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Methodology: looking back

I was always quite enthused by methodological issues in language teaching. As a schoolboy I observed my talented French and German teachers and tried to identify with what they were doing. They were generally quite up to date with the methods of the era, using the target language most of the time, using plenty of whole class oral work (often questions and answers) and listening material. My school was also an early adopter of a reel-to-reel language lab which we used for audio-lingual style exercises. My O-level teacher Colin Wringe, who went on to do teacher training at Keele University, did lots of reading and listening with us, while (as I recall) making sure we did what was needed to get a top grade in the exam.

My enthusiastic A-level teacher Mike Dawson got us talking a lot, as well as doing oral grammar drills, comprehension and translation from the book Actualités Françaises, while our French literature teacher Bill Steer ensured we became careful readers and learned to analyse texts. I discovered Camus and often taught his novels later in my career.

During my university years at Reading, where I studied French and linguistics, I learned more about second language acquisition with, among others, David Wilkins. I also did some ELT work for the Elizabeth Johnson and Oxford Intensive language schools in the holidays and thereby picked up more ideas from that field. Communicative Language Teaching was just coming into fashion.

So when I began my teaching practice at Beverley Boys School in New Malden, then got my first post at Tiffin School, Kingston-upon-Thames, I was pretty confident that effective language teaching was based on an oral, communicative approach. I was using pair work before it was in vogue, had a somewhat cavalier approach to teaching grammar and vocabulary learning. I taught grammar largely through use with relatively little explanation and no rote learning of verbs. Nevertheless I followed the department’s policies and made sure we did plenty of translations, listening and reading tests. My classes progressed well and their results were as good as my more experienced colleagues’.

Later, during the late 1980s while I was at Hampton School, I did my part time MA at the Institute of Education in London, tutored by a wise retired teacher called Alan Hornsey. For this I focused on the work of Stephen Krashen, while my tutors were a bit more old-school, brought up themselves in the oral approach (“selection” and “ grading” were their watchwords) to which I was also sympathetic.

As the years went by, influenced no doubt by colleagues and experience, I became a bit less doctrinaire about methodology. While I still highly valued comprehensible input I gradually gave more attention to grammar and translation. Not that I had previously neglected these, but explicit instruction and rote learning did occupy a greater proportion of my students’ time. I also made greater use of explicit vocabulary learning from lists with some classes, although the idea of classes keeping a vocab booklet was always anathema. (I always felt that communicating in the language was the best use of time in the long run.)

I became much more savvy about matching student learning to whatever test they had to take and more and more concerned with exam results (along with all teachers in England as accountability measures came to the fore).

In “retirement” I have been further influenced by my co-author Gianfranco Conti who has got me looking more carefully at recent cognitivist views of skill acquisition, which are also much discussed in other subject fields under the banner the “science of learning”. The extent to which theories of working and long term memory apply to language acquisition is still open to question, I think.

Looking back, when I started out I was certainly rather more arrogant about methodology, finding what some of my older colleagues were doing old-fashioned, whereas today, when I write and talk about these things, I am more open-minded. As one of the oldies, I am now struck at times by the methodological certainty expressed by some teachers (notably, to be honest, some of those working within the TPRS paradigm). There are few certainties in second language teaching and learning.

Now, retired for almost six years, but still constantly thinking, talking and writing about language teaching, one of my frequent messages is that although there are some key principles in second language learning (e.g. input, practice, interaction, recycling), the way you deliver these can vary quite a bit. I come across approaches which don’t appeal to me, but which I am sure can be effective in the right hands. Curiously I sometimes find that young teachers find some of the old oral approach ways novel. If I had to pin my colours to any mast nowadays, I’d say that a sensible mix of comprehensible input, CLT and graded skill acquisition with some explicit grammar teaching and vocabulary learning is a reasonable way to go in school settings.

The eminent researcher Michael Long has written that whatever teachers profess to believe in terms of method, what they actually do in classrooms is often quite similar. I daresay that’s true, but there remains a good deal of variation in classroom activity too, some of it more effective than others. To teachers starting out I would say read a lot, observe as many good teachers as you can, work out your own principled approach, then adjust it with experience.

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