These are personal views, derived from years of practical work, study, discussion and thought. Many of them are developed in more detail in my articles. I offer them for what they are worth.
Autonomy is valuable – up to a point. ‘Learner-centred’ is not always good; ‘teacher-dominated’ is not always bad.
Students’ views about language learning may be right or wrong, but they are important. If we listen to them they’ll listen to us.
Grammar is many different kinds of thing which are learnt in many different ways.
Our job in grammar teaching is not to describe the language, as a grammarian does. It is to build a bridge from A (what the student knows) to B (what we want him/her to know next). If the bridge is too long it will collapse.
We shouldn’t try to tell the whole grammatical truth, even if we know it. We may need to sell some truth in order to buy simplicity and clarity.
Our grammar rules are necessary simplifications. The language won’t always obey them: it hasn’t read our little grammar books. Students need to understand this.
Grammar doesn’t have to be dull. Students can practise grammar by telling each other interesting things, making each other think, amusing each other, solving problems …
Not everything needs to be ‘communicative’. Structure drilling also has value.
Some language learners need a high level of correctness; some don’t.
Perfectionism can be very damaging. If you correct all your students’ mistakes, you may produce students who never make mistakes because they never say anything.
Native-speaker-like correctness is a completely unrealistic aim. Very few adults learn languages perfectly. Everybody makes mistakes, including teachers. It’s normal, and it doesn’t matter very much. Good enough English is good enough.
There are two good reasons for insisting on correct production of a language point: because it will make a difference to comprehensibility or acceptability.
‘English as a lingua franca’ is not a kind of English; it’s a use of English.
the mother tongue
Explanations of grammar and vocabulary are usually best given in the students’ mother tongue if this is possible.
Depending on the point to be learnt, the mother tongue can help, hinder, or have no effect one way or the other.
Movement in the classroom is important: human beings weren’t designed to learn by sitting down all the time.
Good teaching materials may be interesting or amusing. But the best teaching materials give the students a chance to be interesting or amusing themselves.
People learn new language best by using it to say things that matter to them.
Real communication works well with some students; role play works well with others. We need both kinds of activity.
Doing things isn’t necessarily the same as teaching things. We should always ask: what exactly does this activity achieve? Are we sure?
‘Going through’ a text can just be a way of filling up time, and wasting it.
It is often pointless to try to teach ‘comprehension skills’. Most literate students can skim, scan, predict, identify main points and so on in their own languages. They will access the skills automatically in the new language when they are proficient enough readers or listeners.
For some students, the main problem with pronunciation is not speaking but hearing. The words go by too fast, and listeners don’t catch what is said. Such students can benefit greatly from training in the perception of unstressed words and syllables.
We can test too much. You don’t teach anybody anything by repeatedly asking them what they know.
Giving students marks creates failures as well as successes.
There are two main sources of wisdom and information in our profession: the accumulated experience of practitioners, and the findings of academic research. Both deserve respect; both need to be treated with caution.
Second language learning is not like first language learning, for all sorts of reasons. Our job as language teachers is not to replicate the conditions of natural language learning, but to compensate for their absence.
Beware of language-teaching revolutions. They won’t transform everything by magic, and they often subtract as much as they add. We should be particularly suspicious of anything called ‘The … Approach’ or ‘The … Method’.
The most important word in language teaching is ‘prioritise’.
Students are often taught too much without really mastering any of it. A well-practised confident command of a small range of English is the best platform for further development.
To design a language-teaching programme, we need to:
- find out what knowledge and skills our learners need
- subtract what they already know via their mother tongue or from earlier learning
- subtract what they can get outside the classroom
- of what is left, establish which elements matter most
- of those, establish how many can be effectively taught and learnt under the instructional conditions in the time available
- teach these by the methods that are most appropriate for each.
success and failure
We shouldn’t worry if our results aren’t very impressive; they probably won’t be. That doesn’t mean we’ve failed. Languages are hard to learn and teach.