He has written many successful classroom texts and teacher resource books, inc...
Dr. Jack C. Richards, a well-known applied linguist, teacher educator and textbook author, whose classroom texts and professional books are used by teachers and students all around the world, kindly took time out from his busy schedule at the recent TESOL Convention in Vancouver to give this exclusive interview for New Routes readers.
NR: English Language Teaching has only recently become a profession in its own right and many people in it have "drifted into" it. In your case, did you at some point decide that you wanted to have a career in ELT or did you also drift into it?
JR: My career in ELT came about when I was an undergraduate in New Zealand looking for a part-time job while I was a student. Somebody told me there was a job as an assistant in a language center on the campus of the University of Wellington. I'd never heard of ELT. I got a part-time job working in the laboratory and noticed all these foreign students learning English, and I thought, "My gosh, here are these people desperate to acquire something that cost me nothing to learn", and I realised there was a fascinating field which offered obviously an interesting career possibility. That really switched me on to the whole business of ELT and I gradually became specialised in it and learned more about it until I got my first teaching job.
NR: Throughout your career, you have managed to work successfully both at the academic level, intrinsically theoretical, and at the more practical Level of classroom practice. Do you perceive these two strands of your work as separate or do they somehow feed into each other?
JR: My career does touch both the theory and the practice, but the theoretical areas that I'm interested in only happen to be those ones that do connect to practical classroom practice. There are many aspects of theory that I'm not particularly interested in and, as I said, those would tend to be things that have no particular relevance to the work of language teaching. In that way I've been able to make connections between theory and practice.
NR: One of your most well known academic publications, together with Theodore S. Rodgers, was "Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching", first published in 1986. I understand that you are currently working on a new edition of this title. What would you say have been the most interesting developments in this area between 1986 and the present day? Have any new "approaches" or "methods" been developed, and are there any that have, as it were, died out in this period?
JR: Yes, we are doing a new edition of "Approaches and Methods" and we've added some new chapters on new approaches and methods. For example, we have chapters on Task-Based Language Teaching and Content-Based Teaching, we have a chapter that surveys in a shorter form three or four different approaches and methods like Co-operative Learning, Competency-Based Teaching, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Whole Language, and the Lexical Approach. So, yes, there have been some new approaches and methods that have come on line but, at the same time, others have almost died out.
If we distinguish between approaches - very general pedagogical models, based on a core Set of principles, but which can be interpreted in different ways - and methods - very specific pedagogical models tied to very particular techniques - it appears that over the past twenty years approaches have tended to have a longer shelf life than methods. For example, things like Communicative Language Teaching and the Natural Approach are still quite alive and well, whereas some of the more specific methods like Total Physical Response, Counselling Learning and the Silent Way have practically died out.
NR: In your experience, is it possible to identify any factors or reasons that determine the relative success of an approach or method? In other words, why is it that certain approaches or methods, so-to-speak, catch on immediately and others don't?
JR: Well, a number of factors, really. I suppose one is institutional support or professional support from organisations, like TESOL and so on. So that if certain approaches or methods become accepted by credible institutions and professional organisations these tend to be promoted and accepted more widely.
Sometimes it's the powerful persuasion or reputation of a particular guru that might make an approach or method acceptable. Krashen's Natural Approach would be a good example of this.
Finally, methods and approaches are sometimes recommended or approved by governments. For example in many countries around the world today Competency-Based Instruction or a focus on "standards" are mandated by governments or departments of education. That doesn't necessarily lead to a particular method but it is a case of government or ministry policy determining the way teachers will have to approach their teaching.
NR: Moving into the practical realm of the classroom now, is it possible to identify the factors that determine the success of certain course books? Is it, for example, that they are based on successful approaches or are there other factors?
JR: Well, I think course books succeed to the extent that teachers find them useful and easy to use. Very often course books succeed because they can be used very easily and this, in turn, is probably because they have been very cleverly put together. Successful course books are often those which have been artfully constructed. On the other hand, less successful course books tend to have built-in flaws in terms of how well they are constructed: either they were put together too quickly or they were not properly edited and field-tested. As a result they are perceived as being difficult to use, boring and so on.
NR: More specifically now, why do you think that your "Interchange" series has been so successful, not only in Brazil but also around the world?
JR: I think for some of the reasons I just mentioned. Teachers find that students do actually learn from it, they enjoy teaching from it and they can see students making progress. These are the crucial reasons, in my opinion. If people cannot see those things going on in their classrooms, they won't use the book no matter how famous the author's name or how well it's promoted by its publishers.
NR: What kind of personal philosophy of teaching do you try to put into your books?
JR: Well, like many people, I have always found language learning frustrating. I've tried to learn a number of languages - French, Indonesian, Chinese and Spanish. Most often my experience of these language learning classes has been pretty unpleasant. You come away frustrated and feel that you haven't really learned anything very useful.
This is why in my own books I try to make sure that almost on every page there's a guarantee that students are doing something useful and that they can take away something from that lesson. This way students are step by step getting a sense of achievement and experiencing success rather than failure and frustration.
NR: You have been to Brazil many times over the last ten years and you are regularly in contact with Brazilian ELT professionals at international events such as the TESOL Convention. In your view, is there anything that characterises Brazilian teachers? How are they similar to and how are they different from teachers in other parts of the world?
JR: Probably one thing that I have observed about Brazilian teachers is that many of them are very young and they're very enthusiastic, although they're not necessarily in many cases very experienced.
I also find that in general Brazilian teachers are very committed to teaching and concerned to improve themselves. Perhaps it's the fact that, as compared to, say, China, Brazil is fairly close to North America and there is an immediate perception of the importance of language learning that gives a certain dynamism to the teaching of English in Brazil.
NR: Just to finish off, could you perhaps say something about the TESOL Convention?
JR: This to me would be almost my 30th TESOL Convention. I think my first TESOL Convention was in 1970. Maybe I've missed one or two, but I've been to almost every one.
I think the TESOL Convention is what you make of it. It's only for you to create a good convention because there are probably a thousand presentations, there are a thousand well-known people, plus another thousand experienced classroom teachers, plus eight or nine thousand people just wandering around. I think it's over to you to put together the kind of program that you're interested in.
Like all conventions, though, the Tesol Convention is only as good as the presenters. So you may find you get to a brilliant presentation but you may also find you go to one which is not so good. Some of the presenters are very experienced, some are not so experienced.
NR: How has this TESOL Convention in Vancouver been for you?
JR: Busy! Because I've been mainly working with editors on projects. I'm also on a very important committee - that took up a whole day - which is a new initiative. That's the TESOL International Research Foundation, and we're going to try to raise US$12 million to establish a research fund to finance research on language teaching. I've also been in some interesting colloquium, and most of my other time has been spent in conversation with teachers and colleagues.
NR: Finally, Jack, many of our readers are anxious to know if you have a new millennium version of the inimitable Jack Richard's jacket?
JR: YES, I DO!!! Or, rather, I did. Unfortunately it went up in flames when the fireworks went off during the millennium celebrations!!! I think it was over-saturated with hair spray!!!
Dr. Jack C. Richards is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the Regional Language Center in Singapore. He has also taught at Universities in Hong Kong, Hawaii, Canada, Indonesia and New Zealand. His classroom texts include New Interchange and Passages and his teacher training books include Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms, Teacher Learning in Language Teaching, The Language Teaching Matrix, and Beyond Training.