Pilgrims HomeContentsEditorialMarjor ArticleJokesShort ArticleIdeas from the CorporaLesson OutlinesStudent VoicesPublicationsAn Old ExercisePilgrims Course OutlineReaders LettersPrevious EditionsTeacher Resource Books Preview

Copyright Information

Would you like to receive publication updates from HLT? You can by joining the free mailing list today.


Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 3; September 04

Short Article

The humanistic lesson:
student primacy in a world of meaningful interaction

primary, secondary and adult

Jonathan Clifton

In 'Working with teaching methods. What's at stake' (1998) Stevick defines humanistic language learning as a method in which the learner is "an object of primary value in a world of meaningful action". To unpack this statement: an object of primary value means that the learner is the driving force of the lesson - the leader rather than the led. Secondly, meaningful action signifies that what the learner says, does, thinks, or feels during the lesson makes a difference to him or her.

Failure to treat the learner as an object of primary value in a world of meaningful interaction can easily lead to the evaluative paradigm, whereby the students are evaluated according to the teacher's criteria on their performance of tasks of the teacher's choosing. The evaluative paradigm is realised in the classroom through the classic initiation-response-feedback (IRF) pattern (i.e. the teacher asks a question, the student responds and his/her response is then evaluated by the teacher). Moreover, if the IRF sequences occur in a recursive chain this disempowers the student who becomes a prisoner in the teacher's web of dominance. Ionesco parodies this kind of dominance only too well in his comic drama 'The lesson'. In 'The lesson' the student is constrained to reply to ridiculous questions which leads to a dialogue of the absurd as exemplified in the following extract from the play:

I Professor: If you had two noses and I'd plucked one off, how many would you have left?
I Pupil: None.
F Professor: What do you mean - none?
Pupil: Well, it's just because you haven't plucked one off that I've still got one now. If you had plucked it off, it wouldn't be there any more.
Professor: You didn't quite understand my example. Suppose you only had one ear.
Pupil: Yes. And then?
I Professor: I stick on another one. How many would you have?
R Pupil: Two.
F + I Professor: Good. I stick on yet another one. How many would you have?
R Pupil: Three ears.
I Professor: I take one of them away - how many ears - do you have left?
R Pupil: Two.

This style of teaching transforms an eager pupil into the prey of 'the professor' who in the end saps all the student's willingness to learn, ensnares her in his web of power and crushes her physically and morally.

However, the question remains: how, in terms of classroom interaction, can we as humanistic teachers/facilitators avoid dominating our students and how can we create a learning environment where the learner is an object of primary value in a world of meaningful action. I would suggest that in order to offer the learner the possibility of having primacy in a world of meaningful interaction we can free up the turn taking system of classroom interaction and move away from a system which traditionally gives the teacher the initiative (i.e. the first turn in a sequence). Changing the turn taking system so that the learner has the opportunity to take the first turn in a sequence gives the learner control of the development of topic. Consequently, they can build their own narrative and express their own reality. In this way the learner creates a stage for meaningful action which is to say action directed by themselves rather than by the teacher. The humanistic teacher's role is to use the second turn in the sequence to provide constructive feedback and to help the learner express themselves in the target language. This facilitative pattern of interaction thus replaces the traditional teacher-student-teacher (IRF) pattern of interaction with a learner-facilitator-learner pattern of interaction which could be described as learner talk in the initial turn followed by feedback from facilitator who then cedes the floor to the learner to allow him or her to continue with their talk. This pattern is exemplified in the following extract taken from naturally occurring classroom interaction. The learner, a French businesswoman who needs 'professional' English for her job, has been asked to 'build' her factory using cuisinaire rods and to describe the factory and work processes as she 'builds':

1 Learner This is the office building. Here is the switchboard.
2 Facilitator 0r reception?
3 Learner Reception and switchboard. Here is the scale er pont bascule.
4 Facilitator Er yeah yeah special word special word weighbridge.
5 Learner Oh voilà!
6 Facilitator It's the (slight pause) because we have the word in English a scales but that's for shopping and that kind of thing but when you put a lorry on this kind of thing to check the weight.... a weighbridge.
>7 >Learner Weighbridge er the truck with the waste paper comes on this bridge and the receptionists wait the truck.
>8 >Facilitator >She weighs it. The verb to weigh (writes word on blackboard).
9 >Learner >Okay and we have several office, the canteen with the manager, with my office with the sales assistant, meeting room and so on.
10 Facilitator All the administrative part of the company.
11 Learner And after that we have the production. The truck come here for the expedition of finished product……quai de chargement
12 Facilitator loading bay

The facilitator has set up the exercise in such a way that the learner has complete freedom in what she says and how she structures her description. This gives her the opportunity to take a primary role in meaningful action. The facilitator's role is limited to providing feedback and correction but once this has been provided the learner still keeps the floor and continues her description of her world to the facilitator. Therefore, in line 2 the facilitator offers the word 'reception' which is an improvement on the learner's 'switchboard', in line 8 the facilitator offers the term 'weighbridge' to replace the non-standard use of scales, in line 11 the facilitator offers the word 'weigh' and in line 17 the facilitator offers the translation for the 'quai de chargement'.

In this way the learner achieves primacy in that she controls the flow of the lesson and is assisted by the facilitator who has an auxiliary role. Secondly, the action becomes meaningful to the learner because it comes from her. It is not dictated by the exigencies of a textbook or the teacher's own desire to have primacy in his or her own world of meaningful interaction.

To conclude with a metaphor: through feeding back help on language use, the facilitator provides the fuel which drives the motor of the learner's journey towards competence in the target language but it is the learner rather than the facilitator who is in the driving seat. The learner thus has primacy in a world of meaningful interaction.


Ionesco, E. 1958.The lesson. London: French
Stevick, E. 1998.Working with teaching methods. What's at stake?. Boston: Heinle & Heinle
Next page
Back to the top