Skip to main content

They do things differently over there

"The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language" is a quotation attributed to George Bernard Shaw. In the field of modern (foreign) language teaching (UK) or world/foreign language teaching (USA) this is certainly the case. US and UK teachers struggle with similar challenges, notably trying to motivate youngsters to learn a new language in countries where English is the world's language. In the USA geographical isolation makes the task even harder.

Interestingly, despite a shared challenge, we go about teaching languages and talking about languages in somewhat different ways. As an example consider the ACTFL's (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Performance Descriptors for language learners:

These are divided up by a number of different parameters, e.g. ranges of performance (levels) are described as novice, intermediate and advanced (with sub-divisions of these, e.g. novice high); modes of communication are described as Interpersonal, Interpretive and Presentational. For British teachers these three terms mean the following;


Where students are talking with each other or the teacher. By the ACTFL's definition this has to be unprepared. Rehearsed conversation is considered to be presentational.


Where students are comprehending from spoken or written texts. One-way listening or reading.


Where students are talking or writing for an audience. It's one-way speaking or writing.

These ACTFL descriptors affect the way teachers prepare lessons and may encourage them to achieve a balance of receptive, productive and spontaneous skills. It colours the way teachers talk about language teaching, changes the nature of the discourse. Some US teachers get very concerned about whether their lessons are presentational or interpersonal. Yet in the UK we do not refer to these modes of communication in the same way at all. (Indeed, for myself, I don't see much need for such a set of descriptors.)

Meanwhile in England and Wales we've had our National Curriculum level descriptors (now defunct), four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing), GCSE and A-level (no equivalents in the USA).

Americans, perhaps because of a strong tradition of explicit grammar teaching, talk a lot about proficiency (placed in opposition to grammar teaching) whereas we are more likely in the UK to talk of fluency (placed in opposition to accuracy). We also talk a good deal about spontaneity (as opposed to rote-learned). We all have our dichotomies.

Americans are more likely to talk of quizzing when we usually say testing.

Do these different ways of looking at the same challenge affect the way we teach? Both American and British teachers have witnessed a range of "methods" over the years yet, interestingly, the pendulums are not swinging in unison either side of the Atlantic. 

In the USA there seems to be a strong movement towards teaching for proficiency via comprehensible input, with a parallel move away from explicit grammar teaching. The ACTFL appears to have some influence in this context. Naturalistic approaches à la Stephen Krashen are in vogue and quite passionate debates rage between TPRS teachers and "legacy" teachers.

In contrast in the UK the pendulum has starting to swing back towards explicit grammar, drilling, translation and skill acquisition, whilst still valuing the importance of target language input. Although we have no precise equivalent of the ACTFL, the DfE certainly gives a lead in what is viewed as important. The recent TSC report seems to follow the DfE's line in reflecting the swing back to grammar, translation and practice.

In reality I expect most teachers either side of the pond have their own hybrid approach, one which they believe works best with the pupils in front of them. Whatever pedagogical language they speak, they have to find a pedagigical solution which works in their context, with their assessment regime, their cultural expectations, school and parental expectations. I am sure we can learn from each other, not to mention from other parts of the world.


Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

GCSE and IGCSE revision links 2018

It's coming up to that time of year again. In England and Wales. Here is a handy list of some good interactive revision links for this level. These links are also good for intermediate exams in Scotland, Ireland and other English-speaking countries. You could copy and paste this to print off for students.

Don't forget the GCSE revision material on of course! How could you?

As far as apps for students are concerned, I would suggest the Cramit one, Memrise and Learn French which is pretty good for vocabulary. For Android devices try the Learn French Vocabulary Free. For listening, you could suggest Coffee Break French from Radio Lingua Network (iTunes podcasts).

Listening (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher)