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Humanistic language teaching


Paul Bress

'Humanism' is one of those constructs that people argue about passionately. Instead of attempting to
define it, perhaps it makes more sense to focus on some commonly agreed characteristics of
humanism. These are: problem-solving, reasoning, free will, self-development, and co-operation.

• Humanism and learning theory


• The humanistic teacher
• Humanism in practice
o Teaching language items
o Teaching skills
o The teacher's status
o Flexibility
• Conclusion

Humanism and learning theory


Perhaps the most well-known applications of humanism in ELT are those of Curran (1976) and
Gattegno (1972).

• The former advocated the use of 'Counselling-Learning'. In this practice, teachers sit outside a
circle of learners and help them to talk about their personal and linguistic problems. The
students decide the 'curriculum', while the teacher is more of a facilitator, who fosters an
emotionally secure environment.
• Meanwhile, Gattegno advocated the Silent Way approach. In this, he presented challenges for
learners. These challenges developed the students' awareness and encouraged their
independence.

It's my view that it's possible to apply the characteristics of humanism to ELT in a less radical way than
described in the practices above. In a way that might be more appealing for students, more practicable
for teachers, and more plausible for education inspectors.

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The humanistic teacher


The humanistic teacher should have a good grasp of language learning theories. They will realise the
importance of change, which is implicit in all learning.

• They will be aware of the individual learners' 'developmental readiness' (Piaget, 1970), which
will determine when and how to teach each student something.
• They will offer their students problems to solve, as, according to cognitivists, this is precisely
how we learn things.
• Above all, the successful humanistic teacher will probably be a pragmatist - allowing a
combination of language learning theories and their own experience to interact with each other
to produce effective language lessons.

The humanistic teacher also needs to be aware of what motivates their students. Some will probably
want to learn English because they have to (e.g. for their job), while others want to simply for the sake of
it. The former is called 'extrinsic motivation', while the latter is called 'intrinsic motivation'.

• Those students who are more extrinsically motivated will be more goal-oriented and might
want, for example, a lot of tests and exams.
• Students who are intrinsically motivated will derive a lot of satisfaction from solving language
problems - the solution will be a reward in itself.
In reality, of course, students can be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. They may be learning
English for a specific purpose (e.g. to be accepted into a speech community or to get promotion), but
they might also really enjoy the process of learning.

• Teachers need to be aware of this mix and need to use this information to determine issues
like:
o How much testing to do?
o How much fun can be had?
o Should the target language be representative of one particular speech community or
not?

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Humanism in practice

• Teaching 'language items'


In an attempt to be a humanistic language teacher myself, I introduce every new language item
at the optimum time of readiness for my class.
o I firstly elicit the target language. This fosters a sense of co-operation between the
students and me.
o Then I try to make the meaning of the language items as clear as possible by using a
number of techniques (e.g. pictures, mime, or a mini-explanation). Such work on the
concept of the target language needs to be repeated later in a way that is appropriate
to the abilities and progress of the group.
o At the appropriate time, students also need to practise speech production by saying or
writing the target language.
o After enough practice, through both teacher-centred and student-centred phases, the
student should gradually learn the target language. The student will have
fundamentally changed.
• Teaching skills
As I want my classes to be able to understand the 'gist' of a spoken interaction, I make sure
that they are mentally prepared for it. This means that:
o The 'text' is not dauntingly hard for them
o I create the right conditions for understanding the text by, for example, arousing
interest and pre-teaching lexis
o Then, by setting an appropriate task I am setting a problem for the students to solve.
If I can steer my students towards focusing on the main points of the text then I am
enabling learners to become more successful listeners.
o After this, students can be encouraged to carry out their own, related, role plays, with
the result that students' ability to carry out certain situation-specific interactions will be
enhanced. It's worth noting that these principles relate to reading texts too!
• The teacher's status
It cannot be denied that the teacher plays a different role from that of his/her students. We
each have a particular job. This does not mean, though, that we have higher status. We are
certainly not in the classroom to order people around. I try to provide students with learning
opportunities, which the students are free to take or not.
o However, if a student chooses not to take up an opportunity, and then goes on to
become a malign influence in class, I then ask the rest of the class if their learning is
being affected and whether they want the offending student to stay in class or not. I
then have the authority to ask the student to leave.
• Flexibility
Without flexibility, a teacher cannot teach humanistically, because students will never learn
completely in step with any designated syllabus. This is why I always make a point of
observing my students very carefully so that I know when to introduce certain tasks, according
to the progress they're making.
o The same applies to lesson plans. I know that if I plough on through my plan
regardless of how my students are responding, some students will be lost forever and
lose confidence both in me and their own ability to learn English.

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Conclusion
The thrust of humanism seems, to me, to be the ability to advance as a species through understanding
and co-operation. This means that humanistic language teachers need to have a thorough grasp of both
how people learn and what motivates them to learn. They need to shed the old image of the teacher
being the fount of wisdom and replace it with the teacher as facilitator.

This article published: 12th October, 2005

Further reading
Counseling-Learning in Second Languages by Curran C. Apple River
Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools: The Silent Way by Gattegno C. Educational Solutions
Structuralism by Piaget J. Basic Books
'Class, Status, and Party' in Essays from Max Weber by Weber M. Routledge and Kegan Paul
Humanising Language Teaching. An online journal for language teachers. www.hltmag.co.uk