The Middle Ground of |
Rao Zhenhui, M.A.
Learning-centered teaching, rather than a learner-centered
approach, is more applicable in many current EFL contexts.
Any beginning student in TESOL pedagogy can tell you
the phrase “learner-centered” as “decisions...made via a
that “learner-centered” teaching methods are superior to
process of consultation and negotiation” (p. 32). But
“teacher-centered” approaches. This common belief is
while definitions are easy to come by, avenues for
based on the assumption that the best situation for lan-
implementation are harder to find. Tudor goes on to
guage learning is one that is relatively open in structure,
warn (p. 38):
that is, one in which learners can talk freely with one
another during instructional activities. Even in some
“Learner-centeredness” cannot be imposed on learn-
non-English-speaking countries with a strongly tradi-
ers, nor can it be achieved by riding roughshod over
tional educational setting, such a concept is being
the deeply ingrained attitudes of the target learner
increasingly established. Nowadays, it is a fashion for
English teachers in these countries to organize their
Furthermore, O'Neill cautions (p. 304):
classroom teaching by shifting the emphasis from a
teacher-centered traditional style to a learner-centered
“Learner-centered” techniques...may be a suitable
communicative style. However, the outcome of teaching
approach in some circumstances, but it should never
English exclusively using learner-centered methods has
be assumed that they are automatically superior or
not, so far, provided the expected results.
even more suitable than styles of teaching which
In my opinion, the most practical and successful
Wong-Fillmore describes as “teacher-centered.”
method for English teaching in such EFL contexts is nei-
ther teacher-centeredness nor learner-centeredness, but
The EFL classroom in a non-English-speaking country
“learning-centeredness.” This is not a new idea, as many
with a traditional setting is generally a teacher-centered
scholars have already explored this concept (Cook;
one. More than just a product of traditional methodol-
Holliday; Hutchinson and Waters; O’Neill). In this article,
ogy, the teacher-centered phenomenon is rooted in tra-
I analyze the way in which learning occurs and explain
ditional thought which promotes the teacher as the
the reasons for learning-centeredness. I also discuss the
“fount of all knowledge.” The traditional EFL class-
roles that both teachers and learners play in a learning-
room’s dependence on the teacher as a resource runs
counter to the communicative approach’s attempt to
minimize teacher control. On a philosophical level, it
would seem strange to the average student to see the
teacher demoted to the role of monitor, particularly
when it is clear that the linguistic competence of the
Wong-Fillmore subsumes lessons under two labels:
teacher far exceeds his own.
The first is teacher-directed or “teacher-centered”
Holliday points to a possible solution to this
because of its characteristically high level of explicit
impasse when he argues (p. 175):
teacher control; the second is “learner-centered”because
[B]ecause education is, by its very nature, a compro-
of its openness in structure and large amount of coop-
mise between the individual and society, we must
erative student work. One of the mainstays of commu-
reject the term “learner-centered” in favor of the term
nicative theory has been an allegiance to the learner-
“learning-centered,”which implies taking into account
centered approach in language teaching. Tudor defines
the needs and expectations of all the parties involved.
— 24 —
Reasons for Learning-Centeredness
the target language in real situations. Learner-centered
methods, however, do not suit many English learners
Learning-centeredness is a valid concept that can,
either. For example, in contexts such as China, where
among other benefits, avoid tension and conflict
there is a deep-rooted traditional educational back-
between the traditional style and the communicative
ground, it is unhelpful for English teachers to follow
style. Even in communicative English language teaching,
learner-centered methods exactly as they are used in
learning should be the focus or center. Before examin-
English-speaking countries. Chinese learners of English
ing how learning-centered methods work, however,
are much influenced by their traditional educational
it is necessary to review arguments used in favor of
pattern and have formed distinct learning styles and
habits which influence the way they learn English. If a
teacher insists on asking his students to discuss, argue,
Learning Is the Focus
or play games, they will wonder if they are really
Research shows that learning should be the focus of
By using learning-centered methods, however, we
education (Hutchinson and Waters; O'Neill; Wong-
can get out of this dilemma. Learning-centeredness is
Fillmore). Teaching experience tells us that the shift of
eclectic in essence and is successful in avoiding going to
attention from a teacher-centered traditional style to a
extremes in terms of teaching techniques. In a learning-
learner-centered communicative style does not solve the
centered classroom, everything is done according to
problem of learning in all teaching contexts. Any suc-
learners’ needs—including their learning styles and
cessful teaching style depends upon learning, that is, the
learning environment. There are no fixed teaching pat-
proof of teaching lies in learning (Cook, p. 3) Therefore,
terns, and the teacher adopts whatever methods and
learning should be the focus of our teaching. Even
techniques will help students learn effectively. It is
David Numan, the great advocate of learner-centered-
learning, above all else, that is the focus of this kind of
ness, intends to change his concept of learner-centered-
ness to a related version of learning-centeredness (p. 8).
