logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Humanism in English Language Teaching


This is a much written about area and it is one in which terminology is even more variable than usual.  You will sometimes see reference to terms such as holistic, the whole person, affective needs, self-actualisation and more.  The water gets very muddy indeed.
To make some initial sense, here's what's meant by some key terms:

The first use of this term according to Merriam-Webster's site is from 1926.  It means, according to that source:
relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts
holistic medicine attempts to treat both the mind and the body
holistic ecology views humans and the environment as a single system

(The term was originally employed by the South African General (later Field Marshall) Smuts.)
For our purposes, we can define this as focusing on the learner as a complete person rather than as a language-processing unit.
It can also mean treating the language as a whole rather than breaking it down into discrete areas but that is not, for the purposes of this guide, the relevant issue.
the whole person
is a related concept and refers to the need, as some see it, to take into account the learners' emotional and personal lives when teaching.
affective needs
Affect, to distinguish it from effect, when used as a noun means emotion or desire influencing behaviour.  It is derived from the verb meaning to change or alter in some way.
In lay terms, the verb means to move emotionally but also, unfortunately, to pretend or feign an attitude.
For our purposes, affect and affective needs refer to the learners' emotional responses to the classroom, the materials, their classmates, the teacher and so on as well as to their needs for reassurance, feelings of safety and an unthreatening environment.
The key idea is to overcome what has been termed lathophobic aphasia which is a neat term for keeping silent for fear of making a mistake.
is a term derived from the work of Abraham Maslow and dates from 1943.  Maslow proposed his 'Hierarchy of Needs' and asserted that until needs at lower levels are satisfied, those at the next highest level can't be addressed.  Levels 1 to 4 are described as 'deficit needs'.  So, e.g., if you are hungry and in need of sleep, you can't focus on desires for self-esteem and so on.  The highest level is that of self-actualisation: being all that you can be.  More below on this source of humanist theory.
This term has a variety of definitions and referred initially to a revival of interest in Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.
For our purposes, we'll take one of the Merriam-Webster definitions
a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially :a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason
Others have defined the concept in rather more sophisticated terms as, e.g.:
a philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity in this natural world and advocating the methods of reason, science, and democracy
Mehrgan 2102: 184

Humanistic teaching approaches draw on all these concepts to attempt to treat language teaching as more than learning a language but to extend it to helping learners develop and progress as people.




Abraham Maslow posited what he referred to as the Hierarchy of Needs.  It looks like this:
maslow pyramid

At the base of the pyramid are the simple physical needs for fresh air, water, food, sleep and so on.  The needs become more sophisticated as one moves up the pyramid through safety and freedom from fear, to a sense of belonging and mutual respect.  In particular, what are called esteem needs (level 4) are critical to this.  They include self-respect, reputation, status, feelings of strength, independence, adequacy and importance to others.  In other words, high-level affective needs.
The implication is that feeling positive about yourself and comfortable within your group leads to enhanced levels of motivation and better learning.
Until levels 1 to 4 are met (the so-called deficit needs), level 5, becoming all that you can be, cannot be achieved.


Carl Rogers

Source Wikipedia  

Humanistic approaches draw heavily on the work done by Carl Rogers, an American psychologist concerned with a client-centred approach to counselling.
A flavour of Rogers' concerns will suffice here.  Having briefly reviewed what happens in educational establishments in the United States, Rogers avers:

... education becomes the futile attempt to learn material which has no personal meaning.
Such learning involves the mind only. It is learning which takes place from the neck up. It does not involve feelings or personal meanings; it has no relevance for the whole person.
Rogers, 1969, pp. 3-4

Rogers goes on to posit 5 characteristics of what he calls significant learning:

  1. It personally involves the learner.
  2. It comes from within: significant learning is initiated by the learner.
  3. It makes a difference to the learner – changing the person in some way.
  4. It is evaluated by the learner to know if it is important.
  5. It is meaningful to the individual.

