I have been enjoying reading Barry Smith's blogs recently. Barry teaches French at the Michaela Community School in Brent, London. He is full of enthusiasm for his work in what is a brand new "free school". He is proud to be something of a maverick in that he rejects what he sees as the language teaching orthodoxy of the moment. I think I represent him correctly when I say that he rejects the use of single word target language teaching with pictures, avoidance of English and translation, traditional textbook grading of grammar and vocabulary (although he clearly believes in simplifying and selecting for clarity), textbooks, strict lesson plans, teaching "topics". He embraces close analysis of texts and the written word, use of parallel texts, learning useful set phrases, close translation, dictation, quick-fire target language question-answer, a teacher-led didactic approach.
Barry sees the current "orthodoxy" as lacking challenge, patronising and failing. He believes language teachers should be more challenging, place the emphasis on literacy and use of the first language; in short he thinks we should "teach like linguists".
For a flavour of Barry's thinking: https://hackingattheroots.wordpress.com/
Barry's passion for what he is doing in his school, and his pride in the school, border on the evangelical and I can't fault him for that. From what he says, it works, the children are motivated and making excellent progress. Barry and the students are also having fun in a shared process of learning. It's what all teachers long for.
Barry is not the only teacher to challenge "orthodoxy" (I write this word between quotation marks because I am not persuaded that there is a language teaching orthodoxy as such in UK schools).
I am interested to follow on Twitter American teachers who are evangelical about the TPRS approach. (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). I might as well quote the Wikipedia definition of this approach:
TPRS lessons use a mixture of reading and storytelling to help students learn a language. The method works in three steps: in step one the new vocabulary to be learned is taught using a combination of translation, gestures and personalized questions;
in step two those structures are used in a spoken class story; and
finally, in step three, these same structures are used in a class
reading. Throughout these three steps, the teacher will use a number of techniques to help make the target language comprehensible,
including careful limiting of vocabulary, constant asking of easy
comprehension questions, frequent comprehension checks, and very short grammar explanations known as "pop-up grammar". Many teachers also assign additional reading activities and there have been several easy short novels written by TPRS teachers for this purpose.
Teachers who embrace this approach, started by Spanish teacher Blaine Roy in 1990, are heavily influenced by the "comprehensible input" acquisition hypotheses of Stephen Krashen. They attack traditional grammatical, "drill and kill" approaches, conjugations, textbook teaching and over-emphasis on grammatical analysis. They use their own jargon which most teachers would not recognise such as "affective filter" (taken from Dulay, Burt and Krashen). They say their students make great progress and enjoy lessons. For more on TPRS try this: http://www.tprstories.com/what-is-tprs
Another body of teachers strongly advocate the AIM language Learning approach. AIM stands for Accelerative Integrative Methodology. This approach, developed by Wendy Maxwell, makes great use of gesture, mime, speaking, play-acting, task-based activity, an inductive approach to grammar, simplified vocabulary and group cooperation. Sylvia Duckworth and Pauline Galea, two Canadian teachers, who you can find on Twitter, are passionate about this approach, along with many others in various countries. As with the TPRS approach, grammar is somewhat downgraded in importance, there is focus on target language, but less emphasis is placed on "input at all costs".
All three of these approaches seem to work for their advocates, even though there are significant differences between them. Barry's places unusual reliance on translation and grammatical analysis, TPRS lays the stress on reading and input, AIM on play-acting. Barry's approach makes language and grammar central, TPRS places meaningful messages at the centre, whilst AIM focuses on activity.
My guess would be that, in practice, the three approaches have quite a bit in common too. They all involve plenty of target language input, they all involve listening, reading and speaking in some form, and, crucially, they all require enthusiastic teachers to make them work.
The history of language teaching is characterised by methods which have failed for most children: grammar-translation, audio-lingualism, the strong communicative approach, situational, and functional-notional approaches. I bet that in the right hands and with adequate time and lesson spacing allocated to language teaching all of them could work with most children. In any case, teachers rarely stick dogmatically to one method. I tend more and more to the belief, expressed once by Brian Page, that we shall never have a convincing theory of second language learning and teaching which can point teachers to the "best way" of teaching a language. There will never be a best way for all learners and teachers in all contexts.
Is this another way of saying "anything goes"? Not really. Students need lots of TL input at the right level, some grading, some analysis, lots of practice and activities which hold interest and motivate.
In the end, if the teacher is enthusiastic about their approach and gets the children to buy into it, if a school's structures create a good learning environment, it will work for the majority. The key is to do things well and with a passion.