XXIII Rules for Student-Centered Language Teaching (by John F. Fanselow)

Note from Barb: 25 years ago, John F. Fanselow published Breaking Rulesencouraging teachers to really see what was happening in their classrooms, and then considering alternatives. John’s work had a powerful, positive influence  on my own teaching, and I’m thrilled that iTDi is working with John to offer a truly unique five-week course starting in November: Breaking Rules Live. It’s a rare opportunity to work interactively with someone who is certain to challenge your thinking, revitalize your teaching, and inspire you as an educator.

You’ll notice that my rules are extreme, and start with Never. In my day-to-day teaching, I think of the Never at one end of a continuum and the options under Instead on the other end of the continuum or someplace in between, like this:

The Never Instead Continuum

But stating such extreme rules, so different from those most teachers are accustomed to, has the potential to liberate us from the practices we are used to. I hope these rules will free you to create even more student-centered learning activities.

They are based on my belief that our role as teachers is to remind people what they know, not show them what they do not know.

Never * use jargon, instead ** provide examples of activities you are talking about and with your students generate names for the activities, if you think you need them. Any labels we use are arbitrary, but by using jargon, we imply that others know better than we how to label what we do and experience. XXIII

Never suggest that students read or listen to any text only once, instead urge them to experience the lexical and grammatical *** forms and meanings in the same text multiple times, at least three to five times, and in different ways. XXII

Never forbid the use of students’ first languages, instead provide class time for students to clarify what is going on in their first language with each other, invite them to write and share reactions to methods and give their understanding of the rationale for what they are being asked to do in their first language, and use bilingual dictionaries to find meanings. XXI

John's glasses

Never assume your students or you have some deficiency if they cannot perform in the way you had anticipated, instead assume that what you and they are being asked to do and/or the material is deficient. (To develop language abilities, students need to read or listen to language which they understand at least 95% of—98% would be better–and they need to have some interest in the topic and feel challenged, not overwhelmed nor bored, by the activities. XX

Never explain vocabulary or ask students to define words, instead have your students use bilingual or monolingual dictionaries and/or imagination and/or grouping skills to discover or confirm lexical and grammatical meanings. XIX

Never ask students to use words in a sentence to illustrate their meaning, instead have your students manipulate and embellish example sentences that contain the words from dictionaries, textbooks, songs, stories, etc. XVIII

Never explain grammar or ask students to explain grammar, instead have your students become aware of word order, function words and grammatical suffixes, etc., by using language and by tapping the grammatical information in dictionaries. XVII

Never focus on lexical and grammatical meanings separately, instead integrate the learning of lexical and grammatical meanings. On the millions of flash cards and pages in texts that teach the names of fruits, for example, the word apple is printed under a picture of an apple rather than an apple and under a bunch of grapes, the word grape is printed rather than a bunch of grapes. Apple and grape without articles are used in phrases such as apple and grape juice. The words alone without articles before them or juice, flavor, etc. after them provide only lexical meaning rather than lexical plus grammatical meaning. These are examples of what I mean by the integration of lexis and grammar. XVI

Never answer students’ question-word questions, such as “What does horse mean?” or “Why can’t we say ‘jargons’ and ‘vocabularies’?” instead have your students ask yes-no and either-or questions such as “Is a horse bigger than me? Is a horse an animal or a bird? Is I have a large vocabulary? Or Do I have large vocabularies?” correct. These require them to predict or hypothesize about lexical and grammatical meanings. XV

Never ask students to repeat or copy words or sentences, instead have your students listen to or read the words or sentences, wait for a short period of time, and then, while not hearing or looking at the words or sentences, say or write what they remember. XIV

John in class

Never ask students to read orally as their eyes are glued to the printed lines, instead have your students read silently, cover what they read, pause to think and then say what they had read silently to another person. XIII

Never have students write or type single words they hear as they hear them, instead have them write or type chunks of words and only after a pause after the chunks have been said, not as they are being said. XII

