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Reciprocal Language Teaching:
another alternative

Vivian Cook  

Modern English Teacher, 16, 3/4, 48-53, 1989

While there has been considerable interest in alternatives to mainstream language teaching methods, the number of alternatives that are discussed usually comes down to three, Community Language Learning, the Silent Way and Suggestopedia, with the occasional addition of confluent language teaching. It would be a pity if these were felt to exhaust the possibilities. The present article is therefore intended to bring to a wider audience the notion of reciprocal language teaching as another alternative. This approach was pioneered by Eric Hawkins at the University of York.1


Like many of the alternative methods the essential principle of reciprocal language teaching is quite simple: make the learner of a foreign language also the teacher of his or her own language. Thus the minimum requirements for the method are a pair of learners of each others languages and an agreement between them that they shall alternate the language they are using to each other at regular intervals. An example might be a Russian learning English paired with an Englishman learning Russian; one time they meet they use Russian, the next time they use English and so on. Thus one moment the learner is a foreigner trying to use the target language in a communicative interpersonal setting, the next a native speaker expert. In a sense the learners alternate between being ‘students' and being ‘teachers’; hence the term ‘reciprocal language teaching’: today I teach you, tomorrow you teach me. But, as Eric Hawkins points out, it is a teaching situation with the ideal teaching ratio of one student to one teacher.

The essential reciprocal principle could be turned into a teaching programme in several ways. The following ‘illustration is based on the annual reciprocal course for teachers of English and French run jointly by the Department of Education and Science in England and the Ministry of Education in France and Is based on my own experience as one of the English tutors under the direction of two of Her Majesty’s Inspectors. This course is residential and takes place alternately in England and In France during the summer holidays. The basis of the course is that equal numbers of French teachers of English and English teachers of French are selected as the participants and that there is a rule that alternate days of the course are designated as French or as English days. This means that nothing but the language of the day may be spoken from first thing in the morning till last thing at night, regardless of the situation or the nationality of the students. This applies whether the students are in class, having their meals, attending social functions, or visiting places outside the college where the course takes place. Hence this rule is the distinguishing factor between a reciprocal course and the usual kind of intensive course. Though it might seem arbitrary at the beginning of the course, it is soon rare to hear anything but the language of the day being used. Students eat together, share classes, go on trips and excursions, take part in social events, all in the language of the day. In addition the principle of exchanging teacher and student roles is attained by creating pairs of students, one from each language; each pair is given certain tasks to perform together -homework, shopping, and so on - so that the programme systematically builds in reciprocal relationships between the students on an individual basis. These pairs often turn into social activity pairs even when their tasks are done. So the crucial aspects are combining together the two and mating certain that they alternate languages and role. r4oetay the language of the day rule Is well-observed; from my own experience it is harder to maintain when tired and when in the native country rather than the foreign country.

The teaching programme is intended to maximise this language use. The students are divided into an equal number of French and English groups, each with a target language tutor; a pair of French and English groups meet as a supergroup; the student pairs are usually drawn from this supergroup. The supergroup meets twice a day with both language tutors present and carries out its business in the language of the day. Partly this might be the discussion of cultural issues or today’s newspapers, led by the tutor. More often it is student presentation of particular topics or themes: the students are asked to bring with them a short prepared talk on a subject with which they are familiar; typical presentations are English gardens, boys’ clubs in Rugby and brass-rubbing. Also they are asked to record an interview with an interesting person they know, to play to the group. Both these types of student presentation lead in to discussion and participation by the members of the group with little prompting from the tutor. As well as these language of the day sessions for the supergroups, the students also divide into language groups for target language sessions. These are therefore the sole exception to the language of the day rule; every day the students have some time in which they are studying their target language with fellow speakers of their own language. These target language sessions fall into two types. One type is a twice daily session with their language tutor;

The content of this is broadly speaking up to the tutor to decide in accordance with the needs and level of his group. My own preference as an English tutor was for a combination of authentic reading texts with role-play and communicative activities; some tutors prefer a more conventional detailed analysis of a literary or journalistic text. Often the language tutor set 'homework' in the form of a task the students have to carry to carry out or a text they have to prepare; this is carried out in their pairs, thus making sure that pairwork does in fact occur on a regular basis. The second type of target language session is a rotation of the groups around the language tutors; each tutor is responsible for a particular advanced skills area such as intonation, reading or the language laboratory and the students rotate around these activities twice a day. In addition there is individual tutorial work with each students. Thus the teaching programme is intensive even if the actual content is relatively unstructured and flexible. Though the target language sessions have specific teaching points, overall the programme aims at maximising the opportunities for suing the target language in a varied way.

