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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Earl Stevick (1923-2013)

contributions by Alan Maley, Tim Murphey, William Acton, Lou Spaventa, Bonnie Tsai, Carolyn Kristjánsson, Nick Bilbrough, Marti Anderson, James W. Brown, Kathleen Graves, Donald Freeman, and Adam Simpson


I first met Earl… by Alan Maley
In the mid-1970s… by Tim Murphey
The affect of Earl Stevick by William Acton
Remembering Earl Stevick by Lou Spaventa
Earl Stevick: A Man to Remember by Bonnie Tsai
Earl Stevick’s Legacy: Behind the Lines by Carolyn Kristjánsson
Islamabad comes home by Nick Bilbrough
Reflections on Earl Stevick . . . by Marti Anderson
Remembering Earl Stevick by James W. Brown
Earl tribute by Kathleen Graves
Remembering Earl Stevick by Donald Freeman
The continuing relevance of Earl Stevick’s seven learning categories by Adam Simpson

I first met Earl… by Alan Maley

I first met Earl at a summer course run by ESADE in Barcelona in 1978. I found him dauntingly intense on first acquaintance, only later coming to appreciate his puckish wit and humour.

The high point of that event was a high-risk, public learning conver¬sation he had on stage with Chris Brumfit to demonstrate the way a Counselling-Learning session might work to revive the vestigial Swahili which Brumfit had acquired in his youth. I have never forgotten the gentle yet firm way Earl scaffolded Chris through that session. It was testimony both to Earl's courage and to his skill. I salute the master!

On leaving Barcelona, he gave me a copy of his hand-produced small collection of poems (Short Texts for Intermediate and Advanced Students of English as an Additional Language, 1977) written in the beautiful copperplate he had taught himself. It seems appropriate to quote one of these texts.


If you try to pull a stamp
off an envelope,
You are likely to tear it.
But if you hold the stamp,
and pull the envelope away from it,
The stamp will not tear.
This really works.
Try it sometime!

People are like that, too.
You can take a lot away from me
If you will leave me as I am,
But if you try to pull me away
From something that I have stuck
myself to,
It will be hard for you, and
very hard on me.
I hope you won't forget this
next time.


In the mid-1970s… by Tim Murphey

In the mid-1970s when I was doing my MA on situationally motivated teacher produced texts, I was much inspired by Earl's 1971 book entitled Writing and Adapting Language Lessons. Later, after meet¬ing him several times at conferences and reading more of his work, I learned that Earl's experience working with the Peace Corps and with people learning 'lesser known' languages gave him an appreciation for how teachers need to adapt materials and themselves to adjust to stu¬dents so they could learn. More recently this is being called the 'social turn' or 'alignment'. Earl Stevick gave me a heightened sense of what I could do to make learning easier for others, and the crucial point was that I needed to study my students. I needed to learn from them as I taught in order to adjust to them, something that Earl modelled so well. His practical books for teachers explained much of what was useful in more erudite studies in psychology, linguistics and commu-nication and scaffolded readers gently into deeper studies. Reading his books, quite simply, makes you want to be a better person, student and teacher.

The affect of Earl Stevick by William Acton

In the early 80s, just out of grad school, I was charged with organizing a day-long colloquium at TESOL for a number of prominent “affective” theorists and researchers in the field. My doctoral research was in that general area, but my role was mainly that of referee. In the run up to the conference there were any number of issues that arose that did not portend well for the session, changes in topics, some heated email exchanges and demands for last minute changes in order of presentation and general format of exchanges following each paper. Of all the presentations, only Earl’s stands out still. His was after lunch. The morning had not gone well, at least for me. The discussions following the presentation were often very contentious; it got out of hand quickly, comments and quips flying about, oblivious to the presence of the chair—and decorum, at times!

I did not know Earl, personally, at that point. One of his early books in the mid-70s had been instrumental in my changing direction from theoretical to applied linguistics and TESOL. As “faith would have it,” I ended up sitting across from him at lunch. All I could think about was how to regain control of the wrangling in the colloquium in the afternoon. Instead of talking about the wild morning, Earl was only interested in talking about my research, family, and work with the Campus Crusade for Christ faculty ministries. He told a couple of stories, too, one I do remember about how an African culture that he had worked with understood the interplay between language and emotion.

I recall walking back to the session with a sense that it was either going to go better or worse--and I was okay with that. What happened, of course, was that Earl’s talk was first, followed by a couple more, including Tom Scovel’s. The morning’s papers had been more directly research and experiment-based, with conclusions often diametrically opposed, irreconcilable, at least at the time. Earl’s, on the other hand, was based on his in depth studies of successful language learners and their “way and ways.”

Very much by design, he wove in the themes and controversies of the morning, albeit in his own often enigmatic and metaphorical texture. Each of the vignettes from these “whole” people brought together and proportionally situated many of the disparate bits of the puzzle, especially the place of affect, with even a short primer on how the brain felt about it as well.

The responses to his remarks, typical of a “post-Stevick” talk, were delightful, ranging from complete lack of understanding but admiration to futile attempts to deconstruct it in service of some minor rabbit trail. The tale, however, stood by itself, a poetic picture of how this all fits together, impossibly complex in some ways, yet marvelously simple and divinely imagined.

Remembering Earl Stevick by Lou Spaventa

As much as I always wanted to say Earl /ste’ vik/, Earl always made a point to let you know that he pronounced it /stee’ vik/. But he didn’t mind if you mispronounced his name. Earl was a gentle soul and a humble one. Earl was scheduled to do a workshop at The School for International Training one spring in the 90s. I was there teaching on the MAT Program. Earl had traveled that day and he was tired. I offered him my room to lie down and rest. One thing led to another and we became correspondents on issues of faith and teaching. He sent me a book that he valued, The Wounded Healer by Henri J. M. Nouwen. From that time on, I considered Earl Stevick a different kind of mentor from what he previously was to me.

Earl Stevick was one of the founding collaborators for The School for International Training’s MATES0L Program. He also was the one who stayed with the program the longest, right to the end of his ability to do so. He felt a connection to the program that many of us, early mentors and students alike, felt over the years. Even as all these years have passed, I remember the first time I encountered Earl. It was in a workshop on memory, meaning and method, one of his early and most memorable books, in which he posed the riddle of the right method. Earl gave us a ten digit number to remember, and then, later in his talk, asked us to recall it. As I remember, we could not recall the number. He was making a point about short term and long term memory. As with most of Earl’s work, he made his points clearly, yet unobtrusively, so that you felt a sense of discovery yourself.

