Nine Debates and Controversies in English Language Teaching

1. Ageing out – is it better to learn a second language when you’re a child or an adult?

It depends on the situation. Young children (under 10 or 11) living in an English-speaking environment won’t actually need to learn the language; they’ll acquire it through natural exposure, e.g. at school, on the playground, on TV. Their English will sound native-like. For children not living in an English-speaking environment, unless they have lots of extracurricular exposure to the language, they’ll probably struggle to learn much, and adults will have an advantage in terms of motivation and the use of learning strategies.


2. “Standard English” – goal or myth?

There’s no such thing as Standard English. Everyone has an accent. Everyone uses a localized vocabulary. But some accents and ways of talking are more respected than others. What students need is English that will enable them to communicate with whoever they need to communicate with. This means students’ needs are context-dependent. Learning English to be a doctor in Delhi is different from learning English to be a tour guide in Tbilisi. But it’s not a qualitative difference, and there is no “neutral” version of English that would allow all English speakers to understand you.


3. Native Speaker teachers – help or hindrance?

Native speakers will probably have a better feel for the nuances of language: for collocations, idioms, proverbs, and other fixed phrases. But they won’t know what it’s like as a second language learner to study English verb tenses or deal with thirteen different meanings of the phrasal verb get off or learn the pronunciation of though, through and tough. Neither Native Speaker teachers nor Non-Native speaker teachers are necessarily better; they are just different and have different strengths.


4. Translation – or no?

Some translation makes sense in class, e.g. when we point out cognates and similarities between the learners’ first language and English. The problem is when students come to rely on translation for every new item of vocabulary or grammar. For a start, some things are untranslatable (this is the same in all languages; look up schadenfreude or saudade). Secondly, translating everything wastes opportunities for use of the target language. Overall, I’d say translation is a technique to be used sparingly and judiciously.


5. Communicative approach or chalk and talk?

In recent years, the sensational results of Chinese schoolchildren have persuaded westerners to look at Chinese educational practices. What are the Chinese doing right? It turns out they’re doing many of the things western education rejected several decades ago: rote learning, memorization, lectures, and long school days. In English Language Teaching, for some cultures these “old-fashioned” ways are appropriate; for others, a communicative approach works better. Much depends on one’s concept of education, which is driven by cultural values and upbringing. I’d suggest trying to include a wide variety of activities and techniques. That’s because I like Marvin Minsky’s line: “You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way.


6. Mass-produced course books – pedagogical vision or the bland leading the brand?

Course books get criticized for their bland topics (no sex and drugs, and not much rock ‘n’ roll) and for their “one-size-fits-all” approach: the same book is used from Turkey to Timbuktu, with no regard for the learners’ context. The problem is that overworked and under-qualified teachers (most of us?) usually don’t have the time or expertise to create our own lessons and curricula, so we rely on the course book. In some situations – e.g. expert teachers with small workloads and freedom to devise their own courses – a textbook isn’t necessary. For most teachers, it probably is. And if this is the case, the solution isn’t to abandon course books; it’s to produce better ones … or, alternatively, to revolutionize education so that teachers have more time, money, and expertise.


7. Teaching Grammar – a complete waste of time?

Grammar teaching goes in and out of fashion like the length of skirts. Should we teach it explicitly? Should we provide examples and hope students notice them? Should we do cross-linguistic comparisons? Much depends on the students’ educational background, exposure to language, and aptitude for “noticing.” And there’s another factor: students expect to be taught grammar (for many people, language is grammar). Ignoring it completely may be a problem for them and it may get you fired.


8. Multiple Intelligence Theory, learning styles, neuro-linguistic programming – big idea or big hoax?

These ideas are all, in their own ways, interesting and potentially useful. The problem is, there’s no research evidence to suggest they make any difference to learners. Occasionally, the likes of Multiple Intelligence Theory and learning styles are trumpeted as major developments in education. This is unfortunate, because they aren’t. What we can learn from them is the idea that we should provide varied modes of input (see Marvin Minsky quote above).


