|Chia explaining 'stealth pair work'|
Chia Suan Chong started her plenary at the 31st annual TESOL France colloquium by warning us there would be 65 slides in her PowerPoint and introducing the concept of stealth pair work – speaking quietly, in a muted voice with a person sitting next to you. Considering the fact the audience consisted of about 200 ELT teachers, this wasn't an easy task. I had been really looking forward to this talk, so I was prepared to shut up for 60 minutes. I had expected Chia to debunk ELT myths and show how certain findings of applied linguistics research have been misapplied in ELT. Instead, the talk went in a different direction as Chia took us on a journey through the history of ELT.
From all translation to no translation
Her colourful account of different methodologies started from the Grammar Translation method. According to this oldest teaching method, used originally for teaching Greek and Latin, students memorised long lists of isolated words and grammar rules in order to translate passages into L1. No interaction or speaking in the target language was involved. Unlike the Grammar Translation, the Direct Method, which appeared in the early 20th century, focused on oral communication. Based on the belief that students need to speak and hear the target language in order to learn it, teaching with the Direct Method consisted of short interactions between the teacher and student practising every day situations. No translation or interaction in L1 was allowed here. These "authentic" every day situations would often involve exchanges such as this:
Teacher: Have you two ears?
Student: Yes, I have two ears.
An outgrowth of the Direct Method was Audio Lingual Method (aka the Army Method), the essence of which Chia aptly demonstrated with this slide:
It was not clear to me at this stage why Chia kept referring to it as the Direct Method. Surely, the two have a lot in common, for example, the focus on correct pronunciation and grammatical accuracy and adherence to the target language. But Audiolingualism started much later - after WWII, mainly in the
and, as Chia acknowledged, was closely linked to Skinner's Behavourism.
According to behaviourist psychology, learning occurs through a system of
reinforcements through drilling and repetition or, to put it
bluntly, "hitting students on the head until they get it right".
Not that the audience needed any comic relief – Chia kepts us engaged and entertained in equal measure throughout – but the humorous highlight of the presentation was the following video. See for yourself:
This is a true lexical approach, Chia claimed, tongue-in-cheek, because students are encouraged to memorise whole phrases and chunks. She then moved on to Noam Chomsky and his "device" – the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) that is. According to Chomsky, a human brain contains a LAD which allows us to make an infinite number of grammatically correct sentences, a hypothesis which regrettably gave further impetus to contrived grammar teaching.
After Chomsky came Krashen and I started to get the feeling that noone would escape unscathed tonight :) But I hope the irony of Chia's remarks was not lost on the audience. Chia merely highlighted shortcomings of various methods and theories and, at the same time, stressed how each and every one of them has something useful to offer. For example, translation is inevitable and often necessary. Try, for example, explaining the word "happen" without using translation!
Alternative approaches of the 1970s
Krashen was (indirectly?) responsible for Suggestopaedia, one of the alternative approaches which emerged in the 1970s after Audiolingualism was largely discredited. Suggestopaedia, later renamed - for some inexplicable reason - into Desuggestopaedia, is all about creating a relaxed state of mind in order to lower what Krashen referred to as the affective filter. To this end, Suggestopaedia makes use of classical music, comfortable furniture and colourful classrooms. Apart from Krashen's affective filter, this approach was not influenced by any particular theory of language and didn’t gain mass appeal. Another alternative approach of the 1970s was Total Physical Response (TPR), where the teacher gives a series of verbal commands and learners do the action (for example, jump or open the window). Apart from its obvious benefit for kinaesthetic learners and young learners, TPD is "more fun for the teacher than students", concluded Chia and moved on to another short-lived and probably the most left-field approach…
Unlike TPR, where teacher has all the fun, the
Silent Way is a
student-centred approach, in that it promotes interaction, teamwork,
problem-solving and learner autonomy. The teacher guides students through a
series of progressively more complex tasks, using gestures, visuals and
Cuisenaire rods, while staying silent most of the time. Lastly, another humanistic
approach, where the teacher takes a back seat, is Community Language Learning
(CLL). CLL involves students sitting in a circle with the teacher standing
outside and acting as a facilitator and "paraphraser". When a student
decides to say something (s)he calls the teacher and whisper what they want to
say, in their L1. The teacher whispers back the equivalent utterance in English
which the student then repeats.
The above practices are often described as "designer" or guru-led methods as each one is associated with a particular person:
All these methods were a subject of a recent #ELTchat and a comprehensive summary can be found on Rachael Roberts's blog – click here
CLT or getting it wrong all over again
In the final part of her fascinating talk Chia traced the origins of the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT or Communicative Approach) to Vygotsky and his zone of proximal development (ZPD). ZPD in essence is the gap between the learner's current developmental level and what (s)he can achieve with educational support or in collaboration with more capable peers. This interesting connection was one of the many insights offered in Chia's talk
Sadly enough, Communicative Lang Teaching with its seemingly thematic syllabus, is, according to Chia, a traditional, linear grammar syllabus in disguise. Likewise, Krashen's comprehensