The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

American or British accent?

Question:

Submitted by Majid Shojayee,  Iran

Do you think students should aim to master an American or British accent?

Dr Richards responds:

The role of English as an international language has refocussed interest in the role of pronunciation in teaching English. In the 1970’s the target for learning was assumed to be a native-speaker variety of English and it was the native speaker’s culture, perceptions, and speech that were crucial in setting goals for English teaching. The native speaker had a privileged status. Today local varieties of English such as Filipino English and Singapore English are firmly established as a result of indigenization, and in contexts where English is a foreign language there is less of a pressure to turn foreign-language speakers of English (e.g. Koreans, Mexicans, or Germans) into mimics of native-speaker English, be it an American, British, or Australian variety. The extent to which a learner seeks to speak with a native-like accent and sets this as his or her personal goal, is a personal one. It is not necessary to try to eradicate the phonological influences of the mother tongue nor to seek to speak like a native speaker. Jennifer Jenkins argues that RP pronunciation is both an unattainable and an unnecessary target for second language learners, and she proposes a phonological syllabus that maintains core phonological distinctions but is a reduced inventory from RP.

Setting a native-speaker target for the learning of pronunciation has also been criticized on other grounds:

Because it is largely unattainable  – Unless learners commence learning English at a very young age and are exposed to very large amounts of native-speaker input and are strongly motivated to acquire a native-speaker accent, it is unlikely that they will acquire a native-speaker accent.

Because it is unnecessary – Effective comprehension is not dependent upon the speaker having a native-speaker accent. What is more important is intelligibility and fluency, which depends upon a good control of grammar, vocabulary, a level of pronunciation which does not impede communication, effective communication strategies as well the ability to communicate with ease and without excessive pauses and interruptions. The speaker’s pronunciation should not arouse negative reactions or interfere with understanding but variance in pronunciation is a normal feature of communication.

Because the learner may not seek it – Learners may feel that it is acceptable for their English pronunciation to reflect their linguistic, and hence their cultural background. While some learners may set as their goal being able to speak like a native speaker of British, American or Australian English for example, others may feel that an accent influenced by their native language is part of their cultural identity.

Book Recommendations: listening in second language learning

Question:

Submitted by Nesma,  Egypt

Could you please recommend books on the role of listening in second language learning?

Dr Richards responds:

Dr. Richards’ recommendations:

  • Field, J. (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Flowerdew, J. and Miller, L. (2005) Second Language Listening, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lynch, T. (2009) Teaching Second Language Listening, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Richards, J. C. and Burns, A. (2012) Tips for Teaching Listening, New York: Pearson.
  • Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. (2012) Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action, New York: Routledge.
  • Wilson, J. J. (2008) How to Teach Listening, Harlow, Essex: Pearson Longman.

Do textbooks ‘enslave’ teachers?

Question:

Submitted by Radia Kherbouche,  Algeria

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

Dr Richards responds:

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

Book Recommendations: Professional Development

Question:

Submitted by Artemis, UK

What books can you recommend on professional development?

Dr Richards responds:

Here are some suggestions:

  • Borg, Simon. 2006. Teacher Cognition and Language Education. London: Continuum.
  • Burns.,Anne. 2010. Doing Action research in English Language teaching: A Guide for Practitioners. New York: Routledge.
  • Burns, Anne and Jack C Richards (Eds). Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.
  • Richards Jack C and Thomas Farrell. Professional Development for Language Teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press 2005
  • Roberts, Jon. 1998. Language Teacher Education. London: Arnold.
  • Tedick, Diane J. (Ed). 2005. Second Language Teacher Education: International Perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Book Recommendations: Teaching speaking

Question:

Submitted by Monserrath Ramirez,  Ecuador

Can you recommend books about the methodology teaching speaking?

Dr Richards responds:

I recommend the following:

  • Bygate, Martin 1987. Speaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fulcher, Glen 2003. Testing Second Language Speaking. Harlow: Pearson.
  • Goh, Christine C.M. and Anne Burns. 2012.  Teaching Speaking: A Holistic Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Luoma, Sari 2004. Assessing Speaking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pridham, Francesca 2001. The Language of Conversation. London: Routledge.
  • Thornbury, Scott. 2005. How to Teach Speaking. Harlow: Longman.
  • Thornbury, Scott and Diana Slade. 2006. Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Error Analysis

Question:

Submitted by Imane Begag,  Algeria

How does error analysis explain the foreign language learners’ errors?

Dr Richards responds:

Some features of learner language

The language learners produce when they are learning English reflects many different factors, such as their stage of grammatical development, the kind of communication they are engaged in, and the learner’s first language as well as the strategies the learner is making use of in communication. The result may be language that is sometimes inaccurate or inappropriate. Identifying the factors that contribute to the characteristics of learner discourse began in earnest with the field of error analysis in the 1970s, developing into what is referred to as second language acquisition today. The following processes are often referred to, although it is not always possible to assign a feature of learner English unambiguously to a specific cause.

Language transfer

Transfer is the effect of one language on the learning of another. Positive transfer occurs when both the native language and English have the same form or linguistic feature. It makes learning easier and does not result in errors. Both French and English have the word table which means the same thing in both languages. Languages may share aspects of grammar such as some patterns of word order and the use of adverbs and these may allow for positive transfer. Negative transfer or interference is the use of a native-language pattern or rule that leads to an error or inappropriate form in the target language. For example a French learner of English may produce I am here since Thursday instead of I have been here since Thursday because of the transfer of the French pattern Je suis ici depuis Jeudi and I like very much coffee instead of I like coffee very much transferring the pattern J’aime beaucoup le café. The following sentences show the result of transfer from Spanish:

What understand the children?

Can the director to speak with me now?

Will not to watch TV the boys tonight?

 Learners with some language backgrounds such as German are likely to have relatively few difficulties learning how to use definite and indefinite articles in English because German has a similar article system to English. Japanese learners on the other hand find the English article system difficult because Japanese does not have a similar article system to English. An attempt to predict the linguistic difficulties of English by comparing the grammar of English with the grammar of other languages resulted in an activity known as contrastive analysis in the 1970s.

Overgeneralization

This process refers to extending the use of a form to an inappropriate context by analogy. This is a normal and natural process and both learners of English as a second language as well as children learning it as a first language often extend the use of grammatical rules to contexts where they do not occur, as in I breaked the vase. We goes to the beach. Other examples of overgeneralization are seen in the following:

Under no circumstances we will accept these terms.

            They didn’t like it; not I liked it.

            She was unhappy at the development: so I was.

            Now I see why did they behave like that.

Sometimes overgeneralization may mean over-using a grammatical form such as the –ing form, as with these examples;

I don’t know why people always talking me.

Yesterday I didn’t working.

A common form of overgeneralization is seen when learners attempt to make irregular verbs fit regular patterns, as with break above and also with cases such as seened (for saw), ated (for ate) , and wented (for went).

Simplification

This occurs when learners reduce a complex aspect of grammar to a much simpler set of rules and reflects a process that is used when messages need to be conveyed with limited language resources. For example instead of making the distinction between “he” and “she” the learner may use the masculine pronoun, or instead of distinguishing between first and third person in verbs (I like, She likes) the learner may use the first person rule for all persons (I like, He/ She like). Ortega notes that it is common in the early stages of language learning and particularly in naturalistic learning situations. Simplification of aspects of grammar such as questions tags occurs in some varieties of English. In colloquial Singapore English for example, one encounters:

That was your sister, is it?

        You are from the States, is it?

Underuse

Sometimes learners may underuse a form they have studied and practiced many times. For example the learner may avoid using some constructions with if- (If I had known I would have told her about it) and use instead I didn’t know so I didn’t tell her, because it appears to them as more direct and easy to understand.

Overuse: at other times a learner may become over-dependent on certain grammatically correct forms and use them in preference to other forms that might be known and available. For example the learner may become dependent on a phrase such as last time to refer to past events and use it when other ways of referring to past time could have been used:

I like Thai food. I tried it last time.

I know her. We met last time.

Fossilization

Sometimes a learner’s grammatical development appears to have stopped at a certain level and recurring errors of both grammar and pronunciation have become permanent features of a learner’s speech. This is referred to as fossilization. Fossilization refers to the persistence of errors in a learner’s speech despite progress in other areas of language development. For example here are a few examples of fossilized errors in an adult fluent speaker of English who uses English regularly and effectively, though often with a high frequency of what we might regard as basic grammatical and other errors.

I doesn’t understand what she wanted.

    He never ask me for help.

            Last night I watch TV till 2 am.

She say she meeting me after work.

Fossilized errors such as those above tend not to affect comprehension although they might be stigmatised due to the fact that they often reflect errors that are typical of very basic-level learners (such as omission of 3rd person “s). Since fossilized errors do not generally trigger misunderstanding and hence do not prompt a clarification request from the listener, the learner may simple never notice them or be aware that they are there. The noticing hypothesis (see below) suggests that unless the speaker notices such errors, it is unlikely that he or she will correct them.

When teachers begin to notice common features of learner language and features that appear to be fossilized. they need to decide, whether to address them or whether to accept them as evidence of learning.

Feedback in the teaching of second language writing

Question:

Submitted by Dian Riany,  Indonesia

What is the role of feedback in the teaching of second language writing?

Dr Richards responds:

An important issue in the teaching of writing is how to give students feedback on their written work, when to give it, by whom, and how. Nothing is more discouraging for a teacher than to have the daunting task of reading and commenting on 40 or 50 students essays as a weekend chore. Some help is offered by word-processing programs if students prepare their writing on a computer, since software is available to identify spelling and simple grammatical problems. However intervention by the teacher cannot easily be avoided. Such feedback may include comments on any aspects of piece of written work, including spelling, grammar, style and organization. However the effect of such feedback is not always easy to determine. Do students learn from it or do they simply pay minimum attention to it and move on to their next assignment?

Some teachers use checklists in which a score is given for each different aspect of a composition, such as content, organization, vocabulary, language and mechanics (spelling, punctuation, paragraphing).

The kind of feedback the teacher gives may depend on what stage in the writing process the writing represents (e.g. drafting, composing, editing) and feedback should both encourage students (through praise for ideas, originality etc) as well as guide them towards needed improvements.

Peer-feedback is an alternative to teacher feedback and is an important feature of a process approach to writing instruction. With this approach student read drafts of each other’s compositions and may use checklists or question sets to help them read and respond to their partner’s writing.  Not all teachers and students appreciate the value of peer feedback however. Teachers may feel that students comment on the wrong things or give incorrect feedback. Students may not value their partner’s views or comments. However it does offer a more comfortable feedback process and is usually supplemented by teacher feedback as well.

The following is a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to feedback on students’ sentence-level errors in their writing:

Feedback method Advantages Disadvantages
1 Complete reformulation of errors by teacher Students receive accurate and comprehensive feedback, which specifically addresses their language needs. Time consuming for teacher. Does not encourage cognitive processing of errors by students so there may be no long-term benefits. The quantity of corrections may discourage students.
2 In-class peer feedback Reduces teacher’s workload. Provides a wider audience for students’ work, which can have a motivating effect. Encourages greater cognitive processing of errors by students and promotes learner independence. Encourages collaboration and negotiation of meaning in the classroom. Students require training in how give constructive feedback, which takes time away from actual writing practice. May be perceived as less valuable feedback by students themselves. Time-consuming in-class activity. Feedback can be (a) wrong or (b) less helpful than teacher’s comments.
3 Selective feedback by the teacher on specific issues or target language of current concern. Reduces teacher’s workload. Feedback can be tailored to ongoing themes in the class. Less comprehensive feedback provided which may not address students’ particular concerns.
4 Minimal marking (marking codes, underlining problem areas etc_ Reduces teacher’s workload. Encourages greater cognitive processing by students. May not provide sufficient support for less proficient students to correct errors by themselves.
5 No feedback on errors Reduces teacher’s workload. Increases the amount of time for actual writing practice, which should benefit students’ writing fluency. Provides no support or encouragement for students to correct errors. Goes against students’ desire for feedback and may cause frustration.

Technology mediated language teaching (TMLT)

Question:

Submitted by Ayad, Iran

How to use technology to put the learners in the spotlight?

Dr Richards responds:

Technology mediated language teaching (TMLT) offers many potential benefits to learners. These include:

Wider exposure to English: For learners whose exposure to English is limited the Internet allows them to extend their exposure to English beyond the classroom, both to authentic and instructional materials.

Compatibility with current theories of SLA: research on second language acquisition identifies five features of effective language learning environments, which underlie the design of many TMLT activities:

  1. Learners have many opportunities to read, write, listen to and discuss oral and written texts expressed in a variety of ways
  2. Their attention is drawn to patterns of English language structure.
  3. Learners have time to use their English productively
  4. They have opportunities to notice their errors and correct their English
  5. They involve activities that maximize opportunities for learners to interact with others in English

 Increased opportunities for authentic interaction: TMLT allows learners to connect with other learners worldwide and to participate in real communication.

Enables flexible learning: students can learn in their own time and at their own pace. They can learn from their own home or workplace rather than in the classroom.

Supports different ways of learning: it allows students to find learning resources that match their preferred way of learning, for example visual or auditory.

Supports different skills: some students may wish to focus on a particular skill (e.g. reading or speaking) and can access resources that address a particular skill (see below). For example students can join a Listserv that focuses on a particular aspect of leaning English, such as idioms,

Suitable for learners of different ability: learners can choose activities and resources suitable for their proficiency level from beginners to advanced.

Encourages more active learning: the roles of students change. They are no longer the passive recipient of instruction but are actively engaged in furthering their own knowledge and skills and more in control of the process and the outcomes

Encourages learner autonomy: learners have a greater level of choice over what they learn and how they learn it, thus developing a greater sense of learner autonomy.

Provides a stress-reduced environment: for some learners TMLT is a much less stressful way to practice using English than classroom-based activities where they feel they are being compared with their peers. It supports individualized learning.

Provides a social context for learning: it allows learners to join a learning community in which they interact socially with other learners. In this way it encourages collaborative learning. Students provide peer tutoring, helping each other accomplish tasks.

Increases motivation: motivation often increases when students are engaged in TMLT and discipline problems decrease.

Access to more engaging materials: TMLT provides access to content that is often very engaging for learners such as digital games, Youtube content and so on.

Encourages situated learning: mobile technologies in particular can be helpful in supporting learners to use English at the point of need, for example when traveling.

Offers opportunities for more and alternative types of feedback: many programs include immediate or delayed feedback to learners, and collaborative tools such as email and chat allow learners to work with other learners to get peer-feedback, or to get help from a (remote) teacher.

Task-based teaching in primary school

Question:

Submitted by Danfer,  China

Can task-based teaching be used in primary school?

Dr Richards responds:

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

Ten children have brown eyes.

How many children have green eyes?

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

 

Mother tongue use in the classroom

Question:

Submitted by Diani Nurhajati,  Indonesia

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

Dr Richards responds:

While the goal of teaching young learners is to use as much English in class as possible, when teaching homogeneous classes it is quite appropriate to use the mother tongue when necessary to explain the meaning of words and expressions and to help explain activities. Occasional use of the mother tongue provides a comfort zone for young learners, though the teacher and students should not become over-dependent on it.

Giving Verbal Feedback

Question:

Submitted by Mehdi Mahdiyan, Iran

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

Dr Richards responds:

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

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

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

Another issue that can affect students’ classroom participation is their willingness to attempt to use English in the classroom (MacIntyre 2007: Peng and Woodrow 2010), a factor that has been linked to variables such as personality, self-confidence, attitudes and motivation and is linked to anxiety as well as learners’ views of their own communicative competence.

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

Content of FLteacher Education courses

Question:

Submitted by Nafise, Iran

What would be the content of in-service FLteacher education courses?

Dr Richards responds:

Teacher development seeks to facilitate growth of the teacher’s general understanding of teaching and of himself or herself as a teacher. It often involves examining different dimensions of one’s own practice as a basis for reflective review, and hence can be seen as practitioner-driven. It 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. Qualifications in teacher development, typically the MA degree, were offered by universities, where the practical skills of language teaching were often undervalued. After teachers have been teaching for some time, however, their knowledge and skills sometimes become outdated or there may be a lack of fit between the skills the teacher possesses and what the school needs. For example, a teacher may have to take on more difficult tasks for which he or she has not received any formal training, such as the preparation of tests, or as a result of staff changes, the teacher may have to take on new assignments that were not previously part of his or her teaching; or a key staff member may leave and his or her teaching may have to be taken over by others, none of whom share the teacher’s specialization. Qualifications too soon become outdated as a result of changes in the field of TESOL.
The most practical response to this situation is for the school to provide the means by which teachers can acquire the knowledge and skills they need. Here, teacher development is primarily conceived in terms of the needs of the institution. Because it refers to developmental activities within a school or institution, it is usually referred to as “staff development” and often takes the form of in-service training. However other forms of development may also be needed that the school cannot provide. Some teachers may be quite competent but lack a professional qualification such as the CELTA – a certificate level qualification. Others may have been teaching for some time and seek to take a more advanced qualification, perhaps the DELTA or an MA in TESOL either part time or by distance, to enable them to take on more senior roles in the school. Enabling teachers to participate in staff development as well as to acquire professional qualifications directly or indirectly enhances the performance of the institution as a whole as well as to contributes to the teacher’s individual development.

