Commenting on H.D. Browns Maxims of Teaching Methodology

Published in the ESL / EFL JobFinder - 12/02/2003


This is an inventory of maxims that was put together by a classic writer on teaching methodology, H. D. Brown, based on extensive research on what successful language learners actually do. Being aware of strategies that effective language learners tend to practise can help us shape our lessons and interact with our students in a manner that enhances their success. I would like to briefly comment on the fourteen observations with the aim of both contextualising them and offering a concrete example of what they would look like in the language classroom.


1. Find their own way, taking charge of their own learning

We are talking here about student autonomy and student-centred learning. The teacher serves as a resource, among many other possible resources, that can assist students in the learning process. However, an effective learner is also able to exploit a variety of other situations, materials, and people that can contribute to her learning process. The teacher can help to raise students' awareness of these other resources and to indicate how they may be used for independent learning.

2. Organise information about language

Effective language learners avoid losing themselves in the infinite detail and frustrating ambiguity that a foreign language often presents. Knowing how 'organise' language in terms of form or structure, the meaning expressed, and typical environments of use is a valuable skill.

3. Are creative, developing a 'feel' for the language by experimenting with its grammar and words

Language learning is a constant process of trial - error- success. Effective learners are likely to be fast to try out knowledge they may have only partially acquired, as it is only by trial, that is, experimentation, that they are able to attain a deeper level of understanding or proficiency. And an experimenter never expects to meet complete success at her first attempt!

4. Make their own opportunities for practice in using the language inside and outside the classroom

An effective language learner does not stop practising on leaving the classroom. What ideas of ways to practise beyond the walls of the classroom can we suggest to our students?

5. Learn to live with uncertainly by not getting flustered and by continuing to talk or listen without understanding every word

Effective language learners are tolerant of ambiguity, and live comfortably in a world in which not everything is entirely clear, and in which they may not be able as linguistically dexterous as they may wish to be.

6. Use mnemonics and other memory strategies to recall what has been learnt

There are many tricks we can exploit to help us remember the pronunciation of certain words, spelling, or the form of language structures. How they sound may remind us of another word, perhaps in another language, and patterns may be found in the spelling or target structures. It may even be non language-related mnemonics that serve us: the connection between a word and a face, event, or image. How do you think you can help your learners create associations between words, words and sounds, words and images?

7. Make errors work for them and not against them

Errors, mistakes, or slips: they all can be used to sharpen our awareness and understanding of the known and the new. Rather than treating them as a quagmire one would rather circumvent or bulldoze, pick your way selectively through errors as a teacher, and contemplate them constructively as a learner.

8. Use linguistic knowledge, including knowledge of their first language in learning a second language.

All learners arrive at the classroom with a wealth of knowledge, whether conscious or unconscious, of how language functions. Many of our learners are likely to be multilingual. Rather than ignore it, how can we incorporate this into our lessons? How can our lessons benefit, and how can we help our students benefit? Having said this, we also need to be aware of learners that arrive at our classroom with very low levels of literacy in their mother tongue. How might this influence the way they learn English? What challenges would this pose to the teacher?

9. Use contextual clues to help them in comprehension

10. Learn to make intelligent guesses

Knowing 'how to learn' involves knowing how to deal with the unknown, or the unclear. An automatic translator (whether electronic or flesh and blood) will not help us greatly to develop this capacity. How can the teacher help students become aware of the wealth of information (semantic, syntactic, or contextual) present in texts or even isolated words that can aid comprehension. Being able to guess, to deduce the intended meaning from the information at hand is an invaluable skill.

11. Learn chunks of language and formalised routines to help them perform beyond their competence

Language does not divide neatly into single lexemes, neither do we use or store language in our mind in this manner. Rather, language comprises groupings of words, chunks, linked by semantic relationships and fraternity. Some words simply sound 'good' together, have that 'natural' ring to them when we use them together; such words 'collocate'. Other words form phrases that we would never dream of dividing, they are idiomatic. There are numerous forms of relationships that link words. Consequently, it would seem logical to present and learn words as chunks of meaningful language. Can you think of certain phrases, expressions, or word combinations that would make sense to teach as chunks?

12. Learn certain tricks that help to keep conversations going

13. Learn certain production strategies to fill in gaps in their own competence

Neither in our mother tongue nor in any foreign language we might know do we always know the right word or expression to serve our immediate needs. What do you do in your mother tongue when you cannot find the right word, when the word is on the tip of your tongue, or when you simply do not know the correct term? Imagine how much more often you will be confronted with this quandary as a leaner. How can you help your learners acquire certain techniques to cope with potential communication breakdowns? Conversation strategies are not so very different. As a learner, one usually wants a compliant conversational partner, ready to provide us with plenty of practice opportunities. Think of specific strategies you use in your own language to encourage someone to continue talking. How could you build these strategies into fluency activities?

14. Learn different styles of speech and writing and learn to vary their language according to the formality of the situation

How we speak depends on to whom we speak, and where and when the exchange takes place. In addition, the language we use in spoken communication will vary greatly from written communication. Our sociolinguistic knowledge is part of being 'literate' and 'competent' in our mother tongue. How can we help our learners become situationally 'literate' in English? You will find that the modern textbooks you use expose learners to a broad variety of speakers and text types. In class, find opportunities to raise awareness of linguistic forms that are typical for particular situations, contexts, or speakers.


Louisa Buckingham, a New Zealander, teaches ELT Methodology, Phonetics and Phonology, and Academic Writing at the University of Tuzla, Bosnia.

By Louisa Buckingham