So this course embodies the reciprocal principle was a short intensive residential course for groups of teachers. The principle might, however, be embedded in many other ways. Eric Hawkins, for instance , envisages a situation when a French lawyer and an English lawyer reciprocally teach each other; the English lawyer knows far more about the specialist language of English law and about the needs that the French lawyer will wish to achieve in English than does any ordinary language teacher. So one solution to the perpetual problem of English for Specific Purposes, that teachers are not expert in the specialist subjects may be overcome by reciprocal teaching. Let us now look at the advantages of reciprocal language teaching in general and as illustrated by the course outlined above. Undoubtedly the most important is the changing role of the learners; one moment they are functioning entirely through the target language; the next they are using their own language. Thus they are seeing second language learning from two perspectives almost simultaneously: one day they are trying to devise communication strategies for maintaining contact through the target language; the next they are trying to cope with the strategies for talking with foreigners in their own language. This gives the students considerable insight into the two-fold nature of communication between native and non-native. There is also the element of reciprocity: you help me today and I’ll help you tomorrow. Nobody can remain an authoritative native speaker for very long; they are soon reduced to the humble status of the foreign learner. The relationship between the students from the two language communities is crucial; the tutors and the teaching programme are there to facilitate this relationship. Indeed the language used outside the classroom may be more important than the actual class sessions. For this reason a residential course seems ideal; the students are in everyday contact with each other. If they went home each evening to their own language, the class sessions would assume a different role and the language of the day sessions might have to be increased substantially.

The other main difference from conventional short courses is the teaching role of the students; each of them plays some part in helping another person to learn his or her language. Thus the course is more intensive than the usual short course; there is no time during the waking hours when someone is not using the target language actively. The target language on the one hand is being used for actual communication the exchange of meaningful ideas among the students - and on the other for the development of real relationships and interactions with native speakers. This intensity could be highly exhausting; the alternation of language days, however, provides a slight breathing space in which the native speaker can relax to some extent.’ Thus it avoids the kind of culture-shock or alienation in which students are permanently frustrated by being unable to express the true complexity of their ideas; on alternate days they can function at their normal level of language use, except that they are talking to speakers of another language. Indeed in my own case I can remember being so frustrated by being unable to talk about linguistics on a French day that I postponed the conversation to an English speaking day. On a monolingual course my frustration could never have been cured.

Looked at in another way reciprocal teaching links in to some ideas current in second language learning research. Native speakers are believed to adopt particular communicative strategies for dealing with non-native speakers; they simplify the language in various ways; they repeat themselves more often than when speaking to natives; they use a characteristic type of pronunciation. At the extreme this has been called foreigner talk; a more common variety perhaps is that called foreigner register. In reciprocal teaching the native is continually supplying a source of foreigner register; this is not language designed for his ‘or her fellow natives but language aimed at a foreigner. Thus the language is continually adapted to the needs of the foreign learner and, what is more, to a particular language learner; because of the equal numbers of native and non-natives and because of the pair-work the student is continually aware whether he or she is succeeding in communicating and succeeding also in forming a social relationship with another person. The language is tailored towards the level of the particular learner, much more efficiently than a teacher could achieve by preparing course materials in advance. The language is adapted in response to the student’s reactions on a sentence by sentence basis. The effect of this is to provide a large amount of what Krashen has called ‘comprehensible input’. If, as he believes, the aim of language teaching should be to maximise comprehensible input, then reciprocal teaching provides it to almost the maximum extent. The only way in which the amount could be increased would be by having only one target language; the target language speakers would be there as suppliers of language but not as learners. After experience with one summer course on which this solution was tried, my own feelings were that the native speakers ended by feeling themselves exploited; they had acted as continuous linguistic advisers without any reciprocity and felt themselves wrung dry by the end of the course. Short of the immigrant immersion situation, reciprocal teaching may provide the highest practical amount of personally adapted comprehensible input.

