The official website of educator Jack C Richards

Interview with professor Anne Yu

While in Taiwan recently as a plenary speaker for the TAIWAN TESOL conference, Dr. Richards was interviewed by Professor Anne Yu, Chief Editor, Caves English Teaching, Taiwan. A Chinese translation of the interview will appear on the Caves Website.
At the beginning of the interview, Prof. Yu asked Prof. Richards how many presentations he makes every year, what are the most common topics, and what his favorite topic is.

JCR: I make about fifty presentations every year on average on four or five different topics. The topics change every year, and depend on the audience. My topic for the conference in Taiwan this year is called “Thirty Years of TESL/TEFL: What have we learned?” The areas I often talk about are teaching methodology, current trends, and teacher development. If it’s an audience of classroom teachers, I will try to do something with practical application. If it’s an audience of university professors, then I will try to do something that deals with research and more theoretical issues. I don’t have any favorite topics but I try to tap into teachers’ practical concerns as well as also to do a little bit for their self-esteem.

AY: Self-esteem of teacher’s, why?

JCR: Because English teachers are often some-what demoralized; their profession doesn’t always have a lot of status. Some teachers don’t have a strong professional background and new teachers are sometimes uncertain about what they are doing. Many teachers work long hours for a meager salary so I try to remind them that what they are doing is important and worthwhile.

Preventing the negative effects of using textbooks

AY: Talking about teachers’ lack of professional backgrounds reminds me of the article “The Role of Textbooks in Language Programs”. You list some potential negative effects of using textbooks, including that textbooks may contain inauthentic language, distort content, and not reflect students’ needs, etc. My question is: How can a non-native speaker of English tell whether what a so-called authority has written is authentic and/or has distorted the English-speaking world or not?

JCR: You can’t, really. The non-native teacher will tend to rely on the creditability of the publisher and the author to assume that the content is authentic and appropriate. It’s not the sort of issue to which a non-native teacher is likely to be able to assess. It puts a lot of responsibility on the publisher, the author, and the editors to make sure that the language in the course is authentic and has the qualities that you want good teaching materials to have.

AY: In the same article you have some suggestions about how to choose textbooks. Is there any way by which a non-native teacher can decide if a book contains authentic language?

JCR: I don’t think that’s the main issue a non-native teacher will be looking at. What a non-native English teacher can do is to look at the material and decide whether the material is interesting enough to attract the student’s attention. He or she can ask: “Is this language relevant to my student’s needs? Is the methodology something I can work with? These activities look useful and fun. This has a good balance of skills,” and so on.

AY: What about possible distortion of content in books?

JCR: Well, it’s the same issue really. The teacher will have to look at the content of the book and ask, “Is this content true for my students? Are these issues my students can relate to? Is there something I need to add to this?”. Teachers should feel free to add, subtract or modify the books they use based on their own circumstances.

AY: And to make it more balanced.

JCR: Yes.

Alternative approaches and methods

AY: I would like to ask you some questions about the second edition of your book Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. It is different from the first edition where you did not group the chapters into different parts. In the new edition you divide the 19 chapters into three parts; namely Major Trends in 20th Century Language Teaching, Alternative Approaches and Methods, and Current Communicative Approaches. Are the approaches/methods in the section on “alternatives” arranged in any particular order, say, in chronological order or by their importance or scale of influence?

JCR: No, they are not arranged in any particular order. The first five chapters (Total Physical Response, the Silent Way, Community Language Learning, and Suggestopedia,) are from the first edition but have been cut back in the edition. Chapter 9 to Chapter 13 (Whole Language, Multiple Intelligences, Neurolinguistic Programming. the Lexical Approach, and Competence-based Language Teaching) are added to the second edition.

AY: Why do you put these nine approaches/methods under “alternatives”?

JCR: Because they are not mainstream. They’re kind of minor trends. Apart from competency- based teaching, which has been adopted at the national level in many countries, others are minor strands that are not used very widely.

AY: Ok. They are alternatives. Then, how should an ESL teacher see these alternatives?

