Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Language Teaching Matrix by Jack C. Richards

Why I Read This Book
          This is part of my on going project to read more about linguistics and language teaching for professional development.
            More specifically, I read this book to prepare for the distance Delta (W) course I am doing.  A friend, who had previously completed the Delta, recommended this book as being particularly useful, and so I read it on his recommendation.

My Experience Reading the Book
            The first thing to note is that this book is written in a heavy academic style.  This was initially a bit jarring for me.
            Although I have read - academic - books before, it had been a while.  The - last - several - books I’ve read on language learning had been written in a much easier, friendly style.
            However, with The Language Teaching Matrix, I was back to the thick, heavy, academic prose—the kind of prose that requires very careful reading, and does not yield up its meaning easily.  For example:

            Program planners, textbook writers, and language teachers now have a variety of options to choose from in developing content-based approaches to second language instruction. The present analysis has suggested that the basis for appropriate instructional designs is the notion of student functional proficiency and its interactional, task, and cognitive components. Approaches that address only the linguistic dimensions of the problem ignore the complexity of classroom learning and classroom interaction through the medium of a second or foreign language.  At the same time, a broader research base is essential to provide information for program planning and evaluation… (p. 157-158).

            I’m not saying I couldn’t understand it, but I had to fight really hard to keep my eyes from glazing over, and because of this I had to re-read many of the paragraphs several times in order to finally absorb their meaning.

            The composition of the book is a bit random.  As is common practice for academic books, many of the chapters in this book are simply re-printed articles that the author had previously published in various academic journals.  This results in a series of articles which are all quite solid individually, but don’t come together as whole when they are all positioned as chapters in the same book.

            As my friend later put it, “It’s a chapters book, not a whole read.”

            I didn’t realize this at first, and was initially approaching it as a “whole read” book.  After all the title, The Language Teaching Matrix seemed to indicate that the book was going to detail some sort of comprehensive system.  And the introduction stated explicitly that “The Language Teaching Matrix is designed to serve as a textbook in courses on language teaching methodology and teacher preparation” (vii). 
            Actually, the book almost comes together as a whole read book.  The various articles in the book manage to cover all of the components of a language course (curriculum development, teaching listening, teaching reading, teaching writing, teaching conversation).  But then some of the chapters seem a stretch to put into the same binding, like the chapter about how to integrate bilingual children into mainstream education, for example, which has little relevance for those of us teaching in an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) environment.

Usefulness on the Delta Course
            Because my friend had recommended this book for the Delta exam, I read this book mostly with the module 1 exam in mind. 
            I found it moderately useful.  The book is chalk full of useful terminology that often appears on the module 1 exam, and explanations of what the terminology means (for example descriptions of: product writing versus process writing, bottom-up processing versus top-down processing, interactional functions of language versus transactional functions of language, et cetera).  This is particularly true of the chapters that focus on the skills: speaking, writing, listening and reading.
            Other sections seem less relevant to module 1—for example chapters on how teachers can self-evaluate their own lessons.  As I read, I began to suspect this book might actually be more useful for module 2 than for module 1, and when I finished, I asked my friend which module he had actually meant to recommend the book for.  He confirmed that it was more useful for module 2, and that further he had meant it as a reference book, and not as something to read cover to cover.
            Oh well… I’ve already read it cover to cover, so too late to change that now.  Hopefully when I get around to taking Module 2, it will be useful background knowledge.  (I doubt I’ll be able to retain the whole book in memory, but hopefully enough of the book will stick in my mind that I’ll be better able to navigate it when it comes time to use it as a reference book.)

Beyond Methods
          Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is the second chapter, entitled Beyond Methods.  In that chapter, Jack Richards lays out his opinion that the obsession with finding the correct teaching method in ESL is a useless search.  Overly prescriptive methods assume that both the teachers and the students will all follow a pre-arranged script, but in reality this never actually happens.  As Jack Richards says, “Observers of teachers using specific methods have reported that teachers seldom conform to the methods they are supposed to be following….Swaffer et al. found that many of the distinctions used to contrast methods, particularly those based on classroom activities, did not exist in actual practice….Methods hence make assumptions about the nature of teaching that are not based on the study of the process of teaching.” (p.36-37).
            In contrast to prescribed methodologies, Richards instead advocates an approach where teachers try to investigate the needs, and the learning behaviors of their students, and then adapt their teaching styles to the needs and behaviors of their classes.  He also advocates that the teaching style should not be fixed or static, but instead should be constantly evolving in response to the needs of a classroom.  Any prescribed and static method, therefore, is unsuitable for real-life classroom dynamics.

            To which I agree with him 100%.

            This ties in directly with the Larsen-Freeman book on language teaching methodologies, which I previously read.   In fact in the introduction to the second edition of that book, Larsen-Freeman mentioned specifically the criticisms The Language Teaching Matrix has about methodologies.  Larsen-Freeman went on to justify her own book on methodologies by saying that whether or not one chooses to adopt an overly prescriptive method, it is still useful to be aware of the different method options, and to be aware of the assumptions they make about language learning, in order to better inform your own choices in the classroom.  To which I suppose I also agree 100%.

Below is a text message exchange between my friend and I discussing this book.  I’ll just post it here for whatever it’s worth

Curious about the Language Teaching Matrix by Jack Richards. To be honest, I didn’t find it all that useful for the test in Delta module 1. I’m beginning to suspect you recommended it more for module 2. Is this correct? I’m asking not for the sake of giving you a hard time, but to try to figure out if I should save my copy of the book for module 2 or not.

Yes it was very good for module 2 and there’s an interesting chapter for module 3, but it’s not useful for 1

Great thanks. That helps me make sense of the book a bit more.

Yeah it’s a chapters book not a whole read

Yeah, that was my thinking as well. Although it is somewhat misleading, because in the introduction the book was presented as a textbook for language teaching training courses, but it never came together very well as a whole. I though I was going to get a comprehensive view of the language matrix, but the pieces were largely unconnected.

Nah like a reference book

Okay, thanks that helps put it in perspective. I’ll hang onto it then instead of chucking it.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky (March 8, 2014) "On Human Nature and Language" 

Update: March 28, 2018
Video Review HERE


angrysoba said...

One book I was assigned to read for the Birmingham course was Jack Richards's "Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching" which spells out the various phases in language teaching before also concluding that language teaching is in a post-methods era now. One of the main points that he makes is that even schools that try to impose a rigid method of teaching usually only begin that way with younger learners and lower levels, but the higher up in level the lessons are the more that those methods become mixed.
Another useful book by him was Curriculum Development in Language Teaching.
I actually found Richards fairly engaging. I have not read the particular book that you reviewed, however.

Joel said...

Take my opinion with a grain of salt of course. It could be my limited intelligence just didn't allow me to engage fully with Jack Richard's more academic prose.

In my circle of friends, opinion seems to vary. I've got a couple friends who also tried this book. One is the friend who recommended it to me in the first place, and he is obviously a fan.
Another friend, who is doing this Delta course at the same time as me, just got a few pages into the Richard's book and stopped and told me he just thought it was weird and unhelpful. I suppose I'm somewhere in the middle. I found it helpful, but a difficult read.