Yesterday I found a new e-mail in my inbox which caused me much apprehension. It contained a review of the book Steve Smith and I published last month ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ in which we lay out our approach to language teaching and learning and practical tips on how to enhance classroom practice. The review was authored by an Applied Linguistics legend, Professor Ernesto Macaro of Oxford University.
Professor Macaro is an inspirational teacher educator, innovative researcher and visionary language scholar who authored seminal work I often quote in my blogs and which has deeply impacted Modern Language Education all over the globe in the last twenty years or so (e.g. Macaro, E. ,2003, Teaching and Learning a Second Language: a guide to current research and its applications. London: Continuum; Macaro, E.,2001, Learning Strategies in second and foreign language classrooms. London: Continuum; and his latest book: Macaro, E. Graham, S. & Woore, R.,2015, Improving Foreign Language Teaching: Towards a Research-based curriculum and pedagogy. Routledge.)
Although all the reviews we have had thus far have meant a lot to Steve and myself this is particularly important to me as Professor Macaro is not only one of the greatest authorities in the field of Applied Linguistics and a highly influential scholar; more importantly, he was my PhD supervisor and a true Mentor whose forward views on language teaching and learning (especially on learning autonomy) have ignited and shaped many of my beliefs. What I write in my blogs is often the final outcome of a process that started fifteen years ago when I was his doctoral student.
In the figure below: Professor Ernesto Macaro
I was nervous on opening the e-mail as I know that Professor Macaro is a very honest and frank man, ‘senza peli sulla lingua’ – as we say in Italian, and would not just write a ‘nice’ review to please a former student. In fact he was adamant in asking me not to change anything in his review without his approval. And nothing was changed. Here it is:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’ (http://pdcinmfl.com). The point is this: it’s all very well saying there are no ‘methods’ for teaching a foreign language any more but it can’t then be a free-for-all with teachers doing exactly what they want to do. As much as I believe in teacher professional autonomy, language teaching is so complex that you have to have a series of guiding principles.
So “make sure students receive plenty of meaningful input in the L2” – absolutely! I’ve never come across a successful classroom that doesn’t provide plenty of that.
“make sure students have lots of opportunities to practice orally” again totally agree but I would go a step further and say that they have to take risks with saying things they are not sure are correct. Take a look at “Steve’s tips for developing spontaneous talk’ on page 85, he brings the notion of risk-taking in very nicely but it should be part of the actual principles in my view.
“be prepared to explain how the language works but don’t spend too much time on this” – this is really key! I always use the expression “at what cost?” At what cost, given the amount of teaching time you have, are you explaining the difference between the perfect and imperfect tenses, in the L1, when they could be doing something much more skilled-based.
So I think the 12 principles are sound (is there some reason there are 12?). I think the last one about ‘a significant focus on the L2 culture’ needs some more unpicking. Exactly what culture are we talking about? Smith and Conti are teachers of French and Spanish I believe. Well ok we can have some notion of the culture of the people who speak those languages and it is possible to give learners some insights into them but we have to be careful a)not to trivialise the culture and b) not to centre it on some European (‘metropolitan’ as the French would say) idealised culture. And then of course if you are a teacher of English as an L2 the notion of culture enters a completely different theme park!
Anyway take time to read Smith and Conti’s book. It’s packed with lots of interesting and not too ‘whacky’ ideas.
Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Oxford