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Does progressive mean communicative?

I was reading a very politicised article by John Bald who is an experienced languages and literacy consultant who writes a blog, has advised the DfE and who writes for the Conservativehome website. He was arguing that the new national curriculum offers a fresh start and a chance to reject the "progressive" view of language teaching - what he also calls "left" language teaching. By progressive I take John to mean "communicative" or "naturalistic" i.e. the general approach wherby target language dominates and which, in his view, literacy is relegated to a secondary role. I hope I have not misrepresented John too much.

I must confess that I had not really made the link between the communicative approach and "progressivism" in language teaching. Perhaps I should have.

John wrote:

I’ve seen the results of the progressive approach at first hand and discussed them with pupils.
Almost all dislike it and many hate it. It involves equal confusion for all – “It’s as if it’s all one word,” as one pupil put it, and even one of its advocates, at a school with an excellent reputation, told a conference at Wellington College last year that, “We have a lot of tears in the first term.” The long term consequences are the collapse of language learning at A level – German has ceased to be provided in large areas of the country, and had only 3000 entries at A level last year – slower export growth, and impaired international relations.

A little further down he wrote:

The fact that progressive influence in language teaching has led to failure, misery and decline does not put its proponents off for a minute. They continue to use their influence to promote mixed ability teaching and to block research designed to identify effective teaching.

We all come at teaching languages from a particular perspective and with varying experiences, but I have to say that I barely recognise John's assessment.

A bit of context: the communicative approach is said to have a strong and a weak form. The strong form, as I understand it, values near total target language use, little focus on grammar and writing, greater focus on the functions of language. The weak form is the one which many teachers prefer. It still values target language use, but with significant focus on grammatical explanation and written accuracy. It is, if you like, the equivalent of Blair's "third way" in language teaching. You can have your cake and eat it by providing lots of Krashen-style comprehensible input together with a focus on grammatical accuracy and traditional forms of learning and memorisation.

I have the feeling, reading what John wrote, that he is really criticising the strong communicative approach, which may have taken hold somewhat in the 1980s. (I recall an awful textbook which was widely sold at the time called Avantage, which focused relatively little on grammar, more on "functions" and "notions" in language. It was hard to use in class forced the teacher into using too much English.) I have read some research which suggested that pupils were put off languages by teachers using the communicative approach. Perhaps it was done badly, just as grammar-translation was often done badly. I hope that few teachers these days stand by an extreme form of the communicative approach, endeavouring to explain and practise grammar and writing where appropriate.

What concerns me a little is that if you caricature current language teaching by suggesting that it creates "failure, misery and decline" and that it is the "progressive" approach which has led to the collapse in A-level take-up (a faulty assessment in my view and one not supported by the recent JCQ report on the issue), it gives you a pretext for reverting to outmoded methods which failed for many in their day. I believe we have seen evidence of this in the new GCSE curriculum with its inclusion of translation and in the proposed A-levels which lay greater emphasis on the use of English and grammatical analysis.

John's belief is based on research he cites, for example brain research, along with his own experience of success using particular methods. That's fine. We can be pragmatic, but it is quite possible to have the best of both worlds. We can do communication, target language and have literacy and rigour. No tears. Traditional? Progressive? Left? Right? I'm not sure those labels are very useful in the debate.


Comments

  1. You are spot on Steve. This kind of attitude makes me so cross! I work within a brilliant MFL department and all of us teach communicatively. I am a German specialist also teaching some French and am really proud to have been taught to teach this way (St. Martin's College, Carlisle). I still get excited to start the new year in September and in my 16 years' experience, the students, on the whole love being taught in this way! I insist (for the most part) on teaching in the TL, including for grammar where possible (http://ontargetteaching.blogspot.com). People who display this kind of attitude towards language teaching are missing the point; we are teaching students to communicate in French, German etc, therefore it makes sense to teach them IN French or German etc! It's all about finding ways to do it properly and make sure you are understood, by using cognates, mimes and other techniques. There is always a way to make yourself understood!

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  2. Hi Rebecca. I have looked at your blogs and agree with you about TL teaching which should be thought of as mainstream these days. I find it strange to label approaches as left or right wing, but the fact that John writes for Conservativehome says something, I guess. It is hard to know for sure what most language teachers do. Ofsted have the most information. They say that what works is "traditional activities done well". I assume this to mean a balance of good structured TL teaching, good questioning, pair work, grammar practice etc.

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    Replies
    1. I hope your assumption is correct, otherwise I'm in the wrong job! :-)

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  3. I've just come across this posting and reply from four years ago! I think the focus needs to be lesson what the teacher does, and more on what the children can do as a result. The key element in my approach is that children need to understand everything, fully, from the start. As long as they understand, I don't mind too much what path is taken. The quote from the pupil, however, sums up my concerns, as he was about to drop the language. It is, incidentally, from even farther back, 2007, when I was carrying out a survey of secondary mfl for the LA I was working with at the time. The brain research has taken an important step forwards recently, with Dr Matt Davis pointing out an a R4 broadcast - an academic paper is in press - that the same areas of the brain process meaning, whether the input is spoken or written, another confirmation of the fallacy of dividing language into four "skils". John Bald

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