Lindsay Clandfield answers a question on how to create an appropriate classroom culture to encourage learning.

I work for IBM China Lab. I am participating in an English training program. However, I find effective language training is more than giving out lectures and arranging for students to watch some English movies. 


Through exploration of a number of articles about language education I've found that effectiveness of a second language teaching or training lies in fostering a classroom culture in which the "foreign-ness" of the language is reduced. If the culture is lacking, any technique will be perceived by the students as a gimmick. We never run out of resources for language training. However, one question we ask ourselves is whether we're fostering the culture or creating gimmicks?


I would like to understand if you consider classroom culture equally as important as the language taught in it and, if so, how can that culture be nourished?


Yu Liu

Dear Yu Liu

Your question is a very good one, and I think it goes to the heart of teaching a foreign language. The teaching/learning culture you mention sounds to me very much rooted in what has been called the humanistic approach to language teaching. Scott Thornbury, in the A to Z of ELT (Macmillan, 2006) gives an excellent summary of humanistic approaches:

The term humanistic describes learning approaches that assert the central role of the ‘whole person’ in the learning process. Humanistic approaches emerged in the mid-twentieth century partly as a reaction to the ‘de-humanizing’ psychology of behaviourism, but also as a counterbalance to exclusively intellectual (or cognitive) accounts of learning, such as mentalism. The titles of some of the key texts on humanistic education give a flavour of its concerns: Carl Rogers’ On Becoming a Person (1961) and Freedom to Learn (1969); Abraham Maslow’s Towards a Psychology of Being (1968) and Gertrude Moscowitz’s Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class (1978). Some basic tenets of humanistic education include the following:

  • Personal growth, including realizing one’s full potential, is one of the primary goals of education.
  • The development of human values is another.
  • The learner should be engaged affectively (i.e., emotionally) as well as intellectually (→ affect).
  • Behaviours that cause anxiety or stress should be avoided.
  • Learners should be actively involved in the learning process.
  • Learners can – and should – take responsibility for their own learning.

But, as you say, how can this be nourished? There have been many books written with humanistic activities for the language classroom. I’ve found, personally, that some ‘humanistic’ activities really don’t appeal to me or my learners at all. Maybe they are gimmicks, as you and your colleagues suggest. I’ve come to think, though, that teaching humanistically in a broad sense involves more than just using specific activities or resources (for a “Friday afternoon lesson”).

Practical examples of things I do with my classes

1. I try to teach in a class-centred way. Class-centred teaching is a term I discovered from Rose Senior (1). It means paying attention to the group dynamics of the class, and try to encourage the class to work cohesively. This is especially true if I’m doing pair work or group work. Teaching in a class-centred way is, by its nature, culturally-sensitive. It means the teacher takes into account the particular needs, expectations and culture(s) within that group.

2. When I set tasks, especially to adult and young adult learners, I explain the purpose and aim behind them. I do this especially for tasks which could be interpreted as “gimmicks”.

3. I try to be sensitive when correcting learners, especially in open class work or fluency work. I see their errors as evidence of learning, and while I do provide a focus on accuracy (in correction slots after activities, or during activities when I want them to get it “right”) I try to give them plenty of chances to use the language imperfectly too, to get used to it.

4. In my experience, positive feedback from the teacher has a very good effect. I try to reward success at every chance I get, even if it’s just to reward a good attempt. In this way I am helping my students' feeling of self worth and enhancing their self concept in English. Depending on the student and situation I do this publicly (in front of the others) or privately.

5. To help encourage students’ use of English, I have used their own examples of language for further work. So for example, I’ve made grammar exercises using sentences from the students’ writing. I’ve also taken a piece of a student’s writing and tidied it up to serve as a model for future writing. I also try to include personalization language practice activities to allow students to make the language more 'their own'.

6. A few weeks into a course, I begin asking students for feedback on the activities. What works for them? What is difficult? What would they like to do more? I use this information to plan future activities, thus negotiating parts of the syllabus with them.

The combination of strategies such as these – more than particular exercises or activities – help, in my mind, to foster the culture of learning that you are talking about.