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The Handbook of Language Teaching: a review

As background reading for the handbook Gianfranco and I are writing, I have been reading The Handbook of Language Teaching edited by Michael Long and Catherine Doughty in 2011. Long and Doughty are academic researchers in the field of second language acquisition. As a consequence the focus of their book, a collection of articles from a range of SLA researchers, is on the academic and theoretical rather than everyday classroom practice.

It is a bulky and thorough tome, covering a wide range of issues. There are 38 chapters divided into eight parts. Several of the chapters are summaries of the best and most recent research into second language learning and teaching. Chapter titles from the section on teaching and testing include Methodological Principles, Teaching and Testing Listening Comprehension, Teaching and Testing Reading, Teaching and Testing Speaking, teaching and Testing Writing and Task-Based Teaching.

Each of these chapters takes you on a tour of the research, all referenced in great detail, and its implications for classroom teaching and second language teaching in general. Because the chapters are written by a range of leading scholars, there is no obvious bias towards a particular approach. Indeed, with many issues, because the research is patchy or inconsistent, you are left with the feeling that either this field is still in its infancy, as Michael Long points out, or that we shall never really get to the bottom of works best on every occasion, in every classroom, with every student. I suspect the latter is true.

Any reading of the research leaves you feeling both enlightened, yet more confused than ever!

Michael Long's chapter on methodology is a good read. Whilst he lists a set of general organising principles ( MPs) he is at pains to point out that these are provisional, based on the best research so far, but open to modification. For the record, his MPs include: MP1 a use task not text as the unit of analysis; MP6 " Focus on form" - use some explicit explanation and controlled practice when needed; MP7 - provide negative feedback (i.e. correct); MP10 - individualise instruction.

He suggests, however, that teachers provide their own PPs (pedagogic procedures) to implement the principles, since only they can really know how to fine-tune lessons with the particular class in front of them. He insists that this is not a "free for all" and attacks the idea of eclectic approaches, not founded on a set of organised principles.

Long clearly has it is for the traditional grammatical syllabus, claiming, along with many other researchers, that what we teach is not what students learn, since their own internal syllabus develops in its own way, only partially, if at all, influenced by the order we teach things. He also attacks what he calls the synthetic, "focus on forms" (with an s) approach whereby the grammatical forms lead the teaching, often at the expense of meaning, motivation and acquisition. He leans towards an "analytical" approach where bodies of language or actual tasks lead the course design and lesson planning.

Some chapters are clearer than others. Martin Bygate's chapter on speaking came across as a bit obscure to me, whilst others, including Larsen-Freeman's on grammar teaching and Larry Vandergrift and Christine Goh's on listening were lucid and, to a degree, practical.

That said, this book leans much more towards theory and research than practical classroom advice. Some teachers, less interested in second language acquisition theory, will find it heavy-going and frustrating. I would hope, however, that they would persevere with this sort of reading, especially early in their training when they might have more time, since I have the impression that most language teachers receive an inadequate grounding in pedagogical principles, even if there are no panaceas or even a strong consensus about what works.

One if the ideas behind the book Gianfranco and I are drafting is that teachers should look to develop their ability to evaluate and justify activities they undertake with reference to theory and research, rejecting tasks which are superficially attractive but which may waste time and fail to develop acquisition. Our book, while referring to research, will focus strongly on practical advice based on our own experience and observations. The Long and Doughty book, though short on the practical tips which teachers crave, is tremendously helpful in providing the detailed scholarly background they should at least be aware of.

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"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

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