THE LANGUAGE TEACHING MATRIX

BY JACK RICHARDS

The purpose of this book is to provide teachers with a textbook in methodology of language teaching, course designers - with a source book for language curriculum design, preparation of materials and teaching practice. The author uses the word ‘matrix’ in the title metaphorically to express his idea that effective language teaching is a result of interactions among the curriculum, teachers, students, methodology, and instruction materials, because second or foreign language teaching is often viewed from the very narrow point of view - that of the teaching act. Consequently much of the literature on second language teaching deals with teaching methods or with the design and use of instructional materials. If students are not learning, Richards says, it is assumed to be the fault of the method, the materials, or the teacher. Yet, the author emphasizes, the success of a language program involves far more than the mere act of teaching. Teaching is approached as a dynamic process. It depends upon a successful educational program, a number of levels of planning, development, and implementation. And these elements change together with the change of the teaching context. At the end of each chapter the author includes discussion questions and tasks to help teachers find their own way toward effective teaching.

Each chapter in the book focuses on language teaching and examines its position within the language teaching matrix. Chapter 1 presents an overview of curriculum development processes and suggests that, like other areas of curriculum activity, it is concerned with principles and procedures for the planning, delivery, management, and assessment of teaching and learning. Curriculum development processes are seen as a combination of needs analysis, goal setting, syllabus design, methodology, and testing and evaluation.

In language curriculum development, needs analysis serves the purposes of:

1. providing a mechanism for obtaining a wider range of input into the content, design, and implementation of a language program through involving such people as learners, teachers, administrators and employers in the planning process.

2. identifying general or specific language needs that can be addressed in developing goals, objectives, and content for a language program.

3. providing data that can serve as the basis for reviewing and evaluating an existing program.

Needs analysis is viewed as fundamental to the planning of general language courses.

According to Jack C. Richards, goals and objectives for the program have to be developed as well as syllabuses and instructional materials. Instructional strategies have to be determined, teachers selected and trained, and tests and assessment procedures chosen. Once the program is in operation, procedures are needed to enable the program to be monitored and its effects on learners and learning evaluated. In order to plan for effective second language teaching, a comprehensive view is needed of the nature and process of language program development.

Curriculum goals, the author says, are general statements of the intended outcomes of a language program, and represent what the curriculum planners believe to be desirable and attainable program aims based on the constraints revealed in the needs analysis. Goals can be used as a basis for developing more specific descriptions of the intended outcomes of the program (the program objectives). Goal statements refer to elements of the program that are actually going to be addressed by instruction. Richards gives the following example: “… a needs analysis might reveal that a group of learners had unfavorable attitudes towards the proposed language program. A goal statement reflecting this might be: Students will develop favorable attitudes toward the program” (Richards 1990: 3) . However, while this goal might represent a sincere wish on the part of teachers, it should appear as a program goal only if it is to be addressed concretely in the program.

He uses Taba's outline (1962:12) of the steps which a course designer must work through to develop subject matter courses, which has become the foundation for many other writers' suggestions. The list of 'curriculum processes' includes the following:

Step 1. Diagnosis of needs

Step 2. Formulation of objectives

Step 3. Selection of content

Step 4. Organization of content

Step 5. Selection of learning experiences

Step 6. Organization of learning experiences

Step 7. Determination of what to evaluate, and the means to evaluate.

In language teaching, according to the author, Steps 3 and 4 are usually known as syllabus design. Syllabus design (the product of which is usually referred to as a syllabus in British usage and a curriculum in American usage) is concerned with the choice and sequencing of instructional content. It the Taba model were followed, the procedures for developing a syllabus would involve examining instructional objectives and arranging them by priorities, and then determining what kind of content was required to attain the objectives.

“In reality, in language teaching the syllabus has traditionally been the starting point in planning a language program, rather than an activity that occurs midway in the process. The concept of a language syllabus has been fundamental in the development of language teaching practices in the twentieth century. In the work of such British language teaching specialists as Harold Palmer, Michael West, and A. S. Hornby, and such American specialists as Charles Fries and Robert Lado, questions concerning the linguistic content of a language program were considered primary and a necessary basis for planning a language program. This reflects the fact that many applied linguists were trained as linguists, rather than as educational planners. Therefore debate over the most appropriate form for syllabuses in language teaching continues. A properly constructed and planned syllabus is believed to assure successful learning, since it represents a linguistically and psycholinguistically optimal introduction to the target language. Syllabus design theory has consequently been one of the most active branches of applied linguistics in recent years” (Richards 1990: 8).

It is not until the goals, objectives, and content of a language program have been determined that decisions about methodology can be taken up in detail. The focus of this phase of program development, according to the author, is on the kind of instruction that will be required to achieve the goals of the program. From the perspective of curriculum development , questions of methodology do not center on the choice of a ‘method.’ Appropriate teaching methodology is not predetermined; not can it be imposed on teachers and learners. Rather it evolves out of the dynamics of the teaching process itself. This does not mean, however, that effective teaching cannot be planned for and conceptualized in advance.

Methodology is characterized as the activities, tasks, and learning experiences selected by the teacher in order to achieve learning, and how these are used within the teaching/learning process. These activities are justified according to the objectives the teacher has set out to accomplish and the content he or she has set out to teach. They also relate to the philosophy of the program, to the view of language and language learning that the program embodies, and to the roles of teachers, learners, and instructional materials in the program. In Richards’ view, since the assumptions underlying methodology are not necessarily shared by teachers, administrators, and learners, it is a useful exercise for all who are involved in a language program to clarify their assumptions about the kind of teaching and learning the program will try to exemplify. “This can be done through teacher preparation activities that examine attitudes, beliefs, and practices concerning five central issues:

  1. the approach or philosophy underlying the program
  2. the role of teachers in the program
  3. the role of the learners
  4. the kinds of learning activities, tasks, and experiences that will be used in the program
  5. the role and design of instructional materials” (Richards 1990: 11).

The primary focus of evaluation, as the author sees it, is to determine whether the goals and objectives of a language program are being attained - that is, whether the program is effective. In addition, evaluation may be concerned with how a program works: how teachers and learners and materials interact in classrooms, and how teachers and learners perceive the program’s goals, materials and learning experience.

Chapter 2 contrasts two approaches to the nature of methodology in language teaching. One is the familiar method-based approach to teaching. This is seen to be a “top-down” approach because it involves selecting a method, then making teachers and learners match the method. The other is “bottom-up” approach. It involves exploring the nature of effective teaching and learning, and discovering the strategies used by successful teachers and learners in the classroom. In this chapter Jack Richards seeks to draw attention away from methods and to address the more interesting question of how successful teachers and learners achieve their results. Methodology, he says, “is not something fixed, a set of rigid principles and procedures that the teacher must conform to. Rather it is a dynamic, creative, and exploratory process that begins anew each time the teacher encounters a group of learners” (Richards 1990: 35).

The next four chapters concentrate on the four language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Each one is discussed from a different perspective.

Chapter 3 looks at a key issue in the teaching of listening comprehension: the preparation of suitable instruction materials. It is stated that teaching materials should recognize the difference between two kinds of listening processes, referred to as top-down and bottom-up processing.

interactional

bottom top


up down

transactional

In Jack Richards’ words, “An understanding of the role of bottom-up and top-down processes in listening is central to any theory of listening comprehension, as well as recognition of the differences between the interactional and transactional dimensions of language use and how these affect listening” (Richards 1990: 50). In this chapter, these views of listening are first explained and then applied to the design of instructional materials and activities for the teaching of listening comprehension.

In the next chapter, teaching conversation is approached through an examination of the nature of casual conversation and conversational fluency. Two approaches are compared - an indirect approach, which teaches conversation through the use of interactive tasks, and a direct approach, which focuses on the processes and strategies involved in casual conversational interaction. The need to monitor classroom activities to determine their effectiveness in promoting conversation skills is emphasized.

Conversation is seen as a multifaceted activity. In some language programs it is an opportunity for untrained native speakers to get students to talk, using whatever resources and techniques the teacher can think of. In language programs where trained teachers are available, they are often left to their own resources and encouraged to use whatever materials they choose in order to provide practice in both accuracy and fluency. Consequently the content of conversation classes varies widely. Richards gives the following examples: “In one class, the teacher’s primary emphasis might be on problem solving. Students work on communication games and tasks in pairs or small groups with relatively little direct teacher input. In another class, the teacher might have a more active role, employing grammar and pronunciation drills and structured oral tasks. A third teacher may use the conversation class as an opportunity for unstructured free discussion, while in another class the teacher might have students work on a situational dialogue such as “At the bank” and “At the supermarket” (Richards 1990: 67).

Part of the difficulty in deciding what to do in the conversation class is due to the nature of conversation itself. In order to appreciate the complex nature of conversation and conversational fluency, Richards shows some of the most important dimensions of conversation: the purposes of conversation, turn-taking, topics, formal features of conversation, and the notion of fluency.

Purposes of conversation

Conversations serve a variety of purposes. Two different kinds of conversational interaction can be distinguished - those in which the primary focus is on the exchange of information (the transactional function of conversation), and those in which the primary purpose is to establish and maintain social relations (the interactional function of conversation) (Brown and Yule 1983). In transactional uses of conversation the primary focus is on the message, whereas interactional uses of conversation focus primarily on the social needs of the participants. Approaches to the teaching of both conversation and listening comprehension are fundamentally affected by whether the primary purposes involved are transactional or interactional.

Turn-taking

Conversation is a collaborative process. A speaker does not say everything he or she wants to say in a single utterance. Conversations progress as a series of ‘turns’; at any moment, the speaker may become the listener. Basic to the management of the collaborative process in conversation is the turn-making system.

