The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Teaching a British Accent

Question:

Submitted by P.B.S.Krishnam Raju , India

Could you please suggest procedures to teach a British Accent to Advanced Level students?

Professor Richards Responds:

I assume the issue here is the wish for learners to modify the “Indianness” of their accent in English?  Not everyone would agree that this is a necessary goal in language learning, since one’s accent is a marker of one’s cultural identity. However sometimes a strong regional or national accent my impede understanding in some contexts,  hence the basis for your question. In order to address this isse the starting point is a diagnostic profile of the chracteristicss of the  learners’ current pronunciation. This is often done with a combination of measures, such as reading aloud, an interview, and participation in communication tasks. This will enable identification of core aspects of pronunciation that may need to be modified, whether these be vowels, consonants, or suprasegmentals. Then speciifc features need to be addressed one at a time, over a period of time, using the usual procedures found in pronunciation manuals. It is important to realize that in addressing difficulties with pronunciation, learners first need to notice the problem, they then need to understand how the sound feature is produced, and then need practice activities that move from controlled to freer practice.

Difference Between Task, Exercise, Activity

Question:

Submitted by Jayanta Das, India

What is the difference between a task, an exercise and an activity?

Professor Richards Responds:

These terms are understood differently depending on who defines them. I use them as follows:

An exercise is a teaching procedure that involves controlled, guided or open ended practice of some aspect of language. A drill, a cloze activity, a reading comprehension passage can all be regarded as exercises.

The term activity is more general and refers to any kind of purposeful classroom procedure that involves learners doing something that relates to the goals of the course. For example singing a song, playing a game, taking part in a debate, having a group discussion, are all different kinds of teaching activities.

A task is normally defined as follows:

  • It is something that learners do, or carry out, using their existing language resources or those that have been provided in pre-task work.
  • It has an outcome which is not simply linked to learning language, though language acquisition may occur as the learner carries out the task.
  • It is relevant to learners’ needs.
  • It involves a focus on meaning.
  • In the case of tasks involving two or more learners, it calls upon the learners’
  • use of communication strategies and interactional skills.
  • It provides opportunities for reflection on language use.

Autonomy

Question:

Submitted by Gethomil, Poland

Is autonomy an approach or a method?

Professor Richards Responds:

The notion of learner autonomy is neither an approach or a method but it really a philosophy or set of principles that can be used in association with different approaches and methods, and may influence how they are implemented in the classroom. The notion of learner autonomy means shifting the focus from the teacher to the learners. This means involving learners in decisions concerning setting objectives for learning, determining ways and means of learning, and reflecting on and evaluating what they have learned.Autonomous learning is said to make learning more personal and focused and consequently to achieve better learning outcomes since learning is based on learners’ needs and preferences . Benson has suggested five principles for achieving autonomous learning:

  1. Active involvement by students in their own 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 are encouraged to make decisions about what they learn.
  • Students’ awareness of their own learning styles is encouraged.
  • Students are encouraged to develop their own learning strategies.

Error Analysis

Question:

Submitted by Chiara Bauer, Italy

What concrete and specific advice would you give me, an EFL teacher, which is based on the findings of error analysis?

Professor Richards Responds:

I don’t think there are any specific suggestions that result directly from error analysis. Error analysis has largely been replaced by other kinds of research in the field of Second Language Acquisition. However one of the general conclusions that developed out of early work in error analysis was that errors are not necessarily signs of faulty learning, but are indication of a creative- construction process at work as learners test out hypotheses and abstract the underlying rules and principles that accounted for language knowledge. Teachers were encouraged to spend less time on correcting errors and trying to elicit error-free production, and more time on providing rich, meaningful input for learning. However there is a stage when persistent errors need attention in case they lead to fossilisation. Here error analysis may be useful, providing information on which kinds of errors are transitional and which may require attention in teaching.

What are the stages of a speaking lesson?

Question:

Submitted by Tourya Saada, Morocco

What are the stages of a speaking lesson?

Professor Richards Responds:

It depends of what kind of speaking activity it is and what the demands are of that activity. For example in their Book Teaching Speaking, Goh and Burns recommend a seven-stage cycle of activities in a speaking lesson:

    1.     Focus learnersattention on speaking: Students think about a speaking activity, what it involves and what they can anticipate.

