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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

Susan Barduhn

(Susan Barduhn was the moderator for this event, held at the JALT National Conference in Nara, November 2004)

December 2004

Topic: What are 5 things you wish you'd known when you started teaching?

Stephen Krashen

1. Pronunciation
I suspect that accent in a second language is acquired very rapidly; we do not actually use our best pronunciation, however, because we would feel uncomfortable doing so, or even silly. Adults have, in other words, an "output filter."

There are several reasons to hypothesize that we don't use our full competence in pronunciation because it makes us feel self-conscious: We can imitate second language speakers speaking our native language, and we can imitate different dialects of our native language. But we don't, because it would feel uncomfortable. Guiora et. al. have shown that a modest amount of alcohol can result in a better accent; alcohol apparently lowers the output filter. Also, our accents are variable: Sometimes we do better than other times, depending on how comfortable we feel.

Our accent marks us as a member of a certain group; we will perform our best when our output filter is lowest, when we feel like a member of the group that speaks that language.

Guiora, A. Z., Beit-Hallahmi, B., Brannon, R. C. L., Dull, C. Y., & Scovel, T. 1972. The Effects of Experimentally Induced Changes in Ego States on Pronunciation Ability in a Second Language: An Exploratory Study. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 13(5): 421-428.
Krashen, S.. 1997. A conjecture. In A. Lengyel, J. Navracsics, and O. Simon (Eds.) Applied Linguistic Studies in Central Europe. Veszprem, Hungary: Faculty of Foreign Languages, University of Veszprem. pp. 42-45. Available at

2. Polyglots: How did they do it?
Do some people have a "gift" for languages? Are their brains somehow different? So far, there is no reason to think so: The accomplishments of the great polyglots can be explained on the basis of current language acquisition theory.

Lomb Kato was born and raised in Budapest and did not get interested in other languages until she was a young adult. A professional interpreter, she acquired high levels of proficiency in 17 languages, without extended stays in the country where the languages were spoken. I interviewed Dr. Lomb (her PhD was in Chemistry) in depth ten years ago in Budapest. She attributed her success to massive amounts of comprehensible input, mostly through recreational reading. She was personally very interested in grammar and linguistics, but felt it played a small role in language acquisition, loved dictionaries but looked up words when she read only if the word re-appeared several times and she still did not understand it, and hated to be corrected: "Error correction makes you sick to your stomach."

Krashen, S. and Kiss, N. 1996. Notes on a polyglot. System 24: 207-210.
Krashen, S. 2003. Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Company.

3. The Impact of English Fever: Will we all be speaking only English some day?

English is the new international language and continues to spread; for example, 95% of all articles cited in 1997, according to the Science Citation Index, were in English, up from 83% in 1987, and English is clearly the language of international business. There is therefore a great deal of pressure from middle class parents to provide more English in school. Devoting large amounts of time to English in school could eventually impact advanced development of the primary language. Scholars living in their home countries report that they find it more comfortable to read and write in English, rather than their primary language. The effects on first languages, even those that are spoken by millions of people and have large literatures, is beginning to be felt.

4. English Fever: How to balance parents' theories of language acquisition with what the experts think
Much of what we think is true about language acquisition is in conflict with what parents and our older students believe. In fact, our positions appear to run counter to "common sense."

Parents are convinced that younger is faster: Professionals know that older is faster in beginning stages, but that those who start as children eventually do better than those who start as adults.

Parents are convinced that language acquisition requires the hard work of intensive grammar study and correction. Professionals (I hope) understand that we acquire language when we understand messages, which can be very pleasant.

Parents think that more time devoted to English means more English development. Professionals know that the first language can be used in ways that accelerate second language acquisition.

Unfortunately, parents' views are usually shared by policy-makers, who often have no background in language education. Individual conferences with parents and presenting language acquisition theory in classes, while sometimes helpful, is not the total answer, as long as language education professionals' views are so different from accepted wisdom. The only solution is to change what is considered to be "common sense."

Krashen, S. 2003. Dealing with English fever. In Selected Papers from the Twelfth International Symposium on English Teaching. English Teachers' Association/ROC, Taipei. Taipei: Crane Publishing Company. pp. 100-108. Available at

5. Language Policy in the US
Language policy in the US has suddenly become controlled by the federal government, an odd occurrence because education has traditionally been a responsibility of the individual states. Nearly all public school (K-12) education has been dominated by NCLB, or No Child Left Behind, a federal initiative that has two major components: One component is "high stakes" standardized testing of all children in reading and math, with punishments for districts whose test scores do not improve according to standards set up by the government. Those who criticize this movement are accused of being soft, and being opposed to accountability. Critics, however, are not opposed to assessment: They are opposed to what they consider to be inappropriate and excessive testing.

Another component is an approach to reading instruction that features "intensive, systematic" phonics, teaching all major rules of phonics in a strict sequence. Those who criticize intensive phonics are accused of having a no-phonics position and of forcing students to struggle with incomprehensible texts. Critics, however, are in favor of including basic phonics, recognize the limits of phonics teaching, and understand that most "skills" emerge as a result of reading. The teacher's task is to provide interesting texts and help make those texts comprehensible.

Critics have no seat at the table in the US: To be eligible for federal grants, school districts must submit proposals that are consistent with the policies of NCLB.

Allington,R. 2002. Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum : How Ideology Trumped Evidence. Portsmouth: Heinemann Publishing Company.

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Michael McCarthy

I wish I'd known...

1. ...that focusing on vocabulary is the secret to success in second and foreign language learning.
When I first entered the ELT profession, we were still being browbeaten by linguists into believing that syntax was the be-all and end-all of language organisation, and that understanding how the acquisition of syntax took place in some magic way explained the whole of 'language acquisition'. Since then I have worked with wonderful mentors such as Tony Cowie of Leeds University, UK (one of OUP's best lexicographers, now retired), and John Sinclair (the best mind I have ever encountered in my profession), and realised that vocabulary is at the heart of language use and language patterning. In my own experience of learning three foreign languages, I've now realised even more that building a big vocabulary is far more important than getting stressed over grammar. Grammar is important, but not half as important as vocabulary.

2. ...that the computer would come along with corpus information to challenge the madder assertions of linguists and their invented sentences.
I've not only been a teacher of English; I've also taught Spanish for five years, and so I have seen language teaching from the perspective of the native- and non-native user. As a non-native teacher of Spanish I was very insecure, and always sought help from a native speaker when in doubt about usage. I wish I'd had a corpus (especially of spoken Spanish) and the simple software available nowadays, to enable me to observe directly how Spanish speakers used their language, to give me confidence, to give me naturally occurring texts from which to derive materials and ideas, and to offset the written-language bias (almost entirely literary) which I received from my university education in Spanish.

3. ...that I should not have been ashamed of speaking a non-standard British dialect in class.
I was born and brought up in Wales, and spoke a so-called 'non-standard' dialect of British English. When I first encountered ELT textbooks, I found a world of Southern-England, middle-class, white, male-dominated English. It made me feel inadequate because I spoke differently from the texts and audiotapes. Since then we've done our best to remove sexism and racism from our teaching materials, but we still haven't done much about the class bias, and assume that our students will either be middle-class consumers or will aspire to middle-class language, and are basically only interested in shopping. But at least now we are respecting non-British and non-US varieties of English, international English, English as a lingua franca, etc., so I think no teacher should be afraid to display his/her local variety with pride, while of course respecting the wishes of the students as regards what they want to hear and learn.

4. ...that we should treat new ideas with respect and caution rather than always jumping on the latest bandwagon.
New waves come along, and I've seen a few: notional-functionalism, total physical response, task-based learning, autonomous learning, focus on form, data-driven learning, etc. What I've learnt is that each of them probably have something good and new to add to our techniques and methodologies for teaching English, but that none of them has the sole answer. I always believed in eclecticism as a gut instinct, but now I believe in it through experience. What disturbs me sometimes is the almost religious zeal with which academics and materials writers and publishers promulgate new ideas and how intimidating this can be, especially for young and inexperienced teachers. Now I'm old enough, when someone comes along with claims about new solutions to language teaching and learning, to say 'prove it'.