JCR: Well, it will depend on each particular method. They each make very different proposals. The theory of Multiple Intelligences, for example, argues for the recognition of diversity in the classroom. The lexical approach argues for the centrality of vocabulary and lexical phrases. These and other alternative approaches that are included in the book are examples of methodologies that have attracted some limited interest in some parts of the world and teachers may come across references to them. Most of them I would say almost have zero relevance to the average teacher.

Possibility to adopt MI teaching

AY: Like in Taiwan, since Whole Language and Multiple Intelligences were introduced, they have become very hot for quite a while. I don’t know how soon it will cool down.

JCR: That’s right. It’s a fashion, not a trend. Multiple Intelligences is a nice idea but in terms of turning it into practical application it doesn’t go very far. What can you do with it? It’s a different view of learners but has little application to language learning. And even Mary Ann Christison, who is one of its greatest advocates, has a lot of difficulty in coming up with convincing examples of its application.

AY: When it suddenly became “hot” teachers started asking questions about it, such as, “Do I have to move a lot in the classroom?” “Do I have to use music?” “I am an idiot in music. What can I do with it?” “I want to take care of students’ different strengths. What should I do?” “I am very conservative. I don’t like to move around or jump around. I don’t play the idiot in the classroom. What should I do?” “If I don’t do it, then I’m wrong. I’m not up-to-date.”

JCR: Perhaps it is more relevant outside of the classroom. Some students might be a bit more musically inclined and might be interested in listening to songs, but it’s not necessarily the case that every student will want to do that. So it’s not necessarily something a teacher must do in the classroom. Or MI might explain why some students much prefer reading activities rather than speaking activities, for example, so it might help the teacher understand some of the reasons for different ways students approach language learning. These things come and go. They become trendy and fashionable and people get excited about them. And 5 years later, you’ve forgotten what they’re all about. Who is really interested in the Silent Way or Counseling Learning these days?

AY: Well, that’s true.

The Lexical Approach

AY: The 12th chapter of your book deals with the Lexical Approach. Is it mostly about using graded readers to introduce vocabulary? It’s been around for quite some time, hasn’t it? Or is it something new?

JCR: The idea of focusing on vocabulary is certainly a very old one. The Lexical Approach is basically a vocabulary-based approach, emphasizing teaching through lexical routines, expressions, and vocabulary rather than giving such an important role to grammar. But again it doesn’t take you very far and hasn’t been seriously developed as a mainstream approach to teaching.

What should teacher trainees do?

AY: So after a teacher trainee finishes taking the typical TESL course, what should s/he do with these methodologies? There are so many choices.

JCR: I wouldn’t approach teacher training in this way. The books tries to give an overview and a historical survey of different approaches and methods. But as we say in the book, we are not trying to train teachers in their use. The book tries to deepen teachers’ understanding of how the profession has evolved and what some of the methods are that have been tried in different places at different times. Each has some principles that should be understood and from which one may still learn something useful. But teachers should also be doing a basic methodology course as part of their teacher preparation. This is where they will develop basic teaching skills and learn how to teach speaking, reading, writing etc. In Taiwan teachers can ask which of the methods have been used in Taiwan and which have relevance and which don’t. Many may have no relevance at all. So I don’t think it’s important for teachers to feel that they somehow need to be able to apply all of them.

AY: But what about TPR? Isn’t it something that a teacher must know?

JCR: You can teach teachers how to use actions and commands to present language without going very deeply into TPR. It’s a simple technique and takes only 5 minutes to explain the principle behind it. The Silent Way is obscure and hardly worth spending much time on. More relevant are Task-based, Content-Based and Competency based approaches, since these are more widely used. Competency based teaching is a little different from the others since it starts with the outcomes of learning, like the objectives-movement, and works back from there to considerations of teaching processes. Questions of methodology are a later concern, since it is argued that you need to know where you want to go (outcomes) before deciding how you are going to get there (methodology and classroom processes).

AY: If we don’t really care about the process, then how can the outcome be produced?

JCR: Well, you determine what your outcomes are first. Then, you can use whatever processes you like. So the methodology is not the starting point, it’s a decision about methodology that comes later. Once you’ve identified your competencies, you can teach someone any way you like. As long as you can deal with the competencies, it doesn’t matter.