The role of topics

The way topics are selected for discussion within conversation and the strategies speakers use to introduce, develop, or change topics within conversations constitute another important dimension of conversational management. For example, coherent conversation respects norms concerning the choice of topics. Questions concerning one’s age, salary, and marital status may be appropriate on first encounters in some cultures, but not in others.

Formal features of conversation

Conversational discourse is also recognized by formal features, which distinguish it from written discourse. Written language exhibits a different syntax from spoken discourse. In written mode, clauses are linked in complex ways, with a main clause often followed by or linked to subordinate clauses. Rules of intra- and intersentential relations serve to link repeated and coreferential constituents. This is not possible in spoken discourse.

An important dimension of conversation is using a style of speaking that is appropriate to the particular circumstances. Different styles of speaking reflect the roles, age, sex, and status of participants in interactions.

The concept of fluency

The concept of fluency reflects the assumption that speakers set out to produce discourse that is comprehensible, easy to follow, and free from errors and breakdowns in communication, though this goal is often not met due to processing and production demands. “The prime objective of the speaker is the generation of maximally acceptable speech in both content and form and a concomitant minimization of errors by the time an utterance has been articulated” (Hieke 1981: 150). Hieke proposes three conversational “maxims” that motivate the speaker:

  1. Be Error-Free (phonology and syntax)
  2. Be Intelligible (semantics, lexicon, logic, stylistics, and rhetoric)
  3. Be in Control of the Communication Channel (fluency, and turn taking).

Accuracy (including control of grammar and pronunciation) is here a component of fluency, rather than as independent dimension of conversational skill. The kind of discourse speakers produce and the degree of fluency they achieve depend upon the task the speaker is attempting and the context for communication (i.e., whether the speech situation involves face-to-face conversation, whether the speaker is taking part in an interview or a discussion, or whether the speaker is involved in telling a story, giving a description, or replying to a question).

Approaches to the teaching of conversation

Currently there are two major approaches to the teaching of conversation in second language programs. One is an indirect approach, in which conversational competence is seen as the product of engaging learners in conversational interaction. The second, a more direct approach, involves planning a conversation program around the specific microskills, strategies, and processes that are involved in fluent conversation.

In Chapter 5, from interviews and video recordings of the teacher’s class, an attempt is made to understand how the teacher approaches his/her teaching and the kinds of planning and decision making that the teacher employs. According to Jack Richards, the second or foreign language reading teacher who understands the differences between top-down and bottom-up processing and the role played by background knowledge in reading will look for classroom strategies that encourage second language readers to use an appropriate combination of processing strategies when they approach a text. Likewise a familiarity with differences between effective and ineffective reading strategies can help the teacher look for effective reading behaviours in learners, encourage wider use of these strategies, and be on the lookout for learners using less effective strategies.

In Chapter 6 approaches to the teaching of writing are considered. The focus is on the importance of an adequate theory of writing, and product- and process-based approaches to teaching writing are compared. The author discusses several implications for the roles of learners, the teacher, and instructional activities. According to Richards, learning to write in either a first or second language is one of the most difficult tasks a learner encounters. Even at university level, students require further instruction in writing. “Why should the teaching and learning of writing be so problematic? How can writing be addressed in the second language curriculum?” In this chapter the author addresses these questions by first examining the nature of written discourse and then by considering approaches to the teaching of writing in a second language.

Chapter 7 discusses ways in which teachers can explore the nature of their own classroom practices and improve the effectiveness of their teaching through self-monitoring. Three approaches to self-monitoring are elaborated: personal reflection through journal or diary accounts of teaching, self-reports based on focused reports of lessons, and audio or video recording of lessons. Practical suggestions are given on what teachers can look for in their own lessons, procedures for carrying out self-monitoring, and how to use the information obtained.

In Chapter 8, Richards asks the questions: What is the nature of the mainstream classroom? How can the second language curriculum support the mainstream curriculum? What demands does content learning place on students of limited proficiency in the school language? In this chapter approaches to developing programs for students of limited language proficiency are considered. Traditionally language proficiency has been the main focus of such programs. The goal has been to develop minority students’ language skills to a level where they can cope with the demands of regular classroom interaction. It is suggested that this approach is inadequate, and that an effective program must address three crucial dimensions of classroom learning, referred to as the interactional dimension (the ability to understand and use the social rules of classroom discourse), the instructional task dimension (the ability to understand the nature of learning in mainstream classrooms), and the cognitive dimension (the ability to understand and assimilate concepts and information in different content areas).

The book concludes with a short chapter offering reflections on some of the key points of the book. The primary goal of The Language Teaching Matrix is to engage teachers and teachers-in-training, as well as teacher educators, in the investigation of classroom teaching and learning. In order to facilitate this and to assist instructor using the book, each chapter concludes with a set of discussion questions and practical activities. These serve to link the information in each chapter with practical issues in curriculum development, methodology, classroom observation, and materials design.

Compiled by

Svetlana Yordanova

Lecturer

Shoumen University

Shoumen

8 February, 2000