Saturday, 14 March 2015

Method evangelists

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:

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:

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.


  1. Hi Steve!
    I always enjoy reading your blog and sharing information with you!
    Thanks for the mention in this blog! I fully invite educators who are interested in learning about the Accelerative Integrated Methodology to contact me.
    I just wanted to add that AIM methodology and resources DO emphasis the learning of grammar and language conventions. However, with AIM, language is learned first, by actually using it, and after, by decomposing it/analyzing it. Mirroring how one learns maternal language, we start by teaching students to speak before they learn to read and write it. And this is accomplished rather quickly, using gestures and a pared down language contextualized in plays, a learning method that reduces the affective filter when students become emotionally invested in their learning via drama, dance and music. Students essentially learn what sounds right and self-correct as they speak, rather than trying to speak as they use grammar rules to assist them.
    I like to use the automobile analogy. When I was first learning to drive, my father did not place a fully disassembled car in front of me and begin my learning by telling me how each component of the car functions. He did not then, after testing my knowledge about how each component operates, ask me to reassemble the car and drive it. This is not how I learned to drive. I have been driving for decades, and I do drive very well, but I still do not know how or why specific components of the vehicle function the way they do because I am not a mechanic. This is how we tend to, as a collective, teach language, in Canada anyway, for the past 40 years. It is not very effective.
    Instead, I learned to drive by just doing it. I learned to speak English by doing it. I learned to speak before I learned to read and write it. I spoke for many years before I started to read and write. I learned to read and write before I took grammar lessons in school! AIM adheres to this philosophy. For example, students learn to use morphologically difficult verbs such as vouloir, pouvoir and devoir in everyday conversation in various tenses before we begin to teach conjugation. Students learn what sounds right. Then when we get to the analysis of the language, and the student conjugates the verb aller in the passé compose, the student just knows that one says, “Je suis allé” and not “J’ai allé.” It has already been internalized through repetitive use. Now, we get down to the business of deductive learning.
    Perhaps the issues involved in L2 learning and teaching are not the same in Europe as we experience in North America. We have generally been using a deductive method of teaching for over 40 years, in Core programs especially. In this program, students learn French for 40 minutes a day, 5 days a week. But after 7 years, students could not sustain a conversation. Wendy Maxwell, a Core French teacher at the time, was intrigued by this phenomenon, and completed a Master’s Degree investigating and ultimately creating the AIM. She took the prevailing ineffective paradigm and flipped it 180 degrees. It is very empowering, for teachers and students! The unfortunate truth is that many teachers still prefer to use the deductive methodology because that is what they know.
    The main focus of AIM, is to teach students to speak the L2 or L3. We use Teacher-Led Self Expression to achieve this. With TLSE, students are doing the speaking, chorally, while the teacher gestures, thus scaffolding expressive oral language. Students do not repeat after the teacher speaks, and the teacher does not translate. Everyone speaks together, all the time. Eventually, after enough pleasant repetition, the Pared-Down Language becomes internalized, and gestures are removed. They are like flashcards and are not needed once the student has learned to produce the words, phrases and sentences. At this point, gestures will actually slow down oral output.

    I am always open to discussion and clarifications regarding the Accelerative Integrated Methodology. Thank you again for the mention in your blog!
    Pauline Galea

  2. Hi Pauline. Thanks for all the detail on AIM. I'm sure teachers will find it interesting. I'll re-link this via Twitter. You are indeed an evangelist. The difference between America and Europe may be significant. In tne UK there is a tension between communicative approaches and grammar-translation/cognitive analytical. New syllabuses are leaning a bit back towards grammar and analysis. Overall, the communicative strand is strong.

  3. I don't think I can add anything to Pauline's extensive comment (Thanks Pauline)! Thank you Steve, for this fascinating blogpost. I particularly agree with your last sentence!

  4. Steve,

    I really enjoyed your blog article. TPRS has gone through many changes over the years and you are correct in stating that the TPRS process is based on the theoretical works of Stephen Krashen. Blaine Ray began incorporating TPR based on the work of James Asher. At the time TPR referred to Total Physical Response. As TPRS is now known as Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling there is just one more acronym to add.

    TCI or Teaching with Comprehensible Input is yet another form of acquisition based learning. There are many that write and do work in this field around the world and many that write and share much better than I can. Some main ideas of TCI/TPRS might include the following:

    1. Shelter vocabulary but not grammar. (In other words, use limited vocabulary and unlimited grammar.)

    2. Promote Comprehensible Input (the speaking that the teacher does in class) as the single most important element.

    3. Recognize that receptive skills precede productive skills, so that listening comes before speaking, and reading comes before writing. The natural order is: listening, speaking, reading, writing. Each student will progress at his/her own pace, and each skill will progress at a different pace.

    4. Aim for manipulation of the language before any sort of explicit grammar instruction because this leads to greater gains in fluency and retention of the explicit instruction.

    5. Balance the brain’s need to automate via repetition and its desire for novelty.

    6. Supply enough meaningful (comprehensible) and significant (to the student) target language (input) to keep the brain focused and put language into long-term memory.

    7. Promote the unconscious acquisition of the target language by concentrating on the message. (Harrell).

    Thank you for such a great article and keep up the great work!

  5. Thank you leaving a comment, Mike. It is notable how many of those points above also apply to other approaches which would be labelled as CI or TPRS. My main issue with supporters of Krashen is their belief that somehow the input hypothesis is uncontroversial. Krashen may be right that acquisition only occurs as a result of meaningful input, but we cannot know for sure that conscious practice and focus on form do not contribute to tacit knowledge. We shall never know unless we learn how to observe physical processes in the brain.

  6. I meant to write "would NOT be labelled"

  7. Steve,

    On some levels, I agree that some CI-based teachers can come across as evangelistic and at times dogmatic when discussing topics involving language acquisition. I think in many ways this is a reaction to confrontations faced by some educators in some places around the world. You are not wrong in my opinion with your sentiment.

    The Input/Comprehension Hypothesis is not the ONLY theory that exists or will ever exist. But it remains to be very strong! The truth of the matter is, acquisition can occur without learning and there is a world history of evidence that suggests this. I also think there is plenty of evidence that suggests that acquisition does not occur simply through “learning” as defined in the field of SLA. Target language INPUT is overwhelming the most important variable The term I like to use in this endeavor is my ability to provide “Comprehensible Immersion” for students.

    Fundamentally, I think we are in agreement on these matters so basically I am just setting stage to make the following point… I happen to know Stephen Krashen and I am a recent workshop presenter for Blaine Ray (they are both VERY nice people). I have to say in all my interactions with TPRS and TCI I have never come across ANY teacher that does not focus on conscious learning, focus on form, or conscious practice of some type. The difference might be in these ideas in the traditional sense. These teachers are so dedicated to the results of student learning that maybe they come across as you say “Method evangelist.”

    I love your article because the idea of INCLUSION is something that needs to be expressed among educators that are protective of their “pedagogical turf.” Working together is the way to serve students and I think that is at th eheart of yoru post.

    Thanks again for the discussion...I love sharing these ideas!

  8. Yes, I am sure you are right about CI teachers using a range of approaches, just as "drill and kill" teachers may well be providing lots of meaningful input. I note that you take the distinction between learning and acquisition as a given! It's a tidy distinction but I still have to question of it's that simple. I am quite a Krashen fan - I love the simplicity of his hypotheses, but they are hard to test. Krashen says there is no way to absolutely prove his hypotheses, but that research provides lots of supporting evidence. I just doubt the quality of the research which is rarely, if ever, large scale and/or longitudinal. As you say, it's fun to debate these issues!