AY: So, it’s a goal-orientated approach.

JCR: It’s a goal-orientated approach and it’s widely used in other forms of training apart from language teaching. It’s the commonest method used for technical and vocational training. So, that’s why it’s now being applied to language teaching as well.

Cooperative Language Teaching

AY: Now, regarding what you and Ted Rodgers call “the current communicative approaches”. Three new chapters are introduced in the third part of the book; namely Cooperative Language Teaching, Content-Based Instruction, and Task-Based Language Teaching. What are the impacts of these approaches? How would they change ESL instruction?

JCR: Well, Cooperative Language Learning is a teaching philosophy that comes from outside of language teaching and has been around for a long time. It makes extensive use of group-based learning.

AY: But we have been using group work in language teaching for a long time, haven’t we? What’s new about this?

JCR: Indeed. Communicative Language Teaching prompted major interest in group work. Cooperative Language Learning is a whole philosophy of group work rather than simply a collection of techniques, since it seeks to change the way any kind of content is delivered.

AY: How do we distinguish between collaborative learning and cooperative learning?

JCR: Collaborative Learning is the approach used in general education and when it’s applied to language teaching, it’s called Cooperative Language Learning. So, basically it’s a set of principles and philosophy about the importance of group-based teaching plus a very specific set of procedures for how to do so. In Communicative Language Teaching we certainly have all kinds of group activities to facilitate communication but these activities don’t have the tight kind of philosophical framework that has been developed by specialists in Cooperative Language Learning.

Task-Based Language Teaching

AY: It seems to me that Cooperative Language Learning and Task-Based Language Teaching are kind of overlapping.

JCR: They can be, but they are based on very different principles. The principles behind the Cooperative Language Learning have to do with group bonding and shared responsibilities for learning outcomes among students. It’s based on the idea of cooperation rather than competition operating within the classroom and the importance of students working and helping each other. Those are very different kinds of principles from those behind Task-Based Language Teaching, which are purely psycholinguistic, based on learning theory. Cooperative language learning reflects an ideology of how a school should operate and how schools seek to promote cooperation rather than competition. Task-Based Learning is an attempt to apply aspects of second language acquisition research, to teaching, specifically ideas on how interaction and negotiation around tasks can facilitate learning.

AY: Can we say that Task-Based Language Learning is product-orientated?

JCR: No, it’s process oriented. The claim is that tasks can activate learning processes, although the task itself has no other purpose. In other words, the learners do a task such as an information-gap task, not because the task is important, but because the task generates interaction. The tasks themselves can be quite meaningless and they often are. For example, you have a picture and I have a picture; how many differences can be found? Who cares? It’s not something you would ever do in the real world. We are engaged in the task simply because it facilitates interaction.

AY: So, it’s language-orientated?

JCR: It’s language-orientated and acquisition-orientated. The negotiation and asking questions are for facilitating learning, but not ends in themselves. Students might enjoy doing the task but ultimately it’s just an example of a classroom activity which they do because it helps them learn something.

Content-based Learning

AY: Let’s turn to Content-based Instruction. Does the content always have to do with an academic subject?

JCR: Not necessarily. We could have Content-based courses that are based on all sorts of things that are not academic in nature. We could have a language course for students that is based on trends in the movie world, fashion, or French cooking.

AY: Then who’s qualified to teach that?

JCR: That’s one of the difficulties. At the high school level content courses are often based on the content of the mainstream subjects. At the university level the content could be taken from a variety of sources, as I mentioned above. So one of the issues is whether the goal of the course is to teach content or the language. Do you test them on content or on language? These are tricky issues.

AY: I have an example. The chairman of the History Department of the university once asked me to teach his students an English course, something like Western Civilization, to increase his students’ English ability. I said to him, “No way.” because I didn’t know that much about the subject.