Never say words such as very good, excellent, wonderful after students respond, instead observe how your students show that learning is its own reward and provide information about what they do that ensures they are accurate and have high expectations for themselves. XI

Never have students use erasers, instead have your students edit by crossing out and re-writing or just re-write. X

Never provide complete information, instead provide incomplete information, such as mouthed words, cloze passages, initial or final letters of words, or pointing, so your students can tap their previous knowledge and use prediction skills to produce lexically and grammatically correct language. IX

Never prepare detailed lesson plans that require you to explain content and complex directions, instead have a list of a range of activities that you can have your students do as they take in and produce language that they want to master and that engages them. VIII

Never tell students what they are going to learn before a lesson, instead ask them what they think they are learning during the lesson and what they learned after the lesson. VII

John and teachers

Never give directions, instead demonstrate or illustrate what students are to do. VI

Never give students worksheets, instead have students produce materials in their notebooks or on their laptops. V

Never depend on language alone to communicate, instead ensure that other mediums, such as gestures, sketches, sounds and music, to accompany language you and your students use. IV

Never depend on information, experiences, feelings or ideas from outside sources alone, instead integrate student information, experiences, feelings, or ideas with those from outside sources. III

Never discuss teaching only with peers and by recalling events, judging them and using jargon, such as icebreaker, key words, communicative activities, zone of proximal development, cognitive approach, etc., to explain them, instead use transcriptions of excerpts from lessons and analyze and interpret the data from multiple perspectives using your own terms or those of peers and students in order to deepen understanding, not to improve teaching. II

Never learn or teach computing skills alone, include touch-typing skills development, as well. I

*I started to develop and collect activities I refer to as Huh? Oh. Aha! Activities with rules that started with the word Avoid rather than Never. But I began to create and borrow activities that were less learner-centered than I wanted. So to raise the bar and stretch my mind, and those of others who want to create learner-centered activities, I substituted Never for Avoid, outrageous as the word Never is. I hope all readers will select a word that they feel comfortable with to start re-thinking the roles of teachers and students in language classes and to generate their own rules.

**The options after the instead in each rule are just a few of the hundreds possible.

***I use the word grammatical to refer to ways English works in all dimensions: the ways we use stress, rhythm and pronunciation to speak, the ways we use word order, function words and suffixes to create sentences, the ways we arrange sentences in paragraphs and longer passages, the ways we take turns in conversations, etc.


Note: This article by John F. Fanselow originally appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.


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30 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    These are great rules, John, and give us all much to think about.

    Thanks for always challenging my assumptions about teaching, and reminding me to really observe my lessons rather than simply seeing what I think is happening 🙂

    Looking forward to your class in November!

    • john f fanselow says:


      I look forward to more discussions with you during our class.

      Re observing the question I have is why recording what we do is so, so unusual. Everyone who does it finds it illuminating. One reason I guess is that the usual purpose of an observation is to evaluate a teacher.

      All the best.


      • Barbara says:

        You know, I think there are two reasons teachers don’t record more.

        One, observation is associated with evaluation, with is associated with judgement, and makes teachers feel uncomfortable. Observation in practice is the opposite of what you advocate. However, having someone else observe and record what’s happening in your class is easier than trying to both teach and record.

        Two, recording and transcribing takes a lot of time, and time is often in short supply. If everything is going well enough in class, it’s hard to justify doing something that will add to the workload.

        Definitely worthwhile, but not always simple to implement.

        • Kevin Stein says:

          Gonna jump in here. I just transcribed about 2 minutes from a video of one of my classes this morning. And while I was watching, I was immediately criticizing what was happening in class. It’s just a natural reaction. I had to stop the video and remind myself that the critique can come after, that I needed to just watch and get as many details of the class down on paper as possible. Like anything else, learning to watch your own class objectively is a skill, and it takes practice. If a teacher only videos a class and transcribes portions once in a long while, they never really get to a place where they are able to engage with the material objectively. Every transcription starts with a “OH MY GOD! What am I doing” reaction. Which, honestly, is kind of painful. Probably the best way to get over this is to set up a regular schedule of classes to video and stick to it. At my school it’s suggested we video and transcribe at least one lesson every two weeks. Most likely, even this isn’t really enough. Once a week would probably be better.


