The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Do textbooks ‘enslave’ teachers?

Question:

Submitted by Radia Kherbouche,  Algeria

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

Dr Richards responds:

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

Book Recommendations: Teaching speaking

Question:

Submitted by Monserrath Ramirez,  Ecuador

Can you recommend books about the methodology teaching speaking?

Dr Richards responds:

I recommend the following:

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

Feedback in the teaching of second language writing

Question:

Submitted by Dian Riany,  Indonesia

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

Dr Richards responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology mediated language teaching (TMLT)

Question:

Submitted by Ayad, Iran

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

Dr Richards responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Task-based teaching in primary school

Question:

Submitted by Danfer,  China

Can task-based teaching be used in primary school?

Dr Richards responds:

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

Ten children have brown eyes.

How many children have green eyes?

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

 

Mother tongue use in the classroom

Question:

Submitted by Diani Nurhajati,  Indonesia

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

Dr Richards responds:

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

Giving Verbal Feedback

Question:

Submitted by Mehdi Mahdiyan, Iran

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

Dr Richards responds:

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Methodology

Question:

Submitted by Shifera, Ethiopia

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

Dr Richards Responds:

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

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

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

Characteristics of a language teaching method

Question:

Submitted by Fer, Eduador

What are the characteristics of a language teaching method?

Dr Richards responds:

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

  • A theory of language: an account of what the essential components of language are and what proficiency or competence in a language entails
  • A theory of learning: an account of the psycholinguistic, cognitive and social processes involved in learning a language and the conditions that need to be present for these processes to be activated Both the theory of language and language learning underlying an instructional design results in the development of principles that can serve to guide the process of teaching and learning. Different instructional designs in language teaching often reflect very different understandings of the nature language and of language learning, as we will see below. The particular theory of language and language learning underlying an instructional design in turn leads to further levels of specification. For example:
  • Learning objectives: what the goals of teaching and learning will be
  • The syllabus: what the primary units of organization for a language course will consist of
  • Teacher and learner roles: what roles teachers and learners are expected to play in the classroom
  • Activities: the kinds of classroom activities and techniques that are recommended.

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

How can ZPD notion influence language teaching?

Question:

submitted by Trinh le, Vietnam

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

Dr Richards Responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.  Tutor rejects unsuccessful attempts at recognizing the error.

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

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

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

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

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

10.  Tutor provides the correct form.

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

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

(Lantolf and Thorne 2006, 278-80)

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

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

Communicative teaching

Question:

submitted by Manana Mohamed, UK

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

Dr Richards Responds:

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

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

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

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

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

English language learning in primary school

Question:

submitted by Fernanda,  Ecuador

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

Dr Richards Responds:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Using authentic materials in the efl classroom

Question:

Submitted by Laura Haug, Czech Republic

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

Dr Richards Responds:

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

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

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

A: When did you learn to sing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classroom discipline

Question:

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

Question:

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?

Question:

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

Question:

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.

Advantages and disadvantages of using instructional materials in teaching ESL

Question:

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

Question:

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?

Question:

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.