But beyond whatever I could write about Earl Stevick as a thinker, writer, and trainer of teachers, I recall the man – decent, humble, warm and practical, a true son of the Midwest. I will miss him, and miss the thought of him not being in the world. We are diminished by his passing.

Earl Stevick: A Man to Remember by Bonnie Tsai

Everyone learns in about the same way, but some people are better at it than others.
Earl Stevick

Earl Stevick, an educator with a long history as an innovative teacher, trainer and author of incredible books about teaching languages, recently passed away. Besides teaching English around the world he was closely associated with SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont.

After several years of teaching in a great variety of places for the US Peace Corps (in Afghanistan, Brazil, Gabon, India, Iran, Korea, Pakistan, and other countries), Earl wanted to apply what he had learned through those experiences to the preparation of language educators.

Professional, sensitive, creative, imaginative, a maverick, a great educator, and a wonderful human being — these are thoughts that come to mind when I think of Earl Stevick.

When I started to run teacher training courses at Pilgrims, Mario Rinvolurci introduced me to Earl Stevick through his books. One in particular changed my professional life, Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. In this book he wrote about his experiences teaching with Silent Way, Community Language Learning and Suggestopedia. Caleb Gattegno the creator of Silent Way was one of these colleagues in the SIT think tank that set out to revolutionise EFL/ESL teaching in the 1970s.

The message I received from this book was there was not a “right” way to teach but many ways and we as teachers have choices to make with each group. This was brought home to me years later when I had a group in a course using Suggestopedia. I quickly realized very early on that this was not “their way” and that Silent Way would fit their way of learning much better.

This led me to explore in depth the three ways, Stevick described in this book. I followed a number of workshops on Silent Way and shadowed a language course in Lyon, France where Silent Way was being used to teach English. This course was a revelation for me as the course was continued day by day by fewer and fewer students. The teacher remained unconcerned and continued the lessons as she had from the beginning. There was no question of compromise or asking students for feedback on the course. In fact she had her feedback. Silent Way demands a lot from students. The lessons come from them and their needs at a particular point in a course. There is very little material and teachers are free to use the material in their own personal way. Most lessons grow out of what the teacher observes on a particular day. Cuisenaire Rods, a part of Silent Way remains the one teaching tool I would choose if I could only have one to use in my classes.

Earl Stevick in A Way and Ways also wrote about Community Language Learning and its creator, Charles Curran. This is without doubt the most student centered approach to learning and hopefully inspired future teachers to teach in a more student centered approach as opposed to a traditional teacher centered one. Here “learners” decide what they want to say and together create a dialogue or text. The teacher assumes a role of “server” and only approaches when a “learner” signals that he needs the teacher to give him the language he needs. This results in a future lesson based on the language “learners” used in building up their dialogue.

And finally Stevick wrote about Suggestopedia. I was immediately attracted to Suggestopedia because of the way music was used and because of the joyful, playful approach used. He used the word “suggestopedia” to create a positive learning environment in the classroom. Towards the end of his life he wrote more about “de-suggetion” whereby the aim was to transform negative learning experiences into more positive ones. The was just at this time that Georgi Lozanov began to give training course around the world and of course I joined one…in fact several. Eventually I became a Suggestopedic teacher and used it over 7 years in Geneva>

I am sharing this with readers because it was Earl Stevick, who personally changed my beliefs and approach to teaching. Needless to say, it was an intense, stimulating, and exciting time to explore and reconceptualise language education. In his books he often described different lessons he had taught around the world using one of these approaches. What amazed me was he wrote not only about his successes but parts of his lessons that did not work out. I think we and our trainees can learn so much from reflecting on what doesn’t work and why. His philosophy was based on students and their needs. It was never about right and wrong or good or bad. Unlike many others, he was not wedded to a particular methodology but rather to how teaching can best support learning. As a result, he influenced countless numbers of teachers and probably thousands of students as well. His focus was always on what is an effective language teacher and how best to prepare them given the status of language teaching at that time?

You may be wondering about the teacher in Lyon. Her belief was that it was the students’ decision to stay or not to stay in the group. If their decision was to leave the class then so be it. It wasn’t an issue for her. She knew what she as doing. It was up to the students to decide if this way they wanted to learn.

Earl had an important impact, not only on our approach to language education, but on the field of language education in general. Perhaps his most distinctive contribution was his continued focus on the learner more than the teacher. Today, of course, language education has moved in still expanding directions — where proficiency, communicative abilities, and developing intercultural competencies, are all important aspects of our work. In this era, emphasis has shifted to helping educators to develop their own personal approach to language teaching, as appropriate to the needs, contexts and situations of their students. Today teachers normally use a wide variety of activities that are based on multiple sources and methods. Looking back and looking forward, Earl’s contributions to our profession are important and profound and he remains an important educator whose efforts survive through their influence in the work of countless other trainers and educators.

Whether you have read any of his books or not, making sure activities or teaching points are as meaningful as possible to students is a familiar concept in all his books. Many trainers have taken his ideas and used and adapted them in their teaching. The word that always comes to my mind when I think of Earl Stevick is humanistic. It is a word many of us use and while there are many people I think of in connection with this word, in my mind it all started with Earl Stevick.

My last connect with him was round 12 years ago. I was editing an online magazine for an American Accelerated Learning organization called I.A.L. I contacted him about a contributing an article. He not only responded, accepted, but he had the article in on time without any prompting from my part. Truly a great man!


Earl W. Stevick Heinle & Heinle Publishers, Jan 1, 1980 - Language and languages - 304 pages

Earl Stevick’s Legacy: Behind the Lines by Carolyn Kristjánsson

My association with Earl began when, as a doctoral student, I contacted him to request a copy of a TESOL presentation. Not only did I receive the paper as requested, but he expressed interest in my research and asked if he might introduce me to someone with similar interests. He also expressed interest in ongoing interaction with the two of us. I was astonished, delighted, and somewhat intimidated at the thought of engaging in this manner with someone of his stature and intellect, especially when he suggested that he, himself, would benefit from ongoing discussion of a particular matter pertaining to the profession and our shared Christian faith. As I look back at the many email exchanges that followed, I see little evidence of the original issue and guess that any benefit to him on that count would have been limited. I, however, was immeasurably enriched. The sense of community that emerged provided a safe place where I could take risks, explore new ideas, and ask questions, a place where I frequently retreated to sort through my thoughts, a place where I could count on honest, thoughtful, responses as well as constructive criticism wrapped in inimitable Stevick wit, wisdom, and generosity of spirit.

I know I am only one of many whom Earl mentored in his unique “way and ways” throughout the years. In addition to a legacy of published work that preserves the insights of a gifted scholar and master teacher, work that has made him a mentor and source of inspiration to many, Earl has left his mark on the profession by quietly and consistently investing in people behind the scenes, a view eloquently underscored by the record of his personal papers bequeathed to Trinity Western University. At the core of this interaction is the concept of self-giving, an understanding of life’s activities, including teaching, as “sacramental” (Stevick 1990: 94-95). It is a position reflective of one way Earl’s professional practice was informed by his faith.

In the last telephone conversation I had with Earl, the discussion turned to his poetry as it had done from time to time. Some of his poems were privately published for use in language classrooms and a few made their way into some of his books, public talks, and personal correspondence. Many, however, did not. Recently I came across one of these. While the focus is ostensibly on teacher-student interaction, I see it also as representative of interpersonal interaction in general. It is also wonderfully representative of much of what has made Earl’s life and work a living legacy.

In what we say between the lines of what we say,
even and inescapably in what we never say at all,
we SEND a message to our students—
even when no WORD is spoken, a message.
And here between the lines, between the sentences,
here in our moving, in our looking, in our silences,
here, it seems TO ME is hidden
the most weighty, most compelling message
they can ever take away with them. (Earl Stevick, no date)

Stevick, E. W. (1990). Humanism in Language Teaching, Oxford University Press.

Islamabad comes home by Nick Bilbrough

At different stages in my career as a teacher there have been several books which were so inspiring that they made me feel desperate to get into a classroom. Perhaps, the first time I experienced this was in 1996 when I was studying towards the Diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Birmingham (what is now the Cambridge DELTA). Earl Stevick’s, A Way and Ways (Heinle and Heinle 1980) was recommended to me by one of the course tutors and I immediately devoured it, particularly the sections on Community Language Learning. At that time I’d already been experimenting with CLL in Brazil, but it was fascinating to find such a personal and readable account of how it had been used by an expert teacher. Stevick’s reflections on how CLL worked, how it could be made to work better with particular groups of learners, and why it was such a rich learning activity stayed with me for a long time. In many ways they still inform what I do as a language teacher and teacher trainer, and, perhaps most significantly, as a language learner. A Way and Ways was also the first place I encountered Stevick’s own brainchild, the Islamabad technique. I remember how much I’d wanted to try it out with a group of learners and since then I’ve used some version of it with numerous different classes in many different contexts. I’ve seen countless adaptations of it in methodology books and even wrote my own in Memory Activities for Language Learning (2011:36) but Stevick’s original highly detailed explanation of how it works is worth repeating in full (Stevick 1980: 139-141)

“The ‘Little Green Rod Technique’ became the basis for a more elaborate technique which came to be called ‘The Islamabad Technique’. The name came from the fact that the first student who served as ‘originator’ in using the technique talked about Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. There are four basic steps in the Islamabad technique.

  1. A student agrees to serve as originator. The originator describes a city (or other place) which no one else in the room has ever seen. This guarantees that what is said will be genuine communication. It also means that the listeners will not be tempted to superimpose their own memories on what the originator says, and therefore distort it.

    The originator describes the city one sentence at a time. With each sentence, he puts one or more cuisenaire rods (algebricks) into place to represent what he has said. The rods, with their ten lengths and ten corresponding colors, soon form a striking pattern on the tabletop. (This is particularly true if the tabletop has been completely cleared beforehand.)

    The originator speaks either in the target language or in his native language or in both. Whatever the originator’s language or combination of languages, the teacher gives for each sentence a ‘counseling response’ in the target language. On the human level, this provides emotional support. At the same time, on the linguistic level, it gives the originator and the other learners the information they need in order to know what is correct and what is not. With beginning students, the form of the teacher’s response follows the form of the originator’s sentence as closely as possible. Otherwise, it might create confusion. With more advanced students, the response should usually be more flexible. Otherwise it may become monotonous.

    During this first step the other students simply watch and listen. (They frequently report that the concreteness and color of the rods provide a helpful visual focus for their concentration and their imagination.)

    In some classes, the students develop their own unspoken (or even spoken!) rule that the originator must stick to the target language and, worse yet, that he should try to originate without errors. I have even seen some students who spent hours preparing at home when they knew that their turn as originator was coming up the next day. Such classes grow tired of the Islamabad technique after using it a few times, and no wonder. The spontaneity and adventure have been drained out of the technique; instead it comes to be filled with perfectionism, competition and inevitable anxiety.
  2. The teacher retells the description in the target language. It is generally helpful to point at each rod as it is talked about. Some teachers like to retell the description in a more or less hesitant way. With their sentence intonation and their facial expression, they ask the originator to verify the facts in what they are saying. This contributes to the originator’s feeling of status, and therefore to his overall confidence.

    The teacher’s retelling serves two purposes: (a) It allows all of the learners to hear the material again. In fact, by pretending to be confused or absent-minded, the teacher can provide any number of extra repetitions. (b) It gives the teacher a chance to speak more naturally and authentically than when responding one sentence at a time as in Step 1.
  3. The other students take turns pointing to the rods and telling things that they remember from the account. It seems to be important that each student tell only one fact per turn; otherwise, this step can become a contest to see who has the best memory for this sort of thing. This may invigorate the best students, but it very quickly discourages the others. People seem to differ from one another less in their ability to remember single facts that they themselves have chosen, and to differ more in their ability to reproduce a paragraph-sized description that someone else (in this technique, the originator) has provided.

    In step 3, the students are meeting the same material once more. This time however they are recalling it freely from their own memories. At the same time, of course, they are now for the first time carrying responsibility for actually producing it themselves. They have a choice between saying something that they feel fairly sure of, or of trying something that they think they may need to hear again. As in step 1, the teacher gives ‘counseling responses’, not approval, correction, or praise. By listening to the ‘counseling response’ the learners correct most of their own mistakes. At the same time they are spared the deadening impact of the nonverbal messages that come along with conventional techniques.
  4. In the last step of the Islamabad Technique, the other students ask the originator questions about the city (or other place) that he has described. Rods are moved or added to reflect new information. The teacher moves to the edge of the conversation, but is still available as a ‘counselor’ to paraphrase questions and answers. Again it is essential that his nonverbal communications be such as to say, ‘I’m an interested participant in this conversation’. Under these circumstances students still notice and correct most of their mistakes, but the conversation continues. If the teacher’s non-verbal communication says, ‘You’ve just made an error that you can correct by listening to me!’ then the footmen turn into mice, the coach into a pumpkin, and the conversationalists into students who are trying to please their teacher.’

What strikes me as I read through this again now, and what I think made me want to try it when I first read about it, is how much the Islamabad technique emphasizes active listening. It’s about the learners listening to the reformulated models of the teacher (what Stevick refers to as ‘counseling responses’) in a conventional sort of way, but also more importantly, the teacher listening to the needs of the learners, and the learners listening to each other, and to themselves. Like all approaches within the humanistic tradition it sees language learning not simply as a one-way transmission of knowledge, but rather as a self- directed and autonomous process where the levels of emotional well-being of the learners heavily influences whether learning will happen.

Of course, Stevick didn’t invent the idea of teaching through listening to the needs of the learners, and the technique of ‘counseling responses’ is actually probably one of the oldest learning strategies in existence. Neither is it something that is confined to classrooms or to be used exclusively by teachers. It’s what parents do instinctively when supporting the mother tongue development of their children, and it’s almost the default way for interaction to happen when two speakers at different levels of language start talking to each other. It’s certainly been a useful component of the language learning experiences I’ve had.

By way of an example, here’s me chatting on the Santiago metro in 2002 with a man who had a baby the same age as mine. I wanted to ask him if his baby could crawl and used the wrong word in Spanish (gatilla instead of gatea). The listener understood what I’d said, checked with me by recasting with the correct version, and continued smoothly with the conversation. As in the Islamabad technique, it’s me, the learner, who initiates the content and there’s a strong focus on genuine communication, but at the same time there’s a challenge to process language at a higher level than I would be capable of on my own.

Me: y cuantos meses tiene el tuyo? (and how many months old is yours?)
Hombre: nueve (nine)
Me: y gatilla? (and does he ‘pull the trigger?’)
Hombre: Gatea? Gatea. Si (crawl? He crawls. Yeah.)

Fast forward 10 years to February 2012 and I found myself actually in Islamabad, running a course with the British Council for teacher trainers from different parts of Pakistan. I was being been driven around by a young guy called Mohammad who had shared with me a lot about his life here, and also done his best to teach me a few words of Urdu along the way. He confided how his parents had chosen a bride for him who he had never met, and how he was nervous but excited about his approaching wedding. He told me about his long commute to work every day and what it was like to have come from a village, but to be working in a city, a long way from his family. He also told me about the fear that people lived under from Taliban targeted US drone attacks, which had killed many others, including rescue workers, women and children. Mohammed spoke little English and I spoke no Urdu, but he was an excellent communicator and a good teacher. While I was listening to him and supporting him with expressing things in English he was also doing the same thing with me in Urdu. The technique was simple: I’d tell him some simple things about myself in English, (I have three kids for example) and he’d tell me how to say it in Urdu (Meray teen bache hein). I’d then practice it until I felt comfortable that I was saying it OK, with him modelling it again if I wanted it, and then we’d talk some more.

I discussed the approach that Mohammed was using to teach me Urdu with the teacher trainers I was working with, and it felt natural to lead on from this discussion into a demonstration of the Islamabad technique, there in the city which gave it its name. They were enthusiastic about it as a teaching strategy, and we talked about how it could be adapted to suit the teaching of English in state secondary schools in Pakistan, where classes are typically large and made up of low level learners. We also wondered whether it could be extended to focus on writing skills, something that is high priority in the Pakistani education system. When I came back to Pakistan six months later, I was able to observe some of those teacher trainers in the schools where they worked, demonstrating their own take on Islamabad to me, and training other teachers to use it.

Instead of cuisenaire rods, which would be difficult to see in a class of more than 40 learners, they used coloured shapes stuck to the blackboard, or drew shapes with chalk to represent each sentence. One teacher I observed, Asma I., in a girls’ state school in Karachi, asked one of the girls to come up to the front and draw a picture on the board to go with each of the sentences as it was said. Like this the whole class enthusiastically managed to remember 15 reformulated sentences. Most of the learners had very limited experiences of travel so using the Islamabad technique to describe another city may not have been appropriate. Instead, another teacher, (who wishes to remain anonymous), asked the girls to come up with sentences about their school. Ali Usman, a teacher trainer from the Sindh Education Foundation, asked the learners in the class he borrowed to say sentences in Urdu about what they had done on the previous evening, which he then reformulated into English. These were represented on the board by chalk drawings and after six sentences had been built up in this way the learners were asked to write them down in English, something they did with varying degrees of success. At the end of the lesson six learners were interviewed in Urdu by a different person, about the experience of doing the Islamabad technique with Ali. Here’s what one learner had to say (translated from Urdu)

‘At first I got confused because I didn’t know what kind of question he was going to ask but when he asked a question I found it to be easy. We can remember things by drawing pictures the way he did. Sir asked us to write them down in our notebooks ‘the sentences you’ve made, write them down’ This way we learnt how to write them as well as understand them. And we asked our friends what we didn’t understand. Some of the words we couldn’t think of but our friends knew. So we asked each other and kept on writing. I want sir to come to our school to teach us the same way all the English topics then we’ll surely progress. Not only me, but all my friends and all the girls in the school will progress. Everyone says girls don’t know English, they can’t speak. Obviously, in private schools most children speak English and their activities are like this but our school is a Government school. Teachers don’t pay attention to us the way sir has paid attention to us today’

Another teacher trainer, Asma Sheikh, this time in a mixed school in Lahore, used the Islamabad technique as a way of building a story. The class were asked to suggest topics and then choose their favourite one. The story was then built up sentence by sentence, with suggestions from different class members being memory marked on the board with a different coloured square of card. The sentences were then written down from memory by the class working in pairs. Taking suggestions from the class, Asma then produced a definitive list on the board. In negotiation with the learners she then elicited suggestions as to how the sentences could be reordered, and how different parts could be added or taken away in order to produce a more cohesive story. This was an inspired way of using Islamabad to improve writing skills.

