With some extra time on my hands, I’ve been re-reading a publication I once needed for my MA studies called Teaching by Principles by Douglas Brown (3rd edition), which, as the blurb states, offers a comprehensive survey of practical language teaching options.
In Chapter 4 of his book, Brown investigates 12 foundational teaching principles, or elements, which he considers to be at the core of language pedagogy. As I write, I’ll try to make occasional references to my previous post, i.e. to Ellis’s Principles of Instructed Language Learning, because I’d like to see how much (if at all) these two systems overlap. And, as you read, you can determine the extent to which the principles are applied in your own teaching.
Principle 1: Automaticity
According to Brown, it is clear that small children learn languages without thinking about them – they learn them automatically. Thus overanalyzing an L2 and thinking too much about its forms is not the best way of learning it. To the contrary, this approach tends to impede the process of graduation to automaticity in an L2 classroom.
I associate this principle with Ellis’s Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge is procedural, is held unconsciously and develops naturally out of meaning-focused communication.
Principle 2: Meaningful learning
Brown maintains that rote-learning, i.e. taking in isolated bits and pieces of information that are not connected with existing cognitive structures, has little chance of creating long-term retention. Thus, when in the classroom, it is necessary to make meaningful associations between existing knowledge and new material.
As I see it, this is in compliance with Ellis’s Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning. I also see a connection with Principle 4 (see above).
Principle 3: The anticipation of reward
Brown argues that human beings are universally driven to act by the anticipation of some sort of tangible or intangible reward. Thus an optimal degree of praise and encouragement or appropriate grades and scores are desirable.
Principle 4: Intrinsic motivation
However, the most powerful rewards are those that are intrinsically motivated within the learner. Brown adds that if all learners were intrinsically motivated to perform all classroom tasks, we might not even need teachers.
Principle 5: Strategic investment
Teaching methods, textbooks, and grammatical paradigms are no longer in the center of attention. It is the methods that the learner employs to internalize and to perform in the language that are important too. After all, successful mastery of L2 will be due to a learner’s own personal investment of time, effort, and attention to L2.
To my mind, principles 3, 4 and 5 to some extent overlap with Ellis’s Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.
Principle 6: Autonomy
Successful mastery of L2 will depend on learner’s autonomous ability to continue their journey to success beyond the classroom and the teacher.
This principle to a large extent links to Ellis’s Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input. As I wrote in my previous post, it’s virtually impossible to provide L2 learners with a sufficient amount of input in the classroom so students’ autonomy seems to be the only way leading to ultimate success.
Principle 7: Language ego
As human beings learn to use an L2, they also develop a new mode of thinking, feeling, and acting – a second identity. Their new ‘language ego’ can feel fragile, silly and sometimes humiliated when lacking words or suitable grammar structures. Thus it is necessary to overtly display a supportive attitude to your students.
I’d link this principle to Ellis’s Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’. I personally try to achieve this by tolerating the learners’ temporary ‘flaws’ and by giving them plenty of opportunities to succeed. Also, there’s a similarity to Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.
Principle 8: Willingness to communicate
Successful learners are willing to communicate, which results in the generation of both output (from the learner) and input (to the learner).
What immediately comes to mind is Ellis’s Principle 7: Successful instructed language learning also requires opportunities for output. As you aren’t likely to get output from stressed students, for example, you should make sure that the learning conditions and atmosphere in the classroom are favorable to spontaneous communication. Brown’s Principle 8 may also relate to Ellis’s Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency and Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.
Principle 9: The language-culture connection
Whenever you teach a language, you also teach a complex system of cultural customs, values, and ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. This can be a source of valuable language input and a powerful tool for adjustment in new cultures. However, Brown advises us to be sensitive if some students appear discouraged.
Again, here I can sense a connection with Ellis’s Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input. I’d add that culture is inherently present in any language and you can’t separate language from culture if you want to communicate in the target language successfully. I think I clearly demonstrated this in one of my previous posts, where I contrasted phrases ‘I’m good’ and ‘I’m fine’.
Principle 10: The Native language effect
The native language of learners strongly influences the acquisition of the target language system. Brown advises teachers to regard errors as important windows to their underlying system and provide appropriate feedback on them. What also helps students to minimalize interference errors is thinking in the L2 instead of resorting to translation as they comprehend and produce language.
Here I see a connection with Ellis’s Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners. If you teach a mixed nationality class, you’ll probably have to treat diverse types of errors. I wrote about the native language effect here and here on my blog.
Principle 11: Interlanguage
Just as children develop their native language in gradual, systematic stages, L2 learners, go through a systematic developmental process as they progress to full competence in L2. This means, for example, that at some point, a good deal of what an L2 learner says or comprehend may be logically correct, but from the point of view of the native speaker’s competence, it’s incorrect. Teachers should allow learners to progress through such systematic stages of acquisition. Also, when giving feedback, the teacher needs to distinguish between systematic interlanguage errors (these can be tolerated to some extent) and other errors.
Principle 11 seems to overlap with Ellis’s Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’. As a teacher, one can’t simply skip or hasten certain stages of the learner’s development, or eliminate systematic interlanguage errors completely.
Principle 12: Communicative competence
Given that communicative competence is the goal of an L2 classroom, teachers should give attention to language use and not just usage, to fluency and not just accuracy. Give grammar some attention, but don’t neglect the other important components. Make sure that your students have opportunities to gain some fluency in English without having to be constantly wary of little mistakes.
This seems to encompass at leat five of Ellis’s principles: Principle 1: Instruction needs to ensure that learners develop both a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions and a rule-based competence, Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning, Principle 3: Instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form, Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge and Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency.
Although the authors complement one another, Brown’s perspective seems to me more general and encompasses a slightly larger spectrum of (language) pedagogy. The connections I made between the two sets of principles were based solely on intuition and others may see it differently.
4 thoughts on “Teaching by principles”
“Brown adds that if all learners were intrinsically motivated to perform all classroom tasks, we might not even need teachers.” I like this line. Most of my Japanese studies were uninstructed, although I had the opportunities for input and interaction that mitigated the need for a classroom. On the other hand I sat in math classes for at least 14 years and how much of that do I remember?
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Hm. I don’t know how much you remember from your maths classes but I don’t remember much. 🙂 My German studies were uninstructed too and I managed (with the help of all the old-fashioned methods, mostly the audio-lingual method). More precisely, I passed my exams and then forgot everything since I didn’t use the language at all. So I actually never started using German and a particular method or a lack of instruction had nothing to do with my ultimate failure. However, I was highly motivated to learn it and I managed to meet my objectives, i.e. I passed my exams, which I was really proud of. Well, I guess my point is that it all comes down to the/your learning objectives. Why do you want to learn the L2? You want to sit in the library and translate old books? Then you need nothing like a communicative approach. Thanks for your comment, Mark!
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I think I would still recommend communicative learning to someone who just wanted to translate, on the principle that CLT is a better way to get a target-like mental representation of the L2 than teaching translation by translating. Many students in Japan do in fact just want to translate but produce terrible translations because their English education leaves out mushy concepts like collocation and idiomaticity in favor of “direct” (grammatical) translation.
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