Consequently, opportunities for professional development should be provided for all staff. A program coordinator may well need to complete a master’s degree in TESOL, but a newly hired teacher may also need training in how to assess student learning. Both needs are equally important because the success of a school program may well depend on both the strengths of its curriculum and the teaching skills of its junior staff. They are both part of the process of institutional development. The content of an in-service course will depend on the needs of the teachers in the institution, but may include:

  • Disciplinary knowledge: understanding of the disciplinary basis of TESOL, those areas of applied linguistics and that define the professional knowledge base of language teaching.
  • Pedagogical expertise. Mastery of new areas of teaching, adding to one’s repertoire of teaching specializations, improving ability to teach different skill areas to learners of different ages and backgrounds.
  • Understanding of learners. Deepening understanding of learners, learning styles, learners’ problems and difficulties, ways of making content more accessible to learners.
  • Understanding of curriculum and materials. Deepening one’s understanding of curriculum and curriculum initiatives, use and development of instructional materials.
  • Research skills. Knowledge of reach approaches used to investigate one’s own classroom practices and to conduct small-scale classroom research.
  • Career advancement. Acquisition of knowledge and expertise necessary for personal advancement, including mentoring and supervisory skills.

Teaching Methodology

Question:

Submitted by Shifera, Ethiopia

Can I Define Teaching Methodology in terms of  teacher role, learner role, teaching materials, teaching objectives?

Dr Richards Responds:

In developing a framework for a course the core principles that serve to support the teaching and learning processes need to be clearly articulated. The goal is to develop a coherent set of principles that reflect how teaching and learning should be approached in the course. This results in a statement of the “teaching philosophy” of the course and serves as the basis for decisions about classroom methodology. The following statements describe the teaching philosophy supporting a secondary school EFL English program:

  • There is a consistent focus throughout on learning English in order to develop practical and functional skills, rather than as an end in itself.
  • Students are engaged in practical tasks that relate to real-world uses of English
  • Realistic and communicative uses of English are given priority.
  • Maximum use is made of pair and group activities in which students complete tasks collaboratively
  • There is an appropriate balance between accuracy-focussed and fluency-focussed activities
  • Teachers serve as facilitators of learning rather than presenters of information
  • Assessment procedures reflect and support a communicative and skill-based orientation to teaching and learning.
  • Students develop an awareness of the learning process and their own learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses
  • Students develop the ability to monitor their own learning progress and ways of setting personal goals for language improvement.

Thus we can see from the above that methodology reflects the philosophy of the course, the goals of the course, the teacher’s principles, the kinds of activities that will be used as well as the role of teachers, learners, and materials in the teaching process.

Characteristics of a language teaching method

Question:

Submitted by Fer, Eduador

What are the characteristics of a language teaching 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 Both 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 language and of language learning, as we will see below. 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 levels of objectives, teacher and learner role 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 way. 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 activities and consequently little flexibility for teachers in how the method is used. The teacher’s role is to implement the method. Audiliolingualism and Situational Language Teaching 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 shifted the focus to teachers and the process of teaching rather than methods. They 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. This is known as the theorization of practice.

Definition of Grammar

Question:

Submitted by Nur, Indonesia

Would you please tell me your definition of grammar?

