The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

When the Teacher Doesn’t Know the Answer

Question:

Submitted by Elham, Bushehr, Iran

How do you respond when someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer? Should a teacher say he or she doesn’t know the answer?

Dr. Richards responds:

I suggest where they can look to find the answer. Teachers are not walking encyclopedias. You should be frank and say, “I’m not sure of the answer to your question but let me check and get back to you on that one.” Students appreciate teachers who are honest and who accept that they still have things to learn.

Free Discussion Class

Question:

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

  1. What are the characteristics of a good free discussion class?
  2. Is there a specific design for a free discussion class?
  3. What techniques can be applied to the free discussion class so that it helps improve the students English proficiency both in accuracy and fluency?

Dr. Richards responds:

Discussion skills may be important for students using English in school and academic settings, as well as for those using English for business communications. However ‘discussions’ have often been a substitute for a serious approach to the teaching of spoken English. An example of this is seen in the ‘so-called conversation’ classes that are often a feature of English programmes at both secondary and tertiary level in many countries. These are typically unfocused sessions organized around the topics of the day drawn from the media and other sources. While the goal is to find engaging content that will generate discussion such activities have little impact on the development of students’ oral skills. Poorly planned discussion activities allow stronger students to dominate, are unfocused and do not provide for systematic feedback. If discussion skills are to be taken seriously as an important component of a spoken English course, rather than as a filler-activity, their nature and features need to be addressed systematically.

A discussion is an interaction focusing on exchanging ideas about a topic and presenting points of view and opinions. Of course, people often ‘discuss’ topics in casual conversation, such as the weather or recent experiences, but discussions of that kind are often merely ‘chit-chat’ – a form of politeness and social interaction. They do not usually lead to ‘real’ discussions where more serious topics of interest and importance are talked about for an extended period of time, in order to arrive at a consensus about something, solve a problem or explore different sides of an issue. It is discussions of this kind that are the focus here, particularly those that take place in an educational or professional setting.

Skills involved in taking part in discussions include:

  • Giving opinions.
  • Presenting a point of view.
  • Supporting a point of view.
  • Taking a turn.
  • Sustaining a turn.
  • Listening to others’ opinions.
  • Agreeing and disagreeing with opinions.
  • Summarizing a position.

Approaches to teaching discussion skills centre on addressing the following issues

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

Speaking Skills for Specific Purposes

Question:

Submitted by Surya Vellanki, Nizwa College of Technology, Oman

What methods are generally used in teaching speaking skills to English for specific purposes (ESP) business students?

Dr. Richards responds:

It will depend on the level of the students and their particular needs. A needs analysis would be the starting point to determine the kinds of speaking skills they need to develop, depending on their work contexts. Then tasks should be developed that focus on the kinds of speaking performance they need to master. No matter what methodology is chosen (content based, competency based, task based), students will need to be able to handle authentic spoken exchanges relevant to their working contexts. There are many useful sources on the internet that provide models and examples of different kinds of transactions that occur in business contexts.

Functional Communication vs. Social Interactional Activities

Question:

Submitted by Negar Ganji, Hermes institute & Azad University, Iran

What is the difference between “functional communication activities” and “social interactional activities”?

Dr. Richards responds:

A landmark publication in the literature of functional language use was Brown and Yule’s book Teaching The Spoken Language (1983), which made a distinction between interactional and transactional functions of language, the former concerned with maintaining social interaction and the later with carrying out real-world information-focused functions. Interactional uses of language including greetings, small talk, openings, closings and other uses of language that serve to maintain social contact.  Transactional functions of language may be of two kinds. One type refers to transactions that occur in situations where the focus is on giving and receiving information, and where the participants focus primarily on what is said or achieved (e.g., asking someone for directions or bargaining at a garage sale). The second type refers to transactions that involve obtaining goods or services, such as checking into a hotel or ordering food in a restaurant.  Activities that teach transactional functions can also be referred to as functional communication activities, whereas those that deal with social interaction are also called social interactional activities.

Negotiation of Meaning

Question:

Submitted by Zhila Kamrani, Shiraz, Iran

How does negotiation of meaning facilitate learning?

Dr. Richards responds:

Negotiation of meaning refers to meaning that is arrived at through the collaboration of both people involved. This negotiation may take several forms:

  • The meaning may be realized through several exchanges, or turns, rather than in a single exchange.
  • One speaker may expand on what the other has said.
  • One speaker may provide words or expressions the other needs.
  • One person may ask questions to clarify what the other has said.

Interactions of this kind are believed to facilitate language acquisition, evidence for which may be seen both in short term as well as longer-term improvements in grammatical accuracy

Effective Teaching Materials

Question:

Submitted by Sokun Chea, National Institute of Education, Cambodia

What are the qualities of effective teaching materials?

Dr. Richards responds:

Effective materials do many of the things a teacher would normally do as part of his or her teaching.

These include:

  • Arouse the learners’ interest.
  • 
Remind them of earlier learning.
  • Tell them what they will be learning next.
  • Explain new learning content to them.
  • Set clear learning targets.
  • Provide them with strategies to use in learning.
  • Provide opportunities for meaningful practice.

Teaching English Privately

Question:

Submitted by Masoud Forghani, Iran

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

Dr. Richards responds:

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

High-Intermediate in Six Months

Question:

Submitted by Ehsan Khorani, Ministry of Education, Iran

Is it possible to enable a typical false beginner to become a high-intermediate one in half a year?

Dr. Richards responds:

Mostly probably not, unless the learner is receiving full-time instruction with optimal teaching and learning conditions.

Approach, Principles, Method & Technique

Question:

Submitted by Naseer, Afghanistan

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

Dr. Richards responds:

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

Qualifications

Question:

Submitted by L.K., Sri Lanka

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

Dr. Richards responds:

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

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

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

Best Use of Teaching Materials

Question:

Submitted by Jean Marie Vianney, Rwanda

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

Dr. Richards responds:

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

Autonomous Learner

Question:

Submitted by Urip, Indonesia

What is meant by an autonomous learner?

Dr. Richards responds:

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

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

In classes that encourage autonomous learning:

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

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

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

Contrastive Analysis

Question:

Submitted by Syvia, Brazil

Is contrastive analysis still relevant in language teaching?

Dr. Richards responds:

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

Teaching Materials

Question:

Submitted by Monsume, Azerbaijan

Are visual aids and technological resources included as teaching materials?

Professor Richards Responds:

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

Objective of Teaching English to 7-10 year olds

Question:

Submitted by Adriana Patrus, Brazil

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

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

Course book versus Textbook

Question:

Submitted by Elaine Borges, Brazil

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

Professor Richards Responds:

No these two terms are used interchangeably.

Teaching Young Learners

Question:

Submitted by Niloofar, Iran

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

Traditional versus Digital Media in Teaching

Question:

Submitted by Rizky Amelia Banjarmasin, Indonesia

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

Sources for Teaching Adult Learners

Question:

Submitted by Farid Bozorgmehr, Iran

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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