Number one for English language teachers

Applied linguistics: Choosing a method

Type: Article

Andy Curtis, series editor of Palgrave’s Applied Linguistics for the Language Classroom book series, looks at how we can involve learners when choosing teaching methods. 

 

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How to choose a teaching method: Letting our learners lead the way

Some years ago, a number of methodological experts claimed that methods were – or should be – dead and buried, and they proclaimed a new age they called ‘Post Methods’. As it turns out, they were wrong, and in my new book, Methods and Methodologies for Language Teaching: The Centrality of Context, I explain why. One piece of evidence that methods are still very much alive and kicking is the fact that a question I’m often asked, by language teachers around the world, is: How do I decide on the ‘best’ method to use in my class with my learners?

I realize that not all language teachers are fortunate enough to be able to choose the methods they use. But for those of us who are lucky in that regard, here are some responses to the question. I should also preface my answer by pointing out that there is no ‘best’ method, and there are no ‘best practices’, in terms of one method (or one practice) being ideal for all learners and all teachers, in all places at all times.

Therefore, my advice to teachers is to employ an informed eclecticism, by which I mean that they should use a variety of different methods, based on a number of contextual factors, and that the teachers should be able to articulate, clearly and concisely, why they have chosen those particular methods, in that specific combination.

An example of a contextual factor is purpose, i.e. why are your students learning the target language? Their purpose might be as ‘narrow’ as ‘to pass the local, national or international language test or examination’, or as ‘wide’ as ‘to travel to the U.K. for a vacation’. Both purposes are specific and valid reasons for learning a new language. But how does learning purpose inform teaching method?

Let’s say your students are learning the target language to go to a country for a two-week vacation where that language is spoken by the majority of the people there. Then, in that case, you might choose a more oral/aural method, which focuses on developing speaking and listening skills rather than reading and writing. For example, although Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approaches were originally designed to cover all of the four main language modalities (listening, speaking, reading and writing), CLT methodologies have mainly been used to develop speaking and listening skills, and that is where they have been most successfully used. On the other hand, if the main purpose for learning the target language is to pass a test or exam, then that should be reflected in the methods chosen.

In the same way that the death of methods was greatly exaggerated, the demise of the Grammar Translation Method (GTM) was similarly announced by some methodological experts. There are a significant number of language exams in the world today that still focus on testing the learners’ knowledge of the target language grammar, with a much greater focus on reading and writing than on speaking and listening. In that case, making much use and good use of GTM would be very helpful to your language learners.

When I first went to Hong Kong, in 1995, the national English language exams did not test speaking. As a result, English language teachers gave little or no attention to developing speaking skills. But I arrived there that year having just completed a PhD in International Education (from the University of York, England), full of ideas about CLT and convinced of how important it was for everyone to be able to speak and understand spoken English well.

That was a challenging moral and ethical dilemma for me. If I stuck to my beliefs about CLT, my students would probably not do as well in the national English language exams. That would, in turn, would greatly limit their opportunities to achieve their goals and realize their dreams, especially in such a fiercely competitive environment, in which passing or failing exams opened up or closed off opportunities in ways that nothing else did.

In the end, I let go of my attachment to CLT, for the sake of my students, and although the national English language exams in Hong Kong started testing English oral skills some years ago, that lesson stayed with me. We must be willing to let go of our beliefs about the ‘best’ method to use and let our learners lead the methodological way based on what they want and what they need. This is easier said than done, as we’re under constant pressures to adopt one method or another, depending in part on the fads and fashions of the day. But if we have the freedom to make use of an informed eclecticism in our classrooms, our learners can reap the rewards of our choices.

To learn more and to buy a copy of Methods and Methodologies for Language Teaching: The Centrality of Context click here.

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