Asian Journal of English Language Teaching Vol. 8, 1998, pp. 117-123
© 1998 CUHK English Lanuage Teaching Unit


Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy

Brown, H. D. (1994). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Regents. 416 pp.

Reviewed by Gail Schaefer Fu
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

H. Douglas Brown's Teaching by Principles is intended for teachers in training -- those who intend to be teachers but who have little or no classroom experience -- and for teachers who train teachers. It is centered, not surprisingly, around certain principles of language teaching and learning, echoing Brown's own Principles of Language Teaching and Learning (1994). His new book Teaching by Principles is itself a manifestation of the principles which it espouses and, while one is again tempted to say "not surprisingly," it is not always a given that authors in our profession themselves "do as they say."

Brown does.

The book is organized into four main sections: Foundations for Classroom Practice; Context of Teaching; Designing and Implementing Classroom Techniques; and Classroom Practicalities. In an early chapter, Brown takes "a broad, sweeping look at twelve overarching principles of second language learning from which sound practice springs and on which [the reader's] teaching can be based" (p. 16). These he groups as cognitive, affective, and linguistic principles: 1. Automaticity; 2. Meaningful Learning; 3. The Anticipation of Reward; 4. The Intrinsic Motivation Principle; 5. Strategic Investment; 6. Language Ego; 7. Self-confidence; 8. Risk-taking; 9. The Language-Culture Connection; 10. The Native Language Effect; 11. Interlanguage; and 12. Communicative Competence.

If we turn Brown's principled approach around and apply it to the book itself, we can characterize twelve "principles of recommendation" which put Teaching by Principles on the "must read" list for anyone intending to be a teacher or anyone involved with those who are. These principles of recommendation follow:

THE PRINCIPLE OF CONTEXT: Brown's first chapter "where Do I Begin?" itself begins with a detailed description of a class and the sequence of activities which were observed during the lesson. While the lesson, Brown tells us beforehand, is "reasonably well planned, efficiently executed, and characteristic of current communicative language teaching methodology" (p. 5), it is not "perfect" and the reader might question or take issue with some things that happen in the class. He encourages the reader to note these aspects of the lesson and then compare them with Brown's own comments and questions which follow the description of the lesson. The book starts, in other words, with a concrete example of a context and it continues, where appropriate, in the same vein: the book feels grounded, throughout, in the classroom.

THE PRINCIPLE OF INTERACTIVITY: At the end of the first and every other chapter, Brown provides "Topics for Discussion, Action, and Research" which encourage readers to interact both with the text itself, with classmates, and with their own beliefs, convictions, and ideas. In his chapter on "The Present: An Informed Approach" Brown offers topics which invite readers to compare their responses with a partner, to observe an ESL class, to share their ideas in a small group, to write out definitions of their own, and to think back -- with certain criteria and characteristics in mind -- on lessons that they themselves may have taught. He attempts, in other words, to bring as much reflection, discussion, and interaction as he can (within the confines of the printed word) into this enterprise of learning to teach by principle.

THE PRINCIPLE OF PRACTICE: At appropriate points throughout the book, Brown includes opportunities for the reader to try to put into practice some of the ideas or principles which he has been discussing. In the chapter on "Techniques and Materials," for example, he reproduces a few pages from a typical course book and then asks his readers to think about the kinds of lesson plans they might draw up from such materials or the kinds of techniques and exercises they might employ to best effect with their students. Elsewhere he talks about the exciting but complex task readers would have before them if their teaching situation allowed them to actually choose the textbook themselves. He refers to extensive and comprehensive textbook evaluation checklists and then provides an abridged form of such a checklist for illustration. He invites readers, as they read through this form, to "think of an ESL textbook that you are reasonably familiar with and ask yourself how well that book meets the criteria" (p. 149). He provides, in other words, opportunities to practice and to make practical application even within the confines of the book itself.

THE PRINCIPLE OF NON-PONTIFICATION: Brown does not make pronouncements, nor does he pretend that he, or anyone else in our field for that matter, has all the answers. Instead he gives broad historical recognition of various "schools of language teaching thought" and acknowledges, where appropriate, the strengths on which we can draw and the insights from which we can benefit (even if that is primarily what does not work so successfully!). Further, when discussing whether or not grammar should be directly addressed in a given classroom, Brown outlines six variables that might influence the teacher's decision. He then points out that these six categories "should be looked on as general guidelines for judging the need for conscious grammatical focus in the classroom, but none of these suggestions here are absolute" (p. 350).

