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They do things differently over there

"The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language" is a quotation attributed to George Bernard Shaw. In the field of modern (foreign) language teaching (UK) or world/foreign language teaching (USA) this is certainly the case. US and UK teachers struggle with similar challenges, notably trying to motivate youngsters to learn a new language in countries where English is the world's language. In the USA geographical isolation makes the task even harder.

Interestingly, despite a shared challenge, we go about teaching languages and talking about languages in somewhat different ways. As an example consider the ACTFL's (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Performance Descriptors for language learners:

These are divided up by a number of different parameters, e.g. ranges of performance (levels) are described as novice, intermediate and advanced (with sub-divisions of these, e.g. novice high); modes of communication are described as Interpersonal, Interpretive and Presentational. For British teachers these three terms mean the following;


Where students are talking with each other or the teacher. By the ACTFL's definition this has to be unprepared. Rehearsed conversation is considered to be presentational.


Where students are comprehending from spoken or written texts. One-way listening or reading.


Where students are talking or writing for an audience. It's one-way speaking or writing.

These ACTFL descriptors affect the way teachers prepare lessons and may encourage them to achieve a balance of receptive, productive and spontaneous skills. It colours the way teachers talk about language teaching, changes the nature of the discourse. Some US teachers get very concerned about whether their lessons are presentational or interpersonal. Yet in the UK we do not refer to these modes of communication in the same way at all. (Indeed, for myself, I don't see much need for such a set of descriptors.)

Meanwhile in England and Wales we've had our National Curriculum level descriptors (now defunct), four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing), GCSE and A-level (no equivalents in the USA).

Americans, perhaps because of a strong tradition of explicit grammar teaching, talk a lot about proficiency (placed in opposition to grammar teaching) whereas we are more likely in the UK to talk of fluency (placed in opposition to accuracy). We also talk a good deal about spontaneity (as opposed to rote-learned). We all have our dichotomies.

Americans are more likely to talk of quizzing when we usually say testing.

Do these different ways of looking at the same challenge affect the way we teach? Both American and British teachers have witnessed a range of "methods" over the years yet, interestingly, the pendulums are not swinging in unison either side of the Atlantic. 

In the USA there seems to be a strong movement towards teaching for proficiency via comprehensible input, with a parallel move away from explicit grammar teaching. The ACTFL appears to have some influence in this context. Naturalistic approaches à la Stephen Krashen are in vogue and quite passionate debates rage between TPRS teachers and "legacy" teachers.

In contrast in the UK the pendulum has starting to swing back towards explicit grammar, drilling, translation and skill acquisition, whilst still valuing the importance of target language input. Although we have no precise equivalent of the ACTFL, the DfE certainly gives a lead in what is viewed as important. The recent TSC report seems to follow the DfE's line in reflecting the swing back to grammar, translation and practice.

In reality I expect most teachers either side of the pond have their own hybrid approach, one which they believe works best with the pupils in front of them. Whatever pedagogical language they speak, they have to find a pedagigical solution which works in their context, with their assessment regime, their cultural expectations, school and parental expectations. I am sure we can learn from each other, not to mention from other parts of the world.


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