Dr Richards Responds:

There are two dimensions to grammatical knowledge (also known as grammatical or linguistic competence) that are central in second language learning and teaching:

  • knowing how to use the grammatical system of a language to create sentences
  • knowing how to use the grammatical resources of a language as part of the processes used in creating spoken and written texts

The system of rules used to create sentences refers to the knowledge of parts of speech, tenses, phrases, clauses and syntactic structures used to create grammatically well-formed sentences in English. The rules for constructing grammatically correct sentences belong to “sentence grammar”. This is the kind of grammar that is the focus of many grammar reference books and grammar practice books for students.

Older approaches to grammar teaching and the design of course books reflected a view of language that saw the sentence and sentence grammar as forming the building blocks of language, language learning, and language use.  The goal of language teaching was to understand how sentences are used to create different kinds of meaning, to master the underlying rules for forming sentences from lower-level grammatical units such as phrases and clauses, and to practice using them as the basis for written and spoken communication. Syllabuses were essentially grammar-based and grammar was a primary focus of teaching techniques. Correct language use was achieved through a drill and practice methodology and through controlled speaking and writing exercises that sought to prevent or minimize opportunities for errors.

However learners also need to know another kind of grammar, and that is the grammar that is used when sentences are connected in longer stretches of discourse to create texts . Knowledge of the grammar that is used to create texts can be called text-grammar. For example here is information about the past tense and other grammatical features that are used in recount texts:

Recounts are either personal recounts, factual recounts or imaginative recounts. Personal recounts usually retell an event that the writer was personal involved in. Factual recounts record an incident, e.g. a science experiment, a police report. Imaginative recounts describe an imaginary role and give details of imaginary events – e.g. a day in the life of a pirate.

Grammatical features of recounts:

  • Written in the past tense
  • Frequent use made of verbs which link events in time, such as when, next, later, after, before, first, at the same time, as soon as
  • Recounts describe events so make frequent use of verbs (action words) and adverbs (which describe and add more detail to verbs)
  • Use of personal pronouns (Personal recount)
  • Passive voice may be used (Factual recount)

Grammar can therefore be understood as a resource people make use of to create discourse that is grammatically appropriate at both the level of the sentence and the text. While vocabulary can be thought of as the units that describe people and places, concepts, topics, states, events, relationships, and actions, grammar can be thought of as the resources we use to package words into sentences and texts according to the  grammatical conventions of our language.  However much of a person’s knowledge of grammar is implicit rather than explicit. When learning a second language, knowing “about” rules of grammar does not necessarily translate into being able to draw on grammatical knowledge in communication, and this is one of the dilemmas that arise in relation to grammar instruction. Traditional approaches to language teaching often assumed that the more students knew about the grammar of English, the better they would be able to use it, but unfortunately this is not the case.

Contemporary approaches to grammar describe grammatical knowledge and grammatical systems in terms of the way people actually use the language, not the way they “should use” it. Describing grammar in terms of how people “should” speak is known as prescriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar is often based on the features of written language and typically written language as it was described several generations ago. Language teaching courses and published materials today generally seek to present grammar as it is actually used by speakers of English, often based on the study of authentic language use and information from corpus research. But because the grammatical resources of English are often very different from the grammatical resources used in the learner’s native language, mastery of grammar presents a significant challenge for many language learners.

How can ZPD notion influence language teaching?

Question:

submitted by Trinh le, Vietnam

How can ZPD notion influence language teaching? Can you give me an example?

Dr Richards Responds:

An important aspect of sociocultural theory is the notion of mediated learning. Essentially this suggests that learning relies on the transmitted experiences of others. Initially, learners depend on others with more experience than themselves and gradually take on more responsibility for their own learning in joint activity. This is sometimes described as a process of guided participation as learning is mediated through the guidance of a more knowledgeable other. Through repeated participation in a variety of joint activities the novice gradually develops new knowledge and skills. The process involved is often referred to as scaffolding.

Scaffolding refers to learning that results from two or more people interacting during the process of completing a classroom activity or during any setting where language is being used, and where one person (e.g. the teacher or another learner) has more advanced knowledge than the other (the learner). During the process discourse is jointly created through assisted or mediated performance. For example in a classroom setting the teacher assists the learners in completing learning activities by observing what they are capable of, providing a series of guided stages through the task, and through collaborative dialogue, scaffolding the learning process by initially providing support (the “scaffold”) and gradually removing support as learning develops. Learning is initially mediated and directed by the teacher or other more advanced learners and is gradually appropriated by the individual learner.  Throughout, the teacher provides opportunities for noticing how language is used, experimenting with language use, practicing new modes of discourse and restructuring existing language knowledge – essential aspects of teaching.

