The Reading Matrix
Vol. 1, No. 2, September 2001

Psychology For Language Teachers
Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden (1997)
New York: Cambridge University Press
Pp. 250
ISBN 7-5600-1969-2 (paper)
U.S. $ 21.95
Reviewed by Ronald Gray
Beijing Language and Culture University, Beijing China

It is probably best to start off by stating what this book is not. It is not a book on second language acquisition or language teaching, nor is it a book detailing classroom activities for teachers to use. Rather it is a book about psychology for foreign language teachers (at the primary, secondary or tertiary levels). The purpose of the book is to provide "language teachers with an introduction to a number of key issues and recent developments in psychology that will help them to understand better the ways in which learners learn and which will provide a fund of knowledge from which to draw to inform their classroom practices….at the same time we would not want to be prescriptive about how to put these theories into practice as what is most appropriate will differ from situation to another, from one teacher to another and one learner to another" (p. 2).

In contrast to standard educational psychology textbooks which give detailed overviews of different psychological theories, the authors of this book, an applied linguist and an educational psychologist, employ only one psychological approach, which they call constructionism. "We understand by this that each individual constructs his or her own reality and therefore learns different things in very different ways even when provided with what seems to be very similar learning experiences" (p. 2).

The social science framework in which they place this approach is that of social interactionism: "As we see it, babies are born into social worlds, come to develop a concept of self as a result of their social interactions with others, and increasingly employ language to make sense of that social world and to help them play an effective part within it. Thus, an understanding of the social factors which play a part in our increasing competence as language users is essential for all language teachers" (p. 3).

The book is divided into ten chapters. Chapter one gives a general introduction to the field of educational psychology and discusses behaviorism, cognitive psychology and constructivism. Chapter two continues with the schools of humanism and social interactionism and the authors present a social interactionist model of the teaching - learning process. This model consists of four elements: the learner, the teacher, the context, and the task and the ways in which they these factors dynamically interact with each other in the learning process.

The rest of the book is a detailed discussion and analysis of what constitutes these four elements and a working out of the ways they are connected to and work together in the learning process.

Chapter three concerns the perennial question of what makes a good teacher. Williams and Burden readily concede that there are no simple answers to this question. But they do think that more attention needs to be focused "within the area of teacher's beliefs; about themselves, about learning, and its educational relevance and about learners" (p. 63), instead of on what good teachers do or what others perceive teachers do. Their point is that teachers beliefs regarding learners and learning is much more important in the process of teaching than the coursebook or syllabus that the teacher is using.

Chapter four is also concerned with an old question, "What can teachers do to promote learning?"(p. 65). Williams and Burden consider this chapter to be "pivotal to the whole book" (p. 84). In it, they present the concept of mediation and discuss in detail the way it has been used by the psychologists S.L. Vygotsky and Reuven Feurestein. They then apply Feurestein's theory of mediation to some basic language teaching activities involving the learning of vocabulary and the development of comparative thinking skills. Chapter five is an analysis of the role that the individual learner and learner differences plays in the learning process. The authors reject psychological approaches to the study of individual differences, which rely upon psychometric research methodologies. Instead, they strongly argue that "that it would be more fruitful to consider individuals' views of themselves as learners" (p. 108).

Chapter six is a discussion of the role of motivation in language learning. Williams and Burden offer a three-stage model of motivation, discuss intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and emphasize the importance of goals, arousal, feedback, and whether the learner believes they are in control of their actions.

Chapter seven concerns "how learners go about learning something; that is, the skills and knowledge, and use their personal attributes in the process of learning" (p. 143). In this chapter, they write about metacognitive, learning, and skills strategies, social and affective factors, and the complex issue of strategy training. The next chapter is a discussion of the third part of their social interactionalist model of learning, namely tasks. Chapter nine is about another part of the model, context, and the final chapter, ten, is a detailed summation of the main themes of the book.

In general, this book is a lucid, comprehensive, and very well organized introduction to the field of educational psychology. I found chapter five, 'The contribution of the individual student to the learning process,' to be especially informative. Having recently been involved in several studies relating to the measurement of attributional styles of Japanese and Chinese college students, it was nice to come across a book where attribution theory, the way people perceive the outcomes of events, especially personal successes and failures, is given attention. (Unfortunately, even today, attribution theory is still usually ignored or treated in a cursory manner in most second language acquisition textbooks). Hopefully this book will spark some interest in the topic for Williams and Burden make a good case that attribution theory "is an extremely promising area for research into language learning" (p. 108).

Regrettably, the advantages of the book are offset by the authors' occasionally cliché-ridden and too pat phraseology, especially when describing topics like the function of teachers in the learning process ("they need to be able to take on such roles as advisors, facilitators, consultants, co-communicators, partners and joint problem-solvers" (p.165). Needless to say, that is a rather exhaustive list of roles, ones that the average foreign language teacher would probably find too exhausting to perform.


































Ronald Gray teaches EFL at Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing, China. He has also taught in South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia. He has lived and worked in Asia for over 12 years. His main area of interest is the topic of social factors and second language acquistion theory.