The official website of educator Jack C Richards

Direct & Indirect Approaches to Teaching Speaking


Submitted by Yanina Valdez, Argentina

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

Using CLT during short lessons


Submitted by SM Hosseini, Iran

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

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


Submitted by Arwa Abdelhamid, The United Arab Emirates

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

Teaching speaking for interactional versus transactional purposes


Submitted by Jun Clifford M. Mape, Philippines

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

Skills involved in mastering small talk include:

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

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

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

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

Another important communication skill is the ability to use English to accomplish different kinds of transactions. A transaction is an interaction that focuses on getting something done, rather than maintaining social interaction. (In communicative language teaching, transactions are generally referred to as functions, and include such areas as requests, orders, offers, suggestions, etc.) A transaction may consist of a sequence of different functions. Two different kinds of transactions are often distinguished. One type refers to transactions that occur in situations where the focus is on giving and receiving information, and where the participants focus primarily on what is said or achieved (e.g. asking someone for directions or bargaining at a garage sale). The second type refers to transactions that involve obtaining goods or services, such as checking into a hotel or ordering food in a restaurant. Talk in these situations is often information- focused, is associated with specific activities and often occurs in specific situations. The following are examples of communication of this kind:

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

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

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

The skills involved in using English for transactions thus include:

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

Advice on developing a new teaching unit


Submitted by Zainab Jaafar, Iran

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

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

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


Submitted by Nawal Amerioui, Algeria

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

Constrastive Analysis


Submitted by Eliana Santos de Souza, Brazil

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

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

How important is the teacher’s book in teaching?


Submitted by Jamal Zakeri, Iran

How important is the teacher’s book in teaching?

Professor Richards Responds:

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

Teaching a British Accent


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

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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



Submitted by Gethomil, Poland

Is autonomy an approach or a method?

Professor Richards Responds:

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

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

In classes that encourage autonomous learning:

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

Error Analysis


Submitted by Chiara Bauer, Italy

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

What are the stages of a speaking lesson?


Submitted by Tourya Saada, Morocco

What are the stages of a speaking lesson?

Professor Richards Responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specific Method or Eclectic Approach


Submitted by Hanene Turqui, Algeria

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

Professor Richards Responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drills in Language Teaching


Submitted by Sopich Pin, Cambodia

Do drills still have a place in language teaching today?

Professor Richards Responds:

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

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

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

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

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

New Educational Consultant role

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

What is CBLT?


Submitted by Luc Danon from Cote D’ivoire

What is CBLT? What are its didactic implications?

Dr Richards responds:

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

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

How should I manage a discussion class?


Submitted by Nafas from Iran

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

Dr Richards responds:

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

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

How can you define strategy instruction?


Submitted by Nadjet Khenioui from Algeria

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

Dr Richards responds:

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

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

1. Raising awareness of the strategies learners are already using

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

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

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

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

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

Difference between an approach and a method?


Submitted by Sara from Iran

What is the  difference between an approach and a method?

Dr Richards responds:

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

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

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

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

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