Sunday, 16 November 2014

Is there a consensus on language teaching methodology?

It is well established that we are in a "post methods" or eclectic period when it comes to how best to teach languages. Having been down various roads, maybe cul-de-sacs: grammar-translation, audio-lingual/visual, strong communicative and no doubt others, we seem to be in an era when most teachers accept the need for a suitable balance of target language/comprehension and grammar-vocabulary teaching/controlled practice.

When I read what teachers write online I do wonder sometimes whether teachers feel confused about what works best. Should I be using more target language? Should I be teaching grammar more explicitly? Should I feel guilty about using English or translating? Is there actually a consensus about what works best? Or are we just confused?

It would be reassuring if there were a body of reliable research to support a particular approach, but, despite some claims to the contrary, I do not believe there is such a body of empirical data which tells us clearly and objectively what is best. When one factors in the various contexts in which language teaching occurs and the fact that different teachers may make different methods work for them (especially if they believe in them), one has to ask where we can find the evidence we need which goes beyond the anecdotal.

With this in mind, I was interested to read something from Ofsted which was published some time ago and which Helen Myers brought to our attention again in the MFL Resources forum. She reproduced the post on her blog here. She was responding to an article in the Guardian which had suggested that language teachers were guilty of using phrase book methods to teach.

Ofsted has an enormous body of lesson observations and progress data to draw on and they have a pretty good idea, therefore, about what seems to work. This is important evidence.

Helen picked out a section from a report written in 2011 entitled Modern Languages: Achievement and Challenge 2007-2010 which I shall also reproduce. It is worth noting that this report was written after analysing the practice of 90 secondary schools, two thirds of which were considered "good" or "outstanding". Ofsted wrote:

1.        The following strengths were commonly observed in teaching that was judged to be good:

  • well-managed relationships: teachers took care to build up students’ confidence and encourage them to take risks
  • teachers’ good subject knowledge, including knowledge of the examination syllabus
  • clear objectives in lesson plans, ensuring that prior learning was recapped, and that the lesson had a logical structure so that planned outcomes were reached
  • effective use of the interactive whiteboard to present and explain new work
  • good demonstration of the target language by the teacher to improve students’ listening skills and pronunciation
  • lively and varied lessons which students enjoyed
  • effective, collaborative work in groups and on paired tasks
  • careful monitoring of students’ progress.
2.        The following additional strengths were noted in the outstanding teaching seen:
  • teachers’ expert use of the target language
  • planning that took students through a logical series activities and catered for the needs of all students
  • pace and challenge: students were expected to do a lot of work in the lesson
  • thorough practice of new work before students were expected to use it
  • very effective use of activities bringing the whole class together to test learning, monitor progress and redirect the lesson if necessary
  •  intercultural knowledge and understanding built into the lesson
  • language learning strategies taught very well to develop students’ understanding of learning the language
  •  very good deployment of teaching assistants and foreign language assistants in lessons.
You would need to read the more of the report to put the above points into clearer context, but viewed in isolation they still provide a solid framework for a methodology. Is this something on which to build a consensus? Good relationships, plenty of high quality target language use, clear instruction, variety, thorough practice, grammar (I believe this is implied), effective, monitoring, pace and challenge, collaborative work and cultural content.


  1. Teachers should use modern approach to teach languages to students. Use of computers, LCD displays, sound systems to give pronunciation examples may help a lot.

    Spanish School Costa Rica

  2. I agree. Thank you for commenting.