From Each According to His Need, to Each According to His Ability

October 2011


Something you might read in ELT journals or academic blogs is that teachers ought to place the learners’ needs at the forefront of their teaching.

This sounds fair enough, but it can mean two different things.

A) Each individual is different — has different aptitudes, strengths and weaknesses, regardless of why they are learning English.

Without getting into hokey ideas like MI theory[1], for language learning these areas for growth manifest most notably in an individual’s pronunciation, listening, grammar, vocabulary, and fluency skills.

B) That extrinsic needs related to the outside world mean that some people want to be civil engineers while others want to be airline pilots and thus they need different streams of English tuition, more akin to English for Specific Purposes.

This second area, which receives much emphasis in the industry, is where I think people are missing the point a bit. In reality, plain old-fashioned ‘good’ English is actually good English for any field of business or endeavour, whether that be taking the IELTS test, going abroad to live, working in the automotive industry, or working in a café.[2]

Needs, especially extrinsic ones, are a bit of a given — there’s not much you can do to change them. And there is a danger of confusing personal needs with desires, which may not be in the best interests of the learner.

Abilities though, are much more of a serious and pertinent classroom issue. Abilities (I mean shortfalls in them) are readily addressable. Needs not so.

If you ask teachers to come together for a meeting, they will inevitably start off by talking about material — the failings of it, or otherwise complaining about factors largely outside of their control. A much more practical and satisfying way of working is to openly examine and discuss the talents of the students we are working with, rather than blaming the resources.

Therefore in light of this, surely it is the learner’s needs rather than the learners’ needs, which need to occupy the majority of teachers’ attention?

1. See:

2. See: