Review ~ Thinking about Language Teaching

A compilation of Michael Swan’s best-known articles over the years, ranging from the academic to the satirical.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Lara Promnitz-Hayashi
Thinking about Language Teaching

Thinking about Language Teaching

Michael Swan is well known in both the teaching and applied linguistics field and has written numerous articles and books over the years. This book is a compilation of his most cited and well-known articles. It has a generic index which lists the title of each article and is followed by an interesting Introduction written by Swan. The book is then divided into 2 parts. Part 1 contains eighteen pedagogic and academic articles which were published between 1985 and 2011. Most of them include a short introduction to the article telling readers about the context in which he originally wrote them and at times includes a reflection and how he would write it differently. Part 2 contains seven satirical pieces on the world of language teaching.

Part 1 includes articles on a wide range of topics within the field of language teaching and theory. It covers topics such as English as a Lingua Franca, text-based teaching, grammar, language teaching versus teaching language, vocabulary, task-based instruction, formulaic language, language courses, learning strategies, teaching methods, and texts. All areas are relevant to language teaching today and Swan is quite open about his thoughts on different teaching beliefs and methods. I can understand how some of his articles could “stir people up” as he does often openly criticize, and this is actually what I enjoyed about reading his articles. Admittedly some of his arguments may seem a little “out there” to some and are not supported with empirical or proven research and they are often just his opinions. In a world of academia this is sometimes refreshing as some of his arguments can lead one to look at language teaching from different perspectives.

His first two articles, A Critical Look at the Communicative Language Approach (1) and (2) written and published in 1985, are my favourites as in many instances he questions the philosophy and techniques of CLT. He critically examines many researchers’ arguments including those of Widdowson, who actually wrote a riposte in response to Swan’s criticism. At the end of the two articles is a written exchange between Widdowson and Swan which is quite amusing as initially when the articles were written there was some animosity between the two yet they later went on to work together and respect each other’s views.

Another interesting article is Language Teaching is Teaching Language. In this article Swan discusses how language teaching is becoming more complicated than when it was just the “four skills”, as nowadays new skills and strategies are constantly emerging, something he thinks is sometimes excessive. He raises some interesting points in that while new methods and strategies are necessary and result in progress, teachers should not use developments as a “quick fix” nor believe that all new methods and strategies are revolutionary.

He puts forth many interesting arguments in his articles and criticizes researchers for not providing empirical support for their theories, yet he unfortunately does not provide evidence in support of his own. I must admit that although there are many issues with his own arguments I did find his articles quite amusing at times and very easy to read and I enjoyed his analogies. I also like how the articles are set out chronologically, which enables us to see how his thoughts have emerged over time.

Part 2 contains seven satirical pieces either written solely by Swan or in collaboration with others. He states that he wrote them to make people laugh, especially as the field of teaching is so serious. I am sure some may find them amusing but I will admit I skimmed through these as I was more interested in his academic papers. However, I did enjoy the piece titled Learning the Piano in Fantasia, Fantasia being an imaginary country on an imaginary planet. All students must take compulsory piano lessons throughout their schooling yet many cannot actually play the piano at graduation. Likewise many of the piano teachers cannot play the piano and the lessons are boring and involve rote learning in order for students to pass exams. The government in Fantasia has asked Swan to help make changes to the curriculum and he then talks about the different areas of potential change and problems associated with them. Although it is written tongue in cheek, teachers can identify with its underlying message.

This book is not what would be classed as a research reference. I would recommend it as a more “food for thought” book. Many academic papers use a lot of difficult terminology and research jargon but what I like about Swan is that he avoids this and often makes very easy and sometimes funny analogies which have the effect of making it understandable for everyone.


Reviewed by Lara Promnitz-Hayashi for December 2012

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