9. Error correction – does it work?

The evidence is inconclusive. As with grammar teaching, students expect to be corrected and feel there’s something amiss if they aren’t. Error correction is tricky. Our decision to do it or not depends on the error, the pedagogical purpose of the activity in which it occurred, and the method of correction. And, of course, the sensitivity of the student. Personally, I do it, but it may be more out of habit than a considered appraisal of whether it really works. And also I feel guilty that I’m getting paid to stand there doing nothing while the students do all the talking.



Kachru’s Circles: What’s Changed 35 Years Later?


In 1982, Professor Braj Kachru made a model of English language use in the world. His model – three simple circles (see a simulacrum above) – became enormously influential. The Inner Circle represented nations in which English is the native language; the Outer Circle was for nations in which English is the second language; and the Expanding Circle was for nations in which English is a foreign language. The model sparked a fiery debate within the Applied Linguistics establishment, led to the ugly but apposite term “World Englishes,” and provided a springboard for a discussion about native and non-native English speakers which has been going on for three decades.

As with all great models, the beauty of Kachru’s is its simplicity. Think of the Eiffel Tower. Think of Britain’s red telephone box. A child could draw an outline of these in 10 seconds. The same goes for Kachru’s circles. And it’s the simplicity which has also elicited criticism. Several writer/researchers, such as Barbara Seidlhofer and Paul Bruthiaux, have taken issue with the model.


In 1921, the linguist Edward Sapir wrote, “All grammars leak.” So do theoretical models. Some critics focused on the misleading simplicity of Kachru’s model: it lacked information on dialects and proficiency. Others said it was more about power than language. Part of the problem is that “inner circle” has a metaphorical meaning: it’s used to describe those at the heart of power. While Kachru saw his framework as “liberatory” in that it went against hegemonic ideas of the UK and the U.S. as “owners” of English, critics said the model reinforces rather than resists the prevailing power structure.

Another criticism concerns its accuracy. In Kachru’s model, India is in the Outer Circle. But English has been spoken in India since the 1700’s. English-medium universities were founded in Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta, and Madras as far back as the 1800’s. And considering millions of Indians speak English as a first language, to what extent can we say India is in the Outer Circle?


Kachru’s most intractable opponent was Randolph Quirk. The two did battle in a series of assertions and counter-assertions in the journal English Today. Quirk opposed what he called “liberation linguistics.” He believed that ESL speakers needed to learn the English spoken by the Inner Circle because “it is neither liberal nor liberating to permit learners to settle for lower standards than the best.” (My italics.) Kachru responded by labeling Quirk’s ideas as “deficit linguistics.”

Quirk’s intentions may have been good-to afford opportunities to people in developing countries through mastery of prestigious Standard English-but his ideas come across as neo-colonial, and his insistence that foreign students learn predominantly from Native Speakers is totally impractical as well as discriminatory.

These days, few involved in Applied Linguistics would take Quirk’s side. Non-native speaker English is neither a transitional dialect striving for perfection, nor a pidgin used in limited circumstances. English is pluricentric. It’s used on every continent (including Antarctica, where scientists work primarily in the language) and has taken on the linguistic and cultural values of those who use it (hence Chinglish, Spanglish, etc.).


The lines of Kachru’s circles are becoming more and more blurred. Geopolitical forces have led to increased international movement: economic migration and vast numbers of refugees from wars and other conflicts. When people move, languages move with them. And hybrids emerge. English has gone from being a “distributed” commodity to being a “spread” commodity. Its producers and gatekeepers are no longer those in the Inner Circle, but everyone who uses the language. As David Graddol writes, “native-speaker norms are becoming less relevant as English becomes a component of basic education in many countries.”

And so, is it time to ditch Kachru’s circles? To consign them to the trashcan of Linguistics history, along with syntactical tree diagrams (I wish)? Definitely not. The circles are still stunningly clear and evocative. We simply need to recognize that their contents are constantly changing, just like language itself.