5. ...what a big place the world of ELT is and how important local knowledge is.
I have taught English in four countries and lectured about the English language and English teaching in 35 countries. I have learnt now, which I didn't know when I blithely sauntered off to Spain to my first teaching job 38 years ago, that people are different but the same the world over. They are different because they have developed different beliefs, ways of thinking and doing, ways of teaching and learning, ways of interacting, all of which should matter to the teacher who comes in from the outside, and who should respect local cultures, learn from them and not remain isolated from the local context in some padded, ex-pat world. But people are the same because they all live, love, laugh, cry, eat, sleep, dream and die. And we should never think people are stupid because they speak with a struggling accent or because they are poor, young, elderly or from a developing, non-industrialised culture. Because of this we must never patronise our learners and treat them as incapable of thinking intelligently about language and understanding what it's all about just as much as we think we do as academics or pedagogues.

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Marc Helgesen

1. To wait a minute (Think Time/ language planning)

"You gotta wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute."
- The Marvelettes

Sure we want the students to speak. But when we expect “instant production” (Teacher: Pairwork. You’re A. You’re B. TALK. NOW!”) we are actually locking them into whatever they can come up with easily (“What do you like music?”). We don’t give the opportunity to go deeper than their most superficial ideas and language.

Just giving the learners a minute or two of think time to consider (a) “What do I want to say?” and (b) “How am I going to say it?” can make a big difference. This “language planning” leads to an increase in fluency (no surprise there ­ they’ve been through it once mentally so it comes out more easily), complexity (again, the mental planning lets the say way they want with more precision), accuracy (they say it better), and vocabulary improves (they have time to “reach into that basket of words they are just learning.” Although Think time/ language planning is something natural that good learners have always made use of, most textbooks don’t yet incorporate the ideas. However, there are lots of easy ways to add them. To read an article I wrote for ETJ Journal on the topic, click this link.

2. To teach across the senses.
Every bit on information we take in we do so through the five senses: Vision, Auditory, Kinesthetic (also called haptic, this includes touch, movement and feelings), Olfactory (smell) and Gustatory (taste). The first three (V-A-K) are the most flexible. Although, barring a handicap*, we all have all five senses, we each have a “primary sensory modality” (or main learning channel) that we use the most. As teachers, it is easy to “teach the way we learn”. So if we are visual, we use lots of pictures, put things on the board, etc. If we are more auditory, we present information that way (Do you ever catch yourself closing your eyes so you can concentrate? You’re blocking out unnecessary visual input).

Kinesthetic teachers like the students to be moving, using lots of realia, etc. That’s great for the learners who have the same primary modality as our own, but what about the others? For some, we may be teaching to the learning channel they find the most difficult to process. Last year in a Think Tank column, I suggested ways to add different sensory aspects to various classroom activities. That column is here.

Part of my interest in this, by the way, grew out of a problem faced by one of my grad. students. She had several students with learning disabilities (LD). We started looking around for ESL/EFL/LD resources. I came across an article by Harvard’s Christine Root called >A Guide to Learning Disabilities for the ESL Classroom Practitioner. It struck me that it was not just good special education, it was just good ELT.

*Ray Charles, it is interesting to note, did charity work for deaf people. His reasoning was that being blind wasn’t so bad. After all, he had done OK. But, he said, can you imaging being deaf ­ a world with no music?

3. It’s more important to engage students than to entertain them.
For those of you who instantly thought about your boyfriend/girlfiend, that’s not what I mean.

And I am certainly not suggesting that it is OK to bore the students. They get enough of that without our help.

I really believe that the “teacher as entertainer” is an insidious, if less noticed version of “the teacher-centered classroom.” It makes the teacher the center of attention. In a truly communicate classroom, the real content ­ experiences, opinion, ideas and dreams ­ come from the learners. Keep your ego in check.

Note: I’ve made this point with my students in Columbia University Teacher’s College MA TESOL program for years. The first time I saw the engagement/ entertainment dichotomy in print was in a posting by Maurice Jamal on the elt listserv. I thought it was a great way to explain it and want to credit him with the wording.

4. Reading is the “magic skill.”
Many of us, especially foreigners, are expected to teach listening and speaking. Fair enough. They are important skills. But we often take that to mean we shouldn’t teach reading. This is a mistake. Reading is about a close to a “magic skill” as we have. It improves not only the learners reading ability (no surprise there) but also abilities with vocabulary (especially), grammar and even listening and speaking (largely because of the vocabulary increase).

Look for ways to add reading to your class. Homework, whether required or optional (with extra credit) is one way. Purists sometimes argue about intensive vs. extensive listening. I think both are useful but would suggest that if you have to commit to one side or the other, go with extensive reading. Our learners have years of translation. That isn’t actually reading (it’s translation ­ a very different, production-oriented skill. Not that it is bad, just very different than receptive-oriented reading). But it means they have a lot of “bottom-up” skills (i.e., they have the “parts” ­ vocabulary, knowledge of grammar, etc.) but not much experience looking at the whole meaning. Extensive reading builds meaning-oriented fluency. Also, reading in English can actually be pleasurable. With reading, easy is good. Check out the ideas at, a Japan-based site with a lot of practical ideas.

5. We’re not missionaries. We aren’t going to “save every soul.”
Actually, the way “five things I wish I had known when I started teaching” became the topic for Think Tank LIVE at JALT2004 was that we (Peter, Michael, Stephen and I) were given about 48 hours to come up with a topic. The session had been conceived of and accepted late. We did a quick few rounds of emails. I added the “five things” topics simply because I had asked it on the etj list a couple months earlier for no special reason. I just thought it would be interesting to see what people said. It was fascinating.

One response that really made me think was from someone named Renee. She said, “Don't assume that everyone is there to learn. People really do take lessons for a wide variety of reasons. This realization freed me of a lot of frustration with some groups.”

This is so true. And so important. My own way of framing it is “We’re not missionaries. We aren’t going to ‘save every soul.’ ” (My daddy was a preacher. I guess it shows. And my apologies to any readers who happen to be missionaries as well as English teachers. But I think you know what I’m talking about.)

We do our best. We try really hard. We have a lot of successes. And, yes, we have some failures. But more successes. Do your best. Celebrate success.

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Peter Viney

I wish I'd known…

1. … it's OK to say 'I don't know.'
There is constant pressure on the teacher to be the source of all knowlege rather than being an imperfect participant in the learning process. It's hardest for the novice teacher, probably because 'I don't know' is too near the truth. I still shudder at the memory of my first week as an ELT teacher. 24 years old, confronted with fifteen students, at least ten of whom were older than me. Someone asked the difference between each and every. I decided on an impromptu explanation on the board. None of those fifteen grasped the difference, nor will ever, and I'd still be hard put to explain it now. You have to be confident to admit lack of knowledge (or ignorance).

In classroom management, never be afraid to say (a) I'll tell you tomorrow ­ then make sure you do, or you lose all credibility. (b) Let me get a reference book. Lawyers are better off than teachers, not because they've stored more knowledge, but because they work in an area where knowing where to access information replaces the teacher's perceived need to have all of it stored for immediate recall. Like lawyers, make sure you have access to the information: a student's grammar, a book explaining grammar concepts for teachers and a monolingual learner's dictionary. For years I carried a battered copy of Robert O'Neill's English in Situations (OUP, 1970) with me because there was always a neat comparative contextualization that you could find and use. 'I was wrong' is even harder than 'I don't know' so I'll leave that until later as a higher skill.

A recommended basic reference list:
Grammar for teachers: Grammar for English Language Teachers, Martin Parrott (CUP, 2000). Explanations from a classroom point of view.
The English Verb, Michael Lewis (LTP, 1986), which covers so much more than its title suggests.
Grammar for students: Practical English Usage (New Edition), Michael Swan (OUP, 1995). Also for teacher reference. If you can only carry one with you, this is probably it.
The Good Grammar Book, Michael Swan & Catherine Walter (OUP, 2001) if you want exercises, too.
Monolingual learner's dictionary: There are five good ones at least (from Oxford, Cambridge, Longman, Macmillan and Collins). Even if you're teaching the lower levels, you need an advanced level one.

2. … that many activities are nit-picking.
These range from intricate exercises on stress within words to grammar for the sake of grammar. As a materials writer, I was once asked to help write an upper-intermediate lesson on 'the semi-modal dare' because my then boss felt there should always be a 'new structure' somewhere however nit-picking it was. I declined, as it's worthy of passing mention, no more. The message is too often 'I know. You don't.'