    2.     Provide input and/or guide planning: This may involve pre-teaching vocabulary, expressions or discourse features and planning for an activity they will carry out in class (e.g. a presentation or a transaction).

    3.     Conduct speaking task: Students practise a communicative speaking task with a focus on fluency.

    4.     Focus on language/skills/strategies: Students examine their performance or look at other performances of the task, as well as transcripts of how the task can be carried out, and review different features of the task.

    5.     Repeat speaking task: The activity is performed a second time.

    6.     Direct learnersreflection on learning: Students review and reflect on what they have learned and difficulties they encountered.

    7.     Facilitate feedback on learning: Teacher provides feedback on their performance.

Specific Method or Eclectic Approach

Question:

Submitted by Hanene Turqui, Algeria

Should a teacher to implement a specific method or adopt a more eclectic approach?

Professor Richards Responds:

Many different approaches and methods have been adopted at different times in language teaching. Perhaps the quest for more effective methods in language teaching reflects the fact that large-scale language programmes seldom meet the expectations of learners, employers and educational planners. Hence new language teaching proposals typically claim to be more effective than the ones they replace. However the adoption of new curriculum innovations in teaching is dependent upon a number of factors. These include:

  • the extent to which an approach or method is officially adopted by educational authorities and educational organizations,
  • the support it receives by authority figures or experts, such as academics and educational specialists,
  • the extent to which it can provide the basis for educational resources, such as textbooks and educational software,
  • the ease with which it can be understood and used by teachers;
  • and the extent to which it aligns with national curriculum and assessment guidelines.

During their initial teacher training, teachers are often introduced to different teaching methods and approaches. It is sometimes suggested that they should pick and choose, or blend different methods, when they start teaching. In fact, method decisions are often made for them. If they teach in a private institute and are teaching courses in general English, it is likely that they will teach from a commercial textbook series based on the communicative approach. If they are teaching English for specific purposes (ESP) or English for academic purposes (EAP), they may find that the course is organized around skills, text types or project work – in which case, they will need to learn how to teach within the chosen framework. If they are preparing students for content classes taught in English, a content-based approach is likely to be recommended. And if they teach a course in a particular skill area, such as a reading course or a conversation course, they will need to familiarize themselves with the approaches and methods that are typically used in these types of courses.

Despite the differences in how course designers, materials’ writers and teachers approach how they plan and organize their teaching, once lessons begin, plans are transformed through the interactions between teachers and students during the lesson . Through these processes, teachers create lessons that are right for the moment, but which might not be right for the next lesson they teach. Allwright stated this forcefully many years ago when he wrote (1988: 51):

The method probably doesn’t matter very much … but what happens in the classroom still must matter. All the research so far has involved the implicit assumption that what is really happening in the classroom is simply that some particular method or technique is being used, and that more or less efficient learning might be taking place accordingly. It is however clear that much more is happening. People are interacting in a multiplicity of complex ways … We need studies of what actually happens – not of what recognisable teaching methods, strategies or techniques are employed by the teacher, but of what really happens between teacher and class.

In addition, teaching is ‘situated’; that is, it reflects the contexts in which it occurs, and, for this reason, there can be no ‘best method’ of teaching. Dogancay-Aktuna and Hardman (2012: 113) thus conclude:

One cannot identify a ‘best practice’, even for a given context. The situatedness of language teaching involves not just the matching of particular pedagogies with particular settings, but seeing good pedagogy as emergent from those settings.

The next chapter will examine the knowledge and skills teachers need to develop, in order both to match appropriate approaches to their settings and to reflect on and refine their pedagogy as they teach.

  • Allwright, D. (1988) Observation in the Language Classroom, London: Longman.
  • Dogancay, Aktuna, S. and_Hardman, J.(_2012_).‘Teacher_education for EIL:_ Working toward a situated meta-praxis’. In A. Matsuda (ed.) Principles and Practices of Teaching English as an International Language, Bristol: Multilingual Matters, pp. 103–118.

Interaction in Learning a Second Language

Question:

Submitted by Benmenni Imene, Algeria

What is the effect of interaction in learning a second language?

