P is for “Point of Need”

14 11 2010

I wish I could remember – so I could thank – the person who recommended At the Point of Need: Teaching Basic and ESL Writers, by Marie Wilson Nelson (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann 1991). This book deserves to be a classic, not least because it’s about more than simply the teaching of writing. It makes a convincing case for a pedagogy that, rather than trying to second-guess and thereby pre-empt the learners’ learning trajectory, is entirely responsive to it: that is, a pedagogy which is wholly driven by the learners’ needs, as and when they emerge. As Nancy Martin writes, in the Foreword:

The concept of teaching only at the students’ perceived points of need, and as they arise, presents a different view of learning from that of planned and sequenced series of lessons. The former view depends on recognition of the power of the person’s intention as the operating dynamic in writing — and in learning (p. ix).

The book describes a five-year experiment at a college in the US, where writing workshops were offered to small groups of mixed native-speaker and non-native speaker undergraduates, each with a tutor, and where there was no formal writing – or grammar, or vocabulary – instruction. Instead, the students (all of whom had scored below a cut-off point on a test of standard written English) were – in the words of the program publicity – invited to:

  1. Choose topics that interest you and your group
  2. Freewrite without worrying about correctness on the first draft
  3. Revise your freewrites.  Your group will help you […]
  4. Learn to copy-edit your writing for publication

Instead of pre-teaching or modelling the skills of writing, “this writing program was set up on a dynamic of retrospective planning” (p. viii) whereby “the tutors found that the most acceptable and effective teaching was to give the help the students asked for when they asked for it — that is, as the students perceived the need” (p. ix).

Despite some initial resistance (by both students and instructors alike), the results were spectacular (and carefully documented by the 40 or so tutors over the 5-year period). As Nelson describes it:

Despite the loss of drive some suffered at first without grades, motivation surged when they experienced writing’s rewards: pride of publication…, feelings of accomplishment, influence on others, better grades in other courses, competence, empathy and praise from friends, and … emotional release (p.85).

The program was based on the principle that “less is more“, and that effective writing instruction involves simply:

  • motivating students to want to practice and improve
  • giving students control of decisions about their work
  • limiting teaching to what students needed or wanted to learn

(p. 189)

Testimony to the success of the program are the many student ‘voices’ scattered throughout the text. One student, Kamal, for example, recalls:

In WTC [the Writing Tutorial Center] I’ve found that even though my writing is not very good, it’s very important to me, and I like to read it over.

Also, when I read it aloud, my friends said, “Wow, that’s good!”  So when they do, my tutors said, “Let’s publish that in Excerpts,” and I felt, “God, I am a writer!”

That feeling makes me come to WTC all the time.  I attend five semesters, twice a week.  And each time I attend WTC, I learned.  That’s why I love it.


Teaching “at the point of need” is, of course, a principle that underpins whole language learning, including ‘reading recovery’ programs: Courtney Cazden writes about “recognising the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print” (1992, p. 129, emphasis added). It would also seem analogous to the reactive ‘focus on form’ promoted by proponents of task-based learning, described by some researchers as ‘leading from behind’ (e.g. Samuda, 2001), whereby the teacher intervenes to scaffold the learners’ immediate communicative needs. As Long and Norris (2009) write:

Advantages of focus on form include the fact that attention to linguistic code features occurs just when their meaning and function are most likely to be evident to the learners concerned, at a moment when they have a perceived need for the new item, when they are attending, as a result, and when they are psycholinguistically ready (to begin) to learn the items (p. 137).

In language learning, as in life, perhaps ‘the readiness is all’.


Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ. New York: Teachers College Press.

Samuda, V. 2001. ‘Guiding relationships between form and meaning during task performance: the role of the teacher’.  In Bygate, M.,  Skehan, P.  & Swain, M.  (Eds.) Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing. London: Longman.

Long, M.  & Norris, J.  2009.  ‘Task-based teaching and assessment’.  In van den Branden, K.,  Bygate, M.  & Norris, J.  (Eds.)  Task-based Language Teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.



16 responses

15 11 2010

What a great post!

I love that you bring back books from 1991.

There are prejudices (and marketing staff) that say the newest research is always best. However, ideas that stand the test of time are often more solid than ideas that are fresh out of the oven. I still love my copy of Carl Rogers “Client Centered Therapy” and its chapter on student center learning… a book I stole from my mother. Going further back, people still talk about the socratic method. (… and perhaps more people, unfortunately, still want to give hemlock to teachers…)

Although the correction debate will probably rage on forever, one thing I have never understood is how various theories say one form of correction is “the way”, without taking into account the individual learner where all learning takes place. While ANY correction may chaff the ego of some learners and derail the learning process, others seem to get excited about discovering other possible interpretations of what they’re saying or exploring the “correctness” (“Native speakers wouldn’t normally say it that way…” (I, for one, love being corrected in general, which is why I post comments on blogs of people much more knowledgeable than I.)

I think that being able to sense the given state of the individual student allows us to use “the point of need” more effectively.

The “point of need” is perhaps related to “just in time” inventory, a theory in manufacturing that started becoming important in the early 90’s, which in turn may been related to computer’s JIT (just in time) compilation which was first recorded in J. McCarthy’s work on LISP in 1960, and which is incredibly important today in real-time work… like voice recognition. Good ideas keep coming back… if only we can stop some of the worse ones from reoccurring.

15 11 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Matt – for the comment and for mentioning ‘just in time’ methodology, which I had considered including in my post, but I wasn’t entirely sure that it was synonymous with instruction ‘at the point of need’. For a start, ‘just in time’ teaching seems to be a way of integrating web-based resources with classroom instruction, at least if this definition is to be relied upon:

Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT for short) is a teaching and learning strategy based on the interaction between web-based study assignments and an active learner classroom. Students respond electronically to carefully constructed web-based assignments which are due shortly before class, and the instructor reads the student submissions “just-in-time” to adjust the classroom lesson to suit the students’ needs. Thus, the heart of JiTT is the “feedback loop” formed by the students’ outside-of-class preparation that fundamentally affects what happens during the subsequent in-class time together.

(Just-in-Time Teaching)

Is anyone familiar with this concept, in relation to ELT, for example?

16 11 2010

Great find re: JITT… Think that “point of need” is more JIT than JITT to my liking.

The great thing about “just in time” is that it delivers what is needed by the user, which may be the teacher or the student. (in programming terms this would be the computer program or the human user.) Just in Time teaching appears more content based than student centered, and while it might be useful in some contexts, or to provide common starting points for emerging language, it doesn’t feel as open and student centered as the “point of need” description. Nice to note on the link you provided that it is based on a paper written in 1993.
(I understand there was another idea in 1995 that seems to still be rallying a lot of attention…)

15 11 2010
Phil Bennett

That sounds like a wonderfully inspiring read!

I particularly like the emphasis on learners having the opportunity to find their own voices as writers, either in their own or a foreign language. Taking ownership of the language has to be one of the key elements for learners to experience. Once they have that sense of the language as a tool or a medium of self-expression, there’s a greater freedom to take risks along with a welcome boost to motivation.

I used to teach short out-service courses at several different colleges during their vacations, which gave me the chance to dip into a variety of teaching situations in terms of the ability levels and the students’ majors. What struck me was that the non-English majors were often happy to pick up language and just use it, while the English majors were more inclined to analyse, but often to the detriment of their communicative skills. It seemed that somewhere along the way, the language had become a mere object of study, something to be analysed and picked at.

Using fluency journals in class is something that I’ve found enormously helpful for building students’ confidence at self-expression. By having learners first focus on the message and then later attend to revision, I’ve noticed that not only do they gradually write lengthier entries, but that the writing itself usually becomes more detailed and expressive, and there are usually improvements in accuracy, too.

Another benefit of such journals is that they offer a chance to ‘rebel’ against the pre-determined sequence of grammar points in the syllabus and offer more point-of-need advice.

I’m curious about the initial resistance you mentioned. Was it just due to the lack of grading?

15 11 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Phil, for the comment and for sharing your own experience of fluency journals. The focus on fluency first, as opposed to accuracy, is reflected in many comments in the Nelson book. For example, here is a testimony of one Korean student:

Before I went to WTC I stopped and stopped when I wrote — it just wouldn’t come to my mind. I didn’t notice when I had changed, but later I realised after I write something: “Oh, geez! I can write!” After practising, it just comes out, so I wrote it down and I read it loudly — I find I picked up some wrong stuffs that way.

