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Review of  Understanding the Language Classroom

Reviewer: John Liontas
Book Title: Understanding the Language Classroom
Book Author: Simon Gieve Inés K Miller
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 18.610

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EDITORS: Gieve, Simon; Miller, Inés K.
TITLE: Understanding the Language Classroom
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2006

John I. Liontas, Department of Language, Learning, and Leadership, State
University of New York at Fredonia


Once in a while you come across an edited volume that is hard to put down.
_Understanding the Language Classroom_ (edited by Simon Gieve and Inés K.
Miller) is one such rare volume. I know, for I read the entire work on my
flight to the 40th Annual TESOL Convention and Exhibit in Tampa, Florida
this past March 2006. Just as last year's TESOL 2006 Convention Planning
Team dared us to lead our students in 2006 and beyond with the theme
''Daring to Lead,'' in like manner this volume dares us to understand the
language classroom no matter the students' age, the classroom level, or the
country where we teach.

From the Americas to the United Kingdom to New Zealand, this 12-chapter
volume, covering some 275 pages, touches upon a host of issues of language
classroom life that anyone interested in ''language classroom research''
would be hard pressed to ignore. Once you begin reading, you will soon find
yourself wanting to read evermore, for the views expressed in this volume
are as diverse as the sixteen individuals that contributed to the wealth of
information contained in this well-crafted work (see ''Notes on the
Contributors,'' pp. xix-xxii).

Beginning with Kathleen M. Bailey's ''Foreword'' (xi-xvi), the reader is
immediately immersed in the diversity of views surrounding language
classroom research. Even those familiar with the changes taking place in
applied linguistics over the last twenty-five years will find in Bailey's
foreword a welcome summary that goes beyond mere linguistic historiography
from the 1970s to today. In the first paragraph the reader is informed that
''the authors and editors have all been influenced by Dick Allwright's
thinking,'' who ''has spent his entire professional life trying to understand
(and help others to understand) life in language classrooms'' (p. xi). The
next nine paragraphs that follow paint in broad strokes answers to the main
question posed, ''What is language classroom research?'' and more
importantly, succinctly capture the evolving nature of the various
traditions of classroom research (from psychometric traditions to critical
classroom discourse analysis) and the expanding role of the teacher (from
teachers as subjects to teachers as producers of research). What appears to
be at first a simple, straightforward notion of classroom processes (i.e.,
understanding what happens when learners and teachers come together inside
the classroom), soon reveals itself to be a far more complex issue than
first imagined. What happens inside the classroom is as important as what
happens outside and the factors that influence language learning and
language teaching. Understanding this inside-outside symbiotic relationship
with all its human and institutional factors becomes the central focus that
all contributors in this volume aspire to capture, define, explain and,
ultimately, understand. The 42-references list at the end of the Foreword
is as good a list as I have ever seen on the subject. In particular,
graduate students working on 'language classroom research' (by whatever
name) will appreciate such list spanning twenty-six years of research


The ''Introduction'' (pp. 1-10) by Simon Gieve and Inés K. Miller (the two
editors of this volume) is yet another must-read section not only because
it introduces the organization and central themes of the volume but, more
importantly, because it sets the tone for the 11 individual chapters that
respond to Dick Allwright's ''Six Promising Directions in Applied
Linguistics'' (Chapter 1). Readers unfamiliar with Allwright's academic work
will find much needed background information in the first three pages of
the introduction. The remaining seven pages reveal the organization of the
volume in two main areas of interest: Chapters 2-8, what goes on inside the
language classrooms, and Chapters 9-12, language teacher education and
development (although this theme-based organization is not at all apparent
in the Contents section, vii-viii).

Those new to the profession may at first be shocked to find out that
learners, according to Allwright, ''don't simply learn what teachers teach,
but that learning arises out of the learning opportunities that emerge
through interaction in the classroom'' (p. 1; emphasis in the original).
Contrary to teaching practices put forth by many teacher education programs
espousing a 'scientific' approach to language teaching and learning (at
least in the United States of America), Allwright dares the reader to see
beyond the smokescreens of methodological solutions to teaching and
language learning, beyond the search for the ideal conditions for language
learning and the ideal behaviors for language teachers. In short: beyond
the prescribed 'technologisation of education.' Instead, Allwright proposes
a set of six interwoven directions for applied linguistics, all
interpretations of which are guided by his own sense of what is ''promising''
in the field since the 1950's. The six directions that Allwright discusses
in Chapter 1 are: 1. From prescription to description to understanding, 2.
From simplicity to complexity, 3. From commonality to idiosyncrasy, 4. From
precision to scattergun, 5. From teaching and learning as ''work'' to
teaching and learning as ''life,'' and 6. From academics to practitioners as
the knowledge-makers in the field. It is to these six ''promising
directions'' that the eleven other contributors respond. Specifically:

