Unit 2, Part A
This unit is divided into two parts. This week is for the
first part while the next week will be for the second
and last part
Unit 2: Interaction between Teachers and Students
In this unit:
2.1 The Roles of Teachers
2.2 Describing Students
2.2.2 Learning Styles
A common theme underlying different methods of language teaching is that second
or foreign language learning is a highly interactive process. A great deal of time in
teaching is devoted both to interaction between the teacher and the learners, and
to interaction among the learners themselves. The quality of this interaction is
thought to have a considerable influence on learning (Ellis 1985). The focus in this
unit is on the nature of classroom interaction and how teachers can influence the
kind of interaction that occurs in their own classrooms. We will also analyze several
factors that make each of our learners a unique one; such analysis will be done in
terms of age, learning styles, among others.
2.1The Roles of Teachers
According to Harmer (1991), the way the teacher behaves when practicing different
kinds of activities with students will change according to the nature of the activities.
Perhaps the most important distinction to be drawn here is between the role of
controller and facilitator, since these two concepts represent opposite ends of a
cline of control and freedom. A controller stands in front of a class like a puppet-
master or mistress controlling everything. A facilitator maintains a low profile in
order to make the students’ own achievement of a task possible. We will represent
these extremes in the following way:
(Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of ELT. 1991. Longman)
We will indicate where the different roles we are about to discuss can be placed on
this cline. We will examine the roles of controller, assessor, organizer, prompter,
participant, resource, and investigator.
The teacher as controller
As we have said, teachers as controllers are in complete charge of the class. They
control not only what the students do, but also when they speak and what
language they use. On our diagram this role is placed at the extreme end of the
After you have read about the roles of teachers, tell
us which role you play most of the times in your
daily lessons. Also, tell us why you say that.
The teacher as controller is closely allied to the image that teachers project of
themselves. Some appear to be natural leaders and performers, while some are
quieter and feel happier when students are interacting among themselves. Where
teachers are addicted to being the center of attention they tend to find it difficult not
to perform the controlling role and this has both advantages and disadvantages.
We can all recall teachers in our past who were able to inspire us. Frequently this
was because they possessed a certain indefinable quality which attracted and
motivated us. Frequently, too, it was because they had interesting things to say
and do which held our attention and enthusiasm. The sane is true in language
classes. Some teachers have a gift of inspiring and motivating us even though they
never seem to relax their control. And at their best teachers who are able to mix
the controlling role with a good performance are extremely enjoyable to be taught
by or observed.
When teachers are acting as controllers, they tend to do a lot of the talking, and
while we may feel uneasy about the effect this has on the possibilities for students
talking time it should be remembered that it is frequently the teacher, talking at the
students’ level of comprehension, who is the most important source they have for
roughly-tuned comprehensible input. (See unit 1).
We should not let these advantages fool us, however, into accepting the controller
role as the only one that the teacher has. It is vital that control should be relaxed if
students are to be allowed a chance to learn (rather than be taught). Even during
immediate creativity teachers will have begun to relax their grip, and during
communicative speaking and writing their role must be fundamentally different,
otherwise the students will not have a chance to participate properly.
The Teacher as Assessor
Clearly a major part of the teacher’s job is to assess the students’ work, to see how
well they are performing or how well they performed. Not only is this important
pedagogically, but the students quite naturally expect it, even after communicative
We must make a difference between two types of assessment: correction and
During an accurate reproduction stage, where the teacher is totally in control,
student error and mistake will be corrected almost instantly. The teacher’s function,
Harmer among others suggest, is to show where incorrectness occurs and help the
student to see what has gone wrong so that it can be put right.
A slightly less formal style of correction can occur where students are involved in
immediate creativity or in doing a drill-type activity in pairs (asking and answering
set questions, for example). Teachers will still want to correct, but it has been
suggested that such correction will be “gentle”. Gentle correction involves showing
students that a mistake has been made but not making a big fuss about it.
Whereas, in the accurate reproduction stage, teachers insist on students saying
the sentence, phrase or word correctly once they have been told about their
mistake, with gentle correction the teacher says things like ‘Well that’s not exactly
correct….we don’t say “he goed….”, we say “went”.’ The important point is that
nothing more happens. The student doesn’t have to repeat his or her sentence
correctly; it is enough that a mistake has been acknowledged. This kind of gentle
correction, used in the right way, will not seriously damage the atmosphere of pair
work or freer conversation.
