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Meaningful Action

Earl Stevick¹s influence on language teaching

Price: £25.65

With contributions from 19 ELT authors and influential academics, this work explores the importance of meaningful action for language teaching and learning, paying tribute to the enduring influence of Earl Stevick. 


Author(s): Jane Arnold and Tim Murphey

This work explores the importance of meaningful action for language teaching and learning, paying tribute to the enduring influence of Earl Stevick. With contributions from 19 ELT authors and influential academics, Meaningful Action draws upon and acknowledges the huge influence of Earl Stevick on language teaching. Stevick's work on 'meaningful action' explored how learners can engage with activities that appeal to sensory and cognitive processes, ensuring that meaning is constructed by the learner's internal characteristics, and by their relationship with other learners and the teacher. This edited volume focuses on meaningful action in three domains: learner internal factors and relationships between the people involved in the learning process; classroom activity; and diverse frameworks supporting language learning.

Review from Modern English Teacher 23(1)

"I first read Earl Stevick’s books Memory, Meaning and Method (1976) and A Way and Ways (1980) in the 1980s when, after my first, intriguing but sometimes baffling and even intimidating experiences of seminars with Caleb Gattegno, I was looking for a better understanding of the Silent Way. I found it, and much more, in those books. I found Stevick’s writing lucid, engaging and accessible, and quite different from other books about language teaching I had read, with its mixture of description, anecdote, references to other professional fields, summaries of research, personal reflection and speculation. Especially when reading A Way and Ways , I had the impression of getting to know the author and following him on his personal voyage of discovery. As well as the Silent Way, I began to find out about Community Language Learning and Suggestopedia and, gradually, as I returned to the books over and over again, I began to see what these three apparently disparate approaches might have in common, and what might actually be meant by the label “humanistic approaches”. Later books such as Teaching and Learning Languages (1982) and Images and Options in the Language Classroom (1986) helped me to see how the conclusions he had come to might be implemented by any teacher, even if working with unpromising texts and restricting “methods”, and to understand how apparently small shifts in a teacher’s actions and attitudes can bring about more substantial changes to the quality of teaching and learning than methodological revolutions – how meaningful learning is possible even in the most unpropitious circumstances.

This edited volume includes 18 contributions from educators and researchers who have been, and continue to be, influenced in their various ways by Stevick’s work – through personal contact with him, through reading his books and through grappling with and developing the ideas he put into circulation. 

The title Meaningful Action alludes to Stevick’s definition of meaning, in Memory, Meaning and Method , as “what difference participation in a given activity ... makes to an individual, relative to his or her entire range of drives and needs”. One of Stevick’s most fundamental insights was that “success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analyses, and more on what goes on inside and between people in the classroom”; the simple yet profound phrase “what goes on inside and between people in the classroom” is quoted by quite a number of the contributors to this book, and is central to many of the key concerns of the last few decades: motivation, identity, affective factors, learner beliefs, classroom interaction, authenticity, autonomy, learner- centredness, facilitation, teacher and learner roles ... and, more generally, a shift of focus from “what should be taught” and “how it should be taught” to “how people learn”.

The contributions in Part A, Meaning-making inside and between the people in the classroom, explore intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of learning, and “the presence or absence of harmony – [...] the parts working with, or against, one another”. Carolyn Kristjánsson, for example, uses a case study to show how teacher support can facilitate the development of identity, agency and community among members of a class, while Herbert Puchta shows how Stevick’s concept of “depth” in learning is validated by more recent neurobiological research. “The question ... is what we can do to facilitate the building of neuronal networks in our students’ brains.”

The contributions in Part B, Meaningful classroom activity, consider ways of making the difference between “unproductive activity and meaningful action”. Penny Ur, for example, presents research-based suggestions for vocabulary acquisition, while Diane Larsen-Freeman contrasts repetition (“repeated identical performance”) with iteration , which “results in a change in a procedure or system”, and relates this distinction to Stevick’s term technemes , “the very small changes in a classroom activity that can renew its meaningfulness for students”. Alan Maley shows how procedures associated with methodologies from Grammar Translation to Dogme can be used in ways that learners will find engaging.

Finally, in Part C, Frameworks for meaningful language learning, attention turns to “planning and establishing the structures and conditions which in one way or another support the language learning process by affording possibilities for engagement, belonging, challenge, agency, motivation and other facilitating factors”. Leo van Lier, for example, elaborates on Stevick’s contention that the teacher can have “nearly 100% of the control”, while the students have “nearly 100% of the initiative”; control in this sense is “enabling and supportive, and [...] facilitates initiative”.

The 19 contributors (one chapter is co-authored) have different styles of improvising on themes composed by, or associated with, Stevick; some refer closely and repeatedly to Stevick’s writing, others less so. Some offer glimpses through classroom keyholes or narratives of their own experience; others draw conclusions from research. In their various ways, they all celebrate, in the words of Mark A Clarke, ‘the model his life has provided of teacher as learner’.

Earl Stevick died in August 2013. What of his influence on language teaching more generally? Even in courses where teachers profess to be using a “communicative approach”, learners are often not fully engaged and the activities they do lack personal relevance and depth – “unproductive activity” rather than “meaningful action”. Talk in itself is sometimes seen as a token of success: “That was a great lesson – the students were talking all the time.” Misguided attempts to hand over initiative to learners or to make lessons “learner-centred” can result in abdication of the teacher’s responsibility, authority and control. Teachers may feel shy of correcting errors, intervening in pair and group work or pushing learners to improve their performance – to iterate rather than simply repeat at their present level of skill. They may, out of a concern for providing “variety”, curtail activities which learners could usefully spend longer on. They may provide “free practice” activities which offer only untaken “opportunities” for the learners to use particular language.

One of Stevick’s desiderata for a classroom is that “The teacher is in general control of what is going on. This does not mean that everything the students do comes as a direct response to a specific cue from the teacher.” Control involves providing as much help and support as is needed at a particular moment – not more, but not less, and this is a key topic of study for a “teacher as learner”. Earl Stevick’s voice needs to be heard, and I hope Meaningful Action will prompt a new generation of teachers to read his work and learn from it."

Jonathan Marks

ISBN: 9781107610439
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication: 31 May 2013