Chapter 2 (Simon Gieve & Inés K. Miller), ''What do we mean by 'quality of
classroom life'?'' The authors, responding to Allwright's direction 5 and
based on his principles of Exploratory Practice, argue for the notion of
''classroom awareness,'' which they define as understanding arising from the
process of teachers and learners working together toward joint
understanding that informs the quality of life in the classroom (QoCRL).

Chapter 3 (Adrian Holliday), ''What happens between people: Who we are and
what we do.'' Holliday, responding to Allwright's first four directions,
finds that the central issue in TESOL today is the concept of
native-speakerism, an aspect of culturism, which features a cultural
division marked by the distinction between native and non-native speakers.
He defines native-speakerism as the ''chauvinistic belief that 'native
speakers' represent a 'Western culture' from which spring the ideals both
of the language and of language teaching methodology'' (p. 49). The chapter
concludes with eleven strategies (pp. 59-60) that summarize what can or
cannot be done about native-speakerism in TESOL.

Chapter 4 (Tony Wright), ''Managing classroom life.'' As suggested by the
chapter title, this section focuses on the complexity of classroom life and
in particular the life of and in the classroom, guided by the concern for
the quality of that life (i.e., how to maximize the quality of classroom
life that is contextualized by institutional forces, sociocultural
expectations and life outside). Wright then discusses five elements of
classroom management which, when utilized with care and attention to
detail, can maximize the quality of classroom life: time, space, affective
engagement, social participation and material, and cognitive resources.

Chapter 5 (Devon Woods), ''Who does what in the 'management of language
learning'? Planning and the social construction of the 'motivation to
notice'.'' Responding to Allwright's directions 1, 2, 3, 5 and emphasizing
the constructivist nature of the classroom language learning processes,
Woods, as his chapter title suggest, examines critically the question 'Who
does what in the management of language learning? which, in turn, is
quickly morphed into a more appropriate question of 'how is who does what
decided?' In answering this question, Woods first explains 'what is the
management of language learning' (i.e., what it entails in terms of
planning actions and evaluating events) and how participant roles over
'whose job it is to do what' are negotiated in the process of classroom
language teaching and learning. He then looks at decision-making and
relationships between planning by the teacher and the learner, features of
the negotiations of planning between the two. Woods finally examines the
social construction of the types and levels of motivation to notice -- the
concept of attending, noticing, focusing on form -- and the negotiation of
attention to learner errors in an effort to develop a ''deeper situated
reflective understanding'' (p. 111) of the complexity and idiosyncrasy
inherent in seeking answers to the original question 'who does what in the
management of language learning.'

Chapter 6 (Hywel Coleman), ''Darwin and the large class.'' Responding to
Allwright's direction 3 (and not 2 as stated in the Introduction section,
p. 115), Coleman first takes issue with the still elusive technical
solutions offered at understanding and managing the phenomenon of the
'large class' and using a Darwinian metaphor -- the theory of natural
selection -- to reject the deficit model of teaching. He then attempts to
explain why ''each individual classroom event represents the best available
'local adaptation' for the environmental niche in which it occurs'' (p.
115). Thereafter, Coleman uses two case studies (pp. 123-129) as examples
of what he terms the 'achievement of local adaptation in classroom events'
regardless of context (also represented graphically in Figure 6.1, p. 130).
The 'eight categories of pressure'-- from 'system demands' to 'learners'
competence, expectations, experiences, and learning styles -- represent not
only the current 'best fit' available in that context but, more
importantly, help us understand that the achievement of local adaptations
to changing environments is indeed a multifaceted 'dynamic process'
regardless of the occurrence of gradual mutations taking place in classroom
events (p. 132).

