Teaching Foreign Language Skills: Second Edition

Teaching Foreign Language Skills: Second Edition

by Wilga M. Rivers

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Since its original publication in 1968, Rivers's comprehensive and practical text has become a standard reference for both student teachers and veteran instructors. All who wish to draw from the most recent thinking in the field will welcome this new edition. Methodology is appraised, followed up by discussions on such matters as keeping students of differing abilities active, evaluating textbooks, using language labs creatively, and preparing effective exercises and drills. The author ends each chapter of this new edition with questions for research and discussion—a useful classroom tool—and provides an up-to-date bibliography that facilitates further understanding of such matters as the bilingual classroom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226518855
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/29/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 576
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Wilga M. Rivers is professor of Romance languages and coordinator of languages instruction at Harvard University.

Read an Excerpt


Objectives of Language Teaching

International understanding, intellectual training, cultural enrichment, interpersonal communication, language for practical use, a feeling for language (our own and those of others): amid a welter of such slogans, trainee teachers approach their foreign-language or second-language teaching careers with some understandable uncertainty. What, they ask themselves, is the role of language learning in the educational program, and in what ways should they present a new language to their students to make it most useful and interesting to them?

As a part of initial training, trainees are usually sent into several classrooms to see the way experienced teachers are approaching their task. Let us join some trainees in an inconspicuous place at the back of the room.

Classroom A

In the first room, our trainee teachers take a seat out of the view of the students and open notepads. The students, seated in rows, are opening their language textbooks and preparing for the day's lesson. They are about to begin a new section. Before them on the page is a reading selection with, above it, two or three long columns of new vocabulary items with native-language equivalents. These the students have been asked to learn by heart the night before. As this memorization is a rather boring chore, some of the students are hastily babbling over to themselves some of the words they have not yet learned. The lesson begins with a quick written test of these new words. Students, when asked to give their answers, spell out the words letter by letter in their native language, because they feel shy and uncertain about attempting strange sounds in front of their classmates. (They have evidently not been taught the names of the letters in the new language, so they cannot use those.) The teacher is not very satisfied with the result of this quiz, but the work for the day must be covered, so the lesson moves on. The students are asked to read out in the new language the selection in the book before them. One after another they stumble through the sentences. After a while this reading around the class is omitted because the procedure is too painful for the teacher and too embarrassing for the students. For a few sentences the teacher reads the passage aloud to the class instead. Then the students are asked to look over the rest of the passage silently, because the reading-aloud process seems rather wasteful of class time for the little it achieves.

Then begins the process of translation. One after another, students translate the sentences of the passage into their native language, with occasional help from the teacher. Things are progressing well: the teacher can now pass on to what is clearly the real business of the day. On the chalkboard there is a lucid outline of the use of the past tense, examples of which have been artificially and cunningly worked into the reading passage. Warming to the task, the teacher explains in great detail in the native language the traditional rules for the use of this particular tense in all the logically possible situations. Where these explanations involve terminology with which the students are presumed not to be familiar, some time is taken to teach this terminology as it applies to the grammar of the native language, and it is then applied to the new language. The students copy into their books various rules, examples, and what seem to them to be even more numerous exceptions.

The teacher asks a few questions. When the students appear to have grasped the point of the grammatical exposition, they settle down to spend the rest of the lesson on the not-too-demanding task of writing out paradigms and filling in blanks in grammatical exercises, or they translate — from their native language into the language they are learning — sentences in which the past tense is required. For this latter exercise the students are presented with sentences which have been artificially constructed to include all possible aspects of the rules being studied. Many of these sentences are very unlikely to be of real use to the students, who frequently distort the original meaning as they try to construct their own version of this strange language. Exercises the students have not finished in class and the learning of the rules and paradigms are assigned for home study, with the extra spice of a few irregular verbs and some more vocabulary items for the next day's reading selection.

As our would-be teachers move on to the next classroom, their minds go back over what they have just observed. On reflection, it occurs to them that they heard very little of the target language during the lesson — a little reading aloud at the beginning of the lesson and a few isolated words and phrases from time to time. Most of what they did hear in that language was halting and badly pronounced. "Perhaps time and further study will bring improvement," one trainee says to the others — but they wonder.

