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Submitted by Scott Thornbury on 27 May, 2009 - 15:06 This is the first of two articles by Scott Thornbury for TeachingEnglish.
'A language teaching method is a single set of procedures which teachers are to follow in the classroom. Methods are usually based on a set of beliefs about the nature of language and learning.' (Nunan, 2003, p. 5).
Ask teachers what method they subscribe to, and most will answer either that they don’t follow a method at all, or that they are 'eclectic', and pick and choose from techniques and procedures associated with a variety of different methods. Some might add that, essentially, their teaching follows the principles laid down by the communicative approach, itself a mixed bag, embracing anything from drills to communicative tasks, and everything in between. But the concept of a single, prescriptive 'method' - as in the Direct Method, or the Oral Method – seems now to be dead and buried.
The end of methods
The demise of method is consistent with the widely held view that we are now in a 'postmethod' era. Thus, as long ago as 1983, Stern declared that 'several developments indicate a shift in language pedagogy away from the single method concept as the main approach to language teaching' (1983, p. 477). One such development was the failure, on the part of researchers, to find any significant advantage in one method over another. As Richards (1990) noted, 'studies of the effectiveness of specific methods have had a hard time demonstrating that the method itself, rather than other factors, such as the teacher’s enthusiasm, or the novelty of the new method, was the crucial variable' (p. 36). Moreover, recognition of the huge range of variables that impact on second language learning fuelled a general disenchantment with the notion of a 'quick fix', or what, in the social sciences, is sometimes called the 'technical-rational approach', i.e. the notion that social change and improvement can be effected through the strict application of scientific method. This had very much been the mind-set that impelled the spread of audiolingualism, founded as it was on (now largely discredited) research into animal behaviour. The last decades of the last century, however, witnessed a challenge to 'scientism' in the social sciences, a challenge associated with the advent of postmodernism, and its rejection of the idea of universalist, objective knowledge. Accordingly, Pennycook (1989) argued that methods are never 'disinterested', but serve the dominant power structures in society, leading to 'a de-skilling of the role of teachers, and greater institutional control over classroom practice'(p. 610).
The postmethod era
At around the same time, Kumaravadivelu (1994) identified what he called the 'postmethod condition', a result of 'the widespread dissatisfaction with the conventional concept of method' (p. 43). Rather than subscribe to a single set of procedures, postmethod teachers adapt their approach in accordance with local, contextual factors, while at the same time
In fact. the notion of method does not seem to have gone away completely. in EFL contexts such as Iran. it is textbooks that have largely replaced methods in their traditional sense: . 72). but that individual teachers fashion an approach that accords uniquely with their 'sense of plausibility. even if the term itself is often replaced by its synonyms. Two such macrostrategies are 'Maximise learning opportunities' and 'Promote learner autonomy'. Prabhu argued that there is no one method. in a recent paper.being guided by a number of 'macrostrategies'.' Nevertheless. 143). for example. however the term is defined.' 'The Byki approach to learning languages… is the fastest possible way to lock foreign words and phrases in your long-term memory. an [sic] unique learning method that uses a computer to mimic the ways in which you learnt your first language. it seems to be doggedly persistent. emic level (that is. and in spite of the claims of the postmethodists. 'while method has been discredited at an etic level (that is in the thinking and nomenclature of scholars). Teachers seem to be aware of both the usefulness of methods and the need to go beyond them. are not dead. it is still part of the nomenclature of lay people and teachers)' (p. at least – the method concept is not dead. This is a view echoed by Bell (2007) who interviewed a number of teachers on the subject. and concluded: 'Methods. the earworms mbt® method has shown phenomenal success…. On the other hand. we find the following: 'Developed and used over years in the classroom. As Block (2001) notes.' 'Rosetta Stone software is built around a concept called Dynamic Immersion. And in a much-cited paper in 1990. Akbari (2008) suggests that. In the on-line advertising for language courses.' It seems that – in the public mind.' (p. it certainly retains a great deal of vitality at the grass-roots.
instructional materials f. were often named after their progenitor. the conflation of method with textbook is an idea with a long history. the type of syllabus to use e. the nature of language b. and the El Método Massé-Dixon(Barcelona. too. such that it would be valid to talk about the Soars and Soars Method. in particular. 330) . since it is coursebook series like Headway and Cutting Edge that – more than any other factor – determine and define current teaching practice.). are now determined by textbooks' (p. What the majority of teachers teach and how they teach. where the two concepts share a single name: método.. the role of teachers. that defines a method? In their Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2002). goals and objectives in teaching d.. but has been reincarnated in the form of coursebooks. n. contend that the concept of method is not only alive and well. El Método Girau (Barcelona.. as in El Método Kucera (Barcelona. rather than the método embodying a specific method. techniques and procedures to use' (p.. Textbooks and método In fact. Richards and Schmidt make the reasonable claim that 'different methods of language teaching. or the Cunningham and Moor Method. I. 1925). the nature of second language learning c. That is to say. result from different views of: a. the activities. especially in the Spanish-speaking world. after all. 1954). learners. the método is the method.'The concept of method has not been replaced by the concept of postmethod but rather by an era of textbook-defined practice. What is a method? What is it. 647).d. Direct Method and Grammar-Translation courses.