Chapter 7 (Ming-i Lydia Tseng & Roz Ivanič), ''Recognizing complexity in
adult literacy research and practice.'' Responding to Allwright's directions
1-6, the authors develop a conceptual framework for adult literacy
education that promotes understanding of learning in ELT classrooms rather
than mere prescriptions for or descriptions of teaching-learning events.
Guided by the desire to evaluate the complexity of what is happening in a
learning-teaching event, the authors maintain that learning (as a life-long
process) is not the total sum of what is taught in class. Endorsing
Allwright's proposal of 'Exploratory Practice,' the authors develop a
comprehensive model of factors affecting learning-teaching events (i.e.,
participants' beliefs, intentions, and resources; learning and teaching
resources; the political and institutional context; and sociocultural
factors and issues of inequality). This is followed by the nature of
learning-teaching events, the creation of learning opportunities and,
finally, the different types of learning outcomes (i.e., learning about
content, learning, language, social relations and identities, and the wider
benefits of learning) resulting from the relationship between 'teaching'
and 'learning-as-process.'

Chapter 8 (Elaine E. Tarone), ''Language lessons: A complex, local
co-production of all participants.'' Using data from descriptive case
studies of child language learners in French, Spanish, and English
immersion classrooms plus findings from studies of the second language
learning process of young adults in college-level language classrooms,
Tarone argues against prescriptive, simplistic solutions on 'how to teach
foreign language' that are universally applied to all language learning and
teaching situations and classrooms as all language lessons are locally
negotiated. Each language classroom is representing a specialized kind of
speech community with shared norms of language behaviors, all of which are
the result of a complex and idiosyncratic sociolinguistic dynamic,
affecting second language acquisition processes and use between teachers
and learners and among learners, peers, and interlocutors in and outside
the classroom. Tarone concludes the chapter with the assertion that more
descriptive case studies should be done to help both researchers and
teachers to ''understand the complex nature of language classrooms, and some
of the ways in which they may function'' (p. 173).

Chapter 9 (John F. Fanselow & Roger Barnard), ''Take 1, Take 2, Take 3: A
suggested three-stage approach to exploratory practice.'' Responding to
Allwright's directions 1, 2, and 6, the authors propose, as suggested in
their chapter's title, their interpretation of what constitutes
'Exploratory Practice.' Fundamentally, the authors suggest the creation of
multiple perspectives resulting from a three-stage approach: ''Take 1,
recreating interaction'' (selecting and preparing transcripts highlighting a
particular classroom problem or issue), ''Take 2, reflection on action''
(interpretation of transcript from an '-emic' and '-etic' perspective), and
''Take 3, reconstruction for action'' (generation of alternative
possibilities for classroom practice following a comparison of the three
perspectives of stage two). Their ultimate goal, however, remains not to
prescribe their approach for everyday teaching, but to use the three-stage
approach as an exploratory tool to systematically investigate and
understand multiple interpretations of teaching practice.

Chapter 10 (Michael P. Breen), ''Collegial development in ELT: The interface
between global processes and local understandings.'' In this chapter, Breen
first identifies four key aspects of the work of English language teaching
practitioners that are now under challenge: (1) teacher knowledge (i.e.,
what it is that teachers are supposed to know), (2) changing the ways in
which teachers are expected to teach (i.e., how language may be best
taught), (3) a preoccupation with the concept of 'performativity' (i.e.,
how we do things and how well we do them), and (4) insecurity in working
conditions and the requirement to 'keep moving' to achieve career mobility.
Having addressed these four interrelated challenges of change and
destabilization to the individual and professional community identity of
English teachers, he then asks ''how processes for professional development
may enable teachers to adopt and engage strategies to deal with such
circumstances in a personally developmental way'' (p. 208). In what follows,
Breen argues against overt reliance on the authenticity of local vernacular
pedagogies as a way to face the challenges of recontextualization of
knowledge. He suggests ''professionalism across ELT is unavoidably hybrid''
(p. 210). In turn, reflective practice, action research, and Allwright's
proposal for Exploratory Practice are briefly evaluated before deducing
from these three approaches the seven desirable features of future teacher
development programs which, while dealing with global issues that impact
upon teacher's work, are, nevertheless, grounded in localized communities
of practice. Breen identifies these as ''collegial development within
language teaching'' (p. 217). The first four features address the teacher's
position as an active participant in development (i.e., as integrated
individuals, as members of communities, as cultural workers, and as
individuals responsible for their own development) whereas the remaining
three features address the requirements for teacher development (i.e.,
collegiality, discursiveness, and evolutionary change). For Breen, these
seven interrelated features combined, form the nucleus of future language
teacher development programs.