          • john f fanselow says:

            Dear Kevin,

            I wrote Breaking Rules to suggest ways for teachers to feel comfortable looking at their teaching. One point I emphasized was that much of what we do is out of consciousness. We follow rules we are unaware of. Another point I pushed was to use technical terms which were both defined and illustrated with examples. For example, I claim that are only 5 things we can have our students do. One of these is to have them change print to speech and pictures to print or speech. I ask teachers to label what they and their students do using the terms I introduce.

            But many teachers used the terms to make judgments. One of the activities we do is to ask students to recall. Teachers coded student responses that required recall and saw that they were very common and then used the evidence to make a negative judgment rather than to try an alternative.

            In Contrasting Conversations, I show teachers ways they can use their judgments in a positive way by asking how what they think is a bad practice can be good and how a good practice can be bad.

            Soccer coaches at Japanese high schools video games and replay them with their teams. Initially, players are shocked just as teachers are sometimes shocked initially. But over time they see the value of observing and become more and more detached and comfortable with looking.

            As you suggest, “Once a week would probably be better.” Yes and the more you look not only the more you will see but the more comfortable you will be.

            I suggest teachers see the lines in a transcript like the lines in a play. “What would happen if I changed this line in this way?” Authors play with the language in their dialogs. As teachers let’s play with our language.

            All the best.


  2. Marcos says:

    Very interesting points to consider! Thank you, John and Barb.

    • john f fanselow says:


      I have written many blogs at various times. Those I spend the least time on seem to get more comments! My list of rules proves the point. In just a couple of days 7 people sent comments.

      Thanks for letting us know you found them worth considering!

      All the best.


  3. Kevin Stein says:

    Hi John,

    Thank you for the list and using the word ‘never’. Having had the chance to take a few workshops with you in the past, I know that your ‘never’ and the never printed in my dictionary are slightly (completely) different. These list of rules are just a starting point to explore what we do in our classes, right? The one I’ve tried the hardest to follow, and the one I still fall down on, is, “Never prepare detailed lesson plans that require you to explain content and complex directions.” I know there is always a way to show students how to do thing, or let students show each other how to do things so that those long instructions can be left out. But it’s a real series of trial and errors and for each time things go as planned without instruction, there are just as many times we lurch into a period of classroom chaos. Still, I know getting students working without overly long instructions is a skill I want to have in my teaching toolkit, so I keep trying it.

    Thanks again for much to think over and a great list to keep in mind when I’m reviewing my own teaching.

    Looking forward to the course on iTDi.


    • john f fanselow says:


      One reason you might find it hard to not explain procedures or steps you want the students to follow is that the activities might be a bit complex.

      Try writing the instructions on the board rather than saying them. Leave a few gaps and see if this both cuts down your talking and increases the students’ understanding of what you want them to do and also engages them more.

      If they miss a step in the activity, you can point to the step they missed or tap on the board next to the step.

      All the best.


  4. Alex says:

    Thank you, John, for the ‘never-instead’ list.
    I love all of them and am ashamed to do few nevers – being not that experienced I have to focus a lot. However I can’t agree about using mononligual dictionaries (is only good with Elementary students – in my humble opinion)
    Thank you for the list which I am sure I will give more consideration starting now.

    Looking forward to the course,

    Best wishes,

    • john f fanselow says:

      Dear Alex,

      A key point in all of my work is to be non judgmental. So do not be ashamed! We do some things and then if we stop doing them and substitute something else we can see if there is any difference. If there is, we move on.

      Re using monolingual dictionaries, I do not say what level they should be used with. I think in the first instance bilingual dictionaries are the best since students can get the meaning quickly if they know the words in their own language. I do not allow students to write the word equivalent though. The monolingual dictionaries are useful for providing sample sentences so students can see the use of the word in a sentence different from the one in the text they are reading. There is a lot of information in monolingual dictionaries which teachers never discuss with students. Students can get not only sample sentences but information about frequency sometimes, other meanings than the one that fits the passage they are reading, where the word came from, etc. No need to spend a lot of time in class having students access the information. Once you point it out or they read the preface to the dictionary they can access the information on their own–makes them more independent learners.

