How do we teach English?

Our Method

Scientific research has shown that the most effective way to learn a second language is to make it focused on the learner (that’s you!).

This means we want to base what and how we teach on your goals and the reasons that you want to learn English in the first place.

How is this different than traditional methods of learning a second language? Here are some common myths…

Introduction & global views on language learning/acquisition.

Whether by nature or professional nurture, I have found great value in integrating varying systems with one another, so Brown’s ecological framework of SLA (Brown 2014, 302) is the best explanation I can see. But I also want to understand the other theories and their parts more effectively. I have tried to compare and integrate them in order to serve as the core of my SLA teaching philosophy (Appendix A: ESL Teaching Theories Comparison ESL teaching theories comparison). For those with any time of serious study in this field it will probably be easy to pick out my errors. But with youthful naivete (youthful in my SLA experience, not my – ahem – actual age), and in the spirit of Brown’s encouragement to form my own “tapestry” of SLA theory (Brown 2014, 286), it’s my attempt to make it all my own.


Building upon that theoretical foundation, and just as our course has emphasized a learner-centered approach to SLA (Biler, 1; Brown 2014, chapters 5 & 6), my SLA theory needs to be learner-centered as well. In my context, our learners are not only our second language learners, but also include our 20+ English ministry volunteers who I hope will increasingly operate by the updates to our teaching methodology which are represented here.


Our students have a wide level of variability in their age, education level, goals, etc. Our teachers range from no teaching experience/training to extensive experience/masters level study. They sometimes have full-time jobs outside of volunteering with us and even our retirees are often very active in their families and other ministries.


Therefore, our SLA philosophy should value both research and simplicity. This becomes the criteria by which I select the theories which are best for us to incorporate into our English ministries.


The summary of our research based approach is that we will strive to be learner centered. This also means that we will try to choose the best of current SLA theories. We want to have a quality “product” that we deliver based on the best data. This means we need to be familiar with the current state of the science of SLA. We also want to facilitate further academic dialog for those teachers who are interested. As the Lord provides, we want to attract and collaborate with veteran teachers (some of our current teachers and some that we want on our team already have ESL masters studies under their belt). We want to be able to get the best of the current research on the table so they trust us and so that we can dialog about it with them and continually improve to 1) fix our oversights and 2) adapt as the research develops.


Our other value when selecting SLA theories is simplicity. The first reason is the importance of accessibility. Both our learners & our teachers need to understand how we view learning and why we teach as we do. But this needs to be put in language that is as vernacular as possible. If they don’t understand, then their motivation and adoption will be hindered. The other aspect of our value on simplicity means that we will be explicitly incomprehensive. Normally I like a system that thinks for necessity and sufficiency (or Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive as we called it in another graduate program of study). But, in SLA, the level of uncertainty and the volume of available theories leads us to focus on those few which will get us most of the way there. The law of diminishing returns comes into play if we try to be comprehensive.


Whatever our ultimate SLA theory is, we are seeking to change from what we have been doing, and it becomes critical for our students and teachers that we do all we can to manage their expectations. Part of this means we are trying to put our updated teaching philosophy on our website. It serves not only to help them avoid surprises, but also as a natural filter for those students or teachers who may be stuck with approaches to SLA unsupported by research. You can see the draft here


Roles of teacher and student in the class. 

The student’s role is as the primary actor in this SLA story. They are the owner, they are the artist developing a skill, they are the one developing a new sense of self related to this new language, they are the strategist, theirs is the interlanguage they develop, theirs is the unique set of abilities and goals, they are the agent in their context, they are the person in a social context with others, and more.

The teachers serve as coaches or as bridges between the best practices of SLA and the way their students learn (Chrenka 2001, 694).

When it comes to those helping the student learn, a solo teacher is not our only role. In each class we try to mobilize 2 co-teachers (ideally). In addition, we have the option for observers, conversation partners, & assistant teachers, giving an option for more in-depth modeling / mentoring / discipling in ESL teaching & ministry.