We can represent these two kinds of correction in the following way on our cline:
Organizing feedback occurs when students have performed some kind of task, and
the intention of this kind of assessment is for them to see the extent of their
success or failure and to be given ideas as to how their (language) problems might
We must make a distinction between two different kinds of feedback. Content
feedback concerns an assessment of how well the students performed the activity
as an activity rather than as a language exercise. For example, when students
have completed a role play, the teacher first discusses with the students the
reasons for their decisions in the simulation. Let’s think of a role play where a
couple of students are pretending to be at a travel agency. As content feedback,
teachers and students discuss why the pair chose a particular hotel and if it was
the most sensible choice. In other words, when students are asked to perform a
task it is their ability to perform the task which should be the focus of the first
feedback session. If the teacher merely concentrates on the correctness of the
students’ language then they will conclude that the task itself was unimportant.
Form feedback, on the other hand, does tell the students how well they have
performed linguistically, how accurate they have been. When students are involved
in a communicative activity the teacher will record the errors that are made so that
they can be brought to the students’ attention after whatever content feedback is
Two final points need to need to be made. Firstly it is important to stress again that
feedback does not just include correcting language mistakes. It also means
reacting to the subject and content of an activity. Secondly, feedback does not only
mean telling students about their errors and mistakes, it also means telling
students what “went right”. Where they have achieved a successful outcome, or
where they have used good and appropriate language, they need to be told this.
We can put the organizing feedback function in the following place on our cline.
The Teacher as Organizer
Perhaps the most important and difficult role the teacher has to play is that of
organizer. According to Ellis, 1988, “The success of many activities depends on
good organization and on the students knowing exactly what they are to do”. A lot
of time can be wasted if the teacher omits to give students vital information or
issues conflicting and confusing instructions.
The main aim of the teacher when organizing an activity is to tell the students what
they are going to talk about, write about, read about, or give clear instructions
about what exactly their task is, get the activity going, and then organize feedback
when it is over. This sounds remarkably easy, but can be disastrous if teachers
have not thought out exactly what they are going to say beforehand.
The organization of an activity and the instructions the teacher gives are of vital
importance since if the students have not understood clearly what they are to do
they will not be able to perform their task satisfactorily.
The organization of an activity can be divided into three main parts:
1) The Lead In – an introduction to the subject ( eg. The teacher and students
briefly discuss the topic in order to start thinking about it)
2) Instruction – Students are told exactly what they should do ( eg. The teacher
tell the students they are going to work in pairs and then designates one
member of each pair as A and other as B. The teacher then gives each
student A a picture and says, “do not show this picture to B until the end of
the game”, etc, etc.”
3) Initiation – The teacher initiates the activity. A final check is given that
students have understood.
sequence can almost always be followed when the teacher is setting up activities –
when the teacher is acting as organizer. For the sequence to have the right effect
the teacher must remember to work out carefully what instructions to give and what
the key concepts for the activity are. The job is then to organize the activity as
efficiently as possible, frequently checking that the students have understood.
Once the activity has started the teacher will not intervene (where pair / group work
is used) unless it is to use gentle correction or to prompt.
The teacher’s role as organizer goes on our cline in the following way:
The Teacher as Prompter
Often the teacher needs to encourage students to participate or needs to make
suggestions about how students may proceed in an activity when there is a silence
or when they are confused about what to do next. This is one of the teacher’s most
important roles, the role of a prompter.
Follow up questions and real answers are good devices for prompting. The teacher
prompting students has to ask them to do follow up questions and must be ready to
suggest about what these questions might be in case the students could not think
of any themselves.
The role of prompter has to be performed with discretion for if teachers are too
aggressive they start to take over from the students, whereas the idea is that they
should be helping them only when it is necessary.
The teacher’s role as prompter goes on our cline in the following way:
The Teacher as Participant
There is no reason why the teacher should not participate as an equal in an activity
especially where activities like simulations are taking place. Clearly on a lot of
occasions it will be difficult for us to do so as equals (since we often know all the
material and all the details), but it is recommendable for teachers to join
simulations as participants, sometimes playing roles themselves.
The danger is that the teacher will tend to dominate, and the students will both
allow and expect this to happen. It will be up to the teacher to make sure it does
Teachers should not be afraid to participate since not only will it probably improve
the atmosphere in the class, but it will also give the students a chance to practice
English with someone who speaks it better than they do.
The teacher’s role as participant goes on our cline in the following way:
The Teacher as a Resource
Penny Ur (1999) states that “It is of great importance to stress the teacher non-
intervention where a genuinely communicative activity is taking place in the
classroom” and this means that the teacher is left, to some extent, with nothing to
There are still two very important roles, however. One is to be aware of what is
going on as an assessor – although discreetly – and the other is to be a kind of
walking resource center. In other words the teacher should always be ready to
offer help if it is needed. After all we have the language that the students may be
missing, and this is especially true if the students are involved in some kind of
writing task. “Thus we make ourselves available so that students can consult us
when (and only when) they wish” Harmer, 1998.
