-by Nilda Reyes
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Professor Jack C. Richards, my mentor in a four-month RELC course of years back and now my fellow worker in the Specialist Department at the Regional Language Centre, Singapore. Presently, Professor Jack C. Richards is an adjunct professor at RELC and co-editor of Guidelines He is based at the Centre from July through December each year.
There is more to language teaching today than simply teaching language.-Jack Richards
NR: How long have you been associated with RELC?
JCR: I first worked at RELC from 1973 to 1975, and again from 1977 to 1979, when I was sponsored by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From 1979 to 1997 I worked at various universities in the Asia-Pacific Region when I decided not to continue with full time University teaching and administration and spend more time on classroom teaching. RELC provides a wonderful base for teaching and writing.
NR: What makes RELC unique, in your opinion?
JCR: Firstly, the course participants, who come from many different countries and bring a great deal of collective expertise and experience to the courses. RELC is indeed quite a unique institution and has an exciting and challenging mission, one which I think is becoming more and more important within the region. The calibre of the academic staff and the fact that it has perhaps the finest library of its kind in the world make it a stimulating place to be based.
NR: You have seen many changes in language teaching during your career. Would you care to comment on some of them?
JCR: One area where I have seen many changes taking place is in the area of knowledge and skills teachers are expected to have. Teachers today are expected to be excellent teachers and experts in their chosen areas of specialization, whether they be writing specialists, teachers of children and adults alike, or teachers of business English. Further, the opportunities for training have expanded enormously with the hefty influx of undergraduate and graduate level degrees in the field as well as the options of doing distance and web-based courses. These opportunities have greatly increased professionalism in the field.
NR: Have teachers’ roles changed as a result?
JCR: Yes I think so. Today, teachers are not merely viewed as transmitters of knowledge and skills. They are now expected to be course planners, classroom researchers, reflective practitioners and mentors of other teachers. In terms of their learners they may see their role as encouraging learner autonomy, developing awareness of strategies, or empowering their learners in different ways. So there is more to language teaching today than simply teaching language.
NR: What distinguishes expert teachers from other kinds of teachers?
JCR: Research on teacher expertise suggests that the development of expertise involves constantly going beyond current areas of knowledge and constantly seeking new solutions to problems. This doesn’t happen to everyone. Some people over time simply become more fluent as doing the things they know how to do but do not move beyond current knowledge to develop higher levels of expertise.
NR: Do you think every teacher should become a researcher?
JCR: Not in the sense of collecting data to verify hypotheses and so on. But in the sense of exploring one’s own teaching and one’s own classes in order to better understand one’s own teaching processes, yes. This is what many people mean by “reflective teaching”.
NR: What is the current status of grammar in language teaching, in your opinion?
JCR: This depends on whether one is talking about syllabus design, the teaching of writing, the development of oral fluency and so on. Different grammar-related issues arise in relation to different areas of teaching. So, for example, in relation to the teaching of writing, the issue might be about the writers’ way of using grammar as a resource to produce different kinds of texts. With respect to the development of oral fluency, an issue might be on the learners’ way to avoid fossilised grammatical errors and continue to expand their grammatical resources as their fluency develops. I don’t think grammar plays a less important role in teaching today than it had in the past. I think we have a better understanding of the complexity of grammar-related questions and hence the need to avoid simplistic solutions or responses.
NR: Someone once said that “textbooks are the major obstacles to the achievement of educational excellence.” What is your response to this claim?
JCR: I would first want to know how textbooks could be said to play such a role. Perhaps if teachers are over-dependent on textbooks and simply teach to the book rather than teach to their class, the textbook could be a hindrance to good teaching. But I think barriers to the attainment of educational excellence lie elsewhere – in inadequate curricula, in badly designed tests, in poorly written course books, inadequate teacher-support, in lack of adequately trained teachers, and in bad teaching.
NR: If you were given a second chance to choose your field of academic specialization, would it be language teaching? If not, what would it be?
JCR: Since I have been fortunate to have worked in some very stimulating contexts, such as Hong Kong, Hawaii and Singapore and to have had the opportunity to publish a variety of successful course books as well as professional books, I have no regrets about having specialized in TESOL. However, there is life beyond TESOL, and I have active interests in music and the decorative arts. Perhaps in my next reincarnation I might have the opportunity to pursue a career in one of these areas. In the meantime I continue to find teaching and writing activities that are rewarding in many different ways.