How to motivate the unmotivated


Image from Mission College

“I asked my 18-year-old student why he wasn’t putting more effort into learning English. He took me to the classroom window and pointed. Outside, there was a parked Ferrari. It was his. A chauffeur was sitting inside. “I don’t need English,” he said. “My family’s rich.”” (teacher in Melbourne, Australia)

“One student yawned and then lay down on the classroom floor in front of everybody and started checking his phone messages.” (teacher in Milan, Italy)

“She was late to class on the first day and then she disappeared. We started to get worried. We called the host family. It turned out she couldn’t get up on time for an 11:00 a.m. class. We switched her to afternoons. She still didn’t make it.” (teacher in London, UK) 

These are all true stories. (The first was told to me a week ago by an old colleague.) The issue is motivation. I won’t go into the extensive literature, theories, or jargon. Instead, here are ten essentials for motivating the unmotivated:

1. Positive environment

You can recognize a happy class within about two seconds. There’s a buzz. People are moving and interacting. Sometimes, you’re not even sure who the teacher is (they’re monitoring or mingling with everyone else). Do the students feel safe and welcome? Is co-operation more highly valued than competition? Are the teachers and front-of-office staff friendly? Does everyone know everyone else’s name? If the answers are yes, chances are the atmosphere is ripe for learning.

2. Challenge

If the teaching material is too easy, the students are wasting their time. Too difficult and they’ll get frustrated. Balance is everything: tasks need to be challenging but achievable. The students simply have to believe they are being pushed, constantly, to new levels.

3. Lessons Match Student Needs and Styles

You wouldn’t teach a class of Young Learners how to write a business report. It isn’t relevant to their lives. One of our tasks as teachers is to find out what each student must accomplish in English outside the classroom. A Needs Analysis (a questionnaire at the beginning of the course) can help. Also, teachers – particularly older ones – have to understand the world of younger students – their technology, their habits, how they interact – and find ways to connect these to the classroom.

4. Variety

Nothing numbs the mind like too much routine. Change the setting. Move the chairs. Put desks by the walls and sit in a circle. Take the students outside occasionally in good weather. Change the mode of delivery: if you normally teach from a book, use a film clip or a song. If you always start class with speaking, do two minutes of Total Physical Response. Shock the students into alertness (but don’t get fired).

5. Personalized tasks

The one thing that most of us know about is ourselves. Some people know little else. Our personal histories, hobbies, ambitions, families, home towns – these are all good conversation topics. Speaking tasks are more motivating if students discuss things they care about. Good teachers adapt materials to make this possible.

6. Learner Autonomy

De-motivation can stem from powerlessness – sociologists call it ‘learned helplessness’ – and one way to restore power is by taking some control. Occasionally, get students to set their own homework, or ask them how long they want a task to last. Or get them to commandeer the whiteboard. Above all, show them resources for learning outside the classroom, whether online or in the community.

7. Feedback Feeds Forward

The information we get from observing our students should be reflected in how we plan preceding lessons. For example, if the students are doing a speaking task and we notice they are making major, systemic errors (e.g. failure to use the Past Simple), we might begin the next class by reviewing that language point. This bring a sense of purpose and progression.

8. Goals and Assessment

Students who have measurable goals (“I want to pass the First Certificate next month”) have a natural motivator. There’s been much in print recently about the concept of a “future you” or “ideal self” (see Motivating Learning by Hadfield and Dornyei, 2013). This is another way of saying “I have a long-term goal.”

9. Engagement and Fun

I once observed a class of Japanese businessmen singing the ABC song. Two of them were CEOs of multi-million-dollar corporations. They loved it. Classes don’t have to be entertaining but they must be engaging. The topics, material, activities and their sequencing – all need to hold the students’ interest. Most groups of students have a predilection for some form of entertainment: games, songs, youtube clips. Find out what works for these students and use it.

10. Teacher’s Enthusiasm

The biggest factor in motivating students might be the teacher’s passion for teaching. Good energy is contagious. The best teachers make classes come alive, not once in a while but every time. The key ingredient is care, which manifests itself in deep involvement in the whole process of language learning. It comes in the form of careful preparation, alertness to the mood of the class, empathy, and determination to be the best possible guide on the students’ journey.


