Some “Spicy” Principles for Language Teachers
Layers of the Onion

DougBrown_2013H. Douglas Brown

How is an onion like a language learner? Think about the makeup of onions, used globally in almost every cuisine. On the outside, an onion looks like a single entity. Its skin comes in attractive colors—red, brown, yellow, white, and even purple! On the inside, it can be everything from zesty to spicy to mild. And on all those insides is an intricate, finely woven, tightly meshed set of layered compartments. Get the picture?

Good, so perhaps you can see a vivid metaphor here. Learners have skins of many colors, and they have thick skins and thin skins, so to speak. They also have layers of personality and learning styles that are not always easy to discern from the outside. They have varieties of “smartness” that might not be immediately perceived.

Another way to look at the metaphor is to consider some of our long-standing principles of language learning and how those principles are “layered” and which ones seem to lie more at the core, shaping adjacent, concentric layers.

In the fourth edition of  Teaching by Principles (from Pearson, March 2015), my coauthor Heekyeong Lee and I have reworked and reorganized principles from the third edition. Don’t worry! All the other principles are still “there,” but in light of research findings over the last few years, some new and renamed principles have emerged. As we take an “oniony” look here, keep in mind there’s no implied importance, nor is there a suggested progression of principles.

The inner core: Identity and agency. Recent research reminds us that the core of every learner’s being is his or her identity. The age-old and time-tested principles of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and language ego are for all learners a driving force that energizes and compels them to reach goals. Closely nested around and intertwining this core of strength is agency: the ability to mesh a new language with one’s identity, internalizing the language such that it becomes not someone else’s language, not a “second” or “third” language, but my language. Learners can then “seize the day,” empower themselves, and become their own agent.

In the words of the late Leo van Lier (2011, p. 391), “Language learning is anchored in agency, as all of life is. Teaching, in its very essence, is promoting agency.” How do you promote agency in your classrooms? Believe in your students, praise them for progress, let them be themselves, and give them “some rope” as they experiment with language.

The middle layers: Investment and self-regulation. Another essential stage of language learning is the ability of learners to invest effort and time in a stepwise progression of self-regulation. The latter involves self-awareness of strengths, weaknesses, and mental and emotional preferences, which in turn leads to one’s employment of strategic options. One key to building these layers of the onion is exercising self-determination in order to reach a sense of autonomy that frees the learner from (total) dependence on a teacher.

The best way for teachers to pave the way toward autonomy is to give students choices, show them “tricks of the trade,” teach them strategies for success, and create interactive tasks in the classroom.

The outer layers: Motivation, automaticity, and languaculture. True, motivation is essential throughout the learning process, especially intrinsic motivation that is self-propelled. But remember, at these outer layers that emphasize fluency, processing of many parallel aspects of the linguistic code, and reaching that magic stage of automaticity, motivation is absolutely indispensable! It’s here that learners can fully appreciate the cultural nuances of the language (a.k.a. languaculture), and their agency kicks into full gear.

Teachers can escort learners through these layers with attention to an ideal, individualized mix of form- and meaning-focused activity, a rich dose of real-world communication, materials and topics that are relevant and engaging for students, and a keen sensitivity to the local contexts in which students are operating.

So, the next time you step into your English language classroom, perhaps you can look at all those beautiful “onions” in your classroom in a different way. Can you help them to build and strengthen their layers of ability? In so doing, you will no doubt “spice” up your teaching as you add “seasoning” to your presentations!

van Lier, L. (2011). Language learning: An ecological-semiotic approach. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning Volume II (pp. 383-394). New York: Routledge.