Islamabad was also demonstrated in a third school in Lahore, this time a state run secondary school for boys that had recently been adopted by an NGO called the Care Foundation. There were 45 twelve and thirteen year old boys in the class. They had a local coursebook for English classes but little else in the way of learning resources. There was one computer room for the whole school, consisting of about 15 computers which could be used occasionally if it was booked by the teacher in advance. For most of the learners in this class, English was the third language they were learning, behind Punjabi and Urdu, and apart from the English words which have been adopted by both these languages, they did not regularly hear English being used. They did not watch English programmes on television and did not have access to the internet apart from the extremely limited exposure they got in school. Umair Virk, a full time English teacher at the school, filled me in on some of the difficulties faced by such schools in Pakistan.

‘The teachers are not well trained, and they are not well qualified, so the standards they are getting poorer and poorer. Actually they are at the alarming stage. If we talk about the students, their parents are like painters or rickshaw drivers or mechanics so they can’t afford expensive schools. They want that their children should also get the good education level but they can’t afford so that’s the reason they are here in Government schools.’

In this class, taught by myself, but inspired by Asma’s lesson that I had observed on the previous day, the learners opted to create a text about Sport in Pakistan. At the end of the Islamabad cycle we had six sentences on the board, which were reformulated versions of what the learners had suggested:

  1. Cricket is a fascinating game
  2. Everybody loves cricket
  3. Football is less popular than cricket
  4. The national game of Pakistan is hockey
  5. Half the population of Pakistan like badminton
  6. We watch a lot of cricket on TV

As a whole class we then worked together with me asking questions as to which sentence should go where, which bits could be removed and what needed to be added, until eventually the following more cohesive version was up on the board.

Everybody in Pakistan loves cricket because it’s a fascinating game. We watch a lot of it on TV. Despite this, the national game is actually hockey. Football is less popular than cricket and only half the population like badminton.

This text could then be used for some more traditional activities like reading aloud or learning by heart. My gut feeling is that because both the topic and the content of the text had been chosen by the learners it was more motivating for them than working with an imported text. Umair interviewed 6 of the learners afterwards to find out how they had perceived it. This is what he fed back to me.

‘Actually these students are being ignored all the time, if we talk about their parents they are being ignored, even in schools they are also being ignored by their teachers. So that was the best part that really boosted the morale of the students that ‘Oh there is someone, or there are people who really take care of you. They really want to take care of you’. He said that the teacher was very friendly to us, because teachers here in Government schools actually they are like very strict with them. They are not friendly so that’s the reason they can’t even share their expression or they’re not allowed to question them in the class.’

It’s clear that the Islamabad technique is a motivating activity for teachers to use, even in more challenging contexts like Pakistan where classes are large, resources are limited, and opportunities for exposure may be minimal. More importantly though, it’s a motivating activity for learners; it gives them a voice where they may have been denied one, and it demonstrates that the learning of a language need not be a remote and isolating experience, but can be centred around the needs and the interests of the people in the room. Eternal thanks to Earl Stevick for sharing it.


Bilbrough, N (2011) Memory Activities for Language Learning (Cambridge University Press)
Stevick, E (1980) Teaching Languages. A Way and Ways. (Heinle and Heinle)

Reflections on Earl Stevick . . . by Marti Anderson

After teaching the core pedagogy course, Approaches, for several years at the School for International Training Master of Arts in Teaching Program I observed that Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways was easily the most battered book on my shelf. Several years later, having moved on to other professional endeavors and also moving to another continent, A Way and Ways made its way on to the short list of books I brought with me, along with two other titles by Earl Stevick. Of course one could say that choosing books for a move is partially a sentimental feature of knowing the author personally. In this case, however, it was driven more by the fact that I knew I had not yet gleaned everything that was in these books, in spite of more than 20 years of engaging with the ideas found within.

We at SIT long used A Way and Ways in Approaches as part of the grounding upon which students constructed their own sense of their beliefs about teaching and learning languages. I have quoted a favourite passage in countless circumstances on “the inside and between maxim” which points out that the most important elements for learning in the classroom are the thoughts, interactions and, dare I say, energy that exist within the individual and move between everyone present there (p. 4). When trying to figure out a best practice for a teaching or training situation, I come back time and again to “inside and between” to help guide the way.

After years of working with A Way and Ways I realized that what Stevick offered in that book was far more than his experience and perspectives on some of the then new and humanistic pedagogies, Silent Way, Community Language Learning and Suggestopedia. He also provided a model for the philosophical searching that is so critical to a well grounded sense of self as a teacher. In the earlier years of teaching Approaches I focused mostly on the earlier chapters in the book, asking my students to think about death distancing, control and initiative and how their preconceived ideas about teaching and learning might be upended.

At SIT we would offer a Stevick lottery, held at the end of Fall term in mid December. One student, drawn randomly from each Approaches section, would be invited to “Dinner with Earl” at a local restaurant. The lucky students who won found a witty man with a wry and kind sense of humour who was willing to make fun of himself. They also encountered the wise elder who had a rich depth of experience, knowledge and reflection to impart such that one evening of discussion could never be enough.

In later years, I tuned in to two other parts of A Way and Ways, which became equally important to me as other chapters had been. One is the poem preface in which Earl clearly states his intention that his ideas be a foundation on which individuals will build. The second is the final chapter, "The Language Teacher and Dostoyevsky's 'Grand Inquisitor'". Here again I encounter the philosopher sage still on the quest. To this day, I find myself strongly moved as I read this section; moved because I am reminded that there is so much to know, about teaching, about life.

Earl Stevick, in this book, and in so many other ways, offered an example of a life of thoughtful inquiry, "handling with courage the mystery behind mystery, playing out her part in simple, daily miracle." (p. 295). Thanks for all the reflection you provoked in me and countless others. You are dearly missed, Earl.

