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A brief tour of methods

May 30, 2007

Hello again,

Teachers I have spoken to recently seemed somewhat confused about the history of teaching methods. Indeed the emphasis on a somewhat vague notion of humanistic approaches in the classroom seems to have blurred the idea of specific...

A brief tour of the methods


... methods in the minds of many teachers. While I have no objections to an eclectic approach, I think it is important to know how teaching EL has evolved. Whenever we chose to do something in the classroom we should understand why we think it will work and we can only achieve this understanding through awareness of the methods.

Grammar-Translation is usually seen as the first method and was based on the way that classical languages were taught in western education systems. The target language is seen in direct comparison with the native tongue and the students analyse the respective rules of the languages, translating back and forth, concentrating on reading and writing. This was seen not merely as a language learning process but an important mental discipline in which understanding, analysis and logical thinking were honed. Speaking and listening were secondary features, however, and the emphasis was on correctness rather than usage.

Audio-Lingualism in contrast was designed to help students acquire new speech habits through physical practice, and to transfer existing habits to new behaviour. Emphasis was on doing by repetition rather than understanding by analysis.

The Direct Method has had a long legacy, in particular the belief that only the target language should be used in the classroom. It was based on the premise that students could learn the second language in much the same way as they learnt their first. It was a total immersion method emphasizing speaking an listening and involving no comparison with the first language. Grammatical rules were not taught explicitly or through analysis.

Cognitive theory, or Mentalism, assumed that language responses are also the result of insight and intentional patterning. Insight can be directed to the concepts behind language, to traditional grammar and to sets of communicative functions. Activities practised in new situations allow assimilation of what has already been learnt and create further situations for which existing language resources are inadequate and must therefore be modified or extended through accommodation.

Suggestopedia relies on the ability to learn many times more rapidly and more retentively than is generally believed possible. More fundamental is the way in which humans respond to subtle cues that are outside their central awareness. This is the the source of the name Suggestopedia.

Asher’s Total Physical Response stressed the link between speech an action. It introduces the target language through commands and students demonstrate their understanding through action responses.

The Communicative Approach emphasises the relationship, not only between sentences and meanings but also between discourse and life. Students are given reasons for communicating, not just instructions on how to communicate. Activities should involve real communication so that students have a reason to communicate and are not merely simulating

The Natural Approach, stresses the informal aspects of learning through acquisition (as we learnt our native tongue); it suggests a natural order for learning language items and acknowledges the that emotions can affect learning. Krashen's theory has five main hypotheses:
• the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis,
• the Monitor hypothesis,
• the Natural Order hypothesis,
• the Input hypothesis,
• and the Affective Filter hypothesis.

It is clearly not possible in a brief posting of this kind to discuss methods in detail and I have not touched on such approaches as Silent Way or Counselling-Learning, but perhaps this listing might encourage teachers to investigate methods and the theories on which they are based. The choice of a classroom approach will be dictated by many factors and it may well be appropriate to mix and match. But I would like to think that at least the choice is an informed one.

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