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Teaching approaches: what is suggestopedia?

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An article discussing the concept of suggestopedia.

Often considered to be the strangest of the so-called "humanistic approaches", suggestopedia was originally developed in the 1970s by the Bulgarian educator Georgi Lozanov. Extravagant claims were initially made for the approach with Lozanov himself declaring that memorization in learning through suggestopedia would be accelerated by up to 25 times over that in conventional learning methods. The approach attracted both wild enthusiasm in some quarters and open scorn in others. On balance, it is probably fair to say that suggestopedia has had its day but also that certain elements of the approach survive in today’s good practice.

The approach was based on the power of suggestion in learning, the notion being that positive suggestion would make the learner more receptive and, in turn, stimulate learning. Lozanov holds that a relaxed but focused state is the optimum state for learning. In order to create this relaxed state in the learner and to promote positive suggestion, suggestopedia makes use of music, a comfortable and relaxing environment, and a relationship between the teacher and the student that is akin to the parent-child relationship. Music, in particular, is central to the approach. Unlike other methods and approaches, there is no apparent theory of language in suggestopedia and no obvious order in which items of language are presented.

The original form of suggestopedia presented by Lozanov consisted of the use of extended dialogues, often several pages in length, accompanied by vocabulary lists and observations on grammatical points. Typically these dialogues would be read aloud to the students to the accompaniment of music. The most formal of these readings, known as the "concert reading", would typically employ a memorable piece of classical music such as a Beethoven symphony. This would not be in the form of background music but would be the main focus of the reading, with the teacher’s voice acting as a counterpoint to the music. Thus the "concert reading" could be seen as a kind of pleasurable event, with the learners free to focus on the music, the text or a combination of the two. The rhythm and intonation of the reading would be exaggerated in order to fit in with the rhythm of the music.

A second, less formal reading would employ a lighter, less striking piece of music, such as a piece of Baroque music, and this would take a less prominent role. During both types of reading, the learners would sit in comfortable seats, armchairs rather than classroom chairs, in a suitably stimulating environment in terms of décor and lighting. After the readings of these long dialogues to the accompaniment of music, the teacher would then make use of the dialogues for more conventional language work. In theory at least, large chunks of the dialogues would be internalized by the learners during the readings due both to the relaxed and receptive state of the learners and to the positive suggestion created by the music.

There is, however, little evidence to support the extravagant claims of success. The more obvious criticisms lie in the fact that many people find classical music irritating rather than stimulating (to some cultures Western music may sound discordant), the length of the dialogues and the lack of a coherent theory of language may serve to confuse rather than to motivate, and, for purely logistic reasons, the provision of comfortable armchairs and a relaxing environment will probably be beyond the means of most educational establishments.

In addition the idea of a teacher reading a long (and often clearly inauthentic) dialogue aloud, with exaggerated rhythm and intonation, to the accompaniment of Beethoven or Mozart may well seem ridiculous to many people.

This is not to say, however, that certain elements of the approach cannot be taken and incorporated into the more eclectic approach to language teaching widely in evidence today. The use of music both in the background and as an accompaniment to certain activities can be motivating and relaxing. Attention to factors such as décor, lighting and furniture is surely not a bad thing. Dialogues too have their uses. Perhaps most importantly of all the ideas, creating conditions in which learners are alert and receptive can only have a positive effect on motivation. Whether these conditions are best created by the use of classical music and the reading of dialogues is open to questions but there is no doubt that suggestopedia has raised some interesting questions in the areas of both learning and memory.

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Readers' comments (5)

  • Suggestopdia is something I have never consciously tried, and as the writer points out, some of the conditions might not always be accessible--the armchairs and the comfy decor are great if you have them, but even then, how often would one emply them, and the method does seem a little overly quirky. However, again, as the writer notes, there are elements of this method that are useful, such as the music. However, one must be careful about what kind of music best suits the students, but I suppose anything relaxing are familiar has its merits. An interesting article!

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  • Tim's description of 'classical' Suggestopedia is accurate enough except that it leaves out a very important component and that is: elaboration. Elaboration is when the content of the dialogues or text, is practised. So the 2 concerts which Tim talks about are, in a sense, the presentation phase but the language is activated through lots of carefully constructed games and tasks, focussing on the communicative aspects of language rather than the formal grammar. I do agree that Lozanov's claims were quite exaggerated but I also think that Suggestopedia, like other past approaches, still has techniques to offer the 21st c eclectic language teacher.

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  • I find this method useful. It helps teachers avoid using still the same method of teaching (usually the one that is suitable for them). I would like to now if the classical music could be replaced by other kind of music. Thank you.

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  • I am just about to embark on a Suggestopdia lesson for my DELTA experimental practice, wish me luck!

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  • I am just about to embark on a Suggestopdia lesson for my DELTA experimental practice, wish me luck!

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