Professor Richards Responds:

A learning theory that has had considerable influence on language teaching is interactional theory – a social view of language acquisition that focuses on the nature of the interaction that occurs between a language learner and others he or she interacts with, and how such communication facilitates second language acquisition. Communicative language teaching and Task-Based Teaching both reflect this view of learning. Interaction is said to facilitate language learning in a number of ways:

Modification of input
At the core of the theory of language learning as an interactive process is the view that communication can be achieved between a second language learner and a more proficient language user (e.g. a native-speaker) only if the more proficient user modifies the difficulty of the language they use. If the input is too difficult or complex, of course, it may lead to communication breakdown. Therefore, when communicating with learners with limited English proficiency, speakers will typically modify their input by using known vocabulary, speaking more slowly, saying things in different ways, adjusting the topic, avoiding idioms, using a slower rate of speech, using stress on key words, repeating key elements, using simpler grammatical structures, paraphrasing and elaborating. In this way, the input better facilitates both understanding as well as learning.

The following are strategies that can be used to facilitate comprehension:

Negotiation of meaning
This 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.

Repairing misunderstanding
If the learner is to succeed in communicating with others, despite limitations in his or her language proficiency, he or she needs to be able to manage the process of communication in a way that deals with communication difficulties. This can be achieved through the use of communication strategies such as the following:

  • Indicating that he or she has misunderstood something.
  • Repeating something the other person has said, to confirm understanding.
  • Restating something, to clarify meaning.
  • Asking the other person to repeat.
  • Asking the other person for clarification.
  • Repeating a word or phrase that was misunderstood.

In interactional theory, the learner’s ability to pay attention and request feedback is considered an essential feature of successful second language learning.

Modifying input
A feature of interactions between native speakers (or advanced language users) and second language learners is modification of the native-speaker’s language to facilitate comprehension. Modification of “input” is often seen in interactions like these:

  • Clerk to customer: You need to fill in the form. The form. You need to fill it in. Write here, please.
  • Adult to visitor: Which part of Japan are you from? Are you from Tokyo?
  • Supervisor to factory worker: You start this one first. Finish. Then you see me.
  • Advanced-level learner to lower-level learner: You need to review your essay before you hand it in – you know, go through and check the spelling and the organization carefully.

When people communicate with learners who have a very limited level of proficiency in a second language, they often use strategies of this kind, using a form of communication sometimes referred to as ‘foreigner talk’. Other examples of this kind of modified talk are known as teacher talk, and caretaker talk (e.g. the interaction between a parent and a very young child). Similarly, when a learner interacts with a person who is a more advanced language user, the input the advanced user provides often helps the learner expand his or her language resources. For example, the reformulation of the learner’s utterance may draw attention to, or help the learner notice, features of the language, as we see in these exchanges between a student and a teacher:

S: I’m going away for weekend.
T: You’re going away for the weekend?
S: Yes, away for the weekend.

T: What did you buy at the sale?
S: I bought it. This bag.
T: Oh, you bought this bag? It’s nice.
S: Yes, I bought this bag.

S: Last week, I go away.
T: Oh, you went away last week?
S: Yes, I went away.

Negotiation of meaning often occurs spontaneously as well. For example, the following negotiation of meaning was observed between a learner and a native speaker: the learner wished to express that she lived in a shared apartment near the campus with two other students.

S1: So, where are you staying now?
S2: Staying an apartment. Together some friends.
S1: That’s nice. How many of you?
S2: Staying with three friend. Sharing with Nada and Anna. Very near.
S1: It’s near here? Near the campus?
S2: Yes, it’s near the campus. On Forbes street.

Repeated opportunities to communicate in this way are said to provide opportunities for learners to expand their language resources and are often used with communicative approaches to teaching.

Drills in Language Teaching

Question:

Submitted by Sopich Pin, Cambodia

Do drills still have a place in language teaching today?

Professor Richards Responds:

It is useful to distinguish between three different kinds of practice in teaching – mechanical, meaningful, and communicative.

