Friday, May 4, 2007

Dr. Bland's Ten Commandments for teaching English

By Merton Bland


A few years ago the author was assigned to the prime TESOL institution in southern Vietnam, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. What he found was quite a challenge: an educational system, centrally administrated, mired in traditional practices. The grammar/translation methodology, a legacy of the French, held sway in the classrooms, producing, in spite of six years of English in the secondary schools, a nation of graduates unable to communicate in the target language. Discussions with Vietnamese colleagues, usually trained abroad, resulted in plans for a lecture tour to the major teacher training institutions of Vietnam (including Hanoi, DaNang, Hue, and about a half-dozen others) with a message stressing alternatives to the status quo, and the present format was developed. The author was subsequently invited to speak at institutions of ideological training (Communist Party Cadre) and information diffusion (schools for journalists) previously off-limits to Westerners, as well as the teacher training institutions previously noted.

The Commandments

(1) Do not teach English. Teach something, anything, IN English, using English as a vehicle of communication rather than an object of study. This is sometimes called the content-based curriculum.

(2) Do not teach grammar. Ingesting rules can be counterproductive: We are all familiar with students who are unable to apply rules learned through rote memorization. Instead, the grammar of English is best acquired inductively by the students formulating their own hypotheses. (This reflects Krashen's acquisition vs. learning.)

(3) Do not teach vocabulary. The schema, the concept pods which constitute the lexigraphical units of language, vary from language to language, even from person to person. No language is a direct translation of any other. Thus, vocabulary must be forged within the target language itself in a manner not unlike that of first language acquisition. To do otherwise is to risk forging the chains which prevent the bifurcation of the native and target languages and forever making your students translate in their heads word for word.

(4) Do not teach pronunciation. There is no longer any standard English. Well over two-thirds of the world's 1.5 billion English speakers are non-native speakers. Their English is certainly as acceptable as the Received Pronunciation (RP) of a tiny fraction of the British or the Broad Midwestern of Hollywood--as long as their English is comprehensible to the greatest number of persons who do not share that particular accent.

(5) Do not give tests. While testing is well embedded in many parts of the world, scaling is to be preferred to testing. Usually tests only require the regurgitation of knowledge. Scaling, placing people on a scale from beginner to educated native, has much more validity.

(6) Do not use lesson plans. Teach students, not lesson plans. Many teachers come away from their teacher training institutions with a mandated compulsion to spend hours writing lesson plans. Such planning is quite counterproductive since in an actual teaching situation the teacher must be alert to the reactions of the students--stressing pragmatic considerations, putting more time and effort where the lesson needs it and shortening or eliminating parts where the students seem to be in command of the concept being stressed. Yes, the teacher should have a general idea of the objectives of the lesson. Certainly the teacher should have available any materials which will be needed. Most importantly the teacher should leave time after the lesson to reflect on it and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. But the focus of any teaching should be on the students, not on the constraints imposed by any preconceived lesson plan.

(7) Do not use the native language in the classroom: Never, never, never! If our aim is the successful bifurcation of the native and target languages, any use of the native language is by definition counterproductive. Draw a chalkline on the doorsill and proudly use the native language outside the classroom, but create an immersion situation inside.

(8) Do not use textbooks. You know your own students better than any textbook author. Authentic materials are all around you. For example: Record the news from the VOA or the BBC. Videotape CNN or Australian TV. Bring in any expatriate Anglophone in town and have him chat with the students. Have your school subscribe to the "International Herald Tribune" or "Time" or "Newsweek." Borrow English language videos. If they have subtitles put a book in front of the bottom of the monitor to cover up those subtitles. Buy, with your own money if necessary, paperbacks. After you read them they can be the nucleus of an individualized reading program (each student reads his own book and then reports on it to the class). Have your class keep journals in English, and write their own English to English vocabulary lists. Have the class write their own book.

(9) Do not teach the microskills: reading, writing, speaking, listening. English is one language, indivisible. And English is a living language; one only dissects the dead.

(10) Do not teach. Empower your students to take responsibility for their own learning. This reflects a general trend, especially in North American education, to deemphasize the role of the teacher as the font of all knowledge and provide the students with the means to further their own educative process beyond the classroom. This is called the student-centered classroom (as opposed to the teacher-centered classroom).

