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Review of  Thinking about Language Teaching

Reviewer: Kerry J Mullan
Book Title: Thinking about Language Teaching
Book Author: Michael Swan
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.2768

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This collection of Swan's articles was assembled by Oxford University Press (OUP) ''in recognition of the importance of his contribution to English language teaching in general and to ..... applied linguistics, grammar and English language studies in particular'' (inside cover). The collection includes a number of his best known and most widely cited articles, from which there are a great many to choose. As OUP points out, ''[h]is many articles ..... have, over the last three decades, sparked lively debate which has enriched and stimulated teacher development worldwide'' (inside cover). Swan himself seems to have chosen the articles on the basis that they attempt to ''bridge the gap between [the] theory and practice'' of language teaching (p. x). Almost all the articles selected for inclusion are predominantly opinion pieces based on thorough research and critical analysis (the one main exception to this will be discussed below).

The book consists of twenty five articles of varying lengths, divided into two parts: eighteen pedagogic and academic articles (presented in chronological order); and seven satirical pieces. Most of the articles begin with a short introduction by Swan, explaining the context in which the article was originally written. As it is not possible to present detailed comments on each of the twenty five articles here, I will provide an overview of the collection as a whole, with occasional references to specific articles.

The collection opens in 1985 with a critical look at the communicative approach to language teaching, and a subsequent lively exchange of correspondence with H. G. Widdowson, who contributed a final word on the matter for this collection. The majority of Swan's fears and criticisms -- that the 'new' communicative focus on language functions, notions and skills would replace rather than complement a focus on language forms -- come across as quite sensible and well-founded today. However, his arguments were rather controversial at the time, and his sharp words would certainly have caused offence (as Swan himself admits). Swan felt that the theoretical underpinnings of the communicative approach were not well-founded and was somewhat resentful that such new teaching methodologies were being imposed on teachers by academics rather than expert practitioners. Despite this, Swan acknowledges the great contributions of communicative teaching and presents a fair and balanced view of both the positive and the negative aspects. He also acknowledges, however, that ''the tone of the articles was ..... excessively polemic, anti-academic, and at times downright rude'', and now offers his ''belated apologies to the several distinguished scholars for whom [he] showed less respect than they certainly deserved'' (p. 1).

Swan later examines task-based instruction (TBI) in an in-depth article written in 2005 (pp. 90-113), although he also touched on it much earlier in a lecture and resultant article from 1996 (pp. 57-67). His main criticism is that the claims for TBI as an effective superior and exclusive approach to language teaching are based on unproved hypotheses with no empirical evidence (p. 90). Swan goes on to present a compelling and structured series of arguments against using TBI as the sole basis for a language curriculum, as he dismantles the three main hypotheses underpinning this approach and shows why traditional approaches to language teaching should not be universally rejected. Task-based instruction may have more success in countries where the language is spoken and the learners are immersed in the target language (p. 66) -- and even then, this is no guarantee of the success of TBI -- but certainly not when learners are only exposed to the target language for a limited number of hours per week (and, I would add, where they have little understanding of the structure of their first language), as is the case for the majority of language learners.

A number of articles chosen for the collection deal critically with the confusing array of terms, approaches, methods and even 'postmethods' (p. 162) with which language teachers are presented at conferences and in the literature. According to Swan, many of these approaches focus increasingly on doing things, and consequently, a ''reduced focus on the specific knowledge and skills which learners need to acquire and consolidate by means of the activities'' (p. 166). Throughout all the articles, Swan advocates for a common sense approach to this seemingly endless array of new approaches and methods, suggesting that ''[w]hat we need, perhaps, is ..... not so much to find new methods, as to take stock of the existing ones and integrate them into more ideologically neutral and comprehensive approaches'' (p. 178).

Swan's 2011 article on grammar (pp. 186-200) takes an overall more objective approach than the other articles in the collection. He presents an informative and accessible discussion on aspects of grammar such as: what grammar actually is (in terms of syntax and morphology); the different models of grammar that exist (i.e. functional, generative, systemic, universal, etc.); grammar and linguistic relativity; grammar and the brain; grammar in society (standardisation and education); and grammar in foreign language teaching. This last section of the article deals with the challenges of teaching grammar in the language classroom, and combines theoretical, pedagogical and practical constraints. It is this understanding of what actually goes on in the language classroom that makes Swan's arguments so convincing to language teachers. Here, finally, is someone who understands them.


