XXIII Rules for Student-Centered Language Teaching (by John F. Fanselow)
Note from Barb: 25 years ago, John F. Fanselow published Breaking Rules, encouraging 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:
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
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
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
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.
***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.