Remembering Earl Stevick by James W. Brown

When I started as editor of the Newbury House (now National Geographic Learning) ESL program in 1982, Earl Stevick’s two groundbreaking books, Memory, Meaning and Method and A Way and Ways were already in print. But Newbury House in those days was like a small family and I came to know him and to rely on his judgment, sense of humor and wisdom.

Although his work was as scholarly and grounded as anyone else's, what really distinguished it was his lyrical prose style, unlike any other in the field. This is the opening paragraph of Memory Meaning and Method:

"By speech we design great bridges and fight wars, we express our deep feelings and spiritual aspirations, and even set forth our most subtle linguistic theories. We can talk, we can talk about talk, we can talk about talk about talk, and so on forever. Language is the special treasure of our race. It depends on what we call the mind, but it comes out of the entire person. To learn a second language is to move from one mystery to another."

In the epilogue of A Way and Ways is a poem that I assume was one of his own:

"What I have sung to you is not me,
But it comes from where I have come from.
And who I have sung to is not you,
But someone I hope is in you.
We will go, you and I, late or soon,
But the singing was here, like a rope--
like a bridge--
And we were the ends of it.
Singing is all there is.
Sing to me!"

It could almost be his epitaph.

Earl tribute by Kathleen Graves

In 1996, faculty at the School for International Training (SIT) presented Earl with an appreciation of the impact his writing and yearly seminars had had on each of us. The title page explains that “In the first edition of Memory, Meaning and Method there is a line in the acknowledgments that thanks the faculty of the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at the School for International Training for listening to you, responding to you and helping you. It is our turn, now, to thank you for listening to us, responding to us and helping us. In the pages that follow, we put our thanks into words.”

Here is what I wrote, with very little modification, because the words still hold true:

Two words that are a vital part of my teaching lexicon I owe to you, Earl: control and initiative. With those two words I have prodded teachers to think about the roles of students, and their role with respect to language and to who does what and why in the classroom. With those words I have pushed teachers to widen their vision of what is possible in a classroom. After using them for a few years in teaching and supervision, I reread Chapter 2 of A Way and Ways and found that I had given them my own interpretation, using them in a different way than you may have originally intended. That didn’t faze me. Like a fine painting or a good novel, your writings permit me to build my own personal vision, each time finding something new to add, or a different way of seeing.

When I tell my students that each time I read Chapter 2 of A Way and Ways I learn something new, I am not being humble, I am being truthful. One reason that all of your writing has that power is because you speak from your experience and the experiences of others so I feel grounded in something I understand, and you offer your insights in words that help me to illuminate my own experience. A few years ago I taught a course on teaching the four skills. We were studying the relationship between reading and writing and one of the teachers in the course talked about the connection between the words author and authority. Generally, authority is understood as being the author’s. However, in your writing (and in your teaching), you help the reader discover his or her authority. Your writing is always clearly a stretch on a journey that you invite your reader to travel with you, as a clear-sighted, and straight-talking (Anglo Saxon) guide. As I travel each road with you, I discover in your questions my authority as learner and teacher.

Earl loved language, not only writing about language, but using it-- to write poetry, to tell jokes, to offer counsel, to untangle ideas, to shake us up, to make us think. He was our philosopher, a visionary with his feet firmly planted on the ground.

Remembering Earl Stevick by Donald Freeman

Sometimes you meet a teacher who makes a lot of sense, someone who embodies a sort of coherence who in they are and in what they do; someone who ‘walks the talk’ and ‘can talk various walks’. This coherence is not a narrow or restricting kind of alignment; it’s an open-ended parallelism. It’s an internal balancing act, a pairing of acting with thinking, a sort of ‘Well, if this is true, then this is what we do’ or ‘If this is what we’re doing, then this must be what we assume to be true’.

For me, Earl Stevick was that kind of teacher. I first met him while doing my MA, when he came to Brattleboro to introduce us to Counseling-Learning and Community Language Learning. CL/CLL, as it was known, was an approach to teaching and learning developed by Charles Curran based on the work of Carl Rodgers. Earl presented the teaching approach in a demonstration class, which he taught in ki-Swahili. (He was at the time a supervisor of African languages at the US Foreign Service Institute, and this was one of his languages.) The class was transformative on many levels, not just the experience of what we call now ‘a deeply humanistic pedagogy’ but perhaps more basically, the encounter with a teacher who was at once wise, sensible, and more than a bit iconoclastic.

I subsequently got to know Earl when I joined the faculty at SIT. He would come every fall to meet and work with the new class of MA students. The way he approached those visits was emblematic of who he was. He always asked to have dinner with a small group of current students the evening before his seminar, during which he’d gently probe their thinking and the sorts of issues they were concerned about. Then as he taught the seminar the next day, he would interweave the concerns and ideas he’d heard and he would trouble their assumptions and boundaries.

This latter part was where his iconoclasm entered in. One year the pre-seminar dinner conversation had centered on getting feedback from students: How and when to ask for it as a teacher, how to manage your vulnerability and to maintain authority and remain in charge while asking for what could feel like criticism. Earl worked with the issue. At various points during the day he talked about the deep reasoning behind getting feedback from students (‘You don’t ask for it just because you think it’s right to do. You ask for it because, without that access to what students are thinking, you cannot know how to proceed and so you can end up assuming thing.’) And he demonstrated techniques for what we’d refer to now as ‘assessment for learning’ (teaching so as to make students’ learning more visible and publicly accessible). He closed the day’s seminar by asking the group for feedback. An MA student spoke up about how nervous he got when asking the class for their feedback on an activity. Earl smiled in the bemused way he had and replied ‘Well, you know if you’re not ready for feedback, don’t ask for it.’

In this iconoclastic comment, he left space to be human, and not to worry too much about it. For me, that was what made Earl the teacher he was, a teacher that made sense.

The continuing relevance of Earl Stevick’s seven learning categories by Adam Simpson

‘Earl Stevick – a great scholar, humanist and guide.’
Scott Thornbury, 2010

If I were to ask you to reel off a list of names of those that you feel have had the greatest influence on language teaching and learning over, say, the last century, there is one name that would more often than not be conspicuous by its absence. Earl Stevick may not be the first name to trip off the tongue, but his life’s work has nonetheless had considerable influence on our profession.