In summary, Rogers avers that:

a person learns significantly only those things which he perceives as being involved in the maintenance of or the enhancement of his own self
(op cit. p. 158)

What this means for teachers is also set out by Rogers.  In summary, he believes that a teacher (Rogers prefers the term 'facilitator' or 'leader'):

  1. sets the tone for the group or class by trusting and being open.
  2. helps the learners to understand and articulate their own purposes as well as the purposes of the group as a whole.
  3. relies upon the learners attend to what has meaning for them as the motivation for significant learning.
  4. makes available the widest possible range of resources for learning.
  5. regards him / herself as a flexible resource to be used by the learners rather than an instructor.
  6. accepts both the content and the emotionalized attitudes of what is expressed by the learners.
  7. is able to be a participant in the learning process.
  8. shares feelings and thoughts personally in a non-authoritative manner.
  9. remains alert to the learners' feelings.
  10. recognizes and accepts personal limitations.

Earl Stevick

Source Wikipedia  

Earl Stevick is another very influential voice in the campaign to humanise language instruction.  He summarises the issue neatly into five overlapping emphases (1990):

  1. Feelings.
    both personal emotion an aesthetic appreciation of the world.  There is an explicit rejection of a focus on whatever makes people feel bad or interferes with aesthetic responses to reality.
  2. Social relations.
    Friendship and cooperation lie at the heart of the approach and it opposes whatever tends to hinder them.
  3. Responsibility.
    The acceptance of the need for scrutiny, criticism, and correction.
  4. Intellect.
    Knowledge, reasoning, and understanding are key aspects of all people.  The approach opposes whatever interferes with the free exercise of the mind.
  5. Self-actualization.
    The approach encourages the full realization of one's own deepest true qualities.


From theory to practice

One of the first authors to set out a handbook for teachers to apply the principles of humanistic approaches to foreign language learning was Gertrude Moskowitz.
In 1978, Moskowitz published Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Classroom a severely practical book containing a range of activities all intended to help learners feel positive about themselves and others in the group.  Her fundamental reasoning was that

in both the humanistic psychological approach and the communicative approach, learners are seen not so much as full-time linguistic objects at whom language teaching is aimed, but rather as human individuals whose personal dignity and integrity, and the complexity of whose ideas, thoughts, needs, and sentiments, should be respected. Foreign language teachers must contribute to the self-actualizing process
(1978: p.109)

Here are some examples of the kinds of activities that she proposes, taken from a later (1982) paper but based on her 1978 book.  She prefaces this with the following admonition:

People will share or self-disclose only if they feel safe and not threatened by so doing. Therefore, a positive and accepting climate is essential where others listen attentively, non-judgementally, empathetically, and with good will. In keeping with these notions, there are two important guidelines that I strongly recommend when humanistic communication activities are used: focus on the positive aspects and use low-risk activities. The first refers to such things as sharing pleasant memories, identifying one's strengths and those of others, and focusing on the positive occurrences that happen to us each day. Conversely, conversations would not deal with unpleasant memories, pointing out what one considers to be one's own faults or those of others, or dwelling on the negative events that happen to us.
(1982: pp25/26)

Childhood favourites

If you are intrigued by exercises like this and want more, the full text, along with some interesting other papers, is available at:



It is difficult to overestimate how influential humanist ideas have been over the past 40 or so years.  All the following approaches (which are covered in a separate guide linked in the list of related guides at the end) have claimed to be humanistic:

  1. Community Language Learning: an approach explicitly based on counselling techniques.
  2. Suggestopaedia: an approach which explicitly attempts to lower affective barriers.
  3. The Silent Way: an approach which depends for much of its effect on learners' production rather than teacher intervention.
  4. Total Physical Response: which allows a pre-speaking phase in which learners are unthreatened by pressure to produce language.
  5. Dogme: an approach which explicitly targets the language produced by and needed by the learners and in which they initiate the teaching-learning cycle.

Whether all these alternative methodologies actually are operating in accordance with Stevick's five fundamental principles is, naturally, not uncontroversial.

There are other less obvious influences, too.  It is arguable that all the following have, to some extent at least, been influenced by humanist theories.