Pronunciation is a major case in point. The ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) movement focuses on mutual intelligibility and questions native-speaker 'ownership' of English. Having spent much of my working and social life with bilingual non-native speakers, all with some degree of 'foreign accent' (compare also Joseph Conrad, Henry Kissinger and even Arnie) I believe that it is futile and inefficient to waste time trying to get adult learners to be imitation native speakers. A miniscule percentage of people learning a foreign language after puberty manage to exchange their accent for one of the native speaker accents. I'd also question the 'authenticity rules' school of thought and the direct applicability of corpus transcriptions of NS > NS interactions to classroom material, when it is said that 80% of interactions in English are NNS > NNS. Something can be useful and efficient for the learner without necessarily being 'authentic'.

Jennifer Jenkins' The Phonology of English As an International Language (OUP, 2000) is one of the most important (and readable) books for teachers since Michael Lewis's The Lexical Approach and deserves to have similar currency.
On Joseph Conrad's accent (purely for interest) see Alicia Pousada's article from English Studies 75 (1994) which is on the net at:

3. … that teaching beginners is the most rewarding job of all.
It's the one that requires the greatest classroom skills, and one of the oddest facts about ELT (education in general, actually) is that the most experienced teachers get the more advanced classes. I would reverse the process. The bias towards the upper levels is implicit in teaching materials which emphasize the needs of the long-haul traveller, the one who's going to study through five, six or more years. As a result there's an unfortunate assumption that everyone starting out on the path has the ultimate goal of reading English language literature in the original. The literary bias can be seen in contexts, extracts and the setting of goals. Let's admit that many of our students are there for the short haul, and have more limited aims which are not best served by assuming that they all will want to read Shakespeare one day. Some do, of course … but there's probably a decent translation anyway.

In teacher-training I would shift the focus towards performance/ communication skills in the classroom in the initial stages. I find it absurd that trainees spend as much time 'writing their own material' as learning how to function in the real world with material that is given to them (or dumped on them, if you prefer). Someone teaching well with the so-called "wrong method" will always be more effective than someone teaching badly with the so-called "right method." In the end, the teacher's personal input / impact / motivation is more important than the material used, the method or the philosophy behind it.

4. … that when I was young, ignorant and bursting with a desire to communicate I was just as effective as now that I'm (nearly) old and burdened with knowledge.
Youth and enthusiasm should not be discounted. When I started teaching, I was happy to spend Friday nights over a pizza with my classes, which allowed time for informal input in a low pressure setting. Now I can think of a dozen things I'd rather do on a Friday night. I'm more skilled, more competent and more knowledgeable nowadays, but I would restrict the amount of informal socializing. In my own department at a large private language school in the 70s and 80s, I was aware that as we became more professional (it was an era of rapid progress and new ideas), we were less effective in other ways because we spent less time outside class with students. They got a more focussed learning environment but less 'acquisition-rich' time. I was very aware that we needed a balance of young enthusiastic teachers.

Entertainment is part of this. In his recent BBC TV series, Himalaya, presenter Michael Palin was shown confronted with a class of kids in the foothills of the mountains. He started off way over their heads, but soon modified his language down to the level. A few seconds later he was clowning around hitting himself on the head with his shoe. Cheap? Probably. Engaging? Definitely. Palin is older than me, in fact, but young at heart.

Reference: Himalaya, Episode 1 (BBC TV)

5. … that my students were human beings with their own troubles, homesickness and pressures rather than just an audience for my performance skills.
Going back to Michael Palin reminds me of his Monty Python partner, John Cleese and the character of Basil Fawlty. Basil used to say 'Don't state the bleeding obvious …' and I guess this is a pious statement that it's impossible to disagree with. I spent the first half of my career teaching in the UK, and students were homesick, shell-shocked even. I'm shocked to realize how little account we ever took of this, especially as most of them were in their late teens and early twenties, or younger than my kids are now. I'm amazed at how well they coped, plunged into a foreign culture as beginners and apologetic that we saw them as one-dimensional beings. We lost opportunities to learn from them and from their cultures ­ I've taught every nationality from Europe, Latin America, The Middle East and most from East Asia as well as French- and Portuguese-speaking Africa.

The small task of writing your own learner-autobiography helps to get you into the mindset of students. It brings back the pronunciation point above. When you correct a student's grammar or choice of vocabulary, you're pointing out a gap in their knowledge. When you reject their pronunciation it is more deeply personal, because you're correcting the person rather than the gaps in the knowledge base. We need to be open to learning from the learner.

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