We have found the requirements we need from our volunteers to be too much for one person or even two. So we are trying to pivot so that each class functions as a ministry team, with volunteers sharing the roles of 1) explicit prayer strategy, 2) quality English instruction, 3) spiritual intentionality, 4) relational openness and investment, and 5) administrative coordination. In addition, each class ministry team has a POC or leader who receives regular coaching and prayer support from our ministry leaders.

This circles back to some of Dormer’s discussions about the work it takes to find the right people and train them (2011, 33, 160).

Instructional style/classroom environment. 

Environment. It is imperative to have a safe environment for the students, this does not require an absence of challenge or work. One practical way teachers can contribute to this environment of felt safety is for themselves to be language learners. This begins with their students’ names. It may be awkward for students and teachers if the teachers can’t get the student’s real (not chosen English) name on the first or second try. But these first moments actually help to launch the whole SLA adventure. When the students see their teachers struggle, several things are communicated: 1) errors are ok, 2) this is what language learning ownership looks like, and 3) the students matter to the teacher.

Instructional style. We will try to take an approach built on TBLT and Constructivism. For TBLT we will focus on 1. Primacy of meaning, 2. Problem solving activity, 3. Relates to the learner’s life outside the classroom, and 4. The nature of the objective is such that it is evident if/when it has been accomplished (Skehan 1998, 95).

Closely related to TBLT, we will try to pull from the strengths of constructivism. So we will place a high value on guiding the learners into productive experiences in which they can together make discoveries about activities that matter to them.

How the four skills should be addressed (speaking, listening, reading, writing)

We will focus on interactive skills (listening & speaking) during our time together and allow for less interactive skills (reading & writing) for take home work. This is because our time together is not only limited but has unique aspects that lends itself to certain types of communication, namely, interaction. They have millions of YouTube videos on learning English at their disposal, not to mention lifetimes worth of recorded English programming. They can spend hours on their own writing and reading. But what is hard to do alone is interact with someone else, especially when that time is guided by someone who has the experience, training, and vision to be their coach.

How grammar should (or should not) be taught

Although our main approach is meaningful communication, we do want to include a focus on form since grammar is necessary. However, we will take the subtle FFI approach, especially by 1) having a grammatical element that is a part of each lesson, and 2) briefly/periodically “zooming out” to point it out and help raise the students’ grammar consciousness before returning to the meaningful communicative task (Brown 2014, 271, 294).

Accommodating individual differences

Since our learners are so very different from one another, and since our time with them is so limited, it is difficult to customize our teaching to accommodate each one. But there are two mitigation efforts we can do to help this challenge. One is to have short “feedback loops” – moments where we pause and (for example) check for comprehension. The longer our periods of time where we are not taking brief “samples” of how they’re doing, the more likely we are to miss them. This may seem self-evident after all we’ve studied, but we have some teachers who mistakenly think that teaching means monologuing. I do not recall a research study specifically supporting the value of short feedback loops, but perhaps this is an area where it is acceptable to rely on my intuition (Brown 2014, 308-310). Another teaching strategy we can implement to try to mitigate the challenge of individual differences is to offer variety in our teaching methods and styles. Within a general class time structure that the students can become familiar with, we can try to use kinesthetic, auditory, and visual. We can vary who they are interacting with and other elements of the teaching.

Role of the L1 in the class
Our learners come from dozens of different countries, and so we do not have the luxury of a single L1 as a reference point. Honestly, L1 is an area where I am consciously choosing to limit our theories in order to make way in our limited mental bandwidth for paradigms that are more applicable in our context. But one way that L1 can play a part in our ministry is in the area of pronunciation. As Brown observed, accent and pronunciation are not important as long as they do not impair communication (2014, 59). But we can still give it some focus and considering how different language groups have similar pronunciation challenges is one way to do that. We can use minimal pairs exercises to help and have purchased minimal pair practice books for our teachers.


Biler, Alisha. “Theoretical Foundations for Language Teaching LNG 5710 CURRICULUM GUIDE”. n.d. 

Brown, H. Douglas. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching: A Course in Second Language Acquisition. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education, 2014.

