The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Limitations of the text based approach

Question:

submitted by Paul van Wessem, Language Teaching, Australia

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

Dr Richards Responds:

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

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

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

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

Translation or the mother tongue in an EFL class?

Question:

submitted by Ali Matour, Iran

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

Dr Richards Responds:

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

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

Two excellent recent books on this topic are:

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

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