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Approaches and Methods

This is a book review by David Overton of Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Cambridge Language Teaching Library) by Jack C. Richards and
Theodore S. Rodgers. David Overton teaches general and company classes in the center and north of Madrid (he lives in Sanchinarro).

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Part 1:

Part 2:

Review of Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching.

By Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers. (Cambridge Language Teaching Library)

Review by David Overton

Are you familiar with the history of ELT (English Language Teaching)? Do you know how the Grammar Translation Method and Audiolingualism still influence our teaching today? Do you know what the Communicative Language Teaching revolution was all about? Would you like to know more about “alternative” approaches and methods such as the Silent Way, Suggestopedia, or Counseling-learning? Or how about more recent innovations such as Task-Based Language Teaching and the Lexical Approach? If you’re interested in these things, this is a good book to read.

The 19 chapters are divided into 3 parts. The first 4 chapters form Part 1, which is called “Major trends in twentieth century language teaching”. Chapter 1 describes the Grammar Translation Method and the transition to the Direct Method. Grammar Translation has no rationale or theory to back up its practices, and is based on the teaching of Latin, a dead language. Its goal is for students to learn a language in order to read its literature and involves detailed study of grammar rules, then the translation of stilted prose to demonstrate mastery of those rules.

However, in the mid and late 1800s Europeans began to travel around more, bringing about a need for oral proficiency in foreign languages. A Reform Movement came about in which the best way to teach languages was debated, and from this came the Direct Method, which was the other extreme of Grammar Translation: primacy was given to the spoken language, pronunciation was emphasized using the new field of phonetics, words and sentences were taught in context to make meaning clear, grammar was taught inductively, and translation was taboo. In the 1860s the first Berlitz academy was opened, and here the Direct Method was quite effective with highly motivated paying students and native-speaking teachers, but it didn’t work well in public schools. By the way, this time also marked the beginning of the field of applied linguistics, and was when the basic issues of language teaching were first set down and discussed.

Chapter 2 interrupts our history of English Language Teaching to examine the issues surrounding it and define the terms used in this book when evaluating approaches and
methods. Basically the terms “approach”, “design”, and “procedure” are put on a scale from more abstract to more specific. “Approach” is the most abstract term being the theory of language, and the theory of language learning. “Design” is organizational issues such as deciding the course objectives, the types of learner and teaching activities, and the roles of the learners, teachers, and instructional material. Finally, “procedure” is the actual techniques used in the class.

By the way, I found the use of the word “method” is sometimes confusing in this book because at times it seems to be synonymous with “approach”, as in the title of the book, and at times it seems to mean “design” and “procedure” as explained above, and yet at others it seems to be the sum of approach, design and procedure.

Chapter 3, The Oral Approach and Situational Language Teaching, brings us back to our history lesson. The Oral Approach and Situational Language Teaching are basically the same thing. It was developed by British applied linguists from the 1930s to the 1960s and was the first method based on systematic study and research. It differs from the Direct Method in that vocabulary and grammar are carefully selected and graded, and it’s based on behaviorist habit-formation theory. Classroom procedure includes the famous PPP paradigm (Present, Practice, Produce), and the practice phase consists of the extensive use of oral drills.

Chapter 4 is about the Audiolingual Method, which is basically an American equivalent of Situational Language Teaching, so I won’t go into that here.

Part 3 of the book includes chapters 14 to 19 and is called, Current Communicative Approaches. If we want to continue our history lesson we need to jump ahead now to chapter 14, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). Here we see how it began and how it compares with Audiolingualism. In CLT “communicative competence” is paramount, that is, being able to use language for communication; whereas in Audiolingualism, the main goal is “linguistic competence” (being able to manipulate grammatical structures). CLT introduces the idea of “functions”, using language for a communicative purpose such as asking for directions and ordering in a restaurant.