Chapter 11 (Maria Antonieta Alba Celani), ''Language teacher educators in
search of 'locally helpful understandings.''' Guided by Allwright's (2006)
'six promising directions,' Celani is interested in helping Brazilian
teachers of English to develop as critical professionals, to become aware
of and analyze their practices, and to construct their social identity in
an effort to better understand how identity awareness affects discursive
practices and social relations. In short, to become ''not only agents of
change in their professional context, but also knowledge-makers in the
field'' (p. 228). She then extends Allwright's 'directions' to the world of
teacher education and discusses the main challenges encountered in the
context of conceptualizing and managing a wide-scale in-service English
teacher education program in São Paulo, Brazil: (1) Managing social
interaction in a multifarious context; (2) Meeting the needs of
teacher-students; and (3) Quality in classroom action. Celani concludes the
chapter with a final reflection asserting the need for all participants to
act in concert ''as knowledge-makers, as practitioners who seek for
understanding of their own respective actions, in their own particular
circumstances'' (p. 234).

Chapter 12 (Donald Freeman), ''Teaching and learning in 'The age of reform':
The problem of the verb.'' In this chapter, the final in this volume,
Freeman presents a conceptual discussion, the core premise of which is the
nature of teaching and its complexity, and how teaching relates to
classroom language learning in what he calls ''the age of reform'' (p. 240).
He argues that there are three core misunderstandings about the
relationship between teaching and learning. The first problem is that of
individualism (i.e., viewing teaching and learning as a matter of
'individuals' rather than 'multiple communities'). The second problem is
that of immediacy (i.e., thinking about the social practice of the
classroom only in the present, in the here-and-now, while ignoring past
historical processes). The final problem is that of causality (i.e., the
behavior of the individual teacher 'causes' individual students to learn).
Having countered these problematic notions via the framework of social
practices, Freeman contends that, given the current demands of social needs
and national policies in the 'age of reform,' what is needed most is a new
kind of understanding of the relationship between teaching and learning --
a kind of understanding that approaches the problem of the verb within,
rather than away from, the complexity and interdependence of the
teaching-learning relationship. In short, how we complete the statement,
''What teachers know and do -- what students know and do,'' profoundly
impacts the 'quality of life' in the language classroom.


_Understanding the Language Classroom_ is by no means an easy volume to
'understand' even for trained and experienced language professionals. This
12-chapter volume is a collection that is hard to ignore and, more
importantly, hard to 'understand' in reading it cover to cover in one
sitting. This is not because the individual chapters in themselves are hard
to grasp. Far from it! Ranging in length from 6 pages to 24 pages, each
chapter in its own right twists and turns our very own understanding of
classroom language learning and teaching. What appears to be at first a
straightforward issue, ends up being far more complex than first imagined.
If 'learners do not simply learn what teachers teach' (Chapter 1), what
does that say about all the other volumes, books, and conference
proceedings focusing on the methodological solutions to teaching and
learning language? What does that say about teacher education in general?
How do we define what we mean by 'quality of classroom life' (Chapter 2),
who we are and what we do (Chapter 3)? Is classroom life only what teachers
and learners make it or is it rather, in the words of Tony Wright, ''what
they make of it, and what it makes them'' (p. 64) (Chapter 4)? Who decides
who does what in the 'management of language learning' (Chapter 5) and how
do we best ascertain the complexity in adult literacy (Chapter 7)? Does it
even make sense to offer centralized prescriptions on 'how to teach foreign
languages' (Chapter 8), provided of course that we know how to achieve this
elusive end? Should we instead, explore multiple perspectives and
interpretations of teaching practice and take comfort in knowing that we
are all 'learners' and 'knowledge-makers' (Chapter 9)? Is there indeed an
interface between global processes and local understandings (Chapter 10)?
If we agree that there is, how do we help teachers to develop as critical
professionals? Should we expect them to become only 'agents of change,'
'knowledge-makers,' or both (Chapter 11)? Is language teaching and learning
in the 'age of reform' as ''multi-faceted, messy and even chaotic'' (p. 239)
as Freeman suggests (Chapter 12)? Must we rethink and reshape our
conceptions of classroom as 'activity systems' and does each classroom
event in the real world—regardless of context—represent the ''best available
'local adaptation for the environmental niche in which it occurs'' (p. 115)
no matter what the actual class size (Chapter 6)?