JCR: These kinds of courses should be developed together with a content specialist. In other words, the content specialist could say “I would like to have a module on the industrial revolution” or whatever the topic was, and maybe he or she could give you the content and then you would work out how to adapt it as the basis for an English course. You would have to decide if it was going to be a reading course or discussion based. So the history teacher’s responsibility would be to give you the content, very clearly laid almost lesson by lesson, perhaps in Chinese, and you would have to work out how to turn it into English lessons. It could be very effective because students are motivated by content they are studying in their academic major.

AY: It also means that I have to learn something totally new to me.

JCR: You have to learn something new; on the other hand you might be interested in that content. You could be.

AY: That topic? No, movies maybe!

JCR: In Malaysia right now (2002) there is a big debate going on because the Prime Minister has said that from next year English should be used to teach 2 content areas for primary school – math and science. This has caused a backlash from Chinese schools who up to now teach these subjects in Mandarin because they’ve been told that they must not now use Mandarin for those subjects. They must use English. The idea is that this will be a much more successful way of teaching them English.

AY: It sounds like a more natural way to learn English. They may acquire the language unconsciously.

JCR: That’s right. Informally. But it is also possible that the students will pick up a grammatically simplified type of English as a result of focusing on content and meaning rather than form.

AY: And also the Math teacher may not speak good English. The language model is not good.

JCR: That’s the question. Does the content teacher know English? Are there materials at the appropriative level for teaching math using very simple English?

AY: I would be very interested in knowing how this is implemented in Malaysia.

Teachers’ beliefs

AY: In the introduction of your book, Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classroom, you ask teachers to think about their own teaching: “What are my beliefs about teaching and learning, and how to do these beliefs influence my teaching?” My question is: how do teachers’ beliefs about teaching influence them?

JCR: Let me give you some examples. I was in China not so long ago and I was working with a group of university teachers and I asked some of them to identify some of the core beliefs that they think shape their teaching. And one lady gave me a very good example. She said one of her beliefs was that “every child is a winner”. She explained how in her class she believes strongly that every child can succeed in learning even through some may be learning in different ways. So I guess that would mean that if she has a student who is weak or who is poorly motivated, she would make some extra effort to help that child succeed. This is an example of a very positive belief that would influence the ways the teacher approaches her teaching and the way she interacts with her students.

AY: So if a teacher believes that students have to memorize a whole dictionary to become successful then the teaching would move toward learning vocabulary. But what if the belief is not adequate or even wrong?

JCR: It could be wrong and that’s why it’s important for teachers to examine their beliefs and evaluate them. A teacher may feel that all you need to do is memorize grammar rules, so he or she may not give a lot of emphasis in the classroom to other kinds to activities. Teacher education is about exploring and sometimes trying to change teacher’s beliefs. Or giving teachers information that will enrich their belief systems. So teacher education is not only a question of giving teachers practices or techniques, it’s a question of developing their belief systems.

AY: So you’re saying that it’s more important to change teachers’ belief system than to demonstrate teaching techniques?

JCR: In a way, yes, because you can’t change teacher’s practices without changing their beliefs. If the teacher’s beliefs don’t change then the practice will not change. They will soon revert to the old practice.

Changing teachers’ beliefs

AY: So, we can try to change their beliefs. Is it easy or difficult?

JCR: Sometimes it might be easy; sometimes it might not. Sometimes I have said to teachers I work with, “Give me an example of one of your beliefs that has changed since you started teaching.” Sometimes they might say, well, I realized that my teaching is very teacher-centered, or my lessons are very book-oriented, or something like that. Then we explore what caused the teacher to try to make a change. It may be participation in a workshop that did it, or a gradual realization of a sense of dissatisfaction about one’s teaching. Sometimes beliefs can be changed relatively easily. But sometimes, of course, there might be a gradual rethinking required of the way they are doing things. So some of them are more long-term processes, more difficult to change.

AY: But what’s the most effective way to help teachers make changes? I find it a lot easier to talk with younger teachers. Older or more experienced teachers tend to believe in only one way of teaching—the way they have been using. They have told me, “What you have proposed wouldn’t work,” before they even try out the new techniques or even before they understand the new techniques. What should we do?

JCR: You might have to ask them to consider other options and to do some observation of other teachers’ teaching in different ways. If they started working with other teachers who had other ideas or a different approach that may be a way of triggering some sort of self-awareness. You can’t change your own practices unless you have a knowledge base of your own teaching, a good understanding of your own practice. That’s what reflective teaching means — self-awareness— knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are and observing yourself objectively. The teachers you mention may be stuck in a rut and not realize it. But there are also things they are probably doing well and successfully. You say that these teachers do not want to change. What is it that they don’t want to change? What is it that is negative about their existing practice? What are the other possibilities that they have not considered? That’s where you sort of have to go, in that direction, I think.

AY: There’s a very interesting thing I want to share with you. A quite famous English teacher once told me, “I don’t mind if all my students hate me now. They will love me in the future”.

JCR: It’s very strange motivation, isn’t it? It’s like the doctor saying, the medicine will taste bad, but it’s good for you. But does language learning and language teaching have to be an unpleasant experience? Of course it’s not always a thrilling experience either!

AY: It’s like that they drill the students, push them, force them, and squeeze them anyway they want to and yet hope finally the student would realize that is the best way for them.

JCR (jokingly): You only learn through pain.

AY: Right, that’s what they believe. I find it so difficult. If they don’t want to change, they don’t change. Some people are like that.

JCR: On the other hand, it might be a defense mechanism. Perhaps they don’t want to step outside their comfort zone. Because this is how they do it, this is how they’ve always done it and now you’re asking them to question some of the principles which they have taken for granted. So, it’s kind of threatening really. You have to take a non-directive, almost like a counseling approach and encourage them to look at alternatives and reflect on their practice.

Where teachers’ beliefs come from

AY: It’s important for teachers to be aware of their beliefs but why does it matter where these beliefs come from?

JCR: They may realize that what they thought was the only way of doing something is simply based on their experience in one classroom.

AY: I see. All I need to do is just keep on asking questions, pushing back to the origins of these beliefs. That will help.

Teacher decision making

AY: You mentioned in one of your papers, examples of teachers’ decisions, namely planning, interactive, evaluative, and follow-up decisions. Are they different in nature?

JCR: They are. Interactive decisions are made on the spot. The others are not; they are before the event or after the event. Planning decision-making is thinking about what it is that you are going to do. If you get into the classroom and it doesn’t actually work very well and you have to revise your plan, that’s an interactive decision. Or you’re teaching a lesson and it went very well. You think back and wonder why that went so well or why it didn’t. That’s evaluative.

AY: You want teachers to be aware of these decisions that they make, but it seems to me that most of the decisions are unconscious.

JCR: Sometimes they are, particularly interactive decisions, yet these are often crucial in determining the success of a lesson, so they are worth reflecting on. They can be a source of professional growth, since they are part of learning through experience.

How teachers benefit from conscious decision making

AY: How do teachers improve their teaching through thinking about decisions they made?

JCR: I think then they can get a better sense of what things work and why they work. And they can learn from thinking about critical events that happened in the classroom which can be a source for learning. For example, a teacher may teach a disastrous lesson or a brilliant one and may want to go back to probe into why.

AY: You know when I wrote this question. I was thinking, “Was I aware of why I make a decision to do this or that?” I think the answer is, “No, most of the time the decision making is unconscious.”

JCR: Well, of course a lot of what we do in the classroom is habitual. It’s almost automatic because as we gain more experience we can do things more effortlessly, more fluently. But teaching involves a lot more than developing automatic responses to situations. It is the thinking through of an incident that is crucial.

Accuracy vs. fluency

AY: I have a question about a quite recent article on your web-site, “Thirty years of TEFL/TESL: A personal reflection.” My question is “There was a time when teaching grammar was thought to be a dead end but now people are saying that accuracy and fluency are of equal importance. How do teachers teach for both accuracy and fluency in a limited time?”

JCR: I think our understanding of what grammar is and how grammar is learned has changed quite a lot in recent years, and people realize that although interaction is essential for language development -and that is what task-based teaching and communicative language teaching is all about — interaction promotes fluency but not necessarily accuracy. You can become quite a skillful interactor without necessarily using good language. So the issue is how do you expand your linguistic system so that you move forward and your language does not become fossilized. And that’s where the concepts of noticing and restructuring come in.

