Friday, February 15, 2013

Language or teaching? Linguistics or Pedagogy?

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give a short talk with other colleagues (very short talk, indeed!) at the Departament d’Ensenyament de la Generalitat de Catalunya, in front of a selected audience, about my daily teaching practice. The title of the talk was “Aprendre anglès, parlant anglès” –Learning English, Speaking in English- .

Some days ago, a good friend of mine and a wonderful English Teacher, Edward Lockhart from Lockhart Academy, left a comment in one of my posts (Illustrating a song with photos made by the students) that makes me aware about the importance to be coherent when teaching any language.

He wrote...

Some food for thought about the activity of fill-in the gaps.

I always tell my students to be very, very careful when using this type of activity. If we stop and analyze the process that a student needs for having a good understanding of what she hears, the main thing they need is to understand the context (their brain will fill the missing information if the context is comprehensible).

If we use (or overuse) the fill-in the gaps activity with the listenings, what are we subconsciously transmitting our students? That the important thing when they listen to something in English is to understand EVERY WORD. They're not trying to get the idea of the song but trying to understand every specific word they need to successfully do the activity.

I am not saying that we should never the fill-in the gaps, but that we have to be aware of what subconscious techniques and beliefs are transmitting to our students. I would probably substitute the fill-in the gaps by "sort out the pictures" or "sort out the paragraphs" where there's more general understanding of the context…

So I decided to start my yesterday short talk with a summary of this reflection:

"I started teaching English as a foreign language many years ago and I still have an apparent conflict between “teaching” and “language. Every single day of my professional practice I have to make decisions about which one has the priority. I think you would agree with me that both linguistics and pedagogy are obviously essential to the teacher of English as a foreign language.

As a teacher, I am interested in my student’s motivation and quick learning of new vocabulary and structures which they can use to say things, to communicate with others and to use for different purposes in a context from the very beginning.  In this sense I’m much concerned on linguistic aspects rather on methodological ones.

On the other hand, I have believed for many years that the best way to learn a language is a natural “immersion” with all its methodological conditions (respect for the silent periods, use of English language 100% of time, CLIL...). But daily classroom teaching often cannot afford the luxury of “immersion”. We cannot wait; we have to speed things up by “pushing” the learners to speak as soon as they can.

How many times you must make decisions on when to introduce the past or the future tenses, negative or interrogative forms...what to teach and how to put it across?

You have to consider both language and teaching arguments, and then decide which has the priority, or how to combine them. In deciding this, you need to use all the knowledge you have gained about TEFL through seminars, own experience, reading, discussion with experts and reflection. And this is something you don’t learn in one day.

In my experience as a teacher trainer and in-service training monitoring, most of the teaching in university has been theoretical on linguistic subjects and relatively little on pedagogy, classroom techniques or coping with diversity. So that trainees come out with a lot of theoretical linguistic knowledge, but little idea how to integrate it with practical classroom methodology.

And you see the results in the classroom. Some teachers abandon the linguistic research and base their teaching on techniques they have learned through literature: you get on one hand, articles giving “practical tips”, “ready to use” materials with no rationale, or on the other, descriptions of speculative theory, with no links to professional action.

So what do I suggest? What are my three wishes?

  • I wish training seminars about the principles of good pedagogy. We need more courses on “classroom management”, “activity design”, “best teaching”, “students motivation”, “classroom climate and behaviour”...

  • I wish there were more integration of theory with practice. Student teachers need critical reflection and analysis of how do they interact with children in their practice teaching and enrich this reflection by insights from books and lectures. 

  • And I wish trainees must be able to develop a rationale of language teaching, which enables them to make successful choices between different theories and methodologies.

"To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner." Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, 1813-1855

Thanks to Penny Urr to give me the idea of this topic through her article "In language teaching, which is more important: language or teaching?", saved from


  1. I totally agree with you!!! We must reflect on understanding both the "learning process" and the importance of "teacher's interventions" just like any teacher (no matter what we teach, maths, literature, biology or language). Any learning requires the learner to process information, to link to prior knowledge, to make hypotheses, to use thinking skills and strategies and so forth. It is very important to consider many of these aspects to arrive to high challenge and high support classrooms.

    1. Thank you Marta Braylan for your comment. As you mentioned we must reflect on using low and high thinking skills in combination, for a good learning. It is important to use everyday classroom challanges to modify and make decisions on the way. I just had a look to your blog and I think it is fantastic. I will follow it closely. Good look in your new project!