The above represent but a small sample of questions this volume poses,
questions which, I submit, are not easy to answer. To state otherwise is to
minimize the 'inherent complexity' of language classrooms, to disregard
their 'situatedness,' to understand the 'idiosyncrasy' of classroom life
without understanding the relationship between classroom life and teachers'
and students' lives. Collectively, however, they force the reader to
question and rethink his understanding of the puzzle called the 'language
classroom,' to view teacher education inside and outside classrooms from a
new angle of practitioner-based exploration, to grapple with the factors
that affect the quality of life in the language classroom, to question
technocratic solutions promising to fully capture the negotiating roles
between teachers and learners and the intertwined relationship between the
local understandings and the global processes. In doing so, we may find
ourselves pursuing promising new ideas and directions in applied
linguistics. In particular, students enrolled in university Masters and
Doctoral programs may well find in this volume a much needed intellectual
stimulation to engage in Exploratory Practice as a form of practitioner
research, research that offers fresh opportunities for them and their
students to engage in discursive practices to achieve, both individually
and collectively, a heightened level of understanding of their classroom
lives. One thing is certain: such collaborative discursive practices will
no doubt contribute toward an improved quality of classroom life,
incorporating and integrating in the process the many understandings of
teacher-student beliefs, roles, and responsibilities about classroom
language development and management. This, in turn, may necessitate a new
understanding of how the relationship among teacher knowledge, professional
learning, and classroom teaching must be construed in the future if the
complexity and fluidity of classroom life—a central thematic focus in all
12 contributions—is to shed more light on the complexity of the
learning-teaching process in general and language teacher education in
particular (see also Fanselow, 1987; Freeman, 1991; Larsen-Freeman, 1998,
2000; Prabhu, 1990).

The questions posed, the issues addressed, and the answers, arguments, and
insights offered in this well-crafted volume all but scratch the surface of
this moving target. _Understanding the Language Classroom_ is a floating
iceberg. Only ten percent is amenable to direct observation. The remaining
ninety percent is hidden beneath the surface. The more you scratch, the
more discoveries you make. With each chapter I read, I was forced to
rethink my own assumptions, biases, and beliefs about teaching and
learning, about my professional training, and about the role I play inside
and outside my classroom. One cannot help but feel a bit perplexed at the
end. Questioning your own understanding is not an easy task or one that
should be taken lightly. Perhaps this is the volume's greatest strength,
forcing its readers to problematize ''prescription, efficiency and technical
solutions as orientations to classroom language learning'' (back cover). Its
very nature calls into question a great many things we take for granted in
our language profession and, as such, this volume should offer both
language practitioners and (under)graduate students ammunition for some
long-lasting heated debates. Therein lies its strength. Therein lies the

In short, _Understanding the Language Classroom_ is a well-organized,
well-edited work that should prove most valuable for many discussions to
come. As such, it is an important addition to anyone's list of edited
volumes on second languages and the complexity of learning, and I recommend
it most highly both as a reference volume and as a source from which
fruitful areas for future research and practice may spring.


Fanselow, J. (1987). Breaking rules: Generating and exploring alternatives
in language teaching. New York, NY: Longman.

Freeman, D. (1991). Mistaken constructs: Re-examining the nature and
assumptions of language teacher education. In Alatis, J. E. (Ed.),
Georgetown University Round Table on Language and Linguistics 1991:
Linguistics and Language Pedagogy. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1998). Learning teaching is a lifelong process.
Perspectives, 34 (2), 5-11.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and principles in language teaching
(2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Prabhu, N. S. (1990). There is no best method -- why? TESOL Quarterly, 24
(2), 161-176.

John I. Liontas (Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, The
University of Arizona, 1999) is Associate Professor of TESOL and
Coordinator of the TESOL Education Program K-12 at State University of New
York at Fredonia, performing research and development in second language
teaching methodology, figurative competence, pragmatics, curriculum and
program design, and multimedia-based learning. He has delivered several
keynote addresses and conducted over 160 presentations, lectures, and
workshops on language teaching and learning at local, state, regional,
national, and international conferences in the United States and abroad and
has published textbooks and articles in the area of curriculum design and
development, on writing and reading, on idiomaticity, on technology-based
language instruction, and on interactive games and game approaches.

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