'Humanism' is one of those constructs that people argue about passionately. Instead of attempting to define it, perhaps it makes more sense to focus on some commonly agreed characteristics of humanism.

Humanistic language teaching - methodology article

These are: problem-solving, reasoning, free will, self-development, and co-operation.

  • Humanism and learning theory
  • The humanistic teacher
  • Humanism in practice
    • Teaching language items
    • Teaching skills
    • The teacher's status
    • Flexibility
  • Conclusion


Humanism and learning theory
Perhaps the most well-known applications of humanism in ELT are those of Curran (1976) and Gattegno (1972).

  • The former advocated the use of 'Counselling-Learning'. In this practice, teachers sit outside a circle of learners and help them to talk about their personal and linguistic problems. The students decide the 'curriculum', while the teacher is more of a facilitator, who fosters an emotionally secure environment.
  • Meanwhile, Gattegno advocated the Silent Way approach. In this, he presented challenges for learners. These challenges developed the students' awareness and encouraged their independence.


It's my view that it's possible to apply the characteristics of humanism to ELT in a less radical way than described in the practices above. In a way that might be more appealing for students, more practicable for teachers, and more plausible for education inspectors.

The humanistic teacher

The humanistic teacher should have a good grasp of language learning theories. They will realise the importance of change, which is implicit in all learning.

  • They will be aware of the individual learners' 'developmental readiness' (Piaget, 1970), which will determine when and how to teach each student something.
  • They will offer their students problems to solve, as, according to cognitivists, this is precisely how we learn things.
  • Above all, the successful humanistic teacher will probably be a pragmatist - allowing a combination of language learning theories and their own experience to interact with each other to produce effective language lessons.


The humanistic teacher also needs to be aware of what motivates their students. Some will probably want to learn English because they have to (e.g. for their job), while others want to simply for the sake of it. The former is called 'extrinsic motivation', while the latter is called 'intrinsic motivation'.

  • Those students who are more extrinsically motivated will be more goal-oriented and might want, for example, a lot of tests and exams.
  • Students who are intrinsically motivated will derive a lot of satisfaction from solving language problems - the solution will be a reward in itself.


In reality, of course, students can be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. They may be learning English for a specific purpose (e.g. to be accepted into a speech community or to get promotion), but they might also really enjoy the process of learning.

  • Teachers need to be aware of this mix and need to use this information to determine issues like:
    • How much testing to do
    • How much fun can be had
    • Should the target language be representative of one particular speech community or not?

Humanism in practice 

Teaching 'language items'
In an attempt to be a humanistic language teacher myself, I introduce every new language item at the optimum time of readiness for my class.

  • I firstly elicit the target language. This fosters a sense of co-operation between the students and me.
  • Then I try to make the meaning of the language items as clear as possible by using a number of techniques (e.g. pictures, mime, or a mini-explanation). Such work on the concept of the target language needs to be repeated later in a way that is appropriate to the abilities and progress of the group.
  • At the appropriate time, students also need to practise speech production by saying or writing the target language.
  • After enough practice, through both teacher-centred and student-centred phases, the student should gradually learn the target language. The student will have fundamentally changed.


Teaching skills
As I want my classes to be able to understand the 'gist' of a spoken interaction, I make sure that they are mentally prepared for it. This means that:

  • The 'text' is not dauntingly hard for them
  • I create the right conditions for understanding the text by, for example, arousing interest and pre-teaching lexis
  • Then, by setting an appropriate task I am setting a problem for the students to solve. If I can steer my students towards focusing on the main points of the text then I am enabling learners to become more successful listeners.
  • After this, students can be encouraged to carry out their own, related, role plays, with the result that students' ability to carry out certain situation-specific interactions will be enhanced. It's worth noting that these principles relate to reading texts too!


The teacher's status
It cannot be denied that the teacher plays a different role from that of his/her students. We each have a particular job. This does not mean, though, that we have higher status. We are certainly not in the classroom to order people around. I try to provide students with learning opportunities, which the students are free to take or not.

  • However, if a student chooses not to take up an opportunity, and then goes on to become a malign influence in class, I then ask the rest of the class if their learning is being affected and whether they want the offending student to stay in class or not. I then have the authority to ask the student to leave.


Without flexibility, a teacher cannot teach humanistically, because students will never learn completely in step with any designated syllabus. This is why I always make a point of observing my students very carefully so that I know when to introduce certain tasks, according to the progress they're making.

  • The same applies to lesson plans. I know that if I plough on through my plan regardless of how my students are responding, some students will be lost forever and lose confidence both in me and their own ability to learn English.


The thrust of humanism seems, to me, to be the ability to advance as a species through understanding and co-operation. This means that humanistic language teachers need to have a thorough grasp of both how people learn and what motivates them to learn. They need to shed the old image of the teacher being the fount of wisdom and replace it with the teacher as facilitator.

Further reading
Counseling-Learning in Second Languages by Curran C. Apple River
Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools: The Silent Way by Gattegno C. Educational Solutions
Structuralism by Piaget J. Basic Books
'Class, Status, and Party' in Essays from Max Weber by Weber M. Routledge and Kegan Paul
Humanising Language Teaching. An online journal for language teachers. www.hltmag.co.uk

Written by Paul Bress 


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