R is for (Wilga) Rivers

15 10 2017

Wilga RiversI’m working on a book chapter about methodology texts, and the name Wilga Rivers comes up again and again. You may remember that she is the first woman to get a mention in Stern’s (1983) chronology of significant language teaching milestones in the previous century (see W is for Women in ELT). Stern describes her as ‘a writer on language pedagogy who has influenced the thinking of many language teachers for nearly two decades’ (p. 107). Me included.

Rivers is significant from a number of points of view: she was one of the first writers on language teaching methodology to really engage with the developing field of psycholinguistics. Her first book, in fact, was called The psychologist and the foreign-language teacher (1964). But the book of hers I am most familiar with is probably also her best-known: Teaching foreign-language skills. This was first published in 1968, and then edited for re-publication in 1981. The dates are significant, if you think about it. Somewhere in that period a major sea-change had taken place in language teaching methodology, namely the advent of the communicative approach. Rivers 2nd ednAs Rivers herself wrote (in the second edition): ‘Much water has flown under the bridge since the sixties’ (p. xiii). What is fascinating comparing the two editions (and interesting to me for the purposes of writing my chapter) is the way that Rivers not only embraces that change but, in some ways, was able to predict it. (Even in her 1964 book she had included a chapter suggesting ways that audiolingualism could be improved.)

Her readiness to abandon the narrow strictures of the audiolingual approach and its associated structural grammar found a fuller expression in Speaking in many tongues (first published in 1972 and then revised in 1976) in which she has a chapter called ‘From linguistic competence to communicative competence’,  and yet again in a subsequent book that she edited for Cambridge, Interactive language teaching (1987).  This begins with an article of hers titled ‘Interaction as the key to teaching language for communication’, in which she recalls her first teacher of French when she was 11:

We performed actions; we handled objects; we drew large pictures and labelled them; we sang; we danced; we learned poems; we read little stories which we acted out and improvised upon…

And she adds: ‘Collaborative activity of this type should be the norm from the beginning of language study’ (p. 4, original emphasis).

I met Wilga Rivers only once: in Barcelona at a TESOL Spain conference in 1989. By then she would have been nearly 70. She gave a plenary, made memorable by her writing on the projector screen in indelible pen, and by her still uncompromisingly strong Australian accent. She was born in Melbourne in 1920. As Claire Kramsch (writing on the occasion of Rivers’ retirement from Harvard) recalls:

She had never intended to come to America. What she really wanted was to be the best French teacher in the Australian school system. She wanted to strengthen Australian education according to her own educational beliefs. But her Australian frontier spirit was not meant to bloom at home. It found a voice in the United States, a voice that led her to become one of the first few women full professors at Harvard, a voice now familiar to foreign language teachers all over the world . . . including Australia (1989, p. 53)

Wilga rivers quoteI was teaching a Diploma course at the time of the TESOL Conference, and we were using several of Rivers’ texts, including one on motivation and another on vocabulary teaching. In the latter, she quotes the biblical line ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver’. One of my students on the course, Catie Lenaghan, engineered a gathering with Wilga over coffee during one of the breaks: Catie had written out the quote and asked Wilga to sign it (see picture) before presenting it to me.

Many years later, browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Boston, I was surprised to find a number of books with her (by now familiar) signature on the flyleaf (see picture below). I realized, with some sadness, that she must have recently died. Many of the books that had belonged to her dated from the pre-communicative era – books on habit formation and contrastive error analysis. Others, like the one I bought – Earl Stevick’s Images and options in the language classroom (1986) – were more recent.  It was sad to see what had presumably been an extensive library broken up and dismantled like this. It makes me look at my own library with a mix of pride and foreboding.

Wilga Rivers signature


Kramsch, C. J. (1989) ‘Wilga M. Rivers on her retirement.’ Modern Language Journal, 73/1.

Rivers, W. (1964) The psychologist and the foreign-language teacher. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Rivers, W. (1976) Speaking in many tongues. (Expanded 2nd edn.) Rowley, Mass: Newbury House.

Rivers, W. (1981) Teaching foreign-language skills (2nd edn) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rivers, W. (ed.) (1987) Interactive language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stern, H.H. (1983) Fundamental concepts of language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stevick, E. (1986) Images and options in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




10 responses

15 10 2017

How sad to know someone better after their death! The practice in language teaching today wouldn’t have elaborated if it wasn’t to the efforts of these pioneers. Rivers contribution to the field of language teaching methodology is inspiring and worth reviving.

16 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ahlam. Yes, i am glad to have met her, if only once.

15 10 2017

Dear Scott,
It’s wonderful that you decided to write about Wilga Rivers and her legacy for our profession. I had the privilege to read her book for my Teacher Training Course at Casa Thomas Jefferson in the 1980’s, and she was a great reference to us at that time, when we were making the transition between Audiolingualism and CLT. Thank-you for your inspiring posts every week!

16 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Isabel – yes, her work really created a bridge between two different paradigms. Worfth celebrating.

15 10 2017

Hello Scott,
Thank you for a good example to follow – a woman can be a teacher, a researcher and a writer :-). And surprise surprise – Wilga initially was a teacher of French, not just English! Thus, in my opinion, the future mission of ELT is to share its precious, invaluable, practical experience with teachers of other languages, including those who are teaching English as a native language. Even in this area you can feel the influence of ancient grammars – this is my personal experience of working with a phonics book meant for English-speaking children and published in Britain this century. Children are supposed to practise grammar by conjugating verbs and writing them in the present, past and future (with will) tense forms. That is pure heresy to an ELT/EFL teacher, isn’t it? That would be a project I’d love to do some day – some input on how to teach a language with illustrations from several languages that you can take into the classroom straight away to start with and then develop further with your own materials.

16 10 2017
Scott Thornbury

Svetlana, thanks once again. Not only was Rivers a teacher of French, she also wrote books addressing the teaching of German, Spanish and Hebrew. And she expressly says, in the introduction to Teaching Foreign-Language Skills that the book – and hence the methodology it embodies – is not language-specific, hence appropriate for the teaching of any language.

16 10 2017

Hi Scott,

Thanks for sharing to us about Wilga Rivers. I only heard her name from my MA in ELT professor and I didn’t really care that much until reading your post.

16 10 2017
Erzsebet Bekes

Looking at the references of my MA on CLT and cross-cultural communication (from 1986), I can see that I read “Speaking in Many Tongues” (1972) and “Communicating Naturally in a Second Language” (1983) at the time. I feel like re-reading those books now.

17 10 2017

I remember that in the methodology class the teacher elaborating on the direct method quoted Rivers as saying that learners who learn English through the direct method develop a “glib”, a type of language which is fluent but not accurate. This post also reminds me of Kenneth Chastain who has a beautiful account of teaching language skills.

21 10 2017
Sue Casey

Thankyou Scott for your tribute to Wilga. She was most influential and certainly ahead of her times. Her passion for language learning never waned and she was a true inspiration to so many.

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