THE PRINCIPLE OF EMPATHY: Throughout the book, Brown demonstrates, quite clearly from his own experience, that he understands what the new teacher may be feeling. At the end of the chapter on group work, for example, he recognizes that the reader may "feel overwhelmed or put off by the prospect of doing group work in your classroom. If so, that need not be the case! All of the guidelines and reminders and do's and don'ts included in this chapter will in the due course of time become a part of your subconscious intuitive teaching behavior" (p. 187). For a teacher in training who may indeed be feeling insecure and perhaps inadequate to the task ahead, this empathetic tone of encouragement will undoubtedly fall on welcoming ears.

THE PRINCIPLE OF REALITY: Brown recognizes that real teachers teach in real classrooms in real institutions in real communities. He does not assume that every class will be of an ideal size, that every classroom will be ideally equipped, that every administrator will be ideally supportive of a teacher's curricular and pedagogical suggestions. In the chapter on sociopolitical and institutional contexts, he refers to institutional factors which may influence the way in which a teacher plans a lesson or carries out a technique within the given curriculum (these factors include the textbook, "which you may detest!") He admits that curricular constraints may sometimes be "the biggest hurdle you have to cross," but he also believes that it is possible to find ways to "compromise with the system and yet to feel professionally fulfilled" (p. 129). Energy can thus be directed towards creative teaching rather than railing against an immovable institutional force. One can adapt things, in other words, to fit realities without trying to change an entire system.

THE PRINCIPLE OF READABILITY: Brown's prose is a pleasure to read because it is clear, concise, and to the point. He does not strive to make straightforward ideas appear more complex than they actually are and, in reverse, he can explain ideas that are complex or specialized in ways that do not require an advanced degree in research methodology to understand. For example, when discussing the matters of input and intake in second language acquisition, Brown writes: "In other words, you could be `exposed' to great quantities of input, but what counts is the linguistic information that you ultimately glean from that exposure though conscious and subconscious attention, through cognitive strategies of retention, through feedback, and through interaction" (p. 234). In part Brown achieves such readability by being generous with his use of examples and illustrations, and also by his conversational and sometimes lighthearted approach -- his use, for example, of the pronoun you, of questions to the reader and, occasionally, of small jokes (as when he refers to 28,732 techniques for teaching language) or anecdotes.

THE PRINCIPLE OF ACCESSIBILITY: The book is written and formatted in such a way that the content is easy to follow and retain, and additional information appears close to hand. This is accomplished in part by the usual conventions of headings, subheadings, and bold typeface, but also by Brown's frequent use of numbering systems, categories, and lists. It is especially useful to have the annotated suggestions "For Your Further Reading" at the end of each chapter (rather than collected at the end of the book), and also it is useful to have supplementary illustrations or materials appended to the chapter itself (for example, charts of English vowels and consonants attached to the chapter on teaching oral communication skills). Brown includes, where appropriate and in the appropriate place, sample excerpts from ESL textbooks for practice tasks or for questions and thinking. Another factor which contributes to this "sense of accessibility" is that Brown makes specific references throughout the book to particular sections of his Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (1994) so that a reader who wishes an expanded or theoretical explanation of a point can easily find it.

THE PRINCIPLE OF OPEN-ENDEDNESS: Brown often leaves things open in a way that invites the reader's participation in and thought about what is being discussed. For example, when talking about the place of writing instruction in a communicative and interactive classroom, Brown notes connections with the twelve principles of language learning and teaching. He himself shows the connections with automaticity and meaningful learning, but then suggests to the reader that "perhaps you can continue down the list yourself" (p. 343). Or when trying to think of the types of institutions of higher education in which English language teaching programs exist, Brown notes several and then tells the reader that "you may even be able to think of a category that has been omitted" (p. 127).

