Practical Techniques for Language Teaching
Michael Lewis and Jimmie Hill (Fourth ed., 1992)
Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications
Pp. 136. ISBN 0-906717-55-8 (paper)
Practical Techniques for Language Teaching is exactly what the title says it is. The authors, Michael Lewis and Jimmie Hill, are experienced English teachers and teacher trainers who have traveled extensively lecturing on language and methodology. The two authors are also the co-founders of Language Teaching Publications, the publisher of this book. Techniques bases its suggestions on the authors' own experiences in the training and observation of hundreds of language teachers at the British Centre in Stockholm. The book is in its fourth edition and has been revised to further emphasize some aspects of reading and listening, as well as collocative phrases, among other things. There are 136 pages of text, a one-page introduction and twelve chapters, and a very descriptive table of contents (sentences serve as chapter subtitles), but no index. In a British context the book might be particularly interesting for new teacher trainees, as it covers all the syllabus topics of the RSA/Cambridge CTEFLA (Certificate of Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults). Indeed, the book is already in wide use throughout the world as a coursebook for teacher trainees. There are no questions or exercises at the end of chapters, which, for some, might limit the book's usefulness as a text for a teacher training course. However, there are sets of checklists at the beginning of chapters that provide a lot of material for discussion. The authors have, in fact, taken pains to make this text one that would be immediately useful to teachers. It is free of confusing jargon, formatted very clearly, and comprises many small, practical sections.
As already noted, each chapter in Techniques begins with a checklist of statements about some aspect of language teaching, such as learning vocabulary. The statements present issues that will be discussed in the chapter. Readers are asked to agree or disagree with the statements, noting their opinion on the checklist before and after reading the chapter. This arrangement has the effect of focusing attention on the most important aspects of the chapter and, at the same time, asking readers to reevaluate their "common sense" beliefs about language teaching and learning. The checklist feature is one of the most useful aspects of Techniques; checklists can be scanned for specific topics or reread to refresh the ideas presented in a chapter.
The first chapter, "Basic Principles 1--Student and Teacher," emphasizes the role of the teacher as a guide and "catalyst." "Learning is more important than teaching" is the title of the first subchapter. Many concrete suggestions follow in the next 13 subchapters. The teacher/reader is reminded, for example, that the[-1-] first consideration is the student and not the lesson plan or the book. If finishing the book becomes the priority, students get second place. Teachers should be able to explain what they are doing. The idea is not for teachers to hold back information that they will later reveal, but to point the way for the students. Teacher/readers are told to listen and react to what students say. But, say the authors, don't tell students something if they can tell it to you. They point out several ways to elicit information during a lesson. Students are the ones who need practice, we are reminded, not the teacher. Being selective is also emphasized; a lesson is not a place for teachers to demonstrate their knowledge but a place for students to learn. Don't give students information that they won't understand or that is irrelevant.
Basic principles concerning language and language learning are found in the second chapter. Teaching involves not only the needs of the students but also the nature of the subject. Two aspects are emphasized here: what is being learned and how it is learned. The authors set out the many ways language can be viewed--as habit, system, a means of communication, and so on. They also point out that English is not England and is not an aesthetic experience. Natural, purposeful use of the language in the classroom and sequence of presentation is discussed in this chapter. Above all, the authors write, it is essential for the language teacher to not only know what language is, but how it is learned.
There are twenty-nine basic principles in the first part of Techniques, evenly divided between the first two chapters. As the authors state, the starting point for all these basic ideas is that language is used for communication and that language learning is the goal, not language teaching. These first two chapters lay a foundation for the ideas in the following chapters and set the practical tone for the rest of the book.
The third chapter is the longest, containing twenty-five short subsections dealing with classroom management. This is perhaps the most interesting chapter and the most useful to novices. Experienced teachers will recognize little things that they had to learn in practice, such as "use the back of your hand to point" (p. 42). Some other tips are: teachers shouldn't go "around the class" if it gives students a chance to prepare answers; it makes no sense to ask "Do you understand?"; use group work to give everyone more time to talk. A piece of advice that I cannot remember seeing anywhere else is to admit you are ignorant or have made a mistake. It is much easier to read this and take it to heart than to try to cover up in the classroom. These are examples of the many very basic, but very essential, rules of the classroom that the authors stress. This chapter is essential reading for the new and for the experienced.
A fourth chapter gives advice on preparation, the most basic and vital of which is that lessons should be prepared in some [-2-] detail, with a beginning, middle and end. The authors advise not to expect students to be able to expound spontaneously on a topic that you have had a lot of time to think about; prepare them. They then describe three techniques that help students focus on the ideas and language that you want them to use.
The next seven chapters cover, respectively, listening, speechwork, structure, correction, vocabulary, texts and conversation. Again, as in the previous sections, a catalogue of very specific ideas and tips is offered. Theory is presented, but only the most essential concepts and only in such a way that it is made useful to the teacher. The first section of the first chapter, for example, is entitled "Listening can be broken down into sub- skills." The authors connect this idea to the teacher's frequent use of the question "Do you understand that?" Listening, we are instructed, is not so simple as this. A list of subskills is laid down, and the chapter goes on to base its suggestions for the classroom on this theory. The chapter on speechwork brings together the most necessary elements of presenting and practicing pronunciation. Frequently neglected is the idea that pronunciation of structures should often precede their practice. As a lesson progresses to communicative practice, it is nice not to have to spend time on articulation; going back to do this may detract from a lesson.
Both Lewis and Hill are grammarians, and, as such, cannot resist including a chapter at the end of Techniques on some structures that are frequently confused. The authors focus on items like "some and any." The "rules" for making a choice between these two are full of holes, called "exceptions." Lewis and Hill offer one rule that covers all cases, including use of compounds like "something" or "anyone." All the structures discussed in this last chapter are frequently referred to in the classroom. As they read this section, experienced English teachers will recall the times they have wished for alternate explanations; the authors offer a collection of "rules" that their readers will find indispensible.
Techniques does not contain any suggestions for exploiting published materials. Learning how to use textbooks is a necessary part of an introductory course for new teachers, the authors write. Most teachers, however, make use of materials that are only available locally. It is not possible to discuss all textbooks, and the authors wish to avoid making assumptions about the texts that teacher/readers might use. How to use textbooks is a discussion that deserves its own book. Anyone who reads Practical Techniques for Language Teaching will hope that Lewis and Hill have something to offer on this topic in the future.
Thomas K. Stoffer
University of Opole, Poland
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