Classroom B

In the classroom down the passage, an energetic teacher comes into the room and greets the class in the language being learned. The students reply in the same language and wait expectantly. The teacher continues to talk in the language about objects in the classroom, to ask questions, and to give orders. As the students obey the orders they are given, they tell the class in the new language what they have been doing, and the class tells the teacher what has been performed. The lesson then develops around a picture which illustrates an area of vocabulary and certain activities associated with the situation depicted. In this lesson, the picture shows some people shopping. The teacher describes in the language what the students can see in the picture, demonstrating the meaning of new relational or action words by miming until the class looks enlightened. The students repeat the new words and phrases and, in response to questions, try to form their own sentences in the language on the model they have heard. They do this with a greater or lesser degree of accuracy according to the individual student's grasp of what has been said.

When the students appear to have understood and assimilated the area of vocabulary or usage to which they have been introduced and have shown evidence of being able to use it orally, they read a passage of similar content aloud from their books, reading after the teacher at first and then individually. The passage is not translated by the teacher or the students, but the teacher asks questions about it in the new language, to which the students reply in that language. Where further difficulties of vocabulary or structure occur, these are explained exclusively in the language being learned, and students make notes on these explanations, again in the new language. The lesson ends with a song in which the students join with gusto. Throughout the lesson there has been a great deal of activity by teacher and students alike. Not surprisingly the teacher, having conducted several lessons of this type during the morning, is very glad to sit down in the staff common room for a quiet cup of coffee with our observers.

On their way to classroom C, our trainee teachers begin to wonder whether the two teachers they have observed so far may be considered to be engaged in the same activity. There are more surprises in store for them upstairs.

Classroom C

Arriving a little late in the classroom on the second floor, our observers see books again very much in evidence. This time the students are using small readers rather than large textbooks. On looking into the reader that the teacher has given them to peruse, the trainee teachers notice that it contains a continuous reading text of some twenty pages, written in a simple style in the target language within the limits of a frequency word count. As words occur in the text for the first time, they are explained in the target language at the foot of the page. The story seems to be interesting and amusing. Since this reader is new to the class, the teacher is endeavoring to interest the students in its contents. With the help of some pictures, she describes in simple sentences in the new language the setting of the story, which is in the country where the language is spoken. She talks very briefly about the main characters, writing their names on the chalkboard. To interest the students still further in the story, she reads the first section of it aloud in the language in as interesting a way as possible, with the students following the text in their books. She asks in the native language a few questions about what she has been reading and then tells the students to reread the section silently, looking for answers to certain questions which they were unable to answer. When they have reread this part of the text, she asks them more questions, this time in the language they are learning; the students find the answers in the text, framing their replies in the target language.

For the second half of the lesson, the students form working pairs, or choose to work on their own. They settle down to read as much of the story as they can during the remainder of the lesson. A quiet murmur is heard from various parts of the room as the students concentrate on their task. As difficulties arise, they seek the teacher's help. As they reach the end of certain divisions of the reader, they take the book to the teacher, who asks them questions in the native language about what they have just read. Sometimes she gives them a short true-false test in the language being learned to see whether they have understood the details of the story. As the lesson draws to a close, the teacher asks how many pages the various pairs or individuals have read, and congratulates those who have read the most. For home study, the students are asked to write short answers in the target language to questions on the section they have been reading.

Classroom D

From the classroom across the way comes the sound of voices. The lesson has already begun. As our observers settle down, they hear the class repeating sentences in the new language in chorus, imitating the pronunciation and intonation of the teacher. They are learning the various utterances in a dialogue based on an everyday incident in the life of a student in the country where the language is spoken. Some sketches illustrating the meaning of the sentences the students are repeating have been drawn on the chalkboard. The students are not looking at these clues, but are intent on watching the lip movements and expressions of the teacher. From time to time, however, individual students will glance at the sketches as if to reassure themselves that they really understand the meaning of what they are saying. The students' textbooks are closed.

When a pair of sentences is being repeated well in chorus, the teacher asks halves of the class to repeat this section, one in response to the other. When these smaller groups are repeating well, he asks the students to repeat the sentences by rows. Since the sentences seem now to be well memorized, the teacher calls on individuals to repeat the new sentences, sometimes in association with sentences learned the preceding day. If the individuals falter, the teacher returns to interchanges between small groups or reverts to choral repetition until the difficult part has been mastered. After a certain amount of material has been learned in this fashion, students act out the conversational interchange in pairs. When the dialogue sentences are well learned, the students open their books and practice reading together after the teacher what they have just been repeating.