However, it must be made clear that learner-cen-
Teachers and Students Are Not Seen
teredness is in no way the same as or even closely relat-
ed to learning-centeredness, for at least three reasons:
• Learner-centeredness is firmly bound to the commu-
The shift of emphasis from a teacher-centered tradi-
nicative style (Li; Nunan).
tional style to a learner-centered communicative style is
• Not all scholars believe that learner-centeredness is
only a shift from one major factor to another, without
the concept that should be utilized in the communica-
catching the essence of the issue. When I say “without
tive style (Hutchinson and Waters; Holliday).
catching the essence of the issue,” I mean that both the
• All teaching styles aim at learning, but each has a dif-
teacher and the learner want to achieve the same aim:
ferent emphasis. There is no point in using a teaching
learning. Why should we separate them or put them in
style in which no learning occurs.
seeming opposition to one another?
In exploring teacher-centeredness and learner-cen-
Learning-Centeredness Avoids Extremes
teredness, we cannot help but consider the appropriate
relationship between teacher and learner, between
teacher and learning, and among input, intake, and learn-
Teacher-centeredness and learner-centeredness are
ing. We may ask a series of questions: On what should
two extremes in language teaching. Yet neither of them
seems to solve the problem of learning in a wholly sat-
learning? Who can give the input? Who gets the intake?
In a teacher-centered classroom, the
What factors should be taken into account in learning?
teacher tells students what he thinks they ought to
How can we even define input? How does intake
know; they listen and occasionally ask questions. Any
argument or negotiation with the teacher is considered
In a teacher-centered classroom, we can show the
rude and disrespectful. Students trained in such a sys-
relationship in this way:
tem often fail to achieve fluency, and find it hard to use
— 25 —
This may mean that the teacher means learning, that is,
From these definitions, we see that learners must
the teacher’s teaching decides the learner’s learning.
acquire knowledge of some kind or skills of some sort in
We can describe the same relationship in a learner-
order to say that learning has occurred. In language
centered classroom in this way:
learning, the knowledge must be linguistic forms, includ-
ing pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, areas that
are closely related to traditional teaching styles. The
This may mean that the learner means learning, that is,
skills have to do with modes of behavior, normally con-
insofar as we concentrate on learners’ activities, learners
sidered to be listening, speaking, reading, and writing. To
learn this knowledge and these skills efficiently, learners
We can diagram the relationships between teacher
generally need help from the teacher. In fact, teaching
and learner in both styles in this way:
means guiding and facilitating learning, enabling learn-
ers to learn, or setting the conditions for learning. An
understanding of how learners learn determines one’s
This may mean conflict, or at least indicates that we see
philosophy of education, teaching style, approach, meth-
these two methods as having opposing directions and
ods, and classroom techniques (Brown, p. 7).
Learning can take place formally, as in a school class-
Additionally, we can illustrate the relationship
room, or it may occur informally. Informal learning goes
among input, intake, and learning in this way:
on all the time, whenever a learner extends his knowl-
edge or skills without any designed syllabus or prede-
termined aims. Learning that takes place informally is
This seems to match up better with a learning-centered
often considered “acquisition,” while learning occurring
approach, which can be represented in this way:
in a formal situation is called “learning.” The acquisition
of one’s first language takes place mostly informally. The
acquisition of a second language might be partly infor-
The teacher, fellow students, and other resources pro-
mal, if the target language is spoken outside the class-
vide the input, and learning is truly the focus. In this
room and is used in everyday social situations.
model, how does the learner intake the input? How
What this means is that formal second language
does learning take place?
learning supplements informal learning. In an EFL con-
text, however, language learning takes place almost
How Learning Occurs
entirely in the formal classroom, and language practice is
often limited to classroom study and use. Learners have
Definitions of Learning
limited contact with native speakers and limited expo-
sure to the target language outside the classroom. This
We start with Ingram’s definition of learning
restricts the usefulness of a purely communicative
approach, in addition to other arguments already given.
Learning occurs when an individual comes to know
Correction May Facilitate Learning
something he did not know before or becomes able to
do something he could not do before.
My next few points explore the issue of how learn-
Brown defines learning as (p. 7):
ers learn, and support my perspective on learning-cen-
teredness, by correcting several overstated myths asso-
The acquiring or getting of knowledge of a subject or
ciated with communicative theory. The first of these is
a skill by study, experience, or instruction.
that correction may facilitate learning, in opposition to
the communicative cautiousness about doing so.
Learning-centeredness is eclectic in essence and is successful
in avoiding going to extremes...The teacher adopts whatever
methods and techniques will help students learn effectively.
— 26 —
Goffman claims that in informal talk, we rarely cor-
in the West as a standard technique for creating a learn-
rect others, or if we do, we usually signal it and stress the
er-centered environment. As such, the argument for
correction. Therefore, some teachers suggest that we
group work is compelling. When one compares student
should not correct (or rarely correct) students’ errors.
talking time in a teacher-centered classroom with that in
But contrary to this suggestion, correction is necessary
a learner-centered model, it is possible to see, on the sur-
in the learning process because:
face at least, a much more frequent use of the foreign
• Correction can serve as feedback to a learner’s utter-
language by students in the latter environment. If teach-
ance, so that she knows when she is right or wrong.
ers are led to believe that the more English students
• When a learner receives feedback—that is, finds out
speak the better, then there is no doubt that group work
whether an utterance is right or wrong—he can correct
is a valid technique.
it and so improve his knowl-
However, there are
©2002 Hayden Sewall
edge or skill.
other factors to consider.
• Correction may keep a learn-
Pica, summarizing the findings
er from misunderstandings or
of a study by Wong-Fillmore,
misstatements, and save her
raises the issue of “interlan-
from getting into a dilemma.
A key part of the process
of learning a foreign language
[S]tudents who engage in
is the struggle to use fairly
extensive interaction with
standard forms accurately in
their L2-speaking classroom
order to express something.
peers and have little opportu-
Students need good models in
nity to interact with stan-
order to learn how to do this.
dard L2 speakers in their
Therefore, teachers are obliged
wider environment outside
to provide them with such
the classroom, receive, in
models and to correct their
effect, a steady diet of inter-
mistakes when necessary.
Correction is especially
important for English begin-
This focus upon quality rather
ners in a non-English-speaking country. At an initial
than quantity of language used is also taken up by a
stage, they must gain a solid foundation in English,
scholar who coins the term “junky input.” O’Neill cites
which is primarily, though not solely, built on accuracy.
the example of a student in a group work task who is
Once bad language habits are formed, they are difficult
asked the question,“Please, where your father and moth-
to break. Moreover, there is little chance for these stu-
er are born?” O’Neill says that “the only thing students
dents to learn an acceptable form of English outside the
will learn from such junky input is that such ques-
classroom. In order to achieve accuracy, students need
tions...are perfectly acceptable” (p. 303).
rigorous training inside their classrooms. Therefore, it is
Junky input can, of course, be minimized by ade-
the teacher’s responsibility to offer such training and to
quate monitoring. But the dilemma is that the gains in
provide them with standard, acceptable language forms.
student talking time afforded by group work are offset
by the limits it imposes on controlled monitoring by the
Group Work Does Not Always Mean Learning
teacher. Even in a well-managed classroom, it is doubt-
ful that a teacher can spend more than a tiny proportion
Pica defines group work as (p. 61):
of time monitoring specific students.
There are even more fundamental questions raised
A compensatory practice employed in large class-
by the practice of group work. Hyde, in the context of
rooms...as a way of giving language learners more
discussing pair work, points out that “the imposition of
speaking turns than are possible during teacher-led
pair work on students by a teacher is often undertaken
without the teacher considering whether or not stu-
Group work is a practical extension of “learner-cen-
dents wish to be involved”(p. 344). Hyde goes on to sug-
teredness”and has been used increasingly by institutions
gest that students may feel that their own English as well
— 27 —
as the English of their classmates is mistake-ridden and
The point here is that while the practice of teacher
therefore a poor source of input (p. 346). The study goes
talk dominating the classroom has its negative features,
some way to confirm this hypothesis, with students indi-
the conclusion should not be reached that teacher talk
cating through self-reporting questionnaires a prefer-
is always wasteful or unhelpful. Teacher talk is an essen-
ence for whole class, teacher-led activities rather than
tial and significant source for learning (Krashen); there-
group or pair work. It attributed much of the students’
fore, getting teachers to reduce the amount of their
reported displeasure to dissatisfaction with other stu-
talk would not necessarily be in the best interests of
dents’ performances during the pair or group work
tasks. Lazy and assertive students were at the top of the
Furthermore, attempts by trainers to root out the
list as targets for criticism.
teacher talking time phenomenon have largely failed
Taking all these functional considerations into
(Cullen). This is particularly true in parts of the world
account, it would seem that group work in its present
where the teacher’s role is traditionally one of transmit-
form is less useful than thought, or even untenable, in
ting knowledge and values. Classroom research indi-
some non-English-speaking countries.
cates that aspects of teacher talk, such as the kinds of
questions teachers ask, can significantly affect the quan-
Teacher Talk Can Contribute to Learning
tity and quality of student interaction in the lesson
(Brock), and are also amenable to the effects of training
There is a tendency within communicative theory
(Long and Sato).
to regard “teacher talk” in the EFL classroom as a danger
are, and trainee teachers are warned to use it sparingly.
Roles of Teacher and Learner
“Good” teacher talk means “little” teacher talk, since it is
thought that too much teacher talking time deprives
Having evaluated methodological assumptions and
learners of opportunities to speak. Under such a belief,
techniques in light of their relation to learning, what
teacher talk is implied to be wasteful and unhelpful
does a learning-centered perspective imply about the
(O'Neill, p. 296). However,Wong-Fillmore, after her two
roles of teachers and learners?
three-year studies of individual differences in second
Exploration into the roles of teachers and learners
language learning, claims that the most successful class-
in learning-centered language education is relatively
es for language learning were the ones that made the
novel. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the learner has
greatest use of teacher-directed activities. She takes indi-
both a learning role and reciprocal roles in a learning-
vidual work as follow-up activities to formal lessons and
centered classroom. By “reciprocal roles,” I mean that in
comments that “classes that were open in their structure
most cases teachers’ roles determine learners’ roles. For
and those that made heavy use of individual work were
example, if a teacher plays the role of “knowledge trans-
among those found to be the least successful for lan-
mitter,” then the learners’ role is “knowledge absorber.”
guage learning” (pp. 23-24).
The more I study the roles of the learner, the more
It would be wrong to infer from Wong-Fillmore’s
it seems apparent that the roles of the learner are deter-
statements that between teacher-centeredness and
mined by the roles of the teacher. Hence, here is a more
learner-centeredness the first is always better, because
detailed description of the teachers’ roles.
she studied only large classes. The number of learners in
a given class is significant, and even seating patterns are
Teacher as Facilitator of Learning
important in assessing the effects of different teaching
styles. An experienced teacher is one who is able to
judge and select from among different styles the one
“Facilitator of learning” might be considered the
that is most likely to achieve fruitful results with a par-
major role of the teacher. By this phrase, I mean the
ticular class in a particular setting.
teacher’s primary goal is to facilitate learning, no matter
While the practice of teacher talk dominating the classroom has
its negative features, the conclusion should not be reached
that teacher talk is always wasteful or unhelpful.
— 28 —
what style he may utilize for the purpose of communi-
Teacher as Reconciler of Methods
cation, or for any objectives, linguistic or communica-
tive, which both the teacher and the learners endeavor
In order to achieve a more complete learning per-
spective, combining a newer functional view of lan-
In describing the role of the teacher as a facilitator
guage with a traditional structural view is a good basis
of learning, Littlewood states that the term “instructor” is
from which a teacher can promote learning. This is cru-
not adequate and that the teacher performs a variety of
cial in a non-English-speaking country, because it can
specific roles. He lists the roles of teacher as: general
enable us to give a fuller account of what students must
overseer, classroom manager, language instructor, con-
learn in order to use language for communicative pur-
sultant or advisor, and communicator. The general over-
poses. It also provides a basis for selecting linguistic
seer must aim to coordinate activities so that they form
items for teachers to teach and learners to learn.
a coherent progression, leading towards greater com-
In reconciling a communicative approach with the
municative ability (Littlewood, p. 92). The classroom
traditional grammar-translation method, teachers should
manager is responsible for planning group activities in
not be biased toward either of these two perspectives,
class and for ensuring that these are satisfactorily organ-
but rather toward integrating the two into one. For
ized at the practical level. The language instructor’s duty
example, one communicative approach suggests that
in some of the activities is to present new language,
explicit grammar rules not be provided (Larsen-
exercise direct control over learners’ performances, eval-
Freeman). Some learners have responded: “We would
uate, correct, and so on. When there is an independent
like to know what happens, because if we understand
activity in progress, she may serve as consultant or advi-
the system, we can use English more effectively”
sor, helping where necessary. The last role is as “com-
municator” in which she participates in the activity.