      All the best.


  5. AH says:

    Thank you for this interesting and thought-provoking post. I shared this with a friend of mine with the comment that I’d been “raging at it”. Okay, some of the rules I can sort of see. Most of them I completely disagree with. After conversation with my friend, I realized that this is good. Now I can ask myself why I feel so strongly – what beliefs do I hold (without even realizing it) that are challenged by these rules? And why am I so sure that I’m right? What evidence is there from my own experience to support my beliefs?

    I think it is important to become aware of my own beliefs (and even question them). The questions provide the opportunity to experiment and reflect on my own teaching, and remind me to never stop asking questions. So thank you again.

    • john f fanselow says:

      Dear AH,

      Your candor is very, very refreshing! Thanks loads. You have gotten my intended message which is to ask how what we think is good might not be good and how what we think is bad might be good. As one of Shakespeare’s characters said “There is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”

      I just attended a graduation ceremony at Teachers College, CU in Tokyo and a number of MA candidates in the program were awarded a scholarship that was started when I retired from Teachers College. In addition to giving each recipient the money, I gave them each a shoe horn that was 1 meter long! I asked them why I gave them such a token? Many responses but one was that it is amazing how long it takes for things to change. For people with a bad back or knees bending down to use a shoe horn that is like 30 centimeters is a pain, literally. Yet I have seen only a few 1 meter shoe horns in Japan and never one in the US.

      One of my favorite quotes is the one below. It illustrates the goal of the outrageous rules that I posted.

      Sit down before what you see and hear like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion,follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.

      T. Huxley

      All the best.


  6. Mark Kulek says:

    Hi John. We met in Hamamatsu and you signed my copy of your book. Thank you for that. It will take me a while to finish it. It’s heavy in more ways than one.

    Your belief that, “our role as teachers is to remind people what they know, not show them what they do not know”, is what I always try to do in my classroom.

    You stated that, “To develop language abilities, students need to read or listen to language which they understand at least 95% of—98% would be better–and they need to have some interest in the topic and feel challenged, not overwhelmed nor bored, by the activities.” That is correct and I try, but it continues to be my biggest challenge. I make all the material I use in class and at that, I try to use less and less. Less is more. None the less, making sure my students are understanding, engaged, and enjoying the activities week after week, year after year (I do mean years), is really hard!

    When you signed your book for me, you told me that you wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. That made me feel really good. I truly feel that being involved in children’s education is a privilege. In the case of children, do you think they should be praised often?

    Thanks so much for your post, John.
    Mark in Gifu

    • john f fanselow says:

      Dear Mark,

      I do not think children should be praised often. They get their reward from doing more than they think they can. I see kids in the park trying to ride a one wheel cycle. No one is around to say “very good” and they keep at it.

      A hug, a thank you, a loud YES when they discover something new are fine–these are heart felt. But most so called praise is perfunctory and so frequent that it becomes meaningless.

      Re Breaking Rules–no more than 15 minutes at a sitting. And think mainly of the main categories which I have printed before the title page. The sub-categories which I have printed on the last page before the back cover, forget for a couple of years.

      The idea is simple–there are only 5 things we can ask students to do and 5 ways to five feedback–these are the categories in the use column. There are only 3 things we can talk about in the content column but we can integrate life and language rather than focusing on one or the other.

      If you want a description of the activities in BR without jargon I will send you some.

      Look forward to our next live conversation.

      All the best.


  7. Laura Phelps says:

    Interesting, the power of the word ‘never’ – even when it’s qualified at the start, it obviously provokes a strong reaction 🙂 I also huffed and blew a bit on first reading this list, but on reflection I think I agree with AH above; it’s great to consider why I reacted like that and whether some of my pedagogical beliefs have become unreasonably entrenched! Conversely, I think a lot of the rules above are great and I intend to remind myself of them more often…

    …but the two rules which I was most struck by were XIX (never explain or define words) and XIV (never ask Ss to repeat words/sentences).

    On the first point, I’m just imagining my students’ frustration when they want to discuss the meaning of a word, and I could quite easily provide a synonym or a quick mime but instead, I force them to open their dictionaries or discuss the possibilities with their neighbours. In their shoes it would drive me insane and, I don’t think, help me to remember vocabulary any better. I also think an overreliance on dictionaries disadvantages those learners with stronger oral/aural skills who don’t always want to read a definition.

    On the second point, I just remember as a language learner that repeating lexical chunks (including whole sentences, when they were at least partially fixed) was one of the things that I found really useful, especially at the beginning. I’d be reluctant to deprive my students of that as an option when I saw first hand that it *did* work well for me. Of course, if they hated it and it didn’t work for them, then it would be fine to drop it as a technique…

    Thanks for posting this – lots of food for thought!

    • john f fanselow says:

      Dear Laura,

      A coincidence, our older daughter’s English name is Laura.

      Re dictionaries, I am suggesting bilingual dictionaries to get the meanings and then monolingual ones to show how to use the words. Discussing words though takes a lot of time and most discussions contain loads of incorrect language. Meaning comes from chunks, as you say in your second point.

      Re repeating, if students look at print, then cover it and pause and think a bit and then say it they will retain it better. They might change it a bit also if they understand it. For example, if the sentence is “Last night it was black.” and the student says “Last night it was dark.” Wow! Understanding.

      Read silently, pause to think, say what has been read silently, then write what was said and compare with the original. Then the language goes from the page to the eyes to the brain and out the mouth and then out the fingers when they write. When students repeat or read orally while looking at the print the language goes from the eyes to the mouth with no stop in the brain.

      I say at the beginning of all of my classes and workshops, “Believe nothing I say, nor anything anyone else says or writes! Rather, look at what you do and analyze what you do and what the students do and then you will see the consequences of various options.

      All the best.


  8. Malu Sciamarelli says:

    Thank you, John for your “never-instead” list! They challenge me to use more and more creativity to benefit students, reflect on my teaching practices and revisit my beliefs as a teacher.
    I’m so glad I met you in Hamamatsu and had the chance to listen to some of your beliefs. I learned so much from you – and keep on learning!

    • john f fanselow says:

      Dear Malu,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I know how busy teachers are.

      I am delighted that you say you learned so much from me but one of my goals is to remind teachers how much they can learn from themselves! I want teachers to see that they do not need experts–they just have to record and transcribe what they do–one A 4 sheet is enough to begin with–and then make some small changes. Read a passage from the last sentence to the first rather than first to last, sit in the back of the class rather than standing in the front of the class. Have students write questions you ask and write answers and then have them say what they wrote without looking at what they wrote rather than using only speech.

      All the best.


  9. Hi John,

    I feel so very fortunate to have the fantastic support of a peer learning network that includes a number of truly excellent teachers. Mr. Stein is among them. He turned me onto your work, and for that, I will be ever grateful.

    I am a young teacher, just two years experience, and I have found that not a week (rarely a day) goes by when I do something more than once the same way in the classroom. I am constantly questioning myself, I thought, out of self doubt. Reading your list makes me feel so much better!

    I love rule number XV, and can see an immense door of opportunity to get my students speaking more and exploring the bits of the language they already know.

    At the moment I am teaching in Korea, and one thing they are just excellent at is memorizing. I have recently become aware of the read, think, speak rule (through Kevin) and have begun to implement it. They seem to repeat the chunks quite easily. Am I not giving enough time before asking them to speak? Have you run into this? Have you found anything that has worked for you? I am currently working on finding a way to fluidly change track and then bring the class back to the bits of language being worked on in an effort to challenge them to bring the target language back to the surface.



    PS, I love the irony of creating 23 rules for the classroom after creating a book named “Breaking Rules”.

  10. john f fanselow says:


    Pls. send your e-mail and I will send you a couple of items I have written about Read and Look up.

    If students are saying the words correctly, one option is to give them more time between when they read the sense groups or chunks silently, pause, say them and then write them. Another option is to hum between the time they read silently, pause to think and then say them and write them.

    The goal is for the students to begin to paraphrase and the longer the time between silent reading and speaking and writing the more they will focus on meanings and thus paraphrase rather than just say the words exactly as they appear on the page.

    If the sentence is “I ate pizza and salad and bread.” and the student says and writes ” I had pizza, salad and bread.” it shows the student comprehends.

    Exact word reading which is the usual practice is a waste of time since students just say words even if they have no idea of the meaning.

    All the best.


    PS I just e-mailed Kevin to arrange a conversation with him about a transcript from one of his classes. A small world! Your comment about the irony of my 23 rules was very refreshing to me.

  11. John,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and informative response. I am glad to hear that extra time is what is needed and will continue challenging my students that way.

    Currently they are responding to questions (by recording audio clips) from students in Ghana and Russia in a linked classroom project they are working on. The read, think, speak technique is a great way to get them away from their cue cards.

    I would be very appreciative of any and all bits and bobs you’d have the time to send me. THANK YOU!


    Ps, I am glad my irony line was taken with the positive spin that was intended 😀

  12. Haejin Han says:

    Dear John.

    Thanks for your never-instead list. I also thank my friend who nudged me to visit this site.

    I don’t know the reason why, but to be honest, I have been continuing to revisit this list lately. I have been mulling over what I am accustomed to and why I stick to. I ask myself what I know about my current practices in class and if I am really aware of what I am doing. The opposite views are provoking questions for myself. I find some of my practices from my beliefs and some of them from my assumptions and familiarity.

    One of your rules – never forbid the use of ss’ first languages, instead provide class time for ss to clarify what is going on in their first language with each other- hit me strong, first.

    It reminds me of the moments that I felt embarrassed when I noticed ss struggling to produce at the final stage of a speaking lesson though I had tried to lower ss’ affective filter by letting them communicate in Korean as well as English. I assumed my policy to have them use Korean language and the big gap of ss’ receptive ability and productive one are the main cause of it.

    Then, your another rules – ‘ never assume your students or you have some deficiency if they cannot perform in the way you had anticipated, instead assume what they are being asked to do or the material is deficient’ and ‘never provide complete information, instead provide incomplete information so ss can tap their previous knowledge and use predictions skills to produce- challenged me.

    The list seems to tell me to draw (or focus) on ss’ interest and abilities to start and develop and produce, which helps ask myself again why I am limiting ss as passive participants and why I am more focusing on outer factors such as the curriculum schedule.

    Thank you again for helping me to ask myself, which I have forgot for a while.

  13. john f fanselow says:

    Dear Haejin,

    Wow–so many insights!

    Re limiting students as passive participants, this is the way schools have been organized for many years–the factory model some call it. Much was based on German military training. Freire called it the “banking model” of education. John Dewey in Education and Experience urges teachers to engage students in real life projects. He influenced many teachers at Teachers College when he taught at Columbia. Though there is a quote form him at the entrance to Teachers College, there is no building named after him. There is a Thorndike Hall though. Thorndike was the test man. Dewey thought tests were detrimental to learning.

    But in Korea and elsewhere tests are pervasive. TOEFL and TOEIC have more influence than any teacher preparation programs. My XXIII rules of course imply that standardized tests not only fail to accurately measure learning but are detrimental to learning.

    Curriculum schedules are also detrimental to learning in many ways because they force teachers to focus on paper goals set by ministries rather than on the students in front of us. If you have a chance to read Teacher or Spinster by Sylvia Ashton Warner, who worked with Maori in New Zealand you will see how you can use student experience as the basis for all teaching rather the curriculum guidelines. Douglas Barnes, From Communication to Curriculum is another great read.

    I hope you feel comfortable re thinking assumptions various official organizations advocate.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

    All the best.


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