Chrenka, Lynn. “Constructivism and the Role of the Teacher: Misconstructing Constructivism.” Phi Delta Kappan 82, no. 9 (2001): 694–695.

Dormer, Jan Edwards. Teaching English in Missions: Effectiveness and Integrity. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2011. Kindle Edition.

Skehan, Peter. A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 



Teacher feedback:

Good work!  I appreciate the mindset of both a researched and simplistic approach to teaching, and I think you have exemplified that in this philosophy. Some of your approach in the first couple pages is more methdological/process for ministry rather than the core act of teaching, but the latter few pages of your philosophy more directly address these ideas.  


I think you have chosen some great approaches, but I would like to see a bit more about why you want to implement them. So, for instance, you make a great point about focusing on the interactive portions of the class while gathered– why is this important given theories that we’ve discussed? In other words, it’s practical but also theoretically grounded, but be sure to make those connections explicit. Likewise, in the individual differences section, you’ve jumped right to the how you’ll accommodate differences but we want to see a bit more of the why it’s important. 


  • Include at least two scholarly sources that support your writing. Sources that may help you include:
    • The index in Brown [or the syllabus!]
    • The ecology of language acquisition: see Brown’s tree diagram in Ch. 10, p. 302.
    • Sample Teaching Philosophy Paper by Thor Sawin (Note: the example is longer and includes more sources than required)
    • Class presentations


Long said least an SLA theory should do:

Account for universals

Account for environmental factors

Account for variability in age, acquisition rate, and proficiency level

Explain both cognitive and affective factors

Account for form-focused learning, not just subconscious acquisition

Account for other variables besides exposure and input.

Account for cognitive/innate factors which explain interlanguage systematicity.

Recognize that acquisition is not just a steady accumulation of generalizations






Coined in 1833 by German educator Alexander Kapp, the term “Andragogy” as used in the adult education market currently was a term popularized by Malcolm Knowles in referring to the difference in the way adults learn and are taught.  While there is disagreement on whether or not Andragogy (as defined by Knowles) is a theory or a set of guiding principles, the fact remains that the construct speaks directly to the needs of adult learners.   Knowles later in life changed his position on whether andragogy applied only to adults.  He wrote that “pedagogy-andragogy represents a continuum ranging from teacher-directed to student-directed learning” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 275), and he came to the understanding that “both approaches are appropriate with children and adults” (p. 275) in different situations at different times. 


There are six guiding principles of Knowles’ (2005) Andragogy:


  1.     Adults need to know why they need to learn something before learning it.
  2.     The self-concept of adults is heavily dependent upon a move toward self-direction.
  3.     Prior experiences of the learner provide a rich resource for learning.
  4.     Adults typically become ready to learn when they experience a need to cope with a life situation or perform a task.
  5.     Adult orientation to learning is life-centered; education is a process of developing increased competency levels to achieve their full potential.
  6.     The motivation for adult learners is internal rather than external (p. 159).


With this construct in mind we tailor course design and instruction to the needs of learners as we seek to meet them where they are on their respective educational journeys.



Another important theory affecting the curriculum is constructivism.  Constructivism is a theory describing how learning happens.  This theory holds that learners construct knowledge from their experiences. Constructivism describes assimilation as the process whereby learners incorporate new knowledge into an already existing framework using existing “hooks“ in their minds to attach and make sense of new experiences.  Chrenka (2001) noted that the role that teachers play is to “combine their understanding of how students learn with their own expert knowledge of a particular discipline in order to construct a framework for instruction” (p. 694).  In constructivist theory, experience is the index and basis for meaning.  In other words, the theory of constructivism suggests that learners construct knowledge out of their experiences.  As a result, constructivists recognize the importance of placing the cognitive experiences in authentic activities.  Instruction should also attempt to focus the student on the ability to be able to construct and reconstruct plans for learning material in the real world (Applefield, Huber, & Moallem, 2000).     


Vermette, Foote, Bird, Mesibov, Harris-Ewing, and Battaglia (2001) use the following acrostic to create a functional understanding of constructivisms:


Connections: Learning is through connections of new information and previous knowledge.