Now, my paper isn’t going to be that good, but better than before. I think I am not as good as the natives may be still, but at least if someone asks me to write, I can write. Also, I can write what I want to write, and I’m very glad with that (p. 43-44)

As for the initial resistance, many students came with negative attitudes simply because they’d been told they had to improve their writing and attend the workshops. Furthermore, unfamiliarity with the approach seems to have contributed to some initial negativity: “Clinging to familiar formats and rules, censoring and monitoring heavily, these students expected tutors to mark all their mistakes and tell them exactly which corrections to make… They complained when tutors suggested they find topics that interested them or replied that the number of words they needed to write would depend on what they were writing and who they were writing to. They blanched when tutors suggested they ask groupmates’ advice about what revising and editing their work needed… Afraid to take risks and unwilling to take responsibility, dependent students cowered in the shadow of evaluation. Writing for other than a grade, it seems, was an unfamiliar and unwelcome idea.” (p.49-50).

Attitude change seems to have been strongly linked to group-bonding, and a sense of interdependence, rather than dependence on the teacher.

16 11 2010

Thanks for a JIT read – I’m off to class 🙂

16 11 2010
Vicki Hollett

Great post and I appreciated the back in time reference too.

Re JIT, I’m sure Matt’s right that the term originated with just-in-time inventory control. If I remember rightly, the meme got picked up in company training around the mid nineties. A JIT approach is commonly employed for procedural tasks today, particularly with computers. You’re working on your company’s SAP or Oracle system and you can’t work out what to do next, so you click the help button and a pop up appears and walks you through it. It makes a lot of sense. You’re motivated, focused, and you’ll learn exactly as much as you need to know to get the job done – no extra time or effort wasted on extraneous stuff. And truth is employees don’t have much choice because companies have found it’s cheaper to buy software that’ll do that rather than send them on courses where they might learn a lot of stuff they might not need or will later forget.

Others may feel I’m off target but I think that in business English we often see a JIT approach to training. For example, someone has to give a presentation on Wednesday, so they use their class on Tuesday to run through it. A concern I have about it is some things can take a while to grasp and if you’re working ad hoc, the deadlines can get hairy. The most extreme example of JIT I heard was a French engineer who was being sent to Russia to work on decommissioning a nuclear power plant. Two weeks before he left, his company sent him on an English course. He was a beginner. Eeek!

16 11 2010
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Vicki, I’d be in two minds about — for example — an air traffic controller who was working on the just-in-time principle! On the other hand, my own computer skills have mostly evolved on a JIT basis — that is to say, the only learning that seems durable is that which was done “at the point of need” and was followed up by frequent iterations of the task in hand. Detailed instruction, however well-meant, in advance of the need to apply the targeted skills tends to fall on deaf ears — at least in my case. The analogy with language learning seems fairly transparent.

16 11 2010

Scott- your library must be a veritable treasure trove. How about some photos of those bookshelves? Or a bit of information on what inspired this week’s post? As well as finding your writing fascinating, I would be fascinated to get some insight into your writing process. Many of the book titles you mention, I go on to look for and read and I am only infrequently baffled. Once you get bored of playing with the alphabet, perhaps another great format for your blog would be to go through the book titles on your bookshelves and write a blog post per book.

So, PoN teaching – also fascinating and of obvious interest to the dogme school. What I find myself wondering is whether or not it can be transferred to other skills such as listening (particularly in an EAP context). Of course, PoN learning involves no more than training students in strategies for requesting and checking clarification. Well, it probably also involves training them in signalling the need for clarification as well. But how’s this best done in a lecture scenario when interruptions might be discouraged?

I wonder after reading this post whether or not I might try to play today’s video (of Jamie Oliver’s acceptance speech from TED.com) with the instructions that they are to ask me to pause it in moments of incomprehension. In the past, whenever I’ve tried this, students tend to go through a whole listening text without once asking me to pause.

You’ve got just under an hour to deliver your views on this in order to ensure that I get them within my point of need. Failing that, I’ll let you know how it went.

(Another area of interest would be a realistic look at how we can win validity for these new age tree-hugging approaches).

16 11 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Diarmuid.

On my library: it expands (despite the occasional predations by a certain unnamed party), thanks to Amazon’s second-hand bookseller affiliates – I was able to get a pristine copy of that Nelson book shipped from the US in just days, no sooner had whoever it was mentioned it. Next week’s blog post is about another such golden-oldie – watch this space!