Thus Hath Dr. Bland Spoke

On the international plane, a focus on communication is overtaking traditional methodologies. This is reflected in most of the commandments. On the other hand, some of the commandments, i.e. Number 4, were reactions to local controversies. Number 4 was a response to the discussions as to which English represented the standard: British (RP), Midwest American, or even, in the Vietnamese context, Australian English. The answer was none of the above, but rather a Vietinglish comprehensible to the greatest number of non-Vietnamese.
Obviously, no immediate revolution was planned, nor did one occur. The aim, rather, was to present some alternatives and allow them to foment. Someday one of those teachers-in-training will become minister of education, and perhaps he or she will remember Dr. Bland's seminar and institute some of those reforms.

(Versions of this list have appeared in other publications, including the "WATESOL Journal.")

Merton L. Bland has worked as a K-12 teacher in the USA; a US foreign service officer in Africa, Asia and Australia; and as an ESL/EFL teacher and teacher trainer in the US, Asia, Africa, and Europe. <>

1 comment:

James Hunter said...

Well, Dr. Bland clearly has strong opinions, but many of these opinions are (to judge from his many posts on the TESL-L listserv) heavily, even dogmatically influenced by Krashen, so some response is called for. These commandments might well be appropriate for the context described, but they surely do not apply to ANY teaching situation. So here are my thoughts on each one:

1. A content-based curriculum is a good thing; however, in processing a new language (see #7), adults frequently DO want and need to analyze the language itself. There is even a case to be made that the language IS the content - i.e. the object of study. This is not to say that that is the only things teachers should do. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

2. There is a huge difference between "teaching grammar" and "rote memorization". You can learn (and teach) grammar inductively by focusing on features of the language and guiding learners towards making useful generalizations about it. But left entirely to our own devices, we often make INCORRECT hypotheses that "work" communicatively and so become entrenched. This does not happen with children learning their first language because they get constant input with which to refine their hypotheses; adult in Vietnam (or elsewhere) cannot get this constant input and so need to be taught - that is, after all, what they are paying for!

3. There is no evidence that "bifurcation" is what is going on. For all we know, the concept of a word and its sound in any language are stored "together". Again, there is a vast difference between "teaching vocabulary" and "translating word for word"; many students need to learn what that difference is, to be sure, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't teach! Teaching vocabulary does not have to mean giving our students lists of decontextualized words to memorize, and there are many strategies for learning vocabulary that we can and should teach.

4. Here Dr. Bland is confusing "teaching pronunciation" with "teaching accent". He is quite right that teaching the accent of any speech community might not be useful: so then we should research what ALL speech communities have in common (such as stress-timing, phonemic sets, intonation patterns, and so on) and teach those things.

5. How is a teacher supposed to place "people on a scale from beginner to educated native" without doing some kind of assessment? How is a teacher supposed to know whether learners have acquired what is taught without assessment? It is certainly not true that testing equates to "the regurgitation of knowledge", only that certain types of test do. The command should be: "Be more creative and intentional about how you test."

6. Having materials ready, having a general idea of the lesson, reflecting on what happened, and knowing your students are all part of planning. QED. This commandment should be: "Don't follow a lesson plan slavishly; be ready to spot the teachable moments and abandon the plan in favor if the immediate needs of the students."

7. There are times when the native language is useful and far more efficient. Of course, if the only contact your students have with English is your class, then do something to remedy that - see #8. But use your class to help them to understand how thoughts and ideas can be expressed in English, and if the best way to do that is in their language, use their language!

8. NO textbook is perfect, for sure, and some are horrible. But some are excellent and provide, especially for new teachers, a great starting-point. This commandment should be: "Don't stick slavishly to the textbook. There's a world of great resources out there."

9. This commandment is, pace Dr. Bland, utter claptrap! English is far from "one language, indivisible," as Dr. Bland points out in the next sentence and in #4. English is a creole undergoing constant (albeit small) changes. But none of this has anything to do with teaching macroskills. We teach macroskills because literacy (reading and writing) are not innate skills - plenty of native speakers of any language are illiterate - and because they are extremely culture-bound, so we need to address the assumptions that every literate student brings with her about literacy, "good writing, "voice", and so on. We teach listening and speaking because sometimes adults need help decoding and encoding sound into language, and because there are pragmatic skills that need to be developed (see #6). "Teaching macroskills" merely means focusing on a given skill at a given time to bring aspects of it to learners' attention. Why would we not do that?

10. Again, Dr. Bland is confusing terms: "teaching" does not mean "lecturing"! Abdicating your responsibility as a teacher is not the solution. Empowering your students and being learner-centered IS teaching. But you might find that students do not want to be "empowered" in the ways that you want to empower them - so then what is the truly student-centered thing to do?

I commend Dr. Bland for his attempts to get teachers to think outside of the box, but I urge all readers to take his commandments with a grain of salt and to realize that they are not an incitement to be lazy and uninformed, however much they may appear to be so!