CLT consists of broad principles which allow for a wide variety of classroom activities. For example, for some people CLT was just Audiolingualism plus functions; but for others it meant major changes in procedure too, such as the use of information gaps, role plays and games; and a more learner-centered class. Because of its broad principles, it tends to be an umbrella approach, that is, the Lexical Approach and Task-Based Teaching are versions of CLT.

The rest of the book is about “alternative approaches”. The ones in part 2 are considered to be non-mainstream or developed away from mainstream ELT, and so receive less attention. The ones in part 3 are considered mainstream developments since the 1980s and are explained in more depth. However, from my experience of language teaching in Madrid, the most interesting recent developments in ELT are Task-Based Language Teaching and the Lexical Approach. Yet the Lexical Approach (which was developed in the 90s) is relegated to part 2, while the Natural Approach (developed in the 70s) is in part 3. It’s true that the Natural Approach was very important because it started the learning vs. acquisition debate, but compared to the Lexical Approach, it cannot be considered a recent innovation.

Anyway, I’ll make quick comments about each approach in part 2 to whet your appetite and make you want to buy the book and find out more. For example, Total Physical Response combines English with physical movement and involves extensive use of imperative drills such as, “Get up. Walk to the door. Open the door”. It’s meant mainly for low-level students and is intended to be combined with another method.

The Silent Way believes that students learn best when they figure things out for themselves, so teacher modeling and feedback are minimal. Typical of Silent Way are rods, pronunciation charts called “fidels”, and a pointer. The teachers’ role is “to teach, to test, and to get out of the way”. We don’t want teachers interfering with learning.

Community Language Learning is famous for being very learner centered, for example, students create their own syllabus: they sit around a table with a tape recorder and come up with their own text which the teacher helps them to correct or translate if necessary.

Suggestopedia claims that in the right conditions, when we’re relaxed, we’re capable of “superlearning”. The most famous classroom activity to achieve this is the “séance” or “concert session” where students listen to a text being read along with music.

Whole Language views language as a whole and resists breaking it down into its component parts. Classroom activities focus on reading literature and process writing.

Multiple Intelligences tries to adapt classroom activities to cater to the different intelligence types, such as linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, interpersonal, or bodily intelligence.

Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) is not a language teaching method at all, but a humanistic philosophy designed to make us better learners by encouraging us to feel better about ourselves.

It’s hard to say what the Lexical Approach is doing next to NLP, but here it is. The Lexical Approach believes that multi-word items such as collocation deserve much more attention in order to help students achieve communicative competence. By the way, this chapter doesn’t mention the Lexical Approach’s view that learning is an organic process, not linear as per behaviorist learning theory. In fact this book doesn’t mention the organic nature of learning at all.

Competency-Based Language Teaching is an output approach, which is useful when students have specific needs such as survival English.

As I’ve mentioned before, Part 3 is about current mainstream ELT. We’ve already looked at Communicative Language Teaching. Next is the Natural Approach, which is interesting because of the belief that language can only be “acquired” subconsciously, and conscious “learning” is only useful to “monitor” what you’ve said: to self correct.

Cooperative Language Learning advocates cooperative activities such as process writing.

Content-based Instruction means teaching other subjects, such as geography, in English.

Task-Based Language Teaching involves doing some sort of task, then hearing native speakers do it. This encourages students to “notice the gap” between their production and the native speakers’. At this point there is a language focus, and afterwards students prepare a “report”, which actually could be some sort of repetition of the task.

Finally, the last chapter is called The Post-Methods Era. I was surprised when they say that studies indicate many teachers’ core beliefs about teaching were formed by the teachers they had when they were children; also that the more experience we have as teachers, the more set in our ways we become. They’re suggesting that most teachers are reluctant to innovate and try new things, which is a shame.

Maybe they should read this book. I’ve found it interesting and useful, despite my objections here and there. It’s easy to dip into, the explanations are clear. So whether you’re a new or experienced teacher, I recommend this book.

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