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.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s