THE PRINCIPLE OF "GLOBAL" APPLICATION: While no text is equally applicable to every situation, some seem more broadly applicable than others. Brown avoids a narrow parochialism by recognizing and respecting the wide spectrum of situations, conditions, needs, and abilities that operate for students and teachers around the world. He understands that a teacher who is a non-native speaker of English may, for example, lack the confidence to "let the students go" in small group work: he understands that this teacher might feel more comfortable and secure with a more predictable or controlled activity. Further, he also recognizes and respects the role of internationalized varieties of English, telling his reader s that if they are "not teaching in a country whose people use a widely accepted variety of English," then the standards of grammaticalness and of pronunciation "may well need to be viewed in terms of the practice of natives who are educated, proficient English speakers" (p. 122). This could well include, of course, the very person who is reading the book.

THE PRINCIPLE OF BASIS IN RESEARCH: The principles promised in the book's title form "a train of thought throughout this book" (p. 343). Underlying these principles are references to research studies and findings, a kind of "second train, " but only in the most relevant and informative of ways. He may refer, for example, to research which indicates that group work significantly increases students' practice time over teacher-oriented approaches (p. 173); that motivation is a much more complex construct than the earlier integrative-instrumental dichotomy led many teachers to believe (p. 34); that for correction of speech errors, positive and negative feedback must be balanced for best results in the individual learner (p. 262). The extent of such references is manifested, at the end of the book, in a fifteen page bibliography, but at no point does the amount of research detail overwhelm the reader or "take on a life of its own." Instead, Brown himself reminds the reader that "at this stage in your professional career when you are learning to teach, rather than getting immersed in oceans of research data, it is perhaps more important to lay some basic foundations for the development of an effective teaching approach" (p. 286), which Brown then proceeds to do.

THE PRINCIPLE OF THE INTEGRATED WHOLE: Implicit in much of Brown's discussion of the interactive approach is the integrated nature of language itself and of the language learning classroom. Reading does not exist separately from writing, or listening from speaking; the students do not exist separately from their social or educational contexts, from their teachers, families, friends, classmates. He talks further about the various aspects of lesson planning and the importance of each aspect to the overall whole. Likewise, the book itself can be viewed overall as an integrated whole. The principles do not exist separately from the pedagogy or the practices; the ideas for classroom activities do not exist separately from what lies outside the classroom door; the theories do not exist separately from the practical realities of whether or not there is an overhead projector available to the teacher or a supply of chalk for the blackboard (or markers for the whiteboard!) The book itself proceeds from its foundations -- what the principles are and how they were derived over long years of experiences by language teachers -- through the contexts in which we teach language to the designing and implementing of classroom techniques and the practicalities of the language classroom. Brown does all this without losing either his "train of thought" or his facility with words. And he concludes with a reminder that for all of us, continuing our teacher education is a matter of lifelong learning.

Looking back over these twelve principles of recommendation, it becomes apparent that experienced teachers too can benefit from reading this book. It would serve them well as a review and as an opportunity: a review of their own beliefs about effective language teaching and an opportunity to reflect on their own practices in the classroom. It serves too, perhaps, as an articulate and coherent reminder: that we are, in Brown's words, "not merely" language teachers but "much more than that. " We are agents for change "in a world in desperate need of change: change from competition to cooperation, from powerlessness to empowerment, from conflict to resolution, from prejudice to understanding" (p. 442). And while that in itself may seem overwhelming to many of us, we can take reassurance from Brown's notion of classroom energy:

By understanding what some of the variables are in classroom management, you can take some important steps to sharpening your skills as a language teacher. And then, as you improve some of those identifiable, overtly observable skills, you open the door to the intangible, to art, to poetics, to the invisible sparks of energy that kindle the flames of learning. (p. 411)
And perhaps that is something all of us language teachers can do, whether we are teachers in training or teachers with many years of classroom experience. We can be "energetic" in the classroom; we can sharpen our skills; we can improve on identifiable, overtly observable things; we can open the door to the intangible.

And one of the ways we can do this is by reading Brown's book.

Professor Gail Schaefer Fu teaches in the English Language Teaching Unit at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and is involved in language counseling at their Independent Learning Centre. Her recent articles have focused on the teaching of writing in Hong Kong; language improvement strategies and autonomy in the classroom; and reflections on collaboration. Recent conference presentations have addressed the topics of identity in the language classroom and guidelines for productive language counseling.