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Approaches and methods

Discussion in 'Modern foreign languages' started by spsmith45, Dec 1, 2011.

  1. spsmith45

    spsmith45 New commenter

    I'd like to strat a thread on some basics about language teaching as I get the impression that we work from all kinds of differerent theoretical and methodological backgrounds.
    Are PGCE students taught the basics of second language learning theory and approaches these days? Have they learned about, for example, direct/natural method, the traditional British oral/situational approach, the audio-lingual approach of the 1940s to 1960s, the functional-notional approach? Have they evaluated the merits and demerits of the grammar-translation approach?
    Because I do wonder on what many of us base our practice.
    I'll come clean. I was taught using the Mark Gilbert oral approach ( a kind of structured, situational direct method) . This was reinforced when I did my PGCE and later MA at London University. This approach made theoretical sense to me. It had a rationale and seemed to work in practice, at least with relatively able children.Over the years I have stuck to it to a large degree (and many teachers use this approach, even if they cannot put a name to it), though I have become more pragmatic and am happy to dip into grammar-translation, especially at A-level, and many aspects of the communicative approach.
    I do feel that I have a "method" and I know why I am using it. I also know that are many ways to skin a cat and that teachers should use what works. But I do think we should have that theoretical underpinning to justify what we do.

    Any thoughts?

  2. My PGCE (St Martin's 1990) was totally "communicative approach" which I was happy to adopt, although it did not square at all with my own personal experience of language learning, which was heavily grammatical-translation.
    Over the years, I reckon I've developed a synthesis of various approaches - there are certain aspects of my teaching which are recognisable as "St Martin's Communicative Approach", but also aspects which are grammatical and translation based. Increasingly, I find myself asking pupils to compare languages (often English with French, but also bringing in other languages they know), and I find that certain pupils really respond to this comparative approach.
    I suppose our "methodology" will always reflect (to some extent) what we have experienced as having "worked" for us. Personally. I know that colour-coding gender, for example, works effectively for me, so therefore it seems only natural to share that with my pupils - and some respond better to it than others.
  3. Interesting - are there any links you can give us for further reading?

  4. But then again, does any method do that? I don't think so. In my opinion, there is some truth in almost every single approach, and perhaps it is the best method to mix all of them up. During my studies, I had to get to know all the methods and to be able to talk about them. As I do two languages, I had to do all of it twice :D. And there will most certainly be more of it during teacher training....
    I have even started comparing German dialects with English :D. Some of the kids I tutor speak Bavarian at home, and Bavarian uses the same way of forming questions as English (i.e. to do plus infinitive), while in High German, questions are always formed by inversion. When I tell them to use Bavarian as a base for their English questions, they make less mistakes :D.
    That's true. But in my experience, there are some teachers who think that their method just has to work for everyone, which can be quite stressful for the pupil :D.
  5. There is a very good article by Wilfried Decoo that summaries all the different approaches that have been in vogue since the 19th century:
    Decoo W. (2001) On the mortality of language learning methods. Paper given as the James L. Barker lecture on 8 November 2001 at Brigham Young University.
    It used to be available at his website, but recently I have only been able to find it in the Wayback Machine. I can send you a copy by email - you can contact me via my website at
    BTW, I was trained in the mid-1960s, when the audio-lingual and Structuro-global audio-visual approaches were in vogue.
    Graham Davies
  6. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    This is a good idea, Steve.
    Having now spent as long out of teaching as I spent as an MFL teacher (it's been 8 years now - I only taught for 7), I have to admit that I'm curious as to what is considered best practice, or even good practice, in a typical MFL lesson these days.
    What does a typical lesson sequence look like (in terms of activities) for beginners in year 7? For GCSE students in year 10?
    I'm not talking about the song and dance spectaculars that we put on when we're being inspected. I mean proper lessons.
  7. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    Great stuff, Graham. I love the "Next method" at the end of the article:

    The next method?</font></font></h2>

    following is fiction, to be situated somewhere in coming years. I quote from a
    book someone will write some day.</font>

    decline of the prevailing methods around 2010 was due to the following:</font>

    There was too much dependence on personal initiative and learning
    attitudes of the individual student, whereby only the very best became
    successful. Scores of students were left drowning without buoys.</font>

    The method totally misjudged the mental expectations of students who
    view school-bound learning within a framework of cognitive grip and clear

    The method worked with a "real-world approach with authentic
    texts" to avoid translation and grammar. However, many of the better
    students were actually, after each lesson, spending excessive time and effort
    in deciphering these authentic texts through translation in the mother tongue
    and figuring out the grammar. The method thus encouraged doing what it
    strongly pretended to avoid.</font>

    On the other hand, by telling students not to worry about detail or
    precise comprehension or production, but to be satisfied with approximation,
    the method fostered slovenliness among many other students.</font>

    Though the method had valid final objectives, it wanted to reach those
    objectives much too quickly in non-intensive programs. It neglected gradation
    and careful content-selection.</font>

    new approach stresses the following:</font>

    A deflation of the importance of oral skills: if students are not
    needing immediate contact with natives, there is no reason to give absolute
    priority to oral skills, which they can hardly practice outside class.
    Moreover, a stronger receptive basis at first will facilitate the development
    of oral skills at a later stage.</font>

    Therefore, since reading is the skill they can practice most outside
    class, this skill must be stressed, starting from graded texts to ensure
    fluency and contentment, to selected books, magazines and the Internet.</font>

