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Panacea methods

Over the years there have been a range of theories and approaches advocated in the field of second language learning and teaching. We have witnessed fashions for grammar-translation, direct method oral approaches, audio-lingualism, communicative approaches, as well as other methods espoused by smaller groups of teachers such as TPR (total physical response) , TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and story-telling), AIM language learning and the Michel Thomas approach.

For each approach there has been an associated set of commercial resources and committed leaders and followers. Some of these approaches claim empirical research evidence (usually of dubious value) to support their efficacy.

Around 1980 I was trained to use the adapted direct method, oral-situational approach developed originally from the ideas of Henry Sweet and others. It recommended a focus on oral target language, use of high frequency words and a rigid view of selection and grading of language. It was essentially an inductive approach, the theory being that grammar would be internalised by hearing lots of language presented in a structured fashion, beginning with the simple and developing through to the more complex. It can work well, but perhaps not with every child and in every situation. Over the years, with experience, I became more pragmatic and accepting of different approaches.

So why this blog post?

It should be a given that there is no one perfect approach to second language teaching. Students vary and contexts vary. If you teach in an immersion context then comprehensible input approaches may be a good fit. If you work in in a high school situation with limited opportunities for input, then some short cuts may be needed. For example, students may well appreciate grammatical explanations.

But there must be some bottom lines. Teachers do need to provide lots of target language, some explanations will be needed, students do need opportunities to talk and content and delivery do need to be motivating. How a teacher meets these requirements may vary a good deal. Some will prefer teaching more from the front, some will make significant use of technology, others will place a high value on pair and group work.

And you know, in reality, teachers should not be dogmatic in defence of their preferred method. There is a great deal of common practice between approaches. Almost all teachers will do some grammar explanation, some structured practice, some comprehension, a bit of translation and so on.

Above all the teacher needs to be good. An inspiring teacher using an audio-lingual or "drill and kill" will achieve more than a poor teacher using a communicative or comprehension approach. There are no panacea approaches, there are just good and bad teachers.

Comments

  1. So well articulated, Steve! I've taught both Immersion and core high school French. During the second half of my career, each new provincial government would trumpet and mandate the latest, greatest approaches to teaching. In Modern Languages, methodology would succeed methodology and be marketed with a religious fervour known only to politicians and bureaucrats fixated on upward mobility as THE ONE TRUE WAY. Inevitably, it would have some features to recommend it so some of us would become true believers. Others, pragmatically, would just go with the flow because the next ONE TRUE WAY was already shimmering on the horizon. But the fact was, and is, that if you had 32 kids in your class, you had 32 different learning styles to engage and encourage. So a good teacher could not afford to be dogmatic about their preferred (or the officially sanctioned) approach. I loved this piece, Steve. Thank you from Toronto.

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  2. It is totally true Steve. I have just discovered the TPRs approach as well as earlier on the Michel Tomas method and I do enjoy them because back in England I was trained to teach lists of vocabulary and not really structures, which I think didn't serve the students. I agree with you that we need to adapt to the needs of our students but you could maybe explain what is in your opinion a good teacher?

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  3. That.s a big question Alice! From what I saw over the years I would throw into the mix: great sense of where pupils are and what will push them a bit further, good at keeping class control, good language skills (fluency and accent primarily, then accuracy), well organised, sense of humour, takes problems in their stride, strong sense of class atmosphere at any time, flexible (e.g. ready to change plan when lesson not going well), patient when needed, impatient when needed, careful about individual needs, making sure least able are involved and most able challenged, able to match activity type to class in front of you, intolerant of low level disruption..... Any other ideas?

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for this exhaustive list Steve, I guess that is what I am trying to aim at!

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  4. Hi uncoupdemain. I understand your likening of teaching method with religion. Is this more prevalent in North America? AIM, TPRS, CI, audio-lingualism? I do come across teachers who are passionate about their one method and evangelise.

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  5. Hi, Steve! Your blog post is spot-on. As to your question re: AIM, TPRS, CI, audio-lingualism: I reside in the United States. I haven't personally encountered any teacher in recent memory who espouses AIM/audio-lingual method. On the other hand, CI and TPRS are widely touted. To the point of cultism. Me? I am about good teaching, and what works, as opposed to giving myself and my students over to one particular approach.

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  6. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I have the same sense about cultism, especially with regard to Stephen Krashen. His hypotheses are attractive for their simplicity and he may be right about comprehensible input, but we cannot know for sure as it is not provable or falsifiable, as I see it.

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