  1. The concern, especially within Communicative Language Learning, to ensure that the language students use is personalised and meaningful to them.
  2. The explicit focus on most training courses on making lessons learner centred and reducing the dominance of the teacher.
  3. Krashen's and Terrell's focus in one of the former's five hypotheses regarding the need to reduce the learners' affective filters and create stress-free learning environments.
  4. The focus on negotiated syllabuses in which the learners play a central role in deciding what is to be learned.
  5. The focus on developing autonomy and self-directed learning programmes.
  6. Genre approaches with their emphasis on empowering learners socially.
  7. Approaches to reading skills development which focus on the learners' affective response to the content of texts as well as their linguistic content.
  8. The focus on project work in which the learners set their own goals.
  9. The increasing focus on how cultural aspects affect what is done in the classroom and underlie learners' reactions to certain methodologies and approaches.
  10. The focus on exploiting both the physical environment for context as well as the learners' internal, experiential environment.

You may have thought of others.

One overarching influence is that it is nowadays rare to find a teacher who does not profess to the desire to establish a good rapport with her learners (i.e. empathise) or one who see his learners' feelings, desires aesthetic responses and emotions as irrelevant to the learning process.



The major criticism of humanistic approaches to language teaching concerns the doctrinaire approach that many proponents take.
It has not gone unnoticed that many who advocate a humanist approach (and some who merely advocate a communicative approach) have focused on peripheral matters which do not enhance the learning opportunities of their students.
While it is generally accepted that the comfort and happiness of learners in the classroom is significant, critics of humanistic approaches have suggested (sometimes forcefully) that a focus on these sorts of factors diverts attention from the purpose of a language-learning classroom which is, naturally, to help people to speak, write, read and listen effectively in a foreign language.
In particular, criticisms have been levelled at:

  1. Negotiated syllabuses
    because most learners have no idea of what they need to learn and it is the teacher's and institution's responsibility to use their knowledge, training and experience to establish a syllabus that will allow the client to learn what he or she really needs.
    At advanced levels in particular fields of language use, the learners may indeed be in a position to set out what they need to learn but this does not describe most learners.
  2. Skills work
    because most adult learners already have reading, writing, listening and speaking skills.  What they need is the ability to use the skills in another language.  They do not explicitly need to be taught skills which have nothing specifically to do with a language because they already have skills which are specific to all languages.
  3. Inductive approaches
    because trying to figure out a rule from a set of data is an unreliable and time-consuming process especially when one considers that generations of linguists have struggled to identify the rules.  Asking a student of the language to do this is not only inefficient and wasteful, it is also likely to fail.
  4. Concerns with affective factors
    because, providing the teacher is approachable, friendly, professional and concerned and remembers the learners names, that is all most learners need.
  5. Arrogance
    There is some suspicion that teachers, whose central role is one of service to their learners, may arrogate to themselves the role of life coach and that is a domain in which they may neither be trained nor have sufficient expertise.
  6. Concerns with holistic approaches
    because if a learners feels a need for some counselling and whole-person treatment then the obvious choice is to go to a professional in this field, not to a language teacher.
  7. Concerns with process not product
    because what most language learners want is precisely the product and they are far less concerned than teachers with how they get it.

Related guides
motivation for a little more on Maslow and some alternative theories of motivation
alternative methodologies for more on the five sets of ideas touched on above
Krashen and the Natural Approach for more on affective filter theory
first- and second-language acquisition theories for more on how language(s) may be learned
methodology the link to other guides in the methodology index
background the link to the guides in the background section

Mehrgan, K, 2012, Humanistic Language Teaching: A Critical Look, Masjed Soleiman, Iran: Islamic Azad University
Merriam-Webster online dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com
Moskowitz, G, 1978, Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Classroom, Rowley, MA: Newbury House
Moskowitz, G, 1982, Self-confidence through Self-disclosure: the pursuit of meaningful communication, in ELT Documents 113 Humanistic approaches: an empirical view, London: The British Council
Rogers, C,1983, Freedom to learn for the 80's, Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.
Stevick, EW, 1990, Humanism in Language Teaching: A critical perspective, Oxford: Oxford University Press