recommended procedures for using the book. As such is it a guide for teachers, particulalry novice teachers who may have little teacher training or classroom experience.  It is like the instruction manual that comes with a new car. Once you are familiar with the car you won’t need to consult the manual very often. However with a course book the situation is a little different, since books are used in many different contexts and the information in the teacher’s book is likely to be very general and may need to be adapted to match the specific school context. It should be regarded as a springboard  to support creative teaching rather than a straight-jacket.