The time has now come for closer study of parts of the dialogue sentences, so the teacher moves on to the drilling of structural patterns. The class repeats several times after the teacher a pattern sentence containing a structural element which the students will need to be able to use quite flexibly in new utterances. The students then repeat several other sentences of identical structure but with minimal changes of vocabulary. At a word cue from the teacher, the class constructs a slightly different sentence on the same structural pattern. At another cue, the structure is again produced with a further slight variation of lexical content. Seven or eight changes of this type are effected by the class in chorus as they continue their practice. At one stage the class appears to hesitate, and some students look puzzled. At this point the teacher makes a short comment on the sentences being constructed, drawing attention to what they have in common. The practice then continues with greater assurance on the part of the students. When the choral repetition is ringing out clearly and confidently, the teacher gives the cues to small groups, and finally to individuals, to make sure that all have assimilated the uses of the structure being drilled.

As a consolidating activity, the students perform a chain drill. One student asks his neighbor on the right a question similar to one in the dialogue. She replies using a structure from a dialogue learned earlier in the week. She then turns to her neighbor on the right and asks him a question which she has based on something they have been learning. This chaining activity continues until one student falters. The class laughs good-naturedly, and the teacher starts a new chain in another part of the class. For home study, the students take away cassettes on which the dialogue they have been learning has been recorded. They will play this material over to help them memorize the dialogue sentences thoroughly. The teacher also asks them to transcribe several times certain words and phrases from their textbook which will present difficulties for them in writing.

As our observers make their way back to the teachers' common room, they reflect on what they have seen during the day. Why, they ask each other, have all these language teachers been conducting their lessons so differently when they must surely be moving toward a common goal? Over coffee they endeavor to find out what the four teachers have been trying to achieve.

Teacher A seems a little disconcerted when asked about her long-range objectives in teaching a new language. "It is tremendously important that the students know their grammar," she says, "and they'll never pass their examinations if they cannot write a good, accurate translation." Beyond this, she seems to think that the aims of her lessons are self-evident: "They must know their past tense," she adds, in a way which precludes further discussion.

Teacher B says: "I want them to be able to speak the language and understand it, and I want them to know something about the people who speak the language. I don't want them to translate. I want them to think in the new language as they do in their own, whether they are engaged in conversation, reading, or writing."

"But our students will rarely have the opportunity to speak the language," interrupts teacher C. "When they leave my classes, I want them to be able to pick up a book or a magazine in the language and read it without having to stop and translate every phrase or look up every second word in a bilingual dictionary. This is the most important thing for them to learn in their language class."

"I want them to be able to do all these things," says Teacher D quietly. "I want to train them carefully in all the language skills: in listening and speaking as well as in reading and writing. I want to lay solid foundations for these skills by giving them confidence in the active use of the structural patterns of the language. I try to train them in each skill in succession in relation to any section of the work, so that what has been learned in one skill area acts as a foundation for learning in the next. And I am most anxious for them to understand the cultural patterns and ways of thinking of the speakers of the language," he adds. "I believe they become conscious of this as they learn to think in the patterns of another language, but I work it into the dialogues too."

"Perhaps you've all got something there that you can share with each other," says the department head thoughtfully as she gathers her books for the next lesson.

Analyze a class you watched recently. Does it match any of the models described? In what ways? If not, write a description, like those above, of what went on in the classroom.


Our observers feel bewildered. They have watched the work of four experienced teachers and have found that each of these teachers has a different combination and priority of objectives in mind. They have seen widely differing techniques for achieving these objectives even when the objectives, as stated, seemed to coincide. Where does the trainee teacher begin? At least one fact emerges clearly from the situation described: it is the teacher's objectives that determine the way the language lesson is organized.