So in a way this particular course succeeded admirably in language activation; the students already had sufficient command of the language to be teachers of it; what they were forced to do was employ it for everyday use. A high previous knowledge of the language may then be necessary for reciprocal courses. Yet one suspects that this is by no means vital. Indeed my own experience of the course was somewhat different from most of the students as I possessed school level French compared to their French teaching qualifications; after my initial qualms and a period of silence, I was astonished to realise during my second course that I was so used to speaking French that I had a conversation in French with a visiting French Inspecteur Generale without noticing I had been using French. As my previous school experience had prepared me to face a meal in a French café with trepidation, obviously some activation had taken place. Provided that groups of students of comparable standard could be put together, it seems likely that reciprocal courses could be conducted at least from intermediate levels upwards. The other possible limitation is that all the students on this course were teachers; it might be that non-teachers could not cope adequately with the communication task set them or might not take the language of the day system so seriously. Experience with multi-lingual groups learning English as a Foreign Language, however, suggests that untrained students are equally capable of exploiting the communication possibilities afforded to them and there seems no reason why this should not apply here. Also inevitably there will be factors in the individual mental makeup of the learner that affect his or her behaviour and success in reciprocal teaching; my experience suggests that only a small minority of students were quite unable to cope with the demands of this situation.

What then are the problems in this type of teaching? One is the logistics required; it is necessary to be able to assemble equal sized comparable groups of learners of the two languages together in one place for the duration of the course. This is perhaps more easily achieved when say the languages are English and French in a country such as Canada where there are substantial groups of both nationalities, than when say the languages are English and Russian in a country such as England where there are few resident Russian speakers learning English. But in many cases it could be possible to make use of minority groups in the country who happen to speak a target foreign language; a reciprocal course in French and English for schoolchildren in London would not be impossible. The alternative is to transport one group of students to the other country. The reciprocal course used as an example here alternates annually between England and France. The difficulty with this, apart from the expense and the complicated arrangements, is that it is more attractive to study the language in the foreign country than in your own country; there is a tendency for the course to have too many students from outside the country and too few from within, whatever the country may be. This presumably could be overcome in various ways, partly by using a pre-existing group of students such as exist in a particular university course.

The other problem may be the specific teaching content. Obviously this is open to all kinds of variation; there is no reason why the reciprocal principle cannot be used in many other ways than the ones detailed on the course mentioned here. Is it in fact as arbitrary as has been suggested -anything goes provided it is real communication and interaction in the target language? Should it rather be structured in a conventional teaching mode so far as the target language sessions are concerned? Could it perhaps make use of some variant of community language learning in which students formed self-directing conversation groups? Obviously many kinds of experiment could be tried. In practice the course described here worked satisfactorily; it had the right balance of controlled teaching activities and less controlled communicative activities. One difficulty which may pose a danger to the method as a whole is not the differing language levels but the different levels of cultural background in the students. Take the example of a language of the day discussion of the English educational system; the foreign students needed basic information about English education today; the native students were totally familiar with this. What happened was a furious argument among the native students about the roles of their respective teaching unions in a particular pay dispute. Though entertaining as an example of an English public dispute, the content was meaningless to the non-native students. The problem with language of the day sessions is choosing a topic or activity that can be used simultaneously by native and non—native speakers; it might be best to avoid topics dealing too much with the culture of either country, reserving these for the target language sessions, and choose something about which both groups are equally ignorant.

So reciprocal teaching is perhaps a unique way of learning a foreign language) using the technique of interacting with a native speaker in a communicative situation but freeing it from the problems associated with using only the target language. It is hoped that this brief introduction will spur other teachers into trying out a fascinating and fruitful alternative method.


1. A brief account of reciprocal teaching can be found in E. Hawkins, Modern Languages in the Curriculum, Cambridge University Press, 1981 

2. This is in fact what distinguishes reciprocal teaching from an alternate days approach in which the native and target languages are used alternately but without the alternation of teaching and learning roles, as described in Tucker, G.R., Otanes, F.E.T., and Sibayan, B., ‘An alternate days approach to bilingual education,’ in 21st Annual Round Table Meeting on Linguistics and Language Studies, Georgetown, 1971

3. This useful distinction can be found in Arthur, B., Weiner, R., Culver, N., Lee, Y.J. and Thomas, D. ‘The Register of Impersonal Discourse to Foreigners: Verbal Adjustments to Foreign Accents,’ in Larsen-Freeman, D. (ed.) Discourse Analysis in Second Language Research, Newbury House, 1980

4. Krashen, S.D.'The fundamental pedagogical principle in second language teaching,’ in Sigurd, B., and J. Svartvik (eds.), GWK Gleerup, 1981

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