Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What Research Says about Teaching Methods

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Educators base their systems of language teaching on language theory. Here is one summary of teaching methods, based on the work of two Canadian educators. In their technical but thoughtful book, Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada discuss contemporary thinking about how we learn languages, and illustrate how such ideas directly affect the classroom.

Here is a commentary on their five proposals for classroom teaching. The authors describe each method as an imperative the teacher might bring into class.

Grammar Translation and Audiolingualism. A traditional teacher coming into class would insist to her students, “Get it right from the beginning!”

Teachers from both the grammar translation and the audiolingualism schools do this. They emphasize speech, but are reluctant to let their students use it spontaneously. The reason is that they worry about their students forming bad, ugly habits that they cannot break. Since habits are hard to break, it is better to prevent them. Unbreakable habits of speech – they do occur – are said to be “fossilized.”

According to the two Canadians, research does not support the idea that avoiding fossilization by getting it right from the beginning is an effective way to teach. Just the contrary, in fact. In experiments, students learning by this method clearly did better when communicative activities were added to their lessons. That said, many adults prefer these structure-based methods despite their limitations.

Interactionism. The Interactionist view holds that second language learning takes place primarily through talking with other people (“conversational interaction”). When students have meaningful conversations in a second language, both sides of the conversation use behaviours that are quite useful for language learning. Here are some practical examples:
• One partner might make an effort to make sure the other has understood.
• The learner might ask for clarification to make sure he understood.
• The learner may repeat or paraphrase a sentence, to make sure she gets it right.
These are all excellent strategies for language learning, and they lead to the interactionist teacher’s imperative: “Say what you mean and mean what you say!”

This method is based on the idea that, when given the opportunity to engage in meaningful activities, learners will “negotiate for meaning” – clarify and express their intentions, thoughts and opinions in ways that permit them to achieve their learning goals. “Genuine exchanges of information must surely enhance students’ motivation to participate in language learning activities,” the authors say. But then they ask, “Do they…lead to successful language acquisition?” According to the two authors, the research is ambiguous.

Communicative Language Teaching

Lightbown and Spada describe three other methods of classroom teaching, all of which fall generally into the scope of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). To simplify our review of CLT, it is worth quickly reviewing Stephen Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition.

Krashen’s ideas consist of five main hypotheses:
• The acquisition-learning hypothesis
• The monitor hypothesis
• The natural order hypothesis
• The input hypothesis, and
• The affective filter hypothesis.
As we discussed elsewhere, these ideas seem to describe quite effectively how learners acquire second languages.

Of particular importance, Krashen’s ideas have practical value for the classroom warrior wanting to deliver effective lessons. In the following commentary, I suggest that each of the last three Lightbown and Spada imperatives correspond roughly with one or more of Krashen’s hypotheses.

The Comprehensible Input Hypothesis. The authors describe a radical application of Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis in the form of a method of language teaching in which the students “Just listen, and read!” This kind of learning is most likely to take place in a well equipped language lab, where the students use tapes and readings graded to their individual level.

As long as the students are working with language they can comprehend, there is no theoretical reason they cannot acquire a second language. After all, Krashen’s primary thesis is that we can only learn language through comprehensible input. (He adds to this that teachers should stretch their knowledge of the language by providing them with “i+1” encounters – just a tad more of the second language than they can easily understand, to increase their comprehension.)

The “just listen and read” method assumes it is not necessary to drill and memorize language forms. Emphasis is on providing comprehensible input through listening and reading activities. Experimental research has found that this system is effective, but the authors sound a note of caution.
Students develop not only good comprehension (in reading and listening), but also confidence and fluency....However, research does not support the argument that an exclusive focus on meaning in comprehensible input is enough to bring learners to high levels of accuracy in their second language.

Students also need explicit instruction in the forms of language – for example, specific structures. Otherwise, their language skills will remain somewhat limited.

The Natural Order Hypothesis. Lightbown and Spada describe a method which focuses on teaching structural forms, but teaching them in developmental order. Their imperative? “Teach what is teachable!” The concept is that instruction cannot change the ‘natural’ course of development. This is because linguistic structures develop along particular developmental paths. Teaching advanced structures to beginners will not work because the learners do not yet have the ability to process (unconsciously analyse and organise) them.

That, at least, is the theory. As the authors explain, it is difficult to test because the “natural order” of language learning is still unclear. Some things are known – for example, WH questions and Yes/No questions are much easier to acquire than those using question tags (“It’s easy to do, isn’t it?”). However, as a learner begins to reach complicated structures, the difficult language structures are not too well defined.

The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis. Lightbown and Spada describe one final method. While this course in TEFL finds value in many teaching methods, the authors’ last teaching method is the one we most strongly support. “Get it right in the end!” they say.

This method is the one most in keeping with Krashen’s “monitor model” of second language learning. As our study of Krashen explains, the monitor hypothesis is the idea that conscious learning serves primarily as a monitor or an editor for the language student. It plays a relatively small but necessary role in effective language acquisition, which comes primarily from exposure to comprehensible input and language practice.

The “get it right in the end” method recognizes the importance of explicitly teaching language content – making the study of structure, lexis and phonology a part of language lessons. However, it puts primary emphasis on the idea that students will acquire most language features will be acquired naturally if learners have adequate exposure to the language and a motivation to learn. This view largely agrees with “Teach what is teachable”, but “emphasizes the idea that some aspects of language must be taught and may need to be taught quite explicitly.”

Approach, Method and Technique. All these methods of instruction can play a role in a good language teacher’s toolkit. Communicative Language Teaching is based not on dogma, but on what works to help students learn language effectively. While we believe CLT is the most effective approach to language teaching, we also recognize that is effective because it is eclectic. CLT begins with the idea that the purpose of language learning is to communicate, and uses ideas and practices from any other method if they can help achieve that goal.

CLT is nothing if it is not pragmatic.
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