AY: According to Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis, if a person monitors his language all the time, s/he can’t be fluent.

JCR: That’s right. So the same activity is not necessarily going to be good for both fluency and accuracy. An activity which is good for fluency is fine, but then you need other activities that involve accuracy. One of the key processes seems to be noticing and recognizing deficiencies in your own output. This may come about in different ways. For example it may involve listening to other students. It may involve doing activities a second time with a different focus. It may involve listening to a recording of yourself speaking. These activities may result in noticing, i.e. in awareness of errors in your own language. But noticing is only the first stage in the learning process, or what we could call the “relearning process”. The next stage is called restructuring; that is, doing a task that involves restructures or expanding your output, doing a task that actually requires you to go beyond what you were doing in the last task. And so the notions that seem to be essential in understanding the role of grammar are interaction, noticing and restructuring.

Balance between accuracy and fluency

AY: Some people are like me. When I started my language learning, I paid a lot of attention to accuracy and then when I studied in the States and lived there for a few years, I developed the fluency. Another person could have acquired English naturally. Then later, she realizes that her language is not good enough and starts to pay attention to accuracy. These are two different processes. Which way do you think is more effective?

JCR: I don’t think we can answer this question. People learn in different ways. It’s a more complex process than we fully understand.

AY: Any implications for classroom teachers?

JCR: Time available in the classroom is limited. So maybe in the classroom some teachers will give more attention to accuracy-based work because they feel more comfortable doing that and they’re not familiar with fluency-based teaching. There has to be some sort of balance. In terms of teacher training, I think teachers need to be aware of these concepts and need to know the significance of what it is they’re doing. They may spend a lot of time on grammar work but all they’re doing is working on accuracy and are not developing fluency so there has to be a balance. How do you get it right? I’m not sure.

AY: What we can do is remind the teachers that it is important to understand the purpose and the meaning of their classroom activities.

JCR: That’s right. Teachers may not be aware of the difference between fluency and activity so they assume that every activity that they do is in some way equally good for students. They might not realize that they are focusing only on part of the picture. Language learning has got to involve a lot of other things. So that’s why it’s a question of changing teachers’ awareness of the nature of language acquisition and the limitation of certain kinds of activities. I can remember when I was learning to teach I had to teach from a book of substitution tables. I am shocked and embarrassed when I think of it now. We had the students doing all those stupid drills in class. Nowadays, I realize the futility of activities like those. I still make use of activities that involve repetition and monitoring but I try to do these within the framework of a communicative lesson that involves interaction, meaningful communication and practice as well as opportunities to notice how language works and how it is used.

Teaching Cambodian students

JCR: For example, last semester I was teaching Cambodian students who had great difficulty with final consonants. I guess in their own language they have fewer final consonants and final clusters than we do in English. So in the “accuracy” phase of lessons I would draw their attention to the fact that in English we pronounce final consonants. We did a lot of reading aloud. I would ask the students to look at a text and circle all the words that have final consonants then read it aloud to a partner, monitoring each other for final consonants. This sounds very simple but it takes an awful long time. And some of them still did not get it. I would be constantly correcting them for final consonants through their three month course. But even that tiny little piece of learning could have a huge effect on their production. Because once they realize that final consonants have to be pronounced, it’s going to totally change their speech. So sometime one little thing that they learn can have a big knock-on effect on their accuracy.

AY: What you just said reminds me that when we talk about accuracy it’s not just the grammar. It’s actually everything.

JCR: That’s right.

AY: Perhaps in closing you say something about new projects you are working on?

JCR: Yes, a colleague and I in Singapore – Tom Farell – have just finished a book on teacher development for language teachers. It contains “how to do it ” chapters on 12 different approaches to teacher development, such as classroom observation, journal writing, case studies, action research and so on. It draws on our combined experience working with language teachers in different parts of the world. Tom and I are now planning a new project – a comprehensive introduction and survey of language teaching methodology.

AY: I look forward to reading them and using them with my student teachers.