Some Preliminary Thoughts on Fanselow’s Rules for Student-Centered Language Teaching

Lurking on twitter I came across the following author from a language teacher who has racked up many accomplishments in his day, John Fanselow.  This article ( provides 23 rules that language teachers should “never” do.  Such writings always irritate me, as most teachers in practically any place in the planet, pre-university level at least, have so many constraints that limit effective performance.  Often I feel the need to vomit when I read someone pontificating.  Fantasies are great contained in books, a little harder to implement into practice.  Nevertheless, for two reasons I decided to give a more reflective consideration of Fanselow’s ideas.  A) I’m not feeling too inspired with this blog, and I need fodder to keep this alive for a few more weeks at least and B) Since I had such a strong initial emotional reaction it is worth considering if that response was justified.

Due to time limitations, I’m going to only review five of the rules Fanselow proffers.  Perhaps in the upcoming weeks I’ll look at a few more…I’ll consider that next week on Wednesday.  Anyhow, here’s the rules and my comments, enjoy:

Never * use jargon, instead ** provide examples of activities you are talking about and with your students generate names for the activities, if you think you need them. Any labels we use are arbitrary, but by using jargon, we imply that others know better than we how to label what we do and experience.

I partially agree with his notes on the use of Jargon.  Jargon should not be eliminated, but it should be restrained and used judiciously.  Jargon has it’s place, generally, and in lower levels of instruction (i.e. K-12).  First generally, okay all terms are arbitrary and we can never precisely and definitely attach the “correct label” to any particular concept.  This is a larger discussion, but let’s accept this first premise; thus why not let students generate their own labels for concepts?  I see two main problems with this: a) This is an inefficient procedure.  This may work well for one, two, or three concepts.  It doesn’t work well for a system.  Language teachers—at most levels have to rely on jargon to efficiently state concepts—grammatical terms for instance.  My middle school students have awareness of grammatical terms in their L1.  If necessary we freely translate, nevertheless, I want students to gain a deep awareness of the grammatical concepts, and yes terms.  Because…their learning will extend beyond my classroom.  It is important that students own a term (distinct from understanding a concept) like “direct object.”  Assuming their learning continues and develops, they will have to refer to these terms in the future.  Standardized terminology allows for communication among groups and individuals separated by time, distance, and background.

Never suggest that students read or listen to any text only once, instead urge them to experience the lexical and grammatical *** forms and meanings in the same text multiple times, at least three to five times, and in different ways. 

I agree wholeheartedly with this one.  Especially the term “in different ways.”  Of course, activating prior knowledge, engaging in pre-listening activities, having students relate the content to personal experience is sure to be of value as well, as Fanselow has probably written in other forums.

Never forbid the use of students’ first languages, instead provide class time for students to clarify what is going on in their first language with each other, invite them to write and share reactions to methods and give their understanding of the rationale for what they are being asked to do in their first language, and use bilingual dictionaries to find meanings.

I largely agree with this rule.  Fanselow provides a fair degree of nuance.  I especially like the words “provide class time.”  It appears Fanselow advocates setting aside specific time periods when one can use L1.  He implicitly advocates establishing boundaries for an appropriate and beneficial use of L1 in the L2 classroom.  Difficult to argue with this approach.

Never assume your students or you have some deficiency if they cannot perform in the way you had anticipated, instead assume that what you and they are being asked to do and/or the material is deficient. (To develop language abilities, students need to read or listen to language which they understand at least 95% of—98% would be better–and they need to have some interest in the topic and feel challenged, not overwhelmed nor bored, by the activities.

I agree with this orientation.  Though, I am guilty of having frustration with students which I perceive stems from a lack of motivation or simple exhaustion due to “education fever” in Korea.  Fanselow’s orientation may offer several benefits.  For example it is harder to make “personal change,” than “material change.”  Assuming the teacher or student has some (unspecified) deficiency may make either teacher or student defensive.  That obstacle to improvement doesn’t really exist if the focus is on the task or the material.  Materials and activities simply don’t offer as much psychological resistance as humans.  This is a very Krashen-esque viewpoint.  Strive to offer “interesting comprehensible input.”  Easier said than done, but I concur with the disposition.

Never explain vocabulary or ask students to define words, instead have your students use bilingual or monolingual dictionaries and/or imagination and/or grouping skills to discover or confirm lexical and grammatical meanings.

I have to provide a thumbs in the middle response here.  The use of dictionaries is valuable.  Depending on level, some training may be required, but this is not an insurmountable challenge. Using dictionaries provides students with valuable reference skills and promotes a degree (a modest one) of autonomy—certainly more than writing down what the teacher tells you to.

However, I really have to disagree with Fanselow for the second part of this rule.  As indicated by Fanselow’s use of the word “discover,” I think he may be a proponent of discovery learning, or problem-based learning, or whatever the current label may be.  I’m not a major supporter of discovery learning, especially for lower levels.  I do use a very basic, scaled-down version of inferential learning (Data Driven Instruction) when introducing grammar and target language structures in my class.  However, that is an introduction, then I provide the formal, authoritative knowledge on appropriate form.  One can dispute that, but I work with middle school students and (putting aside classroom management realities) even if students arrive at workable understandings, they will probably be a little off.  These errors in reasoning need to be corrected very (very) early in the learning process.  If not, misunderstanding will persist and become fossilized (how often have you heard English-speaking Koreans use an inappropriate word for the idea they were trying to convey?)

Fanselow doesn’t specify (here at least) where/at what level a “discovery approach” is best suited.  Other commentators, such as Ruth Colvin Clark and Jonathon Sweller have been very critical of a discovery learning approach and only advocate it’s use when students are advanced and highly motivated.  Many ELT contexts in South Korea do not fit the above two criteria.  Hence, in my view, a discovery approach should be used very moderately for an instructor working with beginner and intermediate level students.


Fanselow certainly provides food for thought.  Many of the “rules” which I considered are sound and I implement them to some degree in my class.  However, I do differ with him on the value and utility of a discovery approach and the role of jargon in the classroom.

So, for the above five rules what do you feel most strongly about whether agreeing or disagreeing?  Why so?

Next week…round two…maybe, hopefully.


About cmiller112

Teacher, Father, Jogger, Sleeper, Husband, (add extra label here)
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One Response to Some Preliminary Thoughts on Fanselow’s Rules for Student-Centered Language Teaching

  1. Pingback: Blogs I am looking forward to in 2013 « ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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