Skip to main content

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.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…