Personal Teaching Philosophy
by Tim Newfields
Over the years I have thought about my teaching philosophy many times. I have also sought to explore how congruent my beliefs are with my actual practice. What I find is that my ideas about teaching continue to evolve as I gain more experience and read further. In particular, some of my assumptions about language teaching have changed after reading publications in the field such as The Language Teacher, TESL-EJ, and Frontiers: Explorations in Study Abroad. At times this has altered my classroom practices. Other times, it has merely enriched my theoretical understanding of processes thought to enhance language learning. If I were to summarize my beliefs about language teaching, here are seven points I would forefront:
Even though I’ve been in the language teaching profession about three decades, my ideas continue to evolve. I make it a point to regularly attend conferences of the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) and the Japan College English Teachers Association (JACET). Hearing – and sharing – ideas about language teaching from peers has helped me grow professionally. Although my proficiency in Chinese, French, and German has largely fossilized, my ideas about language learning and proficiency in languages such as Japanese and Spanish has certainly not.
- Respect for Individual Learners – I believe all teaching begins with a core value of respect for the learners. I make it a point to treat all students all fairly and ethically and avoid undue favoritism. I also have a healthy respect for diversity avoid imposing my own views on students. I recognize that many of my students are studying English because it is mandated. Although they might enter their classes reluctantly at first, I have found that many gradually change as they become engaged in productive learning.
- Focus on Pragmatic Contexts – I make it a point to link language use to practical real life contexts and frame grammar within concrete pragmatic interactions. Rather than regarding language as solely a discreet set of lexical and grammatical rules, I feel it’s better to consider the socio-cultural milieu in which speech acts (or various types of written discourse) occur. For this reason I often explicitly teach pragmatic skills and illuminate social register differences, conversation rituals, common rejoinders, filler words, and linguistic hedges. Most EFL learners do not know how to create distance or rapport in a target language. That is a meta-skill I focus on in many classes.
- Course Content Transparency – Usually my classes have 25-80 students. For such classes, I believe it’s important to be explicit about course content in advance and provide ample online materials to allow students to prepare for lessons as well as review past lessons. For semi-private courses with smaller numbers, it’s sometimes feasible to use student-generated syllabi in which students themselves directly determine the course content based on Dogme principles (Thornbury, 2005). Of course, some students need directive input and explicit guidance. As a general principle, however, I have come to believe it is good to facilitate learner autonomy.
- Communicative Assessment – One of my main research areas has been testing and assessment and I’m fascinated with how response formats often influence response outcomes. Although multiple-choice tests do have value in some contexts, I feel that they are often overused. In my own classes I try include a wide variety of response formats and modalities for assessment: short sentence completion exercises, oral interviews, role plays, target vocabulary exemplification exercises, and even limited use of translation. I have also found practical ways of measuring class participation and rewarding effort. I have come to believe that each way of measuring language proficiency has its own strengths and weaknesses. The more measures that are included in a holistic assessment framework, the more robust the data tend to become. I am keenly aware of how tests can create both desirable and undesirable washback. I therefore seek ways to make assessment tools not only statistically valid, but “educationally valid” as well.
- Acknowledgement of Grammar – Depending on the goal of a course and the level of its students, I believe there is a place for explicit grammar instruction. Although it is possible to acquire many grammatical points inductively, deductive teaching at timescan be more time-efficient. When I teach grammar explicitly, it tends to be in short “mini-lessons” to keep attention focused. I try to avoid excessive teacher talk and provide optimal opportunities for student practice. I’m also aware of the possibility of task overload (Mayer & Moreno, 2003, p. 43), so clearly set realistic learning goals for each lesson.
- Student Engagement – Language learning is not a passive activity. In my opinion a fundamental duty of foreign language teachers is to provide ample opportunities for students to actively construct their own “inter-language” and gradually expose them to prevailing linguistic norms. Many of the ideas of
task-based language learning (Ellis, 2006) are relevant to my classroom contexts, but students at A1 and A2 CEFR levels tend to need more linguistic support. For this reason I’ve found the experiential learning cycle proposed by Kolb (1984) has heuristic value in shaping the overall structure of my lessons, even though that model might lack empirical accuracy.
- Pragmatism about L1 Use – Some instructors have a rigid belief that only the target language should be used in their L2 classes for all contexts. In my view, this belief is overly dogmatic. I make it a point to use the target language extensively in my classes. However, if all of the learners understand a language I am proficient in, judicious use of that language can have merit. Strategic code switching may be a valid option if is congruent with the overall goals of a given course.
Ellis, R. (2006). The methodology of task-based teaching. Kansai Daigaku Gaigoku Kyouiku Kenkyuu. (4) 79 - 101.
Retrieved from http://w3.kansai-u.ac.jp/fl/publication/pdf_education/04/5rodellis.pdf
Frontiers: Explorations in Study Abroad – an peer-reviewed journal available at http://www.frontiersjournal.com/
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Mayer, R. E. & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38 (1), 43–5. doi: 10.1207/S15326985EP3801_6
TESL-EJ - Another peer-reviewed publication available at http://www.tesl-ej.org/
The Language Teacher - A semi-monthly publication available online to JALT members at http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/archive
Thornbury, S. (2005). Dogme: Dancing in the dark? Folio 9 (2) 3-5. Retrieved from http://nebula.wsimg.com/
(revised 19 March 2014 - Ver. 4 - )