Saturday, November 04, 2006
Language Teaching: Some Notes on Method
Please click to download a PDF of my book Teach and Learn: Reflections on Communicative Language Teaching.
As a teacher, I use the communicative approach to language teaching, and this blog provides much information about its theory and practice. In some ways, the heart of CLT is the lesson planning cycle, which we stress from the beginning. (To download a PDF of my book on the topic, click here.)
To put CLT and lesson planning into context, it will be helpful to tell some of the story of teaching methods. We begin with the tale of teaching approaches and methods. Then we describe the two bêtes noire of language teaching – grammar translation and audiolingualism – before reviewing the direct method and CLT.
Approach, Method, Design and Procedure: In 1963, applied linguist Edward Anthony defined the terms “approach,” “method” and “technique” as they apply to language teaching and his ideas had a great impact on teachers and those who guide them. In his ground-breaking work, Anthony suggested that an approach is the large system of ideas and thought behind a teacher’s lesson plans. Method refers to specific ways to teach English, and each method uses a variety of specific techniques.
Here is what Anthony actually said: “The arrangement is hierarchical. The organizational key is that techniques carry out a method which is consistent with an approach….
• “…An approach is a set of correlative assumptions dealing with the nature of language teaching and learning. An approach is axiomatic. It describes the nature of the subject matter to be taught….
• “…Method is an overall plan for the orderly presentation of language material, no part of which contradicts, and all of which is based upon, the selected approach. An approach is axiomatic, a method is procedural…..Within one approach, there can be many methods….
• “A technique is implementational – that which actually takes place in a classroom. It is a particular trick, stratagem, or contrivance used to accomplish an immediate objective. Techniques must be consistent with a method, and therefore in harmony with an approach as well.”
In a review of Anthony’s ideas, two later thinkers – Jack Richards and Ted Rodgers – suggest a rethinking of this hierarchy. Anthony’s package can be improved, they suggest, by eliminating the notion of technique from the pyramid, and adding design and procedure. The following two categories replaced technique at the bottom of their hierarchy.
• Design: The two thinkers propose that design is “that level in which objectives, syllabus, and content are determined, and in which objectives, the roles of teachers, learners and instructional materials are specified.”
• Procedure: The implementation phase of language classes is where the rubber hits the road – the activities that help language learning occur. Rather than use the term implementation, they prefer the “slightly more comprehensive term procedure.”
The two men sum up their revised model with the words: “…a method is theoretically related to an approach, is organizationally determined by a design, and is practically realized in a procedure.” The lesson planning cycle used extensively in this course mirrors Richards’ and Rodgers’ revisions to Anthony’s pioneering work.
In the following discussion, we will talk about methods only, because we are concerned with how language is taught in the classroom rather than the theory behind individual methods. We will not, in other words, discuss the approaches behind the following four methods.
The Grammar Translation Method: The grammar translation method emerged when people of the western world wanted to learn such foreign languages as Latin and Greek. The focus is on learning grammatical rules and memorizing vocabulary and language declensions and conjugations. Typical classroom activities and homework includes text translation and written exercises.
The teacher presents a grammar translation class in the student’s native tongue, and students are not actively encouraged to use the target language in class. The teacher provides elaborate explanations of the grammatical intricacies of the target language, and often focuses on the form and inflection of words. Accuracy receives a great deal of stress. Vocabulary study takes the form of learning lists of often isolated words, and the rules of grammar provide the blueprint for putting words together. Students begin early to read classical texts, which are treated as exercises in grammatical analysis. There is little stress on the content of those texts.
The Audio-lingual Method: Grammar Translation classes lingered in the West until well into the 1970s, and the method is still used in some schools, especially in less-developed countries. However, the system began to be replaced in Western schools in the mid-1950s by a new, “scientific,” method known as Audio-lingualism. Also called the “aural-oral” method, it gets its name from the Latin roots for hearing and speaking. Audiolingualism emphasises pattern drills and conversation practice.
In the audio-lingual classroom, the teacher generally presents new material in dialogue form, and students are expected to mimic her pronunciation and intonation, which receive a great deal of emphasis. There is a great deal of stress on memorizing set phrases and over learning; learners acquire language patterns through repetitive drills. There is little grammatical explanation; the student learns grammar through analogy rather than explanation.
Audio-lingual teachers place great importance on getting students to produce error-free speech. They immediately reinforce successful speech, and quickly correct errors. They teach vocabulary through pronunciation (not the written word), and they make regular use of tapes, language labs, and visual aids. In the classroom, the teacher strongly discourages the use of the student’s mother tongue.
The Direct Method: Although these methods dominated much of language teaching, there were better alternatives available. Notable among these is the direct method, which originated in the 19th century through the work of a number of important thinkers, notably Lambert Sauveur – a Frenchman who opened a language school in Boston in 1869. His system of teaching French became known as the natural method. The direct method is an offshoot.
The basic premise of the direct method is that second language learning should be more like first language learning. The method includes lots of oral interaction and the spontaneous use of language. The teacher discourages translation between first and second languages, and puts little emphasis on the rules of grammar.
The direct method classroom was one of small, intensive classes which stressed both speech and listening comprehension. The teacher gives instruction exclusively in the target language, teaching everyday vocabulary and sentences. The teacher develops oral communication skills in a careful progression that she frequently organizes around questions-and-answer exchanges. The teacher explains new teaching points through modeling and practice.
A direct approach instructor emphasizes correct pronunciation and grammar, which she teaches inductively. She presents concrete vocabulary through demonstration, realia and pictures, for example, and teaches abstract vocabulary through association of ideas. This method was the first to catch “the attention of both language teachers and language teaching specialists, and it offered a methodology that appeared to move language teaching into a new era.”
Communicative Language Teaching: In Western countries, at least, communicative language teaching is the generally accepted norm in the field of second language teaching. It is state-of-the-art.
CLT is based on theories about language acquisition, especially those developed by Stephen Krashen. At the considerable risk of oversimplification, here is a nutshell perspective on the fit between theory and practice. Krashen suggests that learners acquire language through using it for communication. Since most learners study language to use it for communication, this discovery represents a tidy fit between what works and what learners want.
The teacher’s job is to help his students develop communicative skills by experimenting with the second language in class and beyond. In the classroom, the CL teacher creates activities which simulate communication in real-world situations. His activities emphasize learning to communicate through interaction in the target language, and generally use a mix of the four language skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing. These activities enable his learners to internalize and activate their second or foreign language.
The communicative language teacher uses authentic materials and exercises in the classroom, since this enables his students to more easily take their language learning into the real world. The teacher provides opportunities for learners not only to activate the second language, but also to better understand the learning process. He might do this, for example, by helping his learners develop strategies that will speed up the learning process.
In a well-designed lesson, his efforts work together to improve his students’ communicative competence. He has a clear sense of the thinking behind the communicative approach, and the planning cycle enables him to integrate design and procedure into a master class.