Here is an example of how this process takes place in which the interactions between an ESL tutor in a US college program and a student during feedback sessions on the student’s essay writing are described. The strategies the tutor used in responding to grammatical errors in the student’s composition are summarized as follows and arranged according to whether they reflect independent functioning on the part of the learner (0), or different degrees of collaborative interaction between the tutor and the learners (stages 1-12):

0.  Tutor asks the learner to read, find the errors, and correct them independently prior to the tutorial.

1.  Construction of a ‘collaborative frame’ prompted by the presence of the tutor as a potential dialogic partner.

2.  Prompted or focused reading of the sentence that contains the error by the learner or the tutor.

3.  Tutor indicates that something may be wrong in the segment (for example, sentence, clause, line) – ‘Is there anything wrong in this sentence?

4.  Tutor rejects unsuccessful attempts at recognizing the error.

5.  Tutor narrows down the location of the error (for example, tutor repeats or points to the specific segment  which contains the error.)

6.  Tutor indicates the nature of the error, but does not identify the error (for example, ‘There is something wrong with the tense here ’).

7.  Tutor identifies error (‘You can’t use an auxiliary here’).

8.  Tutor rejects learner’s unsuccessful attempts at correcting error.

9.  Tutor provides clues to help the learner arrive at the correct form (for example, ‘It is not really past but something that is still going on’).

10.  Tutor provides the correct form.

11.  Tutor provides some explanation for the use of the correct form.

12.  Tutor provides examples of the correct pattern when other forms of help fail to produce an appropriate responsive action.

(Lantolf and Thorne 2006, 278-80)

Central to learning from this perspective is the zone of proximal development, which focuses on the gap between what the learner can currently do and the next stage in learning – the level of potential development – and how learning occurs through negotiation between the learner and a more advanced language user during which a process of scaffolding occurs. To take part in these processes the learner must develop interactional competence, the ability to manage exchanges despite limited language development. Personality, motivation, cognitive style may all play a role in influencing the learners willingness to take risks, his or her openness to social interaction and attitudes towards the target language and users of the target language.

Language learning is facilitated by interactions like the ones above in which the interaction proceeds as a kind of joint problem-solving between teacher and student. During the process the teacher assists the learner in using more complex language through a type of assisted performance, and this is central to how many aspects of language use can be learned. The kind of discourse or talk that that occurs in language classrooms also reflects both the pedagogical strategies the teacher employs (e.g. in trying to facilitate negotiation of meaning, interaction and feedback, or to provide scaffolding for activities) as well as the kind of learning community that develops in the classroom.

Communicative teaching

Question:

submitted by Manana Mohamed, UK

In your opinion, do you think that communicative teaching can succeed in any context? 

Dr Richards Responds:

The overarching principles of communicative language teaching methodology can be summarized as follows.

  • make real communication the focus of language learning
  • provide opportunities for learners to experiment and try out what they know
  • be tolerant of learners’ errors as they indicate that the learner is building up his or her communicative competence
  • provide opportunities for learners to develop both accuracy, and fluency
  • link the different skills such as speaking, reading and listening, together, since they usually occur together in the real world
  • let students induce or discover grammar rules

In applying these principles in the classroom, new classroom techniques and activities were needed, and new roles for teachers and learners in the classroom. Instead of making use of activities that demanded accurate repetition and memorization of sentences and grammatical patterns, activities that required learners to negotiate meaning and to interact meaningfully were required. These processes were thought to constitute essential conditions for second language learning. Teachers were recommended to use a balance of fluency activities and accuracy and to use accuracy activities to support fluency activities. Accuracy work could either come before or after fluency work. For example, based on students’ performance on a fluency task, the teacher could assign accuracy work to deal with grammatical or pronunciation problems the teacher observed while students were carrying out the task. While dialogs, grammar, and pronunciation drills did not usually disappear from textbooks and classroom materials at this time, they now appeared as part of a sequence of activities that moved back and forth between accuracy activities and fluency activities. And the dynamics of classrooms also changed. Instead of a predominance of teacher-fronted teaching, teachers were encouraged to make greater use of small-group work. Pair and group activities gave learners greater opportunities to use the language and to develop fluency.

One of the most positive outcomes of CLT was the generation of a new wave of enthusiasm in language teaching and a transformation of the resources available to teach English. The constraints imposed on teachers and materials designers by the somewhat rigid methodologies of audiolingualism and situational language teaching were removed as the focus shifted to learner-focussed materials and activities which drew on authentic or semi-authentic texts, role-play and other communicative classroom activities. At the same time, some critics posed a note of caution.

For example Holliday argued that the communicative orthodoxy taught to teachers who are native-speakers of English reflects a view of teaching and learning that closely reflects culturally-bound assumptions derived from the cultures of origin –Britain, Australasia, and North America – which Holliday refers to as BANA entitities. The teaching methods developed in BANA centres reflect the kinds of learners who study in institutes and universities serving students who generally have instrumental reasons for learning English, namely for academic or professional purposes or as new settlers. Their needs however may be very different from learners learning English in state-based educational programs (e.g. public schools) in other parts of the world – studying in tertiary, secondary or primary settings and hence referred to by Holliday as TESEP contexts. Holliday describes these two learning contexts as creating very different contexts for learning and containing very different parameters. Methods developed in one context (e.g. BANA settings) will not necessarily transfer to others (TESEP settings), and as Holliday points out, most of the literature on English language teaching reflects a primarily BANA understanding of teaching, learning, teachers, learners, and classrooms.

English language learning in primary school

Question:

submitted by Fernanda,  Ecuador

Which reading is better to apply for English language learning in primary school children, critical reading or reading comprehension?

Dr Richards Responds:

Many second language learners need good reading skills in English and reading has always been an important focus of English language teaching programs. However current approaches to the teaching of second language reading are very different from earlier approaches. In the past reading was usually taught by providing texts (usually contrived texts written to word lists) that students read, followed by comprehension questions. There was little difference in approach between teaching reading and testing reading. And advanced reading served as a form of cultural enrichment rather than any real-world goals. Today the role English plays as the language in the information and communication age has prompted a rethinking of approaches to the teaching of reading. Many learners need to develop effective analytical processing skills, problem solving and critical thinking through reading, and to develop technical reading skills rather than those used for literary reading. They need to access, analyse, authenticate and apply information acquired from different sources and turn it into useful personal knowledge. And much of their reading may not be based on printed sources but on on-line reading. In addition the growing use of English as a medium to teach content subjects in schools as well as the role English as an international language has highlight the need for effective approaches to second language reading instruction.

The ability to read and write is know as literacy, and literacy skills play a vital role in people’s everyday lives at home, at work, at school and in their communities. In a single day an adult may use reading for many different purposes. For example:

 

Reading purposes Examples
For everyday activities reading  a bus timetable, reading instructions on a food package, reading a sign in an elevator
For learning about things going on line to get information about someone, getting a recipe off the internet, reading about a travel destination
For life purposes reading hobby magazines, studying a driving manual before taking a driving test, reading an advice column in a magazine, reading the newspaper to find out about tickets to a concert, reading membership requirements of a gym
For leisure and pleasure reading a romance novel, reading a religious text

Second language learners may need reading skills in English for similar purposes, i.e. to enable them to participate in activities related to work, the community, daily life and particularly education. Many ESL Reading courses hence focus on the skills needed for “reading-to learn”, such as:

  • Reading to search for simple information
  • Reading to skim quickly
  • Reading to learn from texts
  • Reading to integrate information
  • Reading to write (or to search for information needed for writing)
  • Reading to critique texts
  • Reading for general comprehension

The ability to read critically is particularly important for students who need reading skills for academic purposes. Critical reading involves reacting critically to what one reads, relating the content of reading materials to evaluate against personal standards and beliefs, going beyond what is given in the text and recognizing underlying ideologies, and critically evaluating the relevance and value of what is read. But in order to be able o read critically, good reading skills are needed, so reading for general comprehension provides the basis for a focus on critical reading.

Using authentic materials in the efl classroom

Question:

Submitted by Laura Haug, Czech Republic

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

Dr Richards Responds:

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

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

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

A: When did you learn to sing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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