When I first trained as an English language teacher with the Cambridge Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA), Michael Swan's ‘Practical English Usage’ was one of a handful of essential books recommended to us as novice teachers. This and several of Swan's subsequent publications have remained central to my language teaching ever since.

This latest publication is an extremely informative and valuable collection which, despite the time span of almost thirty years across which the articles were written, remains highly relevant to applied linguists and language teachers today. This is precisely because of the wide range of topics Swan deals with and his common sense, foresight and expertise in so many different areas: from his early musings on English as a Lingua Franca (now a vast field of debate in this era of globalisation and its impact on language, cf. Coupland 2010), to the use of text books, the limitations of chunking, the questioning of native-speaker norms as an appropriate target for learners, the teaching of grammar, the use of texts in the classroom, the influence of the mother tongue on language learning, designing pedagogic language rules, and various language learning strategies. Swan's criticisms of what were perhaps poorly explained theories and methodologies at the time added a voice of reason and common sense to the debates. Disappointingly, many of his criticisms remain valid to date.

The collection serves as a timely reminder that a quick-fix, one-size-fits-all approach does not apply to language teaching (and no doubt to any other kind of teaching). As Swan states, ''The characteristic sound of a new breakthrough in language teaching theory is a scream, a splash, and a strangled cry, as once again the baby is thrown out with the bathwater'' (p. 27). Swan's principal message is that while we must remain open to new methodologies, for the sake of our students, we must constantly question, debate and then trial these methods in the classroom. More importantly, we must resist the temptation to adopt these new methodologies to the exclusion of the earlier ones, as most methodologies will have some merit, and the best teaching practice will incorporate a combination of these. Learners all have different learning styles, as well as different reasons for learning; learning priorities and contexts will also vary, and good teaching will cater to all of these differences as far as possible. Swan advocates ''the need for various kinds of balance: between form and function, knowledge and skills, teacher-directed and student-directed learning, product and process'' (p. ix).
However, despite Swan's relatively early warnings about a one size fits all approach, and ''a recurrent pattern of damaging ideological swings in language teaching theory and practice '' (p. 90), one wonders whether we have paid any attention at all, and why we still seem to want to adopt new methodologies to the exclusion of the old, without taking the learning context into account. For example, the current trend in many European language textbooks is for exclusively task-based instruction (TBI), where explicit vocabulary and grammar teaching is almost non-existent, as the assumption is that these aspects will take care of themselves through 'conscious noticing' while focusing exclusively on communicative activity.

Swan is critical of non-plain language, and his own writing is refreshingly clear and succinct. The articles are entertaining and wonderfully written and humour is not restricted to the satirical pieces. Among the latter however, my personal favourites are ''The use of sensory deprivation in foreign language teaching'' (1982, pp. 203-206), ''Notes from the broom cupboard'' (2008, pp. 210-211), PIGTESOL 2007 (2007, pp. 215-216), and ''Learning the piano in Fantasia'' (2010, pp. 217-220), the former of which apparently led to a serious request for more information and a number of references to the piece in academic literature. Linguists and language teachers everywhere will recognise the targets of humour in each piece, and may well say to themselves ''Plus ça change ...''.

The collection is a pleasure to read, both for its content and for the quality of the writing (those interested can find more of Michael's writing at his Language and Poetry website referenced below). Novice and experienced teachers alike will find much interest in this collection, in particular, how to bridge the gap between the theory and practice of language teaching. As a practising teacher of French as a foreign language and a researcher in applied linguistics, this volume refreshed and broadened my own knowledge of these areas, and not only provided me with ideas for teaching, but also led me to question what I do in the language classroom, with a view to how I might improve. At the same time, Swan puts into writing what many language teachers instinctively know to be true through their own experiences in the classroom, even where this might contradict the latest theories and methodologies. This endorsement of our instincts and practices from such an erudite and expert scholar is reassuring indeed.


Coupland, Nikolas (ed.). (2010), The Handbook of Language and Globalization. Malden, MA Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Michael Swan's Language and Poetry website:

Swan, Michael. (1985, 1995, 2005). Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kerry Mullan is Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of French Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Her main research interests are pragmatics, cross-cultural communication, differing interactional styles, discourse analysis, peer learning and teaching in Higher Education, applied linguistics and second language acquisition. Kerry is currently investigating humour in French and Australian English social visits, and the use of film as an assessment tool in the tertiary French language classroom.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780194442813
Pages: 230
Prices: U.K. £ 20.00