Mechanical practice refers to a controlled practice activity which students can successfully carry out without necessarily understanding the language they are using. Examples of this kind of activity would be repetition drills and substitution drills designed to practice use of particular grammatical or other items. Activities of this kind are of limited value in developing communicative language use.

Meaningful practice refers to an activity where language control is still provided but where students are required to make meaningful choices when carrying out practice. For example, in order to practice the use of prepositions to describe locations of places, students might be given a street map with various buildings identified in different locations. They are also given a list of prepositions such as across from, on the corner of, near, on, next to. They then have to answer questions such as “Where is the book shop? Where is the café?” Etc. The practice is now meaningful because they have to respond according to the location of places on the map.

Communicative practice refers to activities where practice in using language within a real communicative context is the focus, where real information is exchanged, and where the language used is not totally predictable. For example students might have to draw a map of their neighborhood and answer questions about the location of different places in their neighborhood, such as the nearest bus stop, the nearest café, etc.

Exercise sequences in many communicative course book take students from mechanical, to meaningful to communicative practice but give priority to meaningful and communicative practice.

MEXTESOL Journal celebrates its 40th anniversary

MEXTESOL JournalThe journal of the Mexican TESOL Association – MEXTESOL Journal – will shortly celebrate its 40th anniversary. To celebrate the anniversary the journal will add a special feature to each issue, described as “A Vintage Article–an article that has had great influence on our readers or that has a place in the history of ELT.” They have chosen to feature an article by Jack Richards published  in the journal in 1994 entitled Teacher Thinking and Foreign Language Teaching.

New Educational Consultant role

Professor Richards has been invited to serve as en educational consultant to Cambridge English Teacher – an on-line teacher development site for English teachers – a joint project of Cambridge University Press and Cambridge ESOL. Professor Richards will be involved in planning new courses to be made available on CET and will also be able to respond to questions from members of CET. For more information see here.

Evaluating a Text Book

Question:

Submitted by Mehdi S, Iran

What procedures can we use to evaluate a published textbook?

Dr Richards responds:

Textbook evaluation can be divided into separate phases: pre-use (also known as pre-evaluation), during use (or in-use) and after use (or post-use).

Pre-evaluation: analysis
Most textbook evaluation schemes distinguish two essential stages that are necessary at the pre-evaluation phase: a description or analysis phase, and an interpretation or evaluation phase. In the first phase, the contents of the book have to be carefully described in terms of scope and sequence, organization, and the types of texts and exercises contained within. The analysis phase will involve identifying these kinds of information:

  • Aims and objectives of the book.
  • Level of the book.
  • Skills addressed.
  • Topics covered.
  • Situations it is intended for.
  • Target learners.
  • Time required.
  • Components.
  • Number and length of units.
  • Organization of units.

Pre-evaluation: evaluation
This stage of evaluation is more difficult since it involves subjective judgements, and these often differ from one person to another. For this reason, group evaluations are often useful. A number of checklists have been developed to assist at this stage of Pre-evaluation. However, checklists involve somewhat subjective categories and usually need to be adapted to reflect the particular book under consideration. In general, textbook evaluation addresses the following issues:

Goals: What does the book seek to achieve and how clearly are its learning outcomes identified?
Syllabus: What syllabus framework is the book based on? Is the syllabus adequate or would it need to be supplemented (e.g. through additional activities for grammar or pronunciation)?
Theoretical framework: What language-learning theory is the book based on? Does it present an informed understanding of any underlying theory?
Methodology: What methodology is the book based on? Is it pedagogically sound?
Language content: What kind of language does it contain and how authentic and relevant is the content? Is it an appropriate level of difficulty for the learners?
Other content: What topics and themes are covered and are they appropriate for the target learners?
Organization: Is the book well organized into units and lessons, and within lessons are the purposes of activities clearly identified? Do units have a coherent, consistent organization and do they gradually progress in difficulty throughout the book?
Teacher appeal: Does the book look easy to teach and is it self-contained, or would the teacher need to develop supplementary materials to use with it? Would it require special training or could it be used by teachers with limited experience, and by both native-speaker and non-native-speaker teachers?
Learner appeal: How engaging would it be for learners? How would they rate the design of the book (including the photos and illustrations), the topics and the kinds of activities included? Is the material clearly relevant to their perceived language-learning needs? Are self-study components included?
Ancilliaries: What other components does the book include, such as teacher’s book, workbook, tests, and digital and web-based support? Are all of these components published and available?
Price: Is the book affordable for the intended buyers?

When a group-evaluation process is used, all of the issues above and others specific to the teaching context can be discussed, and if several books are being considered, a consensus reached on the book that most suits teachers’ needs. The decision may not rest entirely on the book’s merits. For example, if students are known to use a certain coursebook in private high schools, the book may be rejected for use in private-language programmes that attract university students.

Evaluating during and after use
In-use evaluation focuses partially on the global needs of the institution: if testing is important, the comprehensive nature of the tests may be evaluated closely; if lab work is important, the pedagogical effectiveness and comprehensiveness of the online components may be evaluated in depth; if the school transitions students from a younger-learners programme to an adult programme, the ease of the transition from the coursebook for younger learners may be reviewed.

In terms of the classroom experience, however, and overall learner satisfaction, in-use evaluation focuses on how well the book functions in the classroom, and depends on monitoring the book whilst it is being used by collecting information from both teachers and students. Information collected can serve the following purposes:

  • To provide feedback on how well the book works in practice and how effectively it achieves it aims.
  • To document effective ways of using the textbook and assist other teachers in using it.
  • To keep a record of adaptations that were made to the book.

This monitoring process may involve ongoing consultation with teachers to address issues that arise as the book is being used and to resolve problems that may occur. For example:

  • Is there too much or too little material?
  • Is it at the right level for students?
  • What aspects of the book are proving least and most effective?
  • What do teachers and students like most or least about the book?

Various approaches to monitoring the use of a book are possible:

  • Observation: Classroom visits to see how teachers use the book and to find out how the book influences the quality of teaching and learning in the lesson.
  • Record of use: Documentation of what parts of the book were used or not used and what adaptations or supplements were made to the book and why.
  • Feedback sessions: Group meetings in which teachers discuss their experiences with the book.
  • Written reports: The use of reflection sheets, or other forms of written feedback (e.g. blogs and online forums), in which teachers make brief notes about what worked well and what did not work well, or give suggestions on using the book.
  • Teachers’ reviews: Written reviews by a individual or groups of teachers on their experiences with the book, and what they liked or didn’t like about it.
  • Students’ reviews: Comments from students on their experiences with the book.

Post-use evaluation serves to provide information that will help decide if the book will continue to be used for future programmes.
Detailed information from textbook-evaluation processes, often conducted over a lengthy period, is a primary source of input when publishers decide to develop new editions of textbooks. Therefore, teachers may have a profound effect on the future direction of textbooks they are currently using.

 

What is CBLT?

Question:

Submitted by Luc Danon from Cote D’ivoire

What is CBLT? What are its didactic implications?

Dr Richards responds:

Competency-based instruction is an approach to the planning and delivery of courses that has been in widespread use since the 1970s. What characterizes a competency-based approach is the focus on the outcomes of learning, as the driving force of teaching and the curriculum. The application of its principles to language teaching is called competency-based language teaching. Because this approach seeks to teach the skills needed to perform real-world tasks, it became widely used, from the 1980s, as the basis for many English language programmes for immigrants and refugees, as well as for work-related courses of many different kinds. It is an approach that has been the foundation for the design of work-related and survival-oriented language teaching programmes for adults. It seeks to teach students the basic skills they need in order to prepare them for situations they commonly encounter in everyday life. Recently, competency-based frameworks have become adopted in many countries, particularly for vocational and technical education. They are also increasingly being adopted in national language curriculums.

CBLT is often used in programmes that focus on learners with very specific language needs. In such cases, rather than seeking to teach general English, the specific language skills needed to function in a specific context is the focus. This is similar, then, to an ESP approach. There, too, the starting point in course planning is an identification of the tasks the learner will need to carry out within a specific setting and the language demands of those tasks. (The Common European Framework of Reference also describes learning outcomes in terms of competencies). The competencies needed for successful task performance are then identified, and used as the basis for course planning. Teaching methods used may vary, but typically are skill-based, since the focus is on developing the ability to use language to carry out real-world activities.