I’m glad you saw the dogme connection with “point of need” teaching – I didn’t want to rub it in, but it seems that Nelson’s ‘project’ fits comfortably into the pre-dogme canon (a kind of dogme Old Testament?).

The question is (and you ask it): can “point of need” teaching be generalised beyond writing? I argue that it can: the “instructional detours” that Cazden refers to apply to reading. But they could equally apply to listening, although the real-time nature of listening poses some management challenges. (I’m sorry I didn’t get back in time to answer your query – but I hope you experimented and that you will report on it. I would have recommended playing the whole text through and THEN – during the replay – inviting stop-start checking of comprehension problems – perhaps by giving one of the students command of the controls).

And of course, the reference to focus-on-form was to suggest that the PoN principle applies equally well to speaking.

Which just about covers everything!

17 11 2010

Let’s look at the bloody great big mess that the Japanese economy is in if we want warnings about over-application of a JIT principle. Anyway, that’s an aside that I should drop now.

As with other commenters, I’m glad you’ve resurrected a somewhat forgotten classic. I myself am currently rereading William E. Rutherford’s ‘Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching.’ Lamentably, not enough enlightenment has been gained from this near 25 year old masterpiece. Is that a-nother aside? Mmmm… let me get to what I actually wanted to say, which is that a lot of what gets taught in many places is, in contrast to point of need, actually needless points. This leads to language being taught that learners simply cannot – or in many cases need not – apply to the bigger picture.

I was at an EAP conference in the summer in which a keynote speaker shocked the audience by announcing that not all written work in university courses followed the 4/5 paragraph essay format. No one actually fainted, but there were several audible gasps of incredulity from an audience who had had this format drilled into them to the point that no other form of writing seemed possible. Not only does this ignore point of need, it brings about the teaching of a needless point. This format doesn’t lend itself to practical use nor are the skills developed in mastering this format transferable to other forms of writing.

Sorry to end abruptly, but my 3 year old son is calling me.

17 11 2010
Scott Thornbury

“A lot of what gets taught in many places is, in contrast to point of need, actually needless points” – hmm, and I thought I was master of the bon mot!
Nice one, Adam.

17 11 2010

I’ll quit now, while I’m ahead.

20 11 2010
Martin Sketchley

Fascinating blog post Scott. The ‘point in need’ supports current learning theory; learner autonomy, a pre-Dogme approach and learner self-correcting their (and other) written work.

Perhaps the book and case study was ahead of it’s time. It is interesting to note that motivation was initially low, but once recognition of the students work was provided their motivation improved. Perhaps we need to focus on a ‘less is more’ approach as well as providing learners a ‘pat on a back’ for their effort.

I suppose writing has developed whereby students are able to publish their work electronically via the use of blogs.

20 11 2010
Scott Thornbury

I suppose writing has developed whereby students are able to publish their work electronically via the use of blogs.

Yes, good point Martin. In the original program, as described by Nelson in her book, the students’ work was actually typed up and mechanically duplicated (we’re talking mid-eighties). Nowadays the possibilities of publication – and design – are of course easier, quicker, cheaper, and reach a potentially much larger audience. This is one, brilliant, way that technology supports learning.

25 11 2010
Scott Thornbury

Just a footnote to the notion of ‘just in time’ teaching: in his fascinating book, What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) James Paul Gee identifies what he calls the Explicit Information On-Demand and Just-in-Time Principle, which goes: “The learner is given explicit information both on demand and just in time, when the learner needs it or just at the point where the information can best be understood and used in practice” (p.142). This is a principle both of good video games and of good teaching. He makes the point that “learners cannot do much with lots of overt information that a teacher has explicitly told them outside the context of immersion in actual practice. At the same time, learners cannot learn without some overt information; they cannot discover everything for themselves” (p.120).

He gives the example of good classroom science instruction, where “an instructor does not lecture for an extended period and then tell the learners to go off and apply what they have learned in a group science activity… Rather, as group members are discovering things through their own activity, the good science instructor comes up, assesses the progress they are making and the fruitfulness of the paths down which they are proceeding in their enquiry, and then gives overt information that is, at that point, usable.” (ibid.).

In short, teaching at the point of need.

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