July 1999 — Volume 4, Number 1
Teaching in Action: Case Studies From Second Language Classrooms
Jack C. Richards (Ed.) (1998)
Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)
Pp xiv + 411
ISBN 0-939-79173-0 (paper)
US $29.95 (members US $26.95)
Textbooks written to assist teachers new to exploratory practice and action research are far too often lengthy, prohibitively erudite and scholarly in style. Teaching in Action is a refreshing antidote to such heavy, theoretical tomes. It is a collection of seventy-six short, concisely written case studies on eleven distinct areas of English language teaching (ELT), such as teacher development, teaching in mainstream programmes and introducing curriculum innovations. As such, it describes how language teachers in a large variety of situations respond to everyday classroom encounters. Each case, of between four and eight pages, outlines a teaching context varying from London, UK to Victoria, Australia, followed by a description of the ELT problem that arose. For example, when negative learner attitudes emerge, such as those described in case 27, from Kowloon, Hong Kong, how might teachers overcome them? Following this is the teacher’s response to such a problem and then a short commentary from a teacher educator, reflecting and commenting on both the classroom problem and teacher’s response. Clearly the aim of this collection is to provide a representative description of situations that commonly occur in second language classrooms from literally all around the world, along with accounts that show teachers engaging in complex thought, articulating ideas, and making decisions on how to solve local problems. This reflection and decision-making are major components of what we understand as “teaching skill”; taken together, via their case studies, they provide highly thought-provoking analyses.
The Study of Teachers at Work
How teachers access and make use of their knowledge and experience is of increasing interest in the literature on research into language teaching. Richards points out in the introduction that the literature until recently has been over-concerned with outsiders looking into classrooms, describing what they see, then stating the significance. Excellent work carried out by Chaudron (1988) and Allright & Bailey (1991) exemplifies such an approach. More recent teacher-research in books such as Teaching in Action attempts to redress this imbalance. The case studies are not intended as [-1-] models of excellent teaching but are aimed at facilitating further reflection among teachers, who may perhaps recognize their own recurring problems. Typical case studies include number 11, involving teachers “doing more with less” in order to integrate students into a school in New Zealand, and case 33, using the musical concept of variations on a theme to respond to institutionalised plagiarism in higher education in Hong Kong.
Contributors and Contexts
Contributions to Teaching in Action were written in response to the editor’s invitation for such material and come from teachers working in extremely varied circumstances. Few teachers are fortunate enough to have been involved in ELT in more than a handful of different countries; thus the detailed context section of each case study provides fascinating insight into conditions teachers may never experience first-hand. These range from dealing with Ethiopian immigrants in Israel to tackling issues on the language needs of indigenous Australian aboriginals. The case studies represent all continents, although the balance tilts towards issues in ELT in the Far East and U.S. contexts involving immigrant students. The latter is, perhaps, understandable considering the huge amount of ELT taking place in such environments. Many studies outline either programmes within the higher education sector concerning English for Specific Purposes and English for Academic Purposes, particularly pre-faculty intensive courses, or key issues involving in-service teacher training. Contributors tend to be teachers completing or having already completed post-graduate degrees at Master and Doctorate level in language teaching. Occasionally, where team research occurred, studies are co-authored, and in certain cases individual writers have made contributions to more than one section of the book.
Specific Case Studies
The eleven sections of the book can be divided into two main parts. The first deals with elements such as training and development, relationships, management and classroom behaviour, while the second involves teaching the four skills at various levels and with classes of varying ability. Although I found many studies in this book to be full of professional insight and worth re-reading, of particular interest were those in the first part, such as the one by Nancy Mutoh on “Managing Large Classes” (case 6)–an endemic problem, unfortunately, for many teachers, but one dealt with using the simplest filing system imaginable. Worth heeding very carefully, also, is the advice from Annette Lyn Dobler on “Relations with Colleagues and Students” (case 19) when students misinterpret teacher interest and become over-friendly. [-2-]
Teacher Educator Comments
The final part of each case study is provided by experienced teacher educators, many of whom are currently involved in ELT management or research into specific areas of language learning. Leading figures in ELT such as David Nunan (curriculum design), Kathleen Bailey (classroom research), and Diane Larsen-Freeman (second language acquisition) comment upon several cases in the book, usually but not always related to their own particular research fields. While the case studies are almost wholly practical and pragmatic, the comments made, generally of half a page, tend to highlight, synthesise and very often provide useful scholarly references for further reading. Evaluations of cases consist of constructive remarks or praise for teachers’ efforts, but are also sometimes critical. In case 47 for example, comments by John Murphy on “Giving Effective Written Feedback to ESL Global Writing Errors” by Candis Lee consist of questions and insightful suggestions.
The Importance of ELT Case Studies
Sound methodology textbooks and courses are obviously of the utmost importance in providing teachers with the basic means of coping in the classroom, be it preparing lessons involving all four skills or class management. However, in order for such books and courses on teacher training to be more informed, we also need to know what it is that teachers actually do when they go into the classroom, what they think and how they react when confronted with issues that may run counter to their training. Teaching in Action clearly illustrates dimensions that teachers bring to the classroom, such as personal philosophies of teaching and learning, and background experience as both teacher and student. Whilst activities such as journal studies, action research, peer observation and others are all valuable means of collecting data, case studies are a particularly useful form of research since they are not only easy to obtain, but also provide a rich source of teacher-generated information that is descriptive as well as evaluative.
Teacher Training Using Teaching in Action
Teaching in Action is a valuable book in that it illustrates teachers involved in action research in order to solve problems right where it matters–at a grass-roots level in their own classrooms. While individual case studies could be isolated and used as source material for both teachers and teacher educators, whole sections, such as “Relations with Colleagues and Students” or [-3-] “Achieving Appropriate Learner Behaviours” could be linked to components of training courses. Instructors could assign students to either describe some of the contexts alone or ask the group to brainstorm ideas before discussing particular problems and then either their own suggested solutions or actual solutions put forward by teacher educators.
I have only one criticism of this book and that concerns proof-reading. Considering the world-wide renown TESOL has for producing key ELT books, one would expect fewer overlooked typing errors; “conveyed” instead of “convey” in the Conclusion section on page 27 is only one of quite a few. Don’t, however, let this detract from the success of such an informative book. All teachers of language would do well to read the whole book and then continue to dip into it from time to time. These case studies deserve to be read and reread.
Allright, D., and Bailey, K.M. (1991). Focus on the language classroom: An introduction to classroom research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chaudron C. (1988) Second language classrooms.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Özel Çakabey Lisesi, Izmir, Turkey
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