Intercultural Communicative Competence

Question:

Submitted by Symbat from Kazakhstan

What do you think is the significance of Intercultural Communicative Competence? And why is it important in ELT?

Dr Richards responds:

From the viewpoint of English as an international language, the goal of English teaching is not merely to develop communicative skills in English. Second language learning provides ‘the opportunity for emancipation from the confines of learners’ native habits and culture, with the development of new perceptions into foreign and native cultures alike. Learning English thus becomes an opportunity to compare cultures, and for learners to validate their own cultural and linguistic heritages.

How should I manage a discussion class?

Question:

Submitted by Nafas from Iran

How should I manage a discussion class, in an intermediate level?

Dr Richards responds:

Approaches to teaching discussion skills centre on addressing the following issues :

Choosing topics: Topics may be chosen by students or assigned by the teacher. Both options offer different possibilities for student involvement.
• Forming groups: Small groups of four to five allow for more active participation, and care is needed to establish groups of compatible participants. For some tasks, roles may be assigned (e.g. group leader, note-taker, observer).
Preparing for discussions: Before groups are assigned a task, it may be necessary to review background knowledge, assign information-gathering tasks (e.g. watching a video) and teach some of the specific ways students can present a viewpoint, interrupt, disagree politely, etc.
Giving guidelines: The parameters for the discussion should be clear so that students are clear how long the discussion will last, what the expected outcomes are, roles of participants, expectations for student input and acceptable styles of interaction.
Evaluating discussions: Both the teacher and the students can be involved in reflection on discussions. The teacher may want to focus on the amount and quality of input from participants and give suggestions for improvement. Some review of language used may be useful at this point. Students may comment on their own performance and difficulties they experienced and give suggestions for future discussions.

How can you define strategy instruction?

Question:

Submitted by Nadjet Khenioui from Algeria

How can you define strategy instruction? And in what ways is it beneficial for university students?

Dr Richards responds:

Language learning strategies can be defined as thoughts and actions, consciously selected by learners, to assist them in learning and using language in general, and in the completion of specific language tasks. However, learning strategies have a broader role in language learning and suggest an active role for learners in managing their own learning – one that may be used in conjunction with, or independently from, the method or approach the teacher is using.

The relevance of strategy theory to teaching is that some strategies are likely to be more effective than others, and by recognizing the differences between the strategies used by expert and novice language learners or between successful and less successful learners, the effectiveness of teaching and learning can be improved. Methods and approaches implicitly or explicitly require the use of specific learning strategies; however, the focus of much strategy research is on self-managed strategies that may be independent of those favored by a particular method. In order to give learners a better understanding of the nature of strategies and to help them develop effective strategy use, four issues need to be addressed:

1. Raising awareness of the strategies learners are already using

2. Presenting and modelling strategies so that learners become increasingly aware of their own thinking and learning processes

3. Providing multiple practice opportunities to help learners move toward autonomous use of the strategies through gradual withdrawal of teacher scaffolding, and

4. Getting learners to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies used and any efforts that they have made to transfer these strategies to new tasks.

In teaching strategies both direct and indirect strategies are used. With a direct approach, strategy training is a feature of a normal language lesson and a training session includes five stages: preparation, presentation, practice, evaluation, and expansion.

The notion of strategies is relevant to learners at all levels.

Assessing Writing Skills

Question:

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 https://criterion.ets.org and http://myaccess.com; 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.

Difference between an approach and a method?

Question:

Submitted by Sara from Iran

What is the  difference between an approach and a method?

Dr Richards responds:

All instructional designs for the teaching of a second or foreign language draw on a number of sources for the principles and practices they advocate. For example, they generally make explicit or implicit use of:

  • A theory of language: An account of what the essential components of language are and what proficiency or competence in a language entails.
  • A theory of learning: An account of the psycholinguistic, cognitive and social processes involved in learning a language and the conditions that need to be present for these processes to be activated.