We can see, therefore, that when the teacher is acting as a resource we are at the
facilitative end of our cline.
The Teacher as Investigator
All the roles we have mentioned so far have had to do with the teacher’s behaviour
as it relates to the students. But teachers themselves will want to develop their own
skills and they will hope for a gradually deepening insight into the best ways to
foster language learning.
Of course it is possible to go on teacher training, to attend teachers’ seminars, or
even to get enrolled in a BA like the one you are studying right now. These will
certainly help teachers to come across new ideas and keep abreast of what is
happening. But teachers can develop by themselves or with colleagues, too. The
best way to do this is by investigating what is going on, observing what works well
in class and what does not, trying out new techniques and activities and evaluating
Teachers who do not investigate the efficiency of new methods and who do not
actively seek their own personal and professional development may find the job of
teaching becoming increasingly monotonous. Teachers who constantly seek to
enrich their understanding of what learning is all about and what works well, on the
other hand, will find the teaching of English constantly rewarding.
What role do you adopt as a teacher? Explain!
What roles do most your colleagues at school adopt? Do you agree or disagree?
Before we start describing students, take some time to fill in the following chart.
Gap in column three’s heading needs to be filled in with the age group you work
with. (e.g. “I teach English to children because…”)
I teach English to
Remember to include, in your post, the
answers you give for the chart below.
When you are ready, share your responses with others in your group.
The age of our students is a major factor in our decisions about how and what to
teach. People of different ages have different needs, competences, and cognitive
skills; we might expect children of primary age to acquire much of a foreign
language through play, for example, whereas for adults we can reasonably expect
a greater use of abstract thought.
In what follows we will consider students at different ages as if all the members of
each age group are the same. Yet each student is an individual with different
experiences both in and outside the classroom. Comments here about young
children, teenagers, and adults can only be generalizations. “Much also depends
upon individual learner differences and motivation” (Harmer 2001)
Young children, especially those up to the ages of nine or ten, learn differently from
older children, adolescents and adults in the following ways:
• They respond to meaning even if they do not understand individual words.
• They often learn indirectly rather than directly – that is they take in
information from all sides, learning from everything around them rather
than only focusing on the precise topic they are being taught.
• Their understanding comes not just from explanation, but also from what
they see and hear and, crucially, have a chance to touch and interact with.
• They generally display an enthusiasm for learning and a curiosity about the
world around them.
• They have a need for individual attention and approval from teacher.
• They are keen to talk about themselves, and respond well to learning that
uses themselves and their own lives as main topics in the classroom.
• They have a limited attention span; unless activities are extremely
engaging they can easily get bored, losing interest after ten minutes or so.
(From Vale, David. 1998. & Harmer, Jeremy. 2001)
Look at the main characteristics young children share for learning.
Think about what good teachers need to do and how classrooms should be in
order to acknowledge such characteristics. Fill in the chart. Then read the first
paragraphs on the following page to confirm your answers.
Good teachers of young learners need
Classrooms for young children
In the light of the characteristics presented above, it can be concluded that good
teachers at this level need to provide a rich diet of learning experiences which
encourages their students to get information from a variety of sources. They need
to work with their students individually and in groups developing good
They need to plan a range of activities for a given period time, and be flexible
enough to move on to the next exercise when their students are getting bored.
We can also draw some conclusions about what a classroom for young children
should look like and what might be going on in it. First of all we will want the
classroom to be bright and colourful, with windows the children can see out of, and
with enough room for different activities to be taking place. We might expect them
to be working in groups in different parts of the classroom, changing their activities
every ten minutes or so. ‘We are obviously’ Susan Halliwell writes ‘not talking
about classrooms where children spend all their time sitting still in rows or talking
only to the teacher’ (1992). Because children love discovering things, and because
they respond well to be asked to use their imagination, they may well be involved
in puzzle like activities, in making things, in drawing things, in physical movement,
or in songs.
What makes adolescents so special? Think of 5 “good” adjectives to describe
teenagers and of 5 “not so good” adjectives as well. Write them in the chart below.
Adolescents are… Adolescents are…
e.g. energetic e.g. moody
Now read the following paragraphs and confirm your ideas.
Anyone who has taught secondary school students has had lessons, even days
and weeks, when the task seemed difficult, and on especially bad days hopeless.
Yet if, as Penny Ur suggests, teenage students are in fact overall the best
language learners (1996) this suggests that this is only part of the picture.
When Herbert Putcha and Michael Schartz started to design material for teenagers
they, like many before them, wondered why teenagers seemed to be less lively
and humorous than adults. Why were they so much less motivated, they asked,
and why did they present outright discipline problems (Putcha & Schartz 1993)?
It is widely accepted that one of the key issues in adolescence is the search for
individual identity, and this search provides the key challenge for this age group.
Identity has to be forged among classmates and friends; peer approval may be
considerable more important for the student than the attention of the teacher
which, for young children, is so crucial.
There are a number of reasons why students – and teenage students in particular
– may be disruptive in class. Apart from the need for self-esteem and the peer
approval they may provoke from being disruptive, there are other factors too, such
as the boredom they feel – not to mention problems they bring into class from
outside school. However, while it is true that adolescents can cause discipline
problems, it is usually the case that they would be much happier if that challenge is
met, if the teacher actually manages to control them, and if this is done in a
supportive and constructive way so that he or she ‘helps rather than shouts’
However, we should not become too preoccupied with the issue of disruptive
behaviour, for while we will all remember unsatisfactory classes, we will also look
back with pleasure on those groups and lessons which we were successful.
Teenagers, if they are engaged, have a great capacity to learn, a great potential for
creativity, and a passionate commitment to things which interest them. There is
almost nothing more exciting than a class of involved young people at this age
pursuing a learning goal with enthusiasm. Our job, therefore, must be to provoke
student engagement with material which is relevant and involving. At the same
time we need to do what we can to bolster our students’ self-esteem, and be
conscious, always, of their need for identity.
Putcha and Schartz see problems with teenagers as resulting, in part, from ‘…the
teacher’s failure to build bridges between what they want and have to teach and
their students’ worlds of thought and experience’ (1993). They advocate linking
language teaching far more closely to the students’ everyday interests through, in
particular, the use of humanistic teaching. Students must be encouraged to
respond to texts and situations with their own thoughts and experience, rather than
just by answering questions and doing abstract learning activities. We must give
them tasks which they are able to do, rather than risk humiliating them.
We have come some way from teaching of young children. We can ask teenagers
to address learning issues directly in a way that younger learners might not
appreciate. We are able to discuss abstract issues with them. Indeed part of our
job is to provoke intellectual activity by helping them to be aware of contrasting
ideas and concepts which they can resolve for themselves – though still with our
Adult language learners are notable for a number of special characteristics:
• They can engage with abstract thought. Those who succeed at language
learning in latter life, according to Steven Pinker, ‘…often depend on the
conscious exercise of their considerable intellects, unlike children to whom
language acquisition naturally happens’ (Pinker 1994). This suggests that
we do not have to rely exclusively on activities such as games and songs –
though these may be appropriate for some students.
• They have a whole range of life experiences to draw on.
• They have expectations about the learning process, and may already have
their own set of patterns of learning.
• Adults tend, on the whole, to be more disciplined than some teenagers, and
crucially, they are often prepared to struggle on despite boredom.
• They come into classrooms with a rich range of experiences which allow
teachers to use a wide range of activities with them.
• Unlike young children and teenagers, they often have a clear understanding
of why they are learning and what they want to get out of it.
However, adults are never entirely problem-free learners, and have a number
of characteristics which can sometimes make learning and teaching
In your opinion, what are the most noticeable characteristics adults might have
that could affect learning and teaching? List them below.
• Adults can be critical of teaching methods. Their previous learning
experiences may have predisposed them to one particular methodological
style which makes them uncomfortable with unfamiliar teaching patterns.
Conversely, they may be hostile to certain teaching and learning activities
which replicate the teaching they received earlier in their educational
• They may have experienced failure or criticism at school which makes them
anxious and under-confident about learning a language.
• Many older adults worry that their intellectual powers may be diminishing
with age – they are concerned to keep their creativity powers alive, to
maintain a ‘sense of generativity’ (William & Burden. 1997). However, as
Alan Rogers points out, this generativity is directly related to how much
learning has been going on in adult life before they come to a new learning
From Harmer, J. 2001.
Good teachers of adults take all these factors into account. They are aware that
their students will often be prepared to stick with an activity for longer than younger
learners (though too much boredom can obviously have a disastrous effect on
motivation). As well as involving their students in more indirect learning through
reading, listening, and communicative speaking and writing, they also allow them
to use their intellect to learn consciously when this is appropriate. They encourage
their students to use their own life experience in the learning process too.
As teachers of adults we should recognize the need to minimize the bad effects of
past learning experiences. We can diminish the fear of failure by offering activities
which are achievable, paying special attention to the level of challenge presented
by exercises. We need to listen to students’ concerns too and, in many cases,
modify what we do to suit their learning tastes.
What keys to good communication should all teachers need to keep in mind when
teaching new learners of English?