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Why do you teach the way you do?

Research from the field of teacher cognition suggests that the prime influence on the way you teach is how you were taught yourself. Does that apply to you? Please indulge me with this wistful post!

I have quite clear recollections, no doubt distorted a little with time, of who taught me French and how they did it. First there was the avuncular Mr Chittenden, a bits-and-pieces teacher who did some French and RE. He started us briefly with audio-visual slides, but we quickly moved on to Cours Illustré de Français, written by Marc Gilbert. We were taught using an oral, question-answer approach, much loved by practitioners from the university of London at that time (Hodgson, Hornsey, Harris et al). We worked a lot in the target language and used simple visual aids such as stick characters and classroom objects to help us pick up vocabulary and structures. We did dictations, wrote lots of answers to questions in French and rarely used English. We did little sketches and played the odd game. The content if the text book was largely little accounts based on two fictional families, the Lavisses and Telliers. The syllabus was religiously structural, moving meticulously from one grammar point to the next through the artificial communication of question-answer and repetition.

Mr Bowyer took us on in the second year, when I was 12. He had excellent pronunciation and must have been quite a fluent speaker. Cours Illustré probably dominated his oral approach too. I'm not certain, but I think we were put in ability sets thereafter and I found myself at some point with Colin Wringe, who was a thoughtful teacher committed to target language teaching. He wrote reading comprehension books and went on to become a trainer of teachers at Keele University. He was not terribly charismatic, but I observed his method, strongly based on providing lots of listening and reading input, and soaked it up.

By the sixth form we had two teachers, both gifted in different ways. Mick Dawson, who also coached me at cricket, was another fluent speaker who worked through Actualités Françaises, along with other activities of his own devising. We talked and listened a lot, did drills and a lot of grammar manipulation tasks. Literature was in the hands of a very literate and academic type called Bill Steer, with whom we read through, more or less page by page, La Peste and Britannicus. He explained ideas to us clearly and helped us write effective essays. We discussed ideas largely in English, I recall. Miss Wood took over from Bill in the upper sixth and we did Maupassant with her, somewhat less effectively. My mind was already moving on to university in Reading.

My secondary schooling, therefore, featured that structured direct method approach which I went on to use when I began teaching. My belief that this approach was modern and effective was reinforced by my PGCE tutors (e.g. Peter Sands) who were also steeped in "death by question-answer". To be honest, by 1980, the approach was becoming a bit passé. CLT was taking hold.

Reading University had a French department of some repute and was quite forward-looking. As well as traditional translation, we did a good deal of target language work, notably summary and "exercices de style" based on a book by the same name by Raymond Queneau.

By the time I began full-time teaching at Tiffin School, Kingston, I had moved on a bit, however, having taught some EFL in summer vacations, and had picked up some revolutionary ideas, such as pair work. During my teaching practice at a boys' secondary modern I noticed that teacher-led question-answer did not always succeed and could be boring. Some adaptation was needed and over time I became less dogmatic, more pragmatic. I picked up a good deal watching my colleagues.

In my case, therefore, it's true that my own teachers strongly influenced my eventual approach. Over my career, I remained fairly faithful to it, moving more towards communicative ways, grammar explanation, vocabulary learning (which I initially dogmatically disliked) and, to some extent, translation. The latter always seemed a necessity for exam preparation and an intellectual challenge for pupils, rather than an effective way for young people to acquire a language. Americans would have called my a "proficiency" or CI (comprehensible input) practitioner, but wedded essentially to a structural syllabus and limited by the GCSE and A-level exams. I still think you can do both.

Just to add that a further reason for my belief in the power of immersive input were my French exchange when I was 16 and a weekend immersion course I did during the sixth form. I clearly remember the quantum leap in fluency I made just after those experiences.

I am grateful to my language teachers. They all knew their subject and some were very fluent indeed. They were good role models who unwittingly encouraged me to pursue a career in language teaching from my early teens. I believe their methods were sound. I wonder whether you fit the paradigm of the teacher who teaches the way they were taught...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Hi, You might be interested in Adam Cooke's PhD thesis - see the UEA website. His research is into the different influences on MFL teachers.

  2. Thank you. I shall follow that link.

  3. You must have had enlightened teachers. We rad through four novels/plays in two years, word by word and translated them. We also did essays on general topics for homework, but no teacher input. Certainly never did any listening. Or speaking! I relied on my childhood experiences in Switzerland for oral fluency and learned to speak Spanisn during a experience organised and paid for by my parents in which I spend nearly five weeks with Spaniards.

    1. Thanks for reading. Yes, I think I was lucky and it may have further encouraged me to teach.


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