demonstrating and modelling language items. these tend to be loosely aligned with those of the communicative approach. where the teacher’s role is both didactic and facilitative. with regard to each of these areas. then practise the two-line dialogues across the class' (p. (There is. For example (from Gairns and Redman.Even a cursory glance at their content and at the way they are marketed confirms the fact that the writers and publishers of coursebooks take particular positions. presenting and practising hundreds of natural expressions which students will find immediately useful'. either explicitly or implicitly. Inside Out. The role of the teacher The 'role of teachers. 24). where language is typically construed as a system of 'accumulated entities' (Rutherford. is clear from their contents pages. after reviewing the cover blurbs of a number of current coursebooks. and serves primarily to mediate the coursebook materials. Innovations (Dellar and Hocking. or what I have referred to elsewhere as grammar McNuggets. learners and instructional materials' is most clearly demonstrated in the Teacher’s Book component. go over the language in the natural English box. for example. As for 'the goals and objectives of language learning'. explaining. 1987). As Basturkmen (1999) concluded. the grammar 'canon' predominates. The back cover of Inside Out (Kay and Jones. for example. while Cutting Edge(Cunningham and Moor. 2002b): 'Once learners have thought about exercise 1. 2000) 'has a strongly lexical syllabus. 34). cit). no recognition that the discrete-item focus of the syllabus might be at odds with these more holistic objectives. as evidenced from coursebooks. You could model the phrases and replies yourself and ask learners to repeat them. for example.) With regard to the syllabus. The guidelines typically construe the teacher as the locus of control in the classroom and even at times imply that the learners are potentially disruptive: . 2002a) offers 'a new syllabus area called natural English – accessible. by. 'has been designed to develop real-life communicative skills and powers of selfexpression' (Kay and Jones. 1998) aims at 'improved confidence and fluency' as well as 'a clearer understanding of how language is used'. 2001). high-frequency phrases which intermediate students can pick up and use'. but the influence of the lexical approach (Lewis. 'the emphasis [is] on the underlying generative base or language rules rather than on surface level aspects of use' (p. op. and Natural English (Gairns and Redman. 1993) and of corpus linguistics is now apparent. seems generally to follow a cognitive model. of course. Coursebooks and second language learning The 'nature of second language learning'. for example. The theory of language that coursebooks instantiate. and by setting up and monitoring student interactions. makes the claim that 'easy-to-use exercises put rules into practice – and are then recycled as speaking activities'. where declarative knowledge is proceduralised through successive practice activities.
There is a strong skills focus. and texts that. Fair enough. pronunciation) and don’t let them think they know it all!' [Oxenden and Seligson. and to a theory of learning. and the distribution of the material is weighted more towards skills-based activities than language-focused ones. p.g. then. with most courses including information-gap tasks. but who are using a coursebook. Conclusions Here.'Don’t let the false beginners dominate the real beginners or pull you along too quickly… Encourage [the false beginners] to concentrate on areas where they can improve (e. or encourage the use of. occasional reference is made to the need to encourage learner agency and autonomy. are as much method-bound as the Direct Method practitioners of Berlitz’s day. Teachers who claim not to be following a method. 1996. techniques and procedures to use' draw on a range of methodological approaches (but scarcely ever involve translation. the coursebook forms the core component of instruction: it is both the medium and the message. The dominant model for representing English is a native-speaker one. 2002) of travel. enshrined in a método. and both the topics and the design of the materials reflect an 'aspirational culture' (Gray. attempt to simulate the same. consumerism and popular culture. but however selective a teacher is. 15] Nevertheless. Finally. the types of 'activities. though. in accordance with their own principles as well as the needs of the learners. the learners’ L1). or any reference to. Of course. he or she is still tied to a theory of language. embodied in the way that the course selects and describes language. Unsurprisingly. if not authentic. . 'Choices within tasks encourage learners to take charge of interactions' (Kay and Jones. teachers will argue that they use coursebooks selectively. or the Audiolingualists of Lado’s. are the ingredients of a method. op. as manifested in the way the course prioritises certain types of activity over others. For example. cit). The influence of the communicative approach appears to be strong.
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