    The writing skill has also gained in importance, because it allows
    quick electronic communication with pen palls, chat groups and classes abroad.
    Moreover, on the college level, the language curriculum requires many written
    tasks at the upper level. Therefore, renewed attention is given to
    "disembedded" language skills, i.e. grammatical analysis, especially
    in those languages that require strong analytical reflexes to write correctly
    because of agreements and various syntactical spellings for the same sound.</font>

    While for several decades language learning has been viewed as only
    functional, its complementary value for intellectual development has been
    partly restored: as a core subject on the curriculum, language lends itself
    admirably to analysis and insight, to mental training, just like mathematics.
    The famous slogan of the new approach is: 'It is an insult to civilization to
    despise grammar'."</font>

    interesting exercise for students would be: jump 30 years further and describe
    why this new approach failed around 2040.</font>

  8. Of course in Scotland, we are now defined in our delivery of ML by Curriculum for Excellence - many of the approaches I learned (if that's the right word) during my PGCE now seem stuffy when brought to the table of a "CfE lesson" even if I feel they have real educational value.

  9. mlapworth

    mlapworth Occasional commenter

    Why? What does a "CfE lesson" look like?
  10. I would really like to know that too.
  11. I must admit I have become very cynical during the course of my life about the value of this or that approach to teaching foreign languages. I must have been exposed to at least a dozen different approaches as a learner (1953-1964) and as a teacher (1965-1993). All of them worked to some extent, although I think it was a question of the singer not the song that determined how well they worked. As a novice teacher I became very despondent when I got poor results using the audio-lingual and SGAV approaches in the 1960s - which my HoD insisted on all MFL staff using. Then, as I became more experienced, I realised that they were simply not my style. Finally, I developed my own style of bumbling eclecticism, and I got better results.
    Do read the Decoo article. He is pretty cynical too. An approach or a method is in vogue for around 20-30 years, i.e. around the same time as a teacher's career. Publishers adapt their textbooks to whatever approach or method is in vogue at the time.
    Graham Davies
  12. spsmith45

    spsmith45 New commenter

    The Decoo article is fun. Thanks for posting. Though i thought he neglected the Bristish tradition after Henry Sweet. Jack Richards' book on approaches and methods in language teaching gives it more prominence.
    An earlier poster asked for a reference to the London University approach espoused by Mrs Hodgson in 1955, then later by teachers such as Mark Gilbert and Alan Hornsey.
    Here is a summary:
    This approach did draw on theory, but was (and is) also very pragmatic and can be combined with more adventurous communicative appraches. The Tricolore series of text books stands for this approach quite well with its rigororous selection and grading of language for presentation and practice.
    But yes, Graham, I have become more cynical/felxible about methodology, although I cling to some basics: plenty of TL, a grammatical syllabus (at least in the school context), selection and grading, plenty of variety to avoid boredom.
    I used to be more fundamentalist about pupils working out rules for themselves. Now I am fairly happy to present a rule, then practise it.

  13. spsmith45

    spsmith45 New commenter

    That link takes you straight to an extract from the Jack Richards book. I have just purchased it from Amazon.
  14. Technology is not the panacea. It depends on what you do with it - as with any other resources that you use. Have a look at these two sections at the ICT4LT website:
    Section 3 of Module 1.1
    How effective are new technologies in promoting language learning?
    Section 4 of Module 1.4
    Whole-class teaching and interactive whiteboards
    Graham Davies
  15. spsmith45

    spsmith45 New commenter

    A previous poster mentioned "jumping through hoops".
    There is a lot of valuable discussion going on in the profession about what makes a good lesson and the focus has been on "assessment for learning" and, more recently, "behaviour for learning". This is all well and good. These generic issues around good teaching are important, but we I believe language teachers should focus just as much on their MFL-specific methodology. It is quite possible to concoct a lesson which has activity, productive learning and a good atmosphere, but if there is not much target language being used, then its value is compromised.
    My experience is that MFL teachers enjoy discussing practical ideas for the classroom and this is a good thing, but they are less inclined to consider underlying theory and methodology.
    Maybe it is good that there is no prevailing panacea method at the moment and that language teachers are eclectic in their approach. This is perhaps a sign of a mature stage in our practice. We need to beware of an "anything goes" culture though.

  16. Working in the NW, we used the St Martin's Graded Tests which really gave pupils the basics of language learning and a great motivation to do well. I regretted their demise bitterly. :(
  17. castellano7

    castellano7 New commenter

    Thanks a lot for posting the link to the Decoo article, Graham, I've just had a quick look at it, but I'll try to read in full when I have more time. It's true that we didn't really spend any time looking at previous approches to teaching languages during the PGCE course, and it would be useful to have this context. I am now doing a small research project on the teaching of sound-spelling links and effect on pronunciation, and it's interesting to think about different approaches to pronunciation in the past.
  18. musiclover1

    musiclover1 New commenter

    I learnt Russian with a book called 'Russian in three months', which had a little text in every chapter (with a vocab list), which I listened to on a tape lots of times, and the text introduced a specific grammar point which was then practised. When I learnt Italian (again from a book), it was pretty much the same. So, what's that method called? I thought it was quite effective because by the end of the book I knew the basics of most grammar points and I could do simple conversation questions.
  19. chriszwinter1

    chriszwinter1 New commenter

    How about "the proper method"?

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