The theory of language and language learning underlying an instructional design results in the development of principles that can serve to guide the process of teaching and learning. Different instructional designs in language teaching often reflect very different understandings of the nature of language and of language learning. The particular theory of language and language learning underlying an instructional design, in turn, leads to further levels of specification. For example:

  • Learning objectives: What the goals of teaching and learning will be.
  • The syllabus: What the primary units of organization for a language course will consist of.
  • Teacher and learner roles: What roles teachers and learners are expected to play in the classroom.
  • Activities: The kinds of classroom activities and techniques that are recommended.

When an instructional design is quite explicit at the level of theory of language and learning, but can be applied in many different ways at the level of objectives, teacher and learner roles and activities, it is usually referred to as an approach. Communicative language teaching is generally regarded as an approach, because the principles underlying it can be applied in many different ways. Teachers adopting an approach have considerable flexibility in how they apply the principles to their own contexts. When an instructional design includes a specific level of application in terms of objectives, teacher and learner roles and classroom activities, it is referred to as a method. With a method, there are prescribed objectives, roles for teacher and learners and guidelines for activities, and, consequently, little flexibility for teachers in how the method is used. The teacher’s role is to implement the method. Audiolingualism, Total Physical Response and Silent Way are examples of methods. The era of methods, in this sense, is often said to have lasted until the 1990s, by which time, researchers and applied linguists had shifted the focus to teachers and the process of teaching, rather than methods. The researchers suggested that while teachers may draw on principles and practices from approaches and methods they have studied or been trained in, once they enter the classrooms and develop experience in teaching, their practice is much more likely to reflect an interaction between training-based knowledge, knowledge and beliefs derived from the practical experience of teaching and their own teaching philosophy and principles.

The role of age in second language learning

Question:

Submitted from Iran

What is the role of age in second or foreign language learning?

Dr Richards responds:

It is a common observation that children seem to learn new languages relatively easily, while older learners, particularly adults, are often not so successful. Nevertheless, there is also evidence that adults have the advantage in several important areas, such as those involving cognitive skills, making them more adept, for example, at learner autonomy.

In terms of children’s apparent success, a reason that was offered in the 1970s was that there was a critical period for second language learning (before puberty), and that once learners had passed this period, changes in the brain and in cognitive processes made language learning more difficult. This was the critical-period hypothesis that led some educationists to argue for an earlier start for second and foreign language instruction, in order to capitalize on the special language-learning capacities of young learners. Unfortunately, the considerable amount of research devoted to this issue has not confirmed the theory that younger equals better language learner. It is true that there are some aspects of language learning (such as pronunciation) where younger learners appear to have an advantage; learners who start learning at an older age often retain a ‘foreign accent’ in their English, which is not the case with young learners. However, there are many factors, aside from age-related ability, that account for the apparent ease with which young children often appear to ‘pick up’ a new language relatively easily. In the case of naturalistic language learning, young learners are typically highly motivated to do so; they receive large amounts of input geared to their level of learning, as well as copious amounts of practice. They also receive rewards and benefits for their efforts, since learning the new language is the key to peer acceptance and to the satisfaction of basic needs. These factors are often not the same for adult learners studying English in classroom settings. Dornyei (2009) points out that, in any given situation, there are invariably a multitude of factors involved, and age is often only one of them and not necessarily the most important one. There are also documented examples of unsuccessful child language learning, as well as of successful adult language learning.

Adults, however, may have the advantage, in some respects, because there is evidence for differences in the ways younger and older learners approach language learning. Older learners are particularly good at vocabulary learning, for example , and they can make use of different cognitive and learning skills from children, since they make use of more abstract reasoning and thinking and can often learn more analytically and reflectively. I myself did not start learning a foreign language until I was in my twenties, but, at one stage, was sufficiently fluent in French to use it as a medium of instruction in an applied-linguistics programme in Quebec. Methods used to teach young learners and older learners, consequently, employ different teaching strategies, reflecting the different age-related processes and strategies these learners can make use of, as well as their very different learning needs. The educational implications of the second language acquisition debate about the age issue in language teaching, however, are somewhat minimal, since decisions on when to commence the teaching of English in public education are often made largely on other grounds. They often simply reflect worldwide educational trends or fashions, or they may be linked to the need to prepare students for the use of English as a medium of instruction in secondary school, or to better prepare them for national or school examinations.

Z. Dornyei 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.