Rapid Response Teaching


My nine-year-old son was in class when his friends spotted it. They crowded around the window. A strange-looking creature had attached itself to the outside of the pane. The teacher joined in. She had no hope of recapturing the children’s attention because a large, horned beetle, to a nine-year-old, may as well be a unicorn in fancy dress.

image from

The teacher, who I’ll call Miss Julie, got the janitor to bring the beetle inside. Then Miss Julie began to ask the children questions. What were the beetle’s features? How many legs did it have? What colors were prominent?

The children went online and discovered it was a female Eastern Hercules Beetle. Why was it called Hercules? Because it’s North America’s heaviest type of beetle. The children weighed it. They found out about its habitat and why it might be stuck to the window. Then they wrote about it in their science notebooks.

My son told me about this episode in an unusually enthusiastic manner, and I’d bet my last dollar he’ll be able to recognize an Eastern Hercules Beetle for the rest of his life.

Unless Miss Julie had secretly placed the beetle on the window before class, this was a perfect example of rapid-response, abandon-the-lesson-plan teaching.

Of Mice and Men

Rapid response teaching is a reaction to teachable moments. The teacher recognizes opportunities for real-world learning and acts upon them. She either deviates from or abandons altogether the lesson plan … which leads to the questions: Why might we abandon a lesson plan? How responsive are we to teachable moments? Won’t chaos reign if we ditch the plan? And how experienced must you be in order to improvise a lesson?

Let me deal with why first. Here are four reasons to abandon a lesson plan:

*The plan was no good. You badly overestimated or underestimated the students’ abilities or interest in the topic. The result is that the students are now (a) totally confused, or (b) snoozing in the corner.

*The plan was good for some students but not others. Half the class was engaged and the other half was silently sulking. To increase engagement for unresponsive students, you made an on-the-spot decision to add, subtract or modify a stage.

*The plan was fine but in the course of the lesson the class became profitably sidetracked. Someone took a tangent. A conversation escalated. Most of the students were engaged. They were producing lots of language and there were opportunities to learn. Or a large beetle appeared on the window.

*The plan was fine but outside factors scuppered it. You were about to listen to a recording when a road worker outside began operating an extremely loud drill. Only two students out of twelve showed up for class so you abandoned the planned group work. Remember Robbie Burns’s line: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / gang aft a-gley” [often go wrong]. It’s as true now as it was in 1786, when he wrote it.

Principled abandonment

Many teachers – particularly early in their careers – feel nervous about ditching the lesson plan. It’s the map that gets them from A to B. On the occasions when we do abandon the plan, I think it’s important to maintain a few chaos-prevention principles. Here are five:

*keep underlying goals in mind;

*let students take control of the discussion but be prepared to moderate;

*go on tangents but make sure these are leading somewhere;

*keep track of issues raised and language used so you can “loop back” to where the conversation began;

*afterwards, assess the success of the lesson in terms of goals achieved and student motivation.

Teacher as facilitator

In the role of teacher-facilitator, the teacher brings others into the discussion and keeps the conversation moving. She might clarify certain points and act as a provider of necessary language. She might consider summarizing the arguments, but always with the caveat that a teacher’s summary is inevitably weighted to the opinions she agrees with, and also teachers’ summaries usually put an end to the conversation. She might take notes on errors and interesting expressions used and get students to reflect on these afterwards.

The experienced teacher’s actions and oversight will prevent chaos because she has well-honed classroom management skills and a repertoire of pedagogical activities and strategies. She trusts herself to find a path out of the woods even without a map.

A Whale of a Time

Years ago in a small town, a whale washed up on a beach. When a local teacher heard about it, he took his class to see it. Many years later, one of his pupils recalled this episode:

“We looked at it, we listened to it, we went up to it to touch it (it could not move much), we ran away from it when it opened its massive mouth, we threw water on it, we made faces at it – we did all sorts of things. From that day on we all knew exactly what a whale was.” (Wadsworth, 1978, 54-55)

Whales or beetles? It doesn’t matter. What matters is getting to grips with the real, linking the world of the classroom to the world beyond it.