Excerpted from "Teaching Foreign-Language Skills"
by .
Copyright © 1981 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface: For Students and Teachers
1. Objectives of Language Teaching
Aims and Objectives
Student Attitudes and Interests
Societal Pressures
Areas of Controversy
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

2. Language Teaching Methods
Formalists and Activists
Evaluating Language Teaching Methods
The Grammar-Translation Method
The Direct Method
The Reading Method
The Audio-Lingual Method
Restoring the Cognitive Element
"Natural" Language Learning
The Eclectic Approach
Areas of Controversy
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

3. Theories of Language and Language Learning
What Is Grammar?
Grammatical Analysis and Description
Aspects of Language
Immediate-Constituent or Phrase-Structure Grammar
Transformational-Generative Grammar
Changing Views of How Language Is Acquired
The Impact of Transformational-Generative Theory on Language Teaching
The Influence of Sociolinguistics
Semantics and Pragmatics
Mentalism, Psycholinguistics, and Cognitive Research
The Affective Element
The Teacher's Choice
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

4. Structured Practice
Learning a New Language in a Formal Setting
Grammatical Exercises for Classroom and Laboratory
Types of Structural Pattern Drills
Characteristics of a Structural Pattern Drill
From Intensive Practice to Self-Expression
Classroom Presentation of Structural Pattern Drills
Programmed Instruction
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

5. Teaching Sounds
General Problems
Acoustic and Articulatory Phonetics
Sound Variation and Comprehension
Generative Phonology
Prosodic Features
Introducing the Phonology of the New Language
Evaluating Pronunciation
Physical and Psychological Problems of Teaching Sounds
Areas of Controversy
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

6. Listening Comprehension
Theoretical Concepts Basic to Listening Comprehension
Learning to Listen to Another Language
Hearing and Comprehending
Developmental Stages
Presentation of Listening Comprehension Exercises
Areas of Controversy
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

7. The Speaking Skill: Learning the Fundamentals
Communication Model
Three Aspects of Language
Written and Spoken Language
We Learn to Speak by Speaking
Analysis of an Act of Speech
Forging the Instrument
How Does the Student Acquire Structures for the Basic Functions?
Dialogues and Dramatizations
The Audio-Visual Approach
Areas of Controversy
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

8. The Speaking Skill: Expressing Personal Meaning
An Act of Communication
Psychological Factors in Communication
Acquiring Basic Language Material
From Structured Practice to Spontaneous Expression
Encouraging Expression of Personal Meaning
Context and Meaning
The Functional-Notional Communicative Approach
Two Traditions of Language Study
Speaking Skill at the Advanced Level
Conversation Groups, Courses, and Clubs
The Natural and the Normal
Taking the Language Out of the Classroom
Areas of Controversy
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

9. The Reading Skill
Why Reading?
What Is "Reading"?
When Should Reading Begin?
The Process of Reading
Developmental Stages
Areas of Controversy
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

10. The Writing Skill
Writing Activities in the Classroom
Integration of the Skills
Writing Down: Notation
Writing Practice
Production: Guided Writing
Expressive Writing: Composition
Correction of Written Exercises
How Much Writing?
Areas of Controversy
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

11. Cultural Understanding
What Is Culture?
The Components of Meaning
Culture or Civilization?
Problems of Teaching Culture
Goals for the Teaching of Culture
Culture in the Classroom
Types of Courses for Teaching Culture
Who Should Teach Culture?
The Contemporary Outlook
Areas of Controversy
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

12. Testing: Principles and Techniques
Know Why You Are Testing
Know What You Are Testing
Understand How You Are Testing
Test What the Students Have Been Learning
Test to Find Out What the Student Knows
Construction and Use of Objective Tests
Designing Class Tests
Persistent Problems of Testing
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

13. Technology and Language Learning Centers
The Language Learning Laboratory Is Not a Method
The Language Learning Laboratory Is a Patient Helper
Laboratory Work Must Be Designed as a Significant Part of the Language Program
Advantages of a Language Learning Laboratory
Types of Language Learning Laboratories
Laboratory Design
Installing a Language Learning Laboratory
The Director of the Laboratory
Choosing Taped Materials for the Laboratory Library
Using the Language Learning Laboratory
The Language Learning Laboratory at All Levels of Language Study
Has the Language Learning Laboratory Failed?
Areas of Controversy
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

14. And What Else?
Learning Languages Early or Late?
FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary School)
ELL (Early Language Learning)
Vocabulary Learning
Languages for Special (Specific) Purposes (LSP)
The Textbook
Planning the Language Lesson
Classroom Management
Keeping Abreast Professionally
Annotated Reading List
Research and Discussion

Appendix A: Absolute Language Proficiency Ratings
Appendix B: Learning a Sixth Language: An Adult Learner's Daily Diary
Selected Bibliography

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