On top of a career that saw him undertake pioneering teaching work in Africa, as well as being a key player in developing the communicative approach (and learning fourteen languages along the way), Stevick published four groundbreaking books which addressed the significance of the human being in the process language learning and acquisition. One of these, ‘Success with Foreign Languages: seven who achieved it and what worked for them’ was based on research investigating the factors which led to the success of learners in acquiring a second language.

Published way back in the 1980s, this title saw Stevick placing his research subjects into different learning categories according to their preferred learning environment. While three decades have passed since its publication, and with consideration of the changes that have occurred in education in that time, what I’d like to do in this article is to show that Stevick’s categories are still as relevant today as they were when first published. Furthermore, I will propose a list of strategies for catering to Stevick’s learner categories in the contemporary classroom.

1. Stevick’s seven learning categories

As we look into Stevick’s categories, which I shall briefly explain here, I’d like you to think about your learners. Remember: I consider these to still be relevant and will be suggesting ways to work with each of these categories when we meet such learners. Consequently, I’d like you to imagine which category you think each of your learners would fall into, so that you can join me in starting to think about which strategies you might apply in class to address their needs.

1.1 The Intuitive Learner

Earl Stevick’s Intuitive Learner was a well-educated woman, learning Norwegian with the intention of later moving to Oslo. For this learner oral perception is vital. Hearing the sound and vocalizing it aloud are important in order to interpret the language. Furthermore, visual exercises are not an important part of her learning process. Intuitive learners rely on repetition to acquire a near-native like their pronunciation errors to be corrected.

1.2 The Formal Learner

Stevick’s Formal Learner was a diplomat who studied Chinese, primarily using the audio-lingual approach, preferring to repeatedly listen and gradually absorb the language. Formal learners practice pronunciation through repetition. Therefore, they tend to like repeating after the teacher and using newly acquired language first in simple sentences and later in more advanced utterances.

1.3 The Informal Learner

Stevick’s third student, an Informal Learner, was a young secretary studying Portuguese and German. She preferred to live in a country that speaks the foreign language as a first language; therefore, she lived for a while in Brazil and then Germany. An important facet of informal learners is that, by being forced to use the language while living in a country they acquire it, rather than learning it formally.

1.4 The Imaginative Learner

Stevick’s next student was a middle-aged executive who was learning German, Russian and Finnish. This student, categorized as an Imaginative Learner, exhibited a high degree of originality and imagination. Stevick thus noted that imaginative learners employ what is known as the ‘cognitive audio-oral bilingual’ method, the fives steps of which are identification, reproduction, understanding, manipulation and application.

1.5 The Active Learner

The fifth student was categorized as an Active Learner and was a young military officer studying Swahili. This learner typified active learners, in that he was eager to learn and preferred to read texts aloud in order to improve general language comprehension.

1.6 The Deliberate Learner Stevick’s sixth student was a young woman learning Arabic and Hebrew. This student was seen as a Deliberate Learner due to the strategy she used when learning dialogues and grammar. Deliberate learners are characterized as being highly dependent on the course material and like to have the chance to look through class material before class.

1.7 The Self-aware Learner

Stevick’s final student was categorized as a Self-aware Learner and was professional linguist and supervisor of language instruction learning Japanese. She practiced her oral skills with a native family, thus developing her grammatical and oral skills. Stevick’s self-aware learners are characterized as the type of learners who incorporate grammatical rules when explained to them and put these rules in practice.

2. Are these categories still relevant?

I’m sure that while you were reading through these categorizations, particular students started springing to mind. Were you able to think of a certain student that you would label as a formal learner, for example? Perhaps you consider another of your students to be a classic example of a deliberate learner? Reflecting back on more than a decade of teaching, I can ascribe pretty much all of the people I’ve taught as belonging to one of these categories. Nevertheless, it is useful to look at each category and really consider if the characteristics they represent are all still relevant in the modern learning environment.

2.1 Students base language learning assumptions on previous experiences

At the time of Stevick’s research, he encountered students with previous language learning experiences that were influencing the way they were approaching their current studies. Stevick’s original intuitive and formal learners stated that they were learning the language of study in the same way as they had learned English, starting with basic dialogues based on repetition. Now, as then, people are learning more than one additional language in similar ways, hence the continuing prevalence of short, repetitive dialogues in course books. Indeed, the similarity in design of course books as a whole, while not solely attributable to Earl Stevick, can nonetheless be seen as confirmation of the way that many types of student set out on their language learning journey.

2.2 Students have ideas about language learning that are based on what works for them

As time has passed, certain methodologies have moved in and out of fashion. One defining characteristic of Stevick’s formal learner was the dependence on and trust in the audio-lingual method. Furthermore, drilling was an important part of this person’s language learning. Such techniques have become less popular in the decades following Stevick’s research almost certainly to the detriment of some language learners. Stevick’s endeavor of categorizing students according to how they learn was an important acknowledgment that not all learners go about learning in the same way. When we see student unrest in the classroom, it often stems from having to work with course materials that are based on learning philosophies that go against their preferred methods. Having previously noted that, in general, course books do a good job in setting students off on their journey, it is wrong to adopt a ‘one course book fits all’ philosophy: Stevick showed us that people learn in different ways and that is still something we need to appreciate.

2.3 Some students have preference for visual stimuli, while others don’t

Stevick’s categorization of learners arrived right between Kolb’s experiential learning model of the early 1970s and Fleming’s Visual Auditory Kinesthetic (VAK) model of 2001. Very few issues stir the blood of language teachers as much as the notion of learning styles. With this in mind, it is nice to view Stevick’s learner categories as a mid-point of sorts, not only chronologically, but also in terms of labeling a student as having only one particular kind of learning style. Whereas other models have attempted to pigeonhole learners according to one manner of learning, Stevick’s categorizations often merely suggest a preference for a particular method. Informal learners, for instance, are said to benefit from visual stimuli, thus fitting quite comfortably into the visual learner category. Imaginative learners, however, are classified as gaining from both auditory and visual input, thus making them more difficult to categorize according to other learning style models. Stevick showed us that, although each learner will have preferences as to what form of input they receive, it should never be a clear cut case of using the same type of materials all the time.

2.4 Every part of a course book is important to someone

The genius of the contemporary language course book is, unfortunately, also its curse. Hopefully, even my brief description of the learner categories in the first part of this article was enough for you to be able to see how certain course book activities are of greater importance to particular learners than to others. While intuitive learners will enjoy pronunciation guides and tasks that look at the phonetic alphabet, for instance, self-aware learners will hone in on grammar explanations. All in all, there are always things that appeal to some students and not others. Indeed, modern course books have perhaps taken Stevick’s work too much to heart by trying to please all of the categories all of the time. Nevertheless, an awareness of these seven learning categories will give all of us more of an appreciation as to how and why course books have been influenced by Earl Stevick, and are still put together the way they are.

3. How to work with these categories in class

While Earl Stevick is not alone in being a major influence on the way we think about language teaching in the early 21st Century, we can hopefully now see that his work is most certainly still as relevant as ever. As such, we also probably recognize why it is such a challenge to try and create a classroom environment that is stimulating and motivating for a diverse range of students. There are, however, a number of fundamental principles that we can all apply to try and facilitate an effective learning environment for each category of learner in our classes. Here are some suggestions that can be quite easily implemented.

3.1 Intuitive learners

Such learners place great importance on pronouncing words in as near a native-like way as they can.

  • Teachers might incorporate exercises on phonetics to familiarize learners with phonetic transcriptions. Phonetic transcription enables students to learn the correct pronunciation of words and therefore acquire a native-like pronunciation.

Simplifying a conversation or text does not necessarily benefit the intuitive learner.

  • Such learners thrive on cognitive and oral challenges in the form of authentic input; understanding might be facilitated through the use of accompanying pictures or symbols. Consider supplementing course book texts with something a little more difficult

Intuitive learners employ the ‘bottom-up’ technique and prefer to work with a complete text rather than isolated sentences or phrases.

  • Such learners can be encouraged to supplement class work with texts and resources of their own choosing. Individual analysis might take place as homework outside of class, with findings shared with peers.

3.2 Formal learners

Formal learners like to start with basic dialogues and then progress to more advanced examples.

  • The key is to do short listening activities often – perhaps every lesson - and work up to longer tasks, which can be done on a less regular basis

Such learners wish to be corrected when pronouncing words or sentences incorrectly.

  • Consider different ways of correcting pronunciation without placing too much pressure on the student. They might be encouraged to use recording devices and send you digital samples, for instance.

Drills are beneficial to the formal learner.

  • In order to make this beneficial to all, repeat drills of things covered from the previous lesson(s).

Formal learners like to use vocabulary cards.

  • Develop – or, even better, get students to do this - a vocabulary bank of cards whenever new words or phrases are introduced in class. Use these to revise on regular occasions.

3.3 Informal learners

These learners tend to acquire, rather than learn, the language.

  • Acquisition can be facilitated by encouraging discussion through blogs, chat sites and by inviting native speakers or other English speakers to class.

Informal learners are risk-takers that enjoy being placed in situations that might make other students uncomfortable.

  • Create opportunities for informal learners to show what they can do. Again, inviting guest native speakers to class or finding such people for them to interview will be very motivating.

Such learners don’t, however, feel comfortable speaking in a larger group.

  • Small groups are ideal for enabling informal learners to participate in conversations in class. Think about this when designing group activities.

Informal learners don’t enjoy analysing longer texts and are challenged by reading literature.

  • Be flexible about policies that require students to read graded readers, although such learners should be encouraged to make the most of reading from their course books in class.

3.4 Imaginative learners

Imaginative learners like both a visual and oral input.

  • Provide exercises that are both of a visual and oral nature. Video clips with subtitles facilitate such needs.

Such learners are not stimulated by sticking to a prescribed curriculum.

  • Although a curriculum is there to be followed, the imaginative learner will enjoy creative ways of interpreting learning objectives, such as role plays, posters and presentation tasks.

3.5 Active learners

Like imaginative learners, active learners are both a visual and oral learners.

  • Again, provide exercises that are both of a visual and oral nature. PowerPoint presentations supported oral delivery of information work well with such learners.

Active learners prefer the focus to be on their strengths rather than weaknesses.

  • Provide opportunities to develop their strengths rather than weaknesses. Give such students a task where they are able to achieve a high mark, such as yes/no response questions to a challenging text.

Focusing on pronunciation and text work, rather than grammar, benefits such learners.

  • When doing reading and listening activities, tasks should focus on comprehension of the text instead of exploiting the material to examine its grammatical features.

3.6 Deliberate learners

Deliberate learners are organised and require a clear structure to lessons.

  • Aim to provide rough lesson plans, or at least an outline of what will be done, either at the end of the previous day’s classes or at the start of a lesson.

Deliberate learners require a more ‘traditional’ learning style, with lists, rules and strict routines.

  • Diagrams are important for the deliberate learner, so exercises involving such visual stimuli will go down well. Also, establishing patterns for things such as homework will be helpful.

Such learners want to know as much as possible about the native speakers of the language.

  • Teachers might aim to provide culturally focused materials and tasks for the students

3.7 Self-aware learners

Such learners want opportunities to use what they have recently learned.

  • Use tasks that incorporate the acquired knowledge in conversations or other activities. This is an opportunity to do review activities to emphasize that what has been learned will now be put into action.

Self-aware learners might be too confident in their ability to master grammatical terms.

  • Exploit those ‘grammar boxes’ in course books with such learners specifically in mind. Provide supplementary gap-fill exercises to develop use of new grammar.

Lessons that are less teacher-led will go down well with self-aware learners.

  • Where possible, look for opportunities to hand over control of certain parts of lessons, such as in deciding how a group activity might proceed. Assign self-aware learners as the head of a group and give minimal instructions about how to complete an activity, placing the initiative on them to decide the best course of action.


Thornbury, S. (2011). S is for (Earl) Stevick. accessed 15th January, 2014

Suggested reading

VanPatten, B. & Williams, J. (eds.) (2007). Theories In Second Language Acquisition: an introduction. Routledge.

Block, D. (2003). The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition. Edinburgh University Press.

Gieve, S. & Miller, I. (eds) (2006). Understanding the Language Classroom. Palgrave Macmillan.

van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006). Understanding Language Teaching: From Method to Postmethod. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hoey, M. (2005). Lexical Priming: A new theory of words and language. London: Routledge.

Larsen-Freeman, D. and Cameron, L. (2008). Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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