Third-Age Students

Still Learning

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya lived to the legendary age of 82 – quite a feat in the early 19th century. Towards the end of his life, old, deaf, ailing, and relocated to France, he settled down to draw one last time. Using crayon on paper, he sketched an ancient, bearded patriarch propped up on two spindly sticks. In the top right corner Goya scrawled the message: Aún aprendo. I’m still learning.

I was reminded of the picture when I visited Madrid recently. There’s a subway stop named Goya, where you can see exquisite prints of his engravings from the Los Caprichos and Tauromaquia series on the platform walls as you wait for your train. The picture speaks to me, as an educator; it reminds me to keep learning.


A Third-Age Student

One of my all-time favorite students was a Japanese man in his late seventies, who I’ll call Hiro (an appropriate name if you say it aloud). For half a century he’d dreamed of coming to the UK to study English, but life kept getting in the way. Military service, marriage, family, work. Now happily retired, he’d finally made it. And he was in better shape than Goya’s ancient learner.

Hiro joined me and a class of twenty-somethings. They treated him with reverence. He was a fount of wisdom. He’d seen things others had only read about. He remembered the moon landings. He knew where he’d been not only when John Lennon was shot, but also JFK and MLK. He’d experienced typewriters and video recorders and wars and the first stirrings of rock ‘n’ roll – everything, all the way to the internet age.

He was a gentle soul and an epic listener. And when he spoke, the room went silent. He was also brilliant at English, with a vocabulary earned by voracious reading and a remarkable memory.

Years Bring Wealth

One of the great myths of our profession is that it’s easier for younger people to learn foreign languages. Young children, of course, have an advantage when it comes to pronunciation; they still have the mental and physical plasticity to acquire a foreign language and speak it without an accent. But older learners have other advantages.

Firstly, they tend to be highly motivated. Why, if you are of retirement age, do you need to learn a foreign language? The chances are, you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t want to be.

Secondly, older students often have better learning strategies. Life experiences teach you how to be effective in various situations, for example problem-solving at work or learning on the job. Older students know themselves and how they learn best, and they are able to adapt their behavior accordingly.

Advice to Teachers of Third Age Classes

I spoke with Dr. Alexandra Neves, a professor of Bilingual Education, about teaching older students. Neves used to teach Third Age classes at UNISUL in Santa Catarina, Brazil.

“These were some of the most rewarding classes of my career. Older students appreciate the teacher’s time and patience. And they really want to be there – no one is forcing them to go to class. I remember the atmosphere was great – very cooperative.”

Would these students ever use their English?

“[The course] was part of a program for Third Age people. Some of them traveled; others were housewives who’d never had the chance to go to college, so it was an opportunity to experience college for the first time.”

What advice would she give to teachers of Third Age students?

“They take longer. Sometimes they forget what they learned. Sometimes they want to know exactly how to do things – an approximation isn’t enough; they need very direct instruction. You have to be patient, and speak a little louder. Also repeat a lot and make sure there’s plenty of recycling.”

Does the methodology need to change?

“Not really. They enjoyed group work, like every other class. They also liked to read out loud, just to show they could do it. Some felt frustrated because they found it difficult, and pronunciation was an issue, but I gave them lots of encouragement as I would to any student.”

The Old and the New

Goya was true to his word. He didn’t stop learning. Approaching eighty, and still exiled in Bordeaux, he learned the art of lithography and also made drawings straight from the hellhole of his subconscious: a massive lunatic in rags twisting like a Michelangelo slave, a penitent on his knees, a winged man-monster crashing like Icarus.

Most people head into Third Age somewhat more gently than Goya, but they’ll probably have interesting experiences to relate. If, like me, you are ever lucky enough to encounter a student like Hiro in your class, take full advantage. Get other students to interview him. Have him talk about how the world has changed. Provide opportunities for him to tell anecdotes.

In many cultures – particularly in Asia – the elderly are revered. Their wisdom is sacred. From what I’ve seen and heard, Third Age language learners have much to teach teachers … and everyone else.

Action Research for Teachers



I recently gave a talk to a group of young teachers in Brazil. Several were in their first year as professionals. During the talk, I mentioned Action Research (AR). This was met with looks of incomprehension. What on earth was this gringo talking about? When I inquired, it turned out that no one present had done any AR, and most had never heard of it.

It’s an interesting term. Research normally brings to mind the turning over of old bones to make new skeletons. Action is movement – a leap from A to B. Put together, Action + Research means research that leads to a change in practice. It’s undertaken using structured methods and documentation, and it produces observable, usable data.


AR starts with a practical problem or issue, which we turn into a question. The observation “My students don’t work well in pairs” becomes “Why don’t my students work well in pairs?” This is sometimes called problematising.

Problematising can be applied to any area of language education. In my experience, it’s often used to examine classroom practice and affective issues – “How can I motivate my students?”; “Why don’t they do any homework?”; “Why do they revert to L1 when I put them in pairs?” – but it can refer to broader issues involving, say, the learning environment, administration, or parental involvement.

AR Sequence

Once the problem has been identified, the next stage is to come up with a solution. We then experiment repeatedly with this solution, and monitor its effectiveness. Finally, the teacher/researcher evaluates the success or otherwise of the experiment.

The process I’ve described is a cycle of question-experiment-monitor-evaluate. (There are various similar sequences for AR, depending on who you read: e.g., plan-act-observe-reflect.) An optional stage for those who want to disseminate their AR is to write up and publish the findings.


Archaeology professor Indiana Jones is better-known for action than research.

Documentation Methods

As stated earlier, AR requires structured methods. We are not only observing what happens, but why it happens. For this reason, we need some insight into the participants’ beliefs and thoughts about the issue.

This is where it sometimes gets tricky. People, like sub-atomic particles, behave differently when observed. This is sometimes known as The Observer’s Paradox. Formerly troublesome students suddenly act like angels when being monitored. Because of this, AR requires methods that are minimally disruptive to the classroom. These might include questionnaires, checklists, interviews or journal writing.

Some Action Research projects

Sometimes a classroom issue doesn’t need to be solved using the full cycle of AR. A simple inquiry might solve it. Years ago, a colleague of mine at a private language school in London told me his class was wonderful from Monday to Thursday, but they turned into zombies on Friday. A little questioning uncovered the fact that Thursday evenings were Happy Hour at a local bar. Apparently, Happy Hour turned into Happy All-Night-Drinking-Session, so the students rolled into class on Friday morning barely able to speak.

Other issues do require a fuller AR investigation. Here are some I have heard about or participated in:

*Listening to fast speech – the students couldn’t process fast, connected speech. They gave up after twenty seconds or so. The teacher experimented with playing BBC radio headlines every morning for a month while the students took rapid notes.

*Homework – several students didn’t do it because they didn’t see its relevance. The teacher experimented with autonomous learning tasks, e.g. students chose a youtube video in English, watched it for homework, and reported back the following day.

*Student strategy use – some students had poor learning strategies. They didn’t take notes in class or write down new vocabulary or edit their essays. So the teacher included strategy instruction, plus reinforcement, over a semester.

*Regular reading – the teenage students didn’t read enough in English. The teacher persuaded the school to buy graphic novels. He asked the students for a report on one of these books as part of the final grade.


AR is a great tool for professional development. It incorporates academic rigor with practical problem-solving, and is part of a general trend in education for what is known as “reflective practice.” But it goes beyond reflection. That’s why it’s called Action Research.

Further reading

For those interested in discovering more, here are some excellent introductions to AR:

  • Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Burns, A. (2010). Doing Action Research in English Language Teaching: A Guide for Practitioners. New York: Routledge.
  • Freeman, D. (1998). Doing teacher research. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
  • Wallace, M. (1998). Action research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Introverts in ELT

Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know. (Lao Zi, The Way of Lao Zi)

Inner worlds

Most of my favorite writers are introverts.

Kafka couldn’t stand company. When working on a story, he couldn’t even tolerate his fiancée: “There can never be enough silence around when one writes … why even night is not night enough.”

Harper Lee was another. On becoming famous for To Kill a Mockingbird, she disappeared from the public eye for half a century and never wrote another book. She did show up once in public, when inducted into the Alabama Academy Of Honor. She told the audience, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”

Don DeLillo is another. He’s been known to say “Can I go now?” twenty minutes into a one-hour interview.

The most reclusive of all was J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye. He hid away in a house in the sticks, asked his publisher to remove his photo from book jackets, and allegedly pulled out a shotgun every time a journalist came onto his property. Even in death, he took the quiet path: his literary agent announced that “there will be no service.”

The worlds of science and technological invention aren’t much different. For every socially-adept, bongo-drum-playing Richard Feynman, there are probably ten über-nerds re-imagining the world in their labs or garages. Here’s Einstein: “I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork … in order to attain any goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.”

And here’s Steve Wozniak, the genius behind Apple’s technology: “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and live in their heads.” His advice to young creative types? “Work alone.”


Richard Feynman, legendary theoretical physicist and bongo player

Introverts and Extroverts in Education

In the field of education, we value extroverts. Language education positively reveres them. They are the risk-takers, the energizers, the class jokers. And they are the ones who attain fluency first.

Introverts, in contrast, are sometimes viewed as problematic. They don’t work well in groups, and their silence is often taken for lack of ability. (Numerous studies reveal that fast, fluent talkers are erroneously rated by the public as more intelligent than quieter people.)

Introversion and the Communicative Approach: A Match Made in Hell?

As a lifelong introvert who manages to impersonate an extrovert in front of an audience, I’ve grown to recognize certain traits in introverted students. Introverts work better alone, at a slower, more deliberate pace; they prefer to do one task at a time, and they often have great powers of concentration. They score highly in homework and tests while making themselves invisible in class.

This presents something of a dilemma for language teachers schooled in the communicative approach. We are taught to treasure the chatter. The buzz of student-talk is comforting to us (they’re communicating!) while the great void of silence isn’t (there’s nothing happening!). And this is reflected in tasks and collaborative learning and pair-work and the organization of the tables and chairs into communicative pods. Meanwhile, the introverts are squirming inside as we put them into groups to discuss something they don’t want to discuss.

Three Things to Remember

While no one is advocating a return to the days of silent students, endless teacher-talk, and chairs in rows facing the teacher, I think it’s essential to remember that not all students enjoy debates, drama, role play, humor, simulations. Silent time, for many, is learning time.

The second thing to remember is that student propensities are often cultural. When I taught in International House, London, I would often have a mixture of Italians, Brazilians and Japanese in my classes. The Italians and Brazilians tended to dominate conversations. The Japanese, on the other hand, were often excellent at grammar and superb memorizers of arcane vocabulary. But Japanese quietness wasn’t introversion. It was culture. Quietness was simply a facet of Japanese politeness and respect. The same occurred on the rare occasions I taught students from Finland. Finns are famously introverted. A Finnish joke: How can you tell if a Finn likes you? He’s staring at your shoes instead of his own.

Finally, I’d like to consider whether it’s really an advantage for language learners to be extroverts. Intuition tells us extroverts are more likely to be better speakers, while introverts may have better declarative knowledge of the language – knowing grammar rules and the names of verb tenses, for example. However, the research is inconclusive. Wakamoto (2000) found that extroverts were more likely to use learning strategies than introverts, but Naiman (1996) and Busch (1982) found negligible correlation between personality types and second language proficiency.


The fact is, most people are not quite as fixed as the terms “extrovert” or “introvert” imply. It was Carl Jung who described the two traits in his 1921 book Psychological Types, and also Jung who said, “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

Students take classes to speak English. We ask, “do you speak English?” It’s unquestionably the top dog of the four skills, and some qualities present in extroverts are undeniably useful for language learners: taking opportunities to practise, trying to extend spoken utterances, and taking risks with new language. But if we can find roles for our introverts in class – explaining grammar or taking notes during group work – everyone wins.