Options: Choice is a key ingredient for students in the constructivist classroom.

Negotiation: Students should be allowed the freedom to garner a personal understanding of the new information.

Scaffolding:  Teachers assist students to reach new levels of understanding without giving them the direct information.

Time: Time is not a constant for the subject matter in a constructivist model.  Rather, the student’s understanding of the subject is the guide for the amount of time needed.

Rubrics: Rubrics are used to help evaluate.

Understanding: Students must understand (and apply) the information to have learned it.

Collaboration: The building of knowledge in a social context is central to learning.

Technologies: Technology allows for greater resources for personalized research and discovery.

Inquiry: Learning is through inquiry about the subjects.

Variety: Variety of backgrounds, levels of comprehension, learning styles, etc. should all be considered in the constructivist classrooms.

Intentional Teaching:  Though the teacher is a guide in this learning process, he or she is no less a teacher. 

Student-Centered: The focus of constructivism is on the student, not the teacher.

Motivation: Relevance is central to the student’s motivation level.

Standards: Standards are ever-present in the constructivist model in spite of the priority on student-centered learning, etc.  These standards may include the ability of the student to think critically on the subject and perform other cognitive procedures while manipulating his or her knowledge of the subject (Vermette et al., 2001) 


With these ideals as the focus, constructivist curriculum designers can make a program of study that allows the student to learn through and focus upon concepts of value to the student.




Applefield, J.M., Huber, R. L., & Moallem, M. (2000).  Constructivism in theory and practice: Toward a better understanding (theory of learning). High School Journal 84(2), 35-53.


Chrenka, L. (2001).  Constructivism and the role of the teacher: Misconstructing constructivism. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(9), 694-695.


Duffy, T.M., & Jonassen, D.H. (Eds.).  (1992).  Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation.  Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Holmes, A.  (1975).  The idea of a Christian college, Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans.


Knowles, M.S., Holton III, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2005).  The adult learner:  The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th edition).  San Diego:  Elsevier.  


Merriam, S.B. & Caffarella, R.S. (1999). Learning in adulthood (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Vermette, P., Foote, C., Bird, C., Mesibov, D., Harris-Ewing, S., & Battaglia, C. (2001).  Understanding constructivism(s): A primer for parents and school board members. Education, 122(1), 87-93.



Cf. affective

Games / fun

Still have predictability, but variety


Brooks, Jacqueline Grennon, and Martin G. Brooks. In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993.

10 myths about learning a second language

* it is the teacher’s responsibility

* focus of the classroom should be on the teacher… the teacher should lecture a lot

* since we all learned a first language, we already know how to learn a second language

* there is one, simple way to learning a second language

* memorizing grammar is the best way

* learning a second language has to be boring

* learning a second language works the same for everyone

* I don’t need a plan to learn a second language

* I can learn a second language through endless repetition

* my attitudes don’t make a difference in my ability to learn a second language

* the only time someone can learn a second language is when they are a child

* my accent has to be perfect in order to speak a second language



Many language learners are not aware of their goals. But when they are aware, research shows that they make better progress.

It also helps us help you.

Here are some examples of goals, which of these is the most important to you?

  • succeed at work
  • communicate with those I love
  • [get around do life]

[have links for each one to suggested method we offer?]

[citations links]


You own your learning

Closely related to considering your goals is the fact that you own your second language learning. The responsibility is yours, not your teacher. Why? Learning a language is not just increasing in knowledge, like learning history. Rather, it is training in a skill, such as soccer or piano.

This means that the role of your teacher is to be a good coach or trainer, in order to help you learn how to learn.

[citations links]


Meaningful interaction

Our time together is valuable because it is the opportunity for communication. So we do as little lecture as possible and try to create as much opportunity for you to practice communication as possible.

We try to make that interaction meaningful (or even fun!), so that you are prepared for the real world outside the classroom.

Research confirms that this meaningful interaction is actually more effective in learning a second language than memorizing grammar rules, perfecting pronunciation, or many other methods that were used in previous decades.

[citations links]

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