Review article : ‘Becoming an outstanding languages teacher’ by Steve Smith

Steve Smith’s new book  ‘Becoming an outstanding languages teacher’ (Routledge) is aimed primarily at pre-service modern language teachers and others who want to refine their practice. At 200 pages long and with 14 chapters it makes for a not too daunting read, full of practical ideas, techniques and lesson plans. In his characteristically easy style Steve covers a wide range of aspects of language teaching, including how to run a room effectively, how to exploit visual aids and written texts, ways to teach vocabulary and chunks, how to build listening skills and use questioning techniques and other interactions.

Five chapters examine in some detail the precise dialogues which could occur between the teacher and students. For example, in a lesson sequence based on using a written text with near-beginners Steve precisely describes what the teacher might say, how students would respond, while adding a commentary of “tips of the trade” to make the lesson go along successfully. The text used here, as with others in the book, is in English so it is adaptable to teachers of other languages. Trainee teachers should find these blow-by-blow accounts particularly useful as they learn to plan their lessons. The attention to detail is impressive here as Steve emphasises the importance of precise questioning techniques.

Chapter 7 examines how you might approach the teaching of grammar. The emphasis is not on the explicit teaching of rules (although this is referred to and requires a skill of its own) but on how you build student mastery through providing both lots of comprehensible input in a very structured way, allowing skills to develop. It’s clear that Steve does not come from one particular theoretical standpoint in this book, allowing room for the development of skills and placing value on communication and input. This chapter also shows how grammatical skill can be developed through listening activity, an area I have written about myself a good deal.

Chapter 6 provides a list of what Steve calls “purposeful games”. This include some familiar ones along with a few you may not have come across. The point comes across clearly that the best games are tasks which have a purpose and where input and practice are to the fore. Teachers will be able to dip into this book and pick out ideas they can immediately apply in the classroom.

Chapter 11 considers how you might get the best out of students of all abilities. Steve draws on his own experience teaching mainly higher attaining students, but also brings in reference to teaching relatively lower attaining students and those with special needs. For the latter he refers mainly to the work of specialist in this field David Wilson. He also examines specific techniques students need to develop such as essay and summary writing (useful for exams in England and wales in particular).

The final chapter attempts to distil what “outstanding” teaching might involve – not an easy thing to describe and clearly subject to subjective interpretation. To help with this he employs three “case studies” to show that excellence can come in different forms and with different methodologies. These case studies look at the “bilingual” approach used successfully at the Michaela Community School in London, the AIMLANG (Accelerated Integrated Methodology) approach used in Canada and elsewhere and the TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). Steve’s examines what these approaches have in common as well as what separates them, attempting to demonstrate that successful teachers all share certain principles – the importance of target language input, repetition and recycling, along with a degree of grammatical explanation. Above all, Steve’s thesis is that it is the delivery of the approach which counts more than the approach itself. Teachers have to be able to asses different approaches, believe in what they are doing and deliver lessons with skill. Generic teacher skills such as showing effective cognitive and affective empathy, managing behaviour, sharing a passion and being well-organised are more crucial than the detail of particular methodologies.

All in all, teachers and departments should find this readable volume an excellent addition to their library.

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