The official website of educator Jack C Richards

Classroom discipline


submitted by Douglas MacQueen, Cambodia

What advice can you give about classroom discipline?

Dr Richards Responds:

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

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

For the students:

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

For the teacher

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

For everybody

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

Task based instruction to improve students’ speaking proficiency


submitted by Ayu, Indonesia

Do you think it is good choice to use task based instruction to improve students’ speaking proficiency?

Dr Richards Responds:

It depends on what you mean by task, and which aspect of speaking you are talking about. Conversation, small talk, transactions, discussions, presentations etc are all aspects of speaking and make different demands on speakers. Some tasks are good for fluency but less so for accuracy. The following two articles (also found on the Work section of my site) may be of interest: Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning and Teaching Listening and Speaking: From Theory to Practice

How important is culture in language teaching?


submitted by Mut Vitou, Cambodia

How important is culture in language teaching?

Dr Richards Responds:

This really depends on what you understand by “culture”. A number of different conceptions of culture have influenced English language teaching:

  • 1. Culture as aesthetics: information about art, literature, theatre, music, architecture etc. in English-speaking countries
  • 2. Culture as social customs: information about the family, home life, customs, leisure activities, interpersonal relations
  • 3. Culture as culturally-laden words and concepts: bank holiday, middle-class, gay, high-tea, afternoon-tea
  • 4. Culture as appropriate forms of interaction: greetings and leave-taking, norms of politeness, strategies for complaints and apologies

Our view of the role of culture in language teaching has changed considerably in recent years. In the past English was often regarded as the property of “native-speakers of English” and of countries where it has the status of a mother tongue or first language for the majority of the population. It was these varieties of English, particularly their standard varieties, that were considered legitimate models to teach to second or foreign language learners. And it was also assumed that English had to be taught in relation to the culture(s) of English speaking countries. Culture as aesthetics and social customs often received an emphasis. This picture has changed somewhat today. Now that English is the language of globalization, international communication, commerce and trade, the media and pop culture, different motivations for learning it come into play. English is no longer viewed as the property of the English-speaking world but is an international commodity. New goals for the learning of English have emerged which include interest in foreign or international affairs, willingness to go overseas to study or work, readiness to interact with intercultural partners, as well other goals such as friendship, travel, and knowledge orientations. The cultural values of Britain and the US are often seen as irrelevant to language teaching, except in situations where the learner has a pragmatic need for such information as might be the case for an international student living in the US, Britain, Australia etc.  who might need to become familiar with culture 2, 3, and 4 above. For a learner using English as a lingua franca (e.g. a person from Japan interacting in English with a person from China) however, none of the definitions of culture described above would be particularly relevant.

Learner autonomy in language teaching


submitted by Aaron Stewart, New Zealand

What is the role of learner autonomy in language teaching?

Dr Richards Responds:

Learner autonomy refers to the principle that learners should take a maximum amount of responsibility for what they learn and how they learn it. They should be involved 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 achieve better learning outcomes since learning is based on learners’ needs and preferences. It contrasts with the traditional teacher-led approach in which most decisions are made by the teacher, The use of self-directed learning in a self-access centre is one application of this approach.

Phillip Benson has written a great deal about learner autonomy and describes five principles for achieving autonomous learning:

  • 1 active involvement in student learning
  • 2 providing options and resources
  • 3 offering choices and decision-making opportunities
  • 4 supporting learners
  • 5 encouraging reflection

Other features of autonomous learning are:

  • 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 the own learning styles is encouraged
  • students are encouraged to develop their own learning strategies

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

Critics of the learner autonomy however point out that not all learners may wish to learn in this way or be capable of doing so, and that it reflects a western conception of learning that may be inappropriate in non-western cultures.

How do textbooks get developed?


submitted by Dino Mahoney, London

Could you explain how textbooks get developed?

Dr Richards Responds:

Most textbooks are written by experienced teachers in co-operation with editors and consultants who guide the writers through the process of textbook development. Teachers interested in writing textbooks are sometimes under the impression that they should first write the book and then submit it to a publisher. This may happen with authors of novels but rarely happens with educational materials.  In publishing English language teaching materials, particularly those intended for a large market, the following processes are usually involved:

  • A teacher or group of teachers develop a concept for a book, based on their perception that the book they propose has some advantages or unique features that would make it appealing to both teachers and students. They contact a publisher with their proposal.
  • Alternatively a publisher might identify the need for a new book and identify teachers or writers who might be able to write it.

Once a commitment is made to publish the book, the writers work with editors from the publishing company to develop the concept for the book project in more detail. Questions such as the following will be addressed at this stage:

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

As the answers to these questions are clarified the writer or writers will now be in a position to develop a proposal for the book or book series, a preliminary syllabus and unit format for the book and to develop some sample units. The publisher then arranges to have the sample materials reviewed by a large number of people both internally (i.e. editors) and externally (teaches and consultants). Often teachers will be brought together in focus groups to review the materials and often to try it out with their students. This review process may go on several times as different samples are drafted until the specifications for the book have been finalized. Only at this stage can writing begin in earnest. A writing schedule is developed so that the publisher can plan for the different stages in editing, design, and manufacturing that are involved in publishing a book. Development stages: writing a book involves a number of stages of development. Typical stages include:

  • first draft
  • comments on first draft from editors and consultants
  • second draft
  • further comments and revisions
  • try out of the materials or of samples of the materials
  • further revisions
  • manuscript submitted to the publisher

Once the manuscript is submitted it will be assigned to editors who will work closely with the author(s) in fine tuning the materials. The content of the book will be carefully examined to ensure that issues such as the following are addressed:

  • Are the materials comprehensible and the instructions clear?
  • Is the pacing of the material appropriate?
  • Do the materials do what they are supposed to do?
  • Is there sufficient quantity of practice material?
  • Is the book sufficiently engaging and interesting?

A considerable amount of revision and fine-tuning may happen during this period as the manuscript is further developed to the publisher’s standards and specifications. If the book includes art such as illustrations and photographs, decisions about these will have to be made at this stage and specially commissioned. Design: design issues refer to the overall design and organization of the book from cover to cover and the layout of text and art in each page. An effective design is a major factor in the publication of textbooks and a successful design makes the book both appealing to teachers and students and also makes the book easier to use.

The activities described above can take a considerable amount of time to carry out before the book is published – in some cases as many as five years or longer for a major multi-level textbook series. The book is then promoted to teachers and schools and both authors and publishers hope that it will be well received and justify the investment of time and money that was involved in publishing the book or book series.

Advantages and disadvantages of using instructional materials in teaching ESL


submitted by Matet Balaguer, San José Community College, Philippines

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using instructional materials in teaching ESL?

Dr Richards Responds:

In deciding on teaching materials there are a number of options:

  • Choosing a suitable published course
  • Adapting a published course to match the needs of the course
  • Using teacher-made materials and authentic materials as the basis for the course.

There are a number of advantages to using institutionally derived or teacher derived materials for a course:

  • Relevance: Materials can be produced that are directly relevant to students’ and institutional needs and that reflect local content, issues, and concerns. Develop expertise: Developing materials can help develop expertise among staff, giving them a greater understanding of the characteristics of effective materials.
  • Reputation: Institutionally prepared materials may enhance the reputation of the institution by demonstrating its commitment to providing materials specifically for its students.
  • Flexibility: Materials produced within the institution can be revised or adapted as needed, giving them greater flexibility than a commercial course book.

However there are also potential disadvantages:

  • Cost: Quality materials take time to produce and adequate staff time as well as resources need to be allocated.
  • Quality: Teacher-made materials will not normally have the same standard of design and production as commercial materials and hence may not present the same image as commercial materials.
  • Training: To prepare teachers for materials writing projects, adequate training is necessary. Materials writing is a specialized skill and not all teachers area capable of writing good materials.

In many situations textbooks form the basis of the curriculum in language programs. Provided there is a good degree of fit between the textbook and the teaching context teachers use textbooks to provide the major source of input and direction to their teaching. Thus does not necessarily mean that the teacher plays a secondary role in the teaching process since teachers normally improvise around their teaching materials, moving back and forth between book-based input and teacher-initiated input. Hence even though a teacher may teach the same lesson from a textbook many times, each time he or she teaches it becomes a different lesson due to the improvisations the teacher initiates during teaching. These may result from on-the-spot decisions relating to timing, affective factors, and responses to learner difficulties. Experienced teachers hence use textbooks flexibly as a teaching resource.

Sometimes however adaptation may be required to reflect the needs of a specific teaching context. Various forms of adaptation are possible:

  • Adding material to address an examination requirement: sometimes supplementary material may need to be added to address the requirements of a specific institutional or other exam. For example the reading component of an institutional text may make use of multiple-choice questions rather than the kinds of comprehension tasks found in a course book, so extra material to practice using multiple-choice questions may be needed.
  • Extending to provide additional practice: a book unit has a limited number of pages and at times the teacher may feel additional practice of grammar, vocabulary or skills is required and sources additional materials to supplement the book.
  • Localizing: an activity in the book may be more effective if it is modified to reflect local issues and content rather than the content that is discussed in the coursebook Localization also involves adapting or supplementing an activity to address the specific needs of a group of learners. For example pronunciation problems might reflect interference form the students’ first language and these might not be covered in the book. Additional activities can be added to address problems specific to the  learners.
  • Modifying content: Content may need to be changed because it does not suit the target learners, perhaps because of the learners’ age, gender, social background, occupation, religion or cultural background.
  • Reorganizing content: A teacher may decide to reorganize the syllabus of the book, and arrange the units in what she or he considers a more suitable order. Or within a unit the teacher may decide not to follow the sequence of activities in the unit but to reorganize them for a particular reason.
  • Modifying tasks: Exercises and activities may need to be changed to give them an additional focus. For example, a listening activity may focus only on listening for information, so it adapted so that students listen a second or third time for a different purpose. An activity may be extended to provide opportunities for more personalized practice. Or some exercises within a sequence may be dropped.

While in many cases a book may work perfectly well without the need for much adaptation, in some cases different levels of adaptation may be needed. Through the process of adaptation the teacher personalize the text, making it a better teaching resource, and individualizes it for a particular group of learners. Normally this process takes place gradually as the teacher becomes more familiar with the book because the dimensions of the text that need adaptation may not be apparent until the book is tried out in the classroom.

Motivating students


submitted by Jessy Hernandez, State University, Mexico

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

Dr Richards Responds:

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

Does reading aloud help children to acquire language?


submitted by Samantha Quintana, Copei-Casa Grande University, Ecuador

Do you consider that using reading aloud would help children to acquire better the language? How important is it?

Dr Richards Responds:

In considering the role of reading aloud we need to consider it in relation to the context in which it is being used. In the case of teaching reading skills per se, reading aloud can lead to inefficient reading strategies. A good reader reads silently without vocalizing the words he or she reads. Reading aloud encourages learners to vocalize words as they read and sends the message that every word is equally important in a text: it discourages skimming, scanning, reading for main ideas and so on.

However when working with other skills (e.g. speaking and listening), reading aloud can help students focus on problematic features of their English (e.g. such as pronouncing final consonants, linking sounds etc.) So sometimes I ask students to look a text, find examples of consonant clusters, linked sounds, final consonants etc, and then to read the text aloud to focus on these sounds. In pairs students also take turns reading a short text aloud, monitoring their partner’s production of certain sounds. This activity has nothing to do with reading per se but is a speaking activity, using a written text as a source of input.

Gap between ESL & EFL


submitted by Policarpio Cañari, Colegio Real, Barranquilla Colombia

Since the world is changing really fast and we have more and more access to real resources on the net, such as online captioned videos, interviews,  magazine and newspaper articles, don’t you think the gap between ESL and  EFL should be narrowed, or disappear and think of just English as a global  language?

Dr Richards Responds:

Your question raises a number of issues. First a note on terminology, since the terms ESL and EFL are used differently in different places. In Canada and the US, ESL often refers to English programs for immigrants. These programs focus on the language skills immigrants need to survive in their new English-language based environment. There are many textbooks written just for these kinds of learners and they are not normally used outside of the contexts they were developed for. Traditionally ESL/EFL was also used to describe the difference between English in countries where English is a widely used language (e.g. India, Nigeria, Singapore) and those where it is not and where it has usually been called a “foreign language”, e.g. Columbia, Japan, Germany.

However one of the major functions English fulfils in today’s world is a “link language” or “lingua franca”, that is, as means of communication between people who have no other shared language. This of course is the case for many people when English is used between Americans and Japanese or between Australians and Indonesians. It is also the case of Japanese speakers using English to communicate with speakers of Chinese Language, French or German. It is the case of Germans using English to communicate with Russians or Japanese speakers, of Italians learning English to speak communicate mainly with people who speak another European language, such as Polish or Dutch. Increasingly around the world English is used for communicating in circumstances like these, where it functions as a “lingua franca” or “common language” between people who have no other common language. The terms English as an International Language  (EIL) and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) have been used to describe the use of English in these situations.

The concept of English as an international language (or lingua franca) has a number of important implications for English teaching. In the past English was often regarded as the property of “native-speakers of English” and of countries where it has the status of a mother tongue or first language for the majority of the population. It was these varieties of English, particularly their standard varieties, that were considered legitimate models to teach to second or foreign language learners. And it was also assumed that English had to be taught in relation to the culture(s) of English speaking countries. This picture has changed somewhat today. Now that English is the language of globalization, international communication, commerce and trade, the media and pop culture, different motivations for learning it come into play. English is no longer viewed as the property of the English-speaking world but is an international commodity. New goals for the learning of English have emerged which include interest in foreign or international affairs, willingness to go overseas to study or work, readiness to interact with intercultural partners … and a non-ethnocentric attitude toward different cultures as well  other goals such as friendship, travel, and knowledge orientations . The cultural values of Britain and the US are often seen as irrelevant to language teaching, except in situations where the learner has a pragmatic need for such information. English is still promoted as a tool that will assist with educational and economic advancement but is viewed in many parts of the world as one that can be acquired without any of the cultural trappings that go with it.  Proficiency in English is needed for employees to advance in international companies and improve their technical knowledge and skills. It provides a foundation for what has been called “process skills” – those problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that are needed to cope with the rapidly changing environment of the workplace, one where English plays an increasingly important role.

In the past it was taken for granted that the variety of English learners needed to master was a native-speaker variety of English. In Europe, due to its proximity to Britain, British English was usually the model presented in teaching materials. In many other parts of the world American English (or more correctly, north American English since Canadian and US English are similar to most learners) was normally the target. In some places (e.g. Indonesia) learners are more likely to encounter Australian English, and this may be the variety of English they feel most comfortable learning.  However in recent years there has been a growing demand for a north American variety of English, particularly among young people for whom “American English” is “cool” and the variety they associate with popular culture, movies, TV and the internet. It more closely resembles their “idea” of English.

There are two schools of thought concerning how closely learners should try to approximate native-speaker usage when learning English. The traditional view is that mastery of English means mastering a native-speaker variety of English. The presence of a foreign accent, influenced by the learner’s mother tongue, was considered as a sign of incomplete learning. Teaching materials presented exclusively native speaker models –usually speaking with a standard or prestige accent – as learning targets. The second school of thought is that when English is regarded as an international language, speakers may wish to preserve markers of their cultural identity through the way they speak English, as we observed above.  In such cases learners may regard a French, Italian, Russian or Spanish accent in their English as something they do not want to lose. This is a question of personal choice for learners and teachers should therefore not assume that learners always want to master a native-speaker accent when they learn English. As one learner puts it, “I am Korean, so why should I try to sound like an American?”

Choosing the right order of contents when organizing a book syllabus


submitted by Gonzalo Pazo, Colegio Tecnico Don Bosco, Costa Rica

I would like to ask you what the theoretical basis are when choosing the right order of contents when organizing a book syllabus.

Dr Richards Responds:

A syllabus (also called a scope and sequence plan) is a description of the contents of a course and order in which the content will be taught. Syllabus design is a core component of course design and an area that has long been the focus of discussion and debate in language teaching. It continues to arouse controversy today. The reason for this is because there is no firm consensus as to what the core components of second language proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing are as well as to the nature of the various competencies that underlie ability in language use. For example although reading and listening are often described as calling upon the development of the use of component skills or microskills that contribute to the overall ability the learner has with reading and listening, researchers do not agree as to the nature of these skills or whether they actually describe the processes learners make use of when they use language (see chapters 9 and 11). There is still controversy around such a basic question as to the importance of grammar and its role in a language syllabus. In developing a syllabus for any type of course there are hence different options as to how the course can be organized and what the units of course organization will be. Here are a few examples:

Grammar: grammar has traditionally provided the core framework of general English courses. These are usually developed around a structural syllabus – a graded sequence of grammatical items that are regarded as establishing the basic building blocks of language proficiency, particularly at the level of the sentence. Choice of grammatical items has normally been based on linguistic difficulty, frequency, and communicative need. Grammar is often also a component of writing and reading courses, since grammatical knowledge contributes to reading and writing ability. It may also be a strand in speaking courses if a focus on accuracy is addressed in the course. In contemporary applied linguistics research corpus analysis is used to determine the most frequent language forms and usages for inclusion in language courses.

Skills: Courses in the listening, speaking, reading and writing have often been built around the microskills that each skill involves. Organizing a course around skills is based on the belief that learning a complex activity such as reading fluently and with understanding involves mastery of a number of individual skills that together make up the activity. For example reading microskills include the following:

  • Recognizing the rhetorical forms of written discourse
  • Recognizing the communicative function of written texts
  • Using background knowledge to make inferences
  • Inferring links and connexions between events
  • Distinguishing between literal and implied meanings
  • Using strategies such as scanning and skimming and guessing meanings of words from context

In a reading course a focus could be on practicing individual skills and in using skills in combination.

Competencies: whereas skills-based courses focus on developing proficiency in the four macro-skills, competency-based courses focus on the skills needed to carry out real-world activities. For example in order to be able to make telephone calls in English a learner would need to be able to acquire the following “competencies”;

  • read and dial telephone numbers
  • identify oneself on the telephone and when answering and calling
  • request to speak to someone
  • respond to a request to hold
  • respond to an offer to take a message

Competency-based approaches have been widely used in developing work-related courses and courses for new arrivals.

Functions: communicative language teaching led to the development of functional syllabuses as an alternative to structural syllabuses. “Functions” are the acts of communication that are realized in conversation, such as offers, requests, suggestions, complaints, apologies, agreeing, disagreeing, accusing, denying, and so on. Functions have often been used as the basis for speaking courses in which students are taught how to carry out specific functions using strategies and language appropriate for different situations on the assumption that communicative competence involves mastering a core of communicative functions.

Critics of functional syllabuses have argued that they represent a simplistic view of communication based on the idea that there is a predictable relationship between form and function, when in fact the realization of functions (technically known as speech acts) depends on much more complex processes of negotiation and interaction between speakers. It has also been pointed out that students learning from functional materials may have considerable gaps in their grammatical competence because some important areas of grammar may not have been elicited by the functions taught in the syllabus.

Limitations of the text based approach


submitted by Paul van Wessem, Language Teaching, Australia

Given some limitations of the text based approach which is based on social learning theories, is there evidence that practitioners of language teaching are moving away from this approach …to something else… something more eclectic perhaps?

Dr Richards Responds:

Text-based instruction is more familiar to teachers in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, than other parts of the world. For those unfamiliar with it, text-based instruction shares some features with Task-based language instruction, since it focuses on preparing learners for real-world uses of English. Rather than organizing instruction around tasks, however, texts are chosen as the framework for teaching. “Text” here is used in a special sense to refer to structured sequences of language that are used in specific contexts in specific ways. According to a text-based approach, learners in different contexts have to master the use of the text types occurring most frequently in specific contexts. These contexts might include, studying in an English medium university, studying in an English medium primary or secondary school, working in a restaurant, working in an office, working in a store, or socializing with neighbours in a housing complex. It is based on an approach to teaching language which involves:

  • Teaching explicitly about the structures and grammatical features of spoken and written texts
  • Linking spoken and written texts to the cultural context of their use
  • Designing units of work which focus on developing skills in relation to whole texts
  • Providing students with guided practice as they develop language skills for meaningful communication through whole texts.

As its name implies, the core units of planning in TBI are spoken and written text types. These are identified through needs analysis and through the analysis of language as it is used in different settings. Text based teaching thus has much in common with an ESP approach to language teaching. However the syllabus also usually specifies other components of texts, such as grammar, vocabulary, topics and functions, hence it is type of mixed syllabus, one which integrates reading, writing and oral communication and which teaches grammar through the mastery of texts rather than in isolation.

Text-based teaching involves explicit teaching of the structure of different text types and an instructional strategy in which the teacher introduces the text and its purpose features, guides students through the production of texts though the process of scaffolding. Text-based teaching focuses primarily on the products of learning rather than the processes involved. Critics have pointed out that an emphasis on individual creativity and personal expression is missing from TBI, which is heavily wedded to a methodology based on the study of model texts and the creation of texts based on models. Likewise critics point out that there is a danger that teaching within this framework can become repetitive and boring over time since the teaching cycle described above is applied to the teaching of all four skills. So I think it is probably true that it is currently being used more flexibly than in the past. The most recent syllabus for the teaching of English in Singapore for example, includes text-types as just one strand within the syllabus framework.

Translation or the mother tongue in an EFL class?


submitted by Ali Matour, Iran

What is your opinion about using translation or the mother tongue in an EFL class?

Dr Richards Responds:

There are really two questions here, one about the use of the mother tongue in the English lesson and one about translation. To respond to the first question, the mother tongue is an obvious reference point for learners in learning a new language. In my experience of learning languages (French, Indonesian, Chinese characters) in a one-to-one learning situation, I asked my tutors to use English to facilitate my learning. I also made use of translation activities (bilingual vocabulary cards) to facilitate my acquisition of vocabulary. Similarly in a classroom situation it makes sense for the teacher to use the mother tongue when introducing new vocabulary or presenting difficult concepts. The difficulty occurs when the class ends up being conducted largely in the mother tongue with very little use of English. So I would support intelligent use of the mother tongue to facilitate learning when necessary, while encouraging the maximum use of English that is possible.

In the case of translation, this activity (together with the use of the the mother tongue) has been discouraged since the grammar-translation method was replaced by the direct method (a target-language based method that does not allow translation) at the end of the 19th century. There has been little rational discussion of the use of the mother tongue and translation until relatively recently, at least in the English-speaking world. I have no experience using translation in teaching, however I assume it has a role to play in developing grammatical awareness – particularly at the sentence level. I do not see it as facilitating the development of fluent language use but as contributing to knowledge of target language grammar.

Two excellent recent books on this topic are:

  • Translation (Oxford Introduction to Language Study) Juliane House. Oxford University Press 2009.
  • Translation in Language Teaching Guy Cook. Oxford University Press 2010.

Both of the above are reviewed in the journal Applied Linguistics, Vol 33, 2, 2012.

How can learners acquire more complex language?


submitted by, Juan Atienza, English Teacher, Manila Philippines

How can learners acquire more complex language, rather than keep re-using language they have already acquired?

Dr Richards Responds:

The concept of restructuring helps explain how learners acquire more complex language. Restructuring refers to the learner adjusting his or her linguistic competence as new forms are added to it. “Noticing” can facilitate this process if the learner notices differences between his or her own language use and the use of more advanced speakers (referred to as noticing the gap). Tasks that require the leaner to “stretch” his or her linguistic resources – i.e. to find new and more complex ways of saying things) – can facilitate the process of restructuring. For example students might first carry out a spoken task such as sharing their experiences with travel in foreign countries. During this activity the focus is on information sharing and elaborating their experiences with details and comments but will little attention to language form. The activity might then be followed by a written task in which students prepare a written report of their travel experiences. This time they are given guidelines for the use of past tense, sequence markers, and complex sentences, thus “stretching” the language they used during the spoken phase of the task. Here is an example from Swain (1999) of a restructuring task: students, working together in pairs, are each given a different set of numbered pictures that tell a story. Together the pair of students must jointly construct the story-line. After they have worked out what the story is, they write it down. In so doing, students encounter linguistic problems they need to solve to continue with the task. These problems include how best to say what they want to say; problems of lexical choice; which morphological endings to use; the best syntactic structures to use; and problems about the language needed to sequence the story correctly. These problems arise as the students try to “make meaning”, that is, as they construct and write out the story, as they understand it. And as they encounter these linguistic problems, they focus on linguistic form – the form that is needed to express the meaning in the way they want to convey it.

Further reading:

  • Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Swain, M. 1999. Integrating language and content teaching through collaborative tasks. In C.Ward and W.Renandya (Eds), Language Teaching: New Insights for the Teacher. Singapore: RELC

Can second language learning be described as a kind of skill-based learning?


submitted by, Ornuma Surakul, Phuket Thailand

Can second language learning be described as a kind of skill-based learning, or did that idea die with Audiolingualism?

Dr Richards Responds:

Since language considered from the perspective of communication is a form of behavior, some aspects of language learning can be considered an example of skill-based learning. Skill learning theory suggests that complex behaviours are made up of a hierarchy of skills. Complex skills such as how to take part in conversation or how to read a newspaper can be broken down into individual component skills. These exist in a hierarchy from lower level skills (e.g. in reading a text – recognizing key words in a text) to higher level skills (e.g. recognizing the writer’s attitude to the topic of a text) and the lower-level skills need to be acquired before the higher-level skills can be used. Initially, skills are often consciously managed and directed by the learner. This is called controlled processing. Over time they can become automatic and do not require conscious attention. This is called automatic processing. Learning involves development from controlled to automatic processing, i.e. the cumulative learning of lower-level skills. For example when pianists learn to play a new piece of music pianists often initially study the score to make decisions about fingering, phrasing and so on. They then learn the piece, usually in sections, often starting with a very slow performance of the piece as they master difficult sections using controlled processing, and gradually moving towards faster performance. Eventually they learn to play it from memory without using the printed score as a guide. Many of the decisions they had to solve while learning the piece are now made automatically as the piece is performed using automatic processing. Sometimes however as part of their regular practice sessions they may return to the use of controlled processing and practice the piece again very slowly and in shorter sections until they pick up fluent performance of the piece again (check out Josh Wright on Youtube)…

I think that many aspects of second language learning can similarly be understood from a skill-based perspective, such as the ability to compose complex written texts, the ability to understand spoken and written texts, and the ability to speak fluently and coherently. And central to the notion of skill-based learning is the notion of practice. Practice refers to repeated opportunities to use language over time. Practice is normally accompanied by feedback, allowing the learner to gradually improve his or her performance over time . However it is important to distinguish mechanical practice from meaningful practice. In approaches such as Audiolingualism it was assumed that practice in itself would lead to learning and whether the practice was meaningful or part of the process of communication was not important. Mechanical practice activities in the classroom or language laboratory that could be carried out without any real conscious attention were part of this approach. Current views of practice however see it as involving meaningful language use, either through interaction (in the case of conversation) or through meaningful processing of language (e.g. as in reading and listening).

For further information I recommend the following:

  • DeKeyser, Robert N. 2007 (a) (ed).Practice in a Second Language: Perspectives from Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • DeKeyser, Robert N. 2007 (b).Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten and J. Williams (Eds), Theories in Second Language Acquisition:An Introduction. 97=113 Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

Help with writing


Received from numerous individuals…

I am working on a set of teaching materials or a book for my institution and would greatly appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

Dr Richards Responds:

Unfortunately due to my own work schedule I am unable to offer a free editorial service to materials developers and prospective authors. However if you would like your materials professionally reviewed and edited I would be happy to put you in touch with a very competent professional editor, who will be able to quote you a fee for the services you require.