When explaining the rules, however, teachers must
remember that grammar is a tool or resource to be used
Teacher as Controller
in the comprehension and creation of oral and written
discourse, rather than something to be learned as an end
Although a learning-centered classroom focuses
in itself. It is not enough for teachers to help students
everything on learning, it is the teacher who is respon-
understand what the rules are and stop at that. The pur-
sible to take care that everything goes as expected. The
pose of supplying students with adequate explanations
teacher controls not only what students do, but when
is, first, to teach them how grammar rules function, and
they speak and what language they use. The introduc-
second, to provide them with appropriate circum-
tion of new language often involves the teacher in a con-
stances to practice applying them in realistic situations.
trolling role, particularly at the accurate reproduction
stage. There are good reasons for conducting a short
drilling session in which the teacher indicates exactly
what is to be said (or written) and who is going to say
The aim of this article has not been to attack all the
(or write) it.
ideas associated with teacher-centered methods or
learner-centered approaches, but rather to point out that
It is important to realize, however, that “controller”
the two go to extremes in language teaching and learn-
is not always the most effective role for teachers to
ing. There is good teaching and there is bad teaching.
adopt. Learners at different stages are likely to prefer dif-
Good teaching is characterized by a variety of styles
ferent ways of learning. At a beginning stage, they may
used to promote learning. Bad teaching can just as easi-
only be confident in their ability to memorize facts
ly be learner-centered as teacher-centered. Language
about language, while in an advanced stage, they are like-
teaching aims to be practically effective, not theoretical-
ly to think independently and prefer problem-solving as
a means of learning. The teacher as a controller, then, is
The primary test of excellence is “Does it work?”not
a more useful function at a beginning stage. But if a
“Is it theoretically justifiable?”. This is exactly what we
teacher wishes students to use language in any way, then
can expect from learning-centeredness, in which we
control must be relaxed—if all the language used is
focus our attention on the process of learning by adjust-
determined by the teacher, students will never have
ing our teaching styles according to students’ needs in
opportunity to learn properly.
— 29 —
Why Don’t Learners Learn What Teachers Teach?”. Paper
given at IATEFL Annual Conference, 11 August 1994.
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or The Importance of Doing Ordinary Things Well.” ELT
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Input?”. In Input in Second Language Acquisition.
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Newbury House, 1985.
Appropriate Methodology and Social
Rao Zhenhui (M.A.,TESOL, Flinders University) is a pro-
Context. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
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Hutchinson, T., and A. Waters. “How Communicative Is
Normal University in China, and is currently pursuing a
ESP?” ELT Journal 38 (2), pp. 108-113, 1984.
Ph.D. at the University of South Australia. He has pub-
lished articles in such journals as System, Research in
Hyde, M. “Pair Work—A Blessing or a Curse?:An Analysis
the Teaching of English, and English Teaching Forum.
of Pair Work From Pedagogical, Cultural, Social and
His article, “Advantages of Group-Centered Learning in
Psychological Perspectives.” System 21 (3), pp. 343-348,
Large Classes,” appeared in Teacher’s Edition 6,
His professional interests include
Ingram, E. “Psychology and Language Learning.” In
teaching methodologies and learning strategies.
Papers in Applied Linguistics. Ed. J.P.B.Allen and S. Pitt-
Corder. Oxford University Press, 1975.
Krashen, S. Second Language Acquisition and Second
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IT’S ALL AT
Techniques and Principles in
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Li, X. “In Defense of the Communicative Approach.” ELT
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Littlewood,W. Communicative Language Teaching: An
Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
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“Classroom Foreigner Talk
Discourse: Forms and Functions of Teachers’ Questions.”
Check out our
In Classroom-Oriented Research in Second Language
Resource Bulletin Board articles
Acquisition. Ed. H. Seliger and M. Long. Newbury
for book and software reviews,
notes on Internet resources,
and conference announcements.
The Learner-Centered Curriculum.
Cambridge University Press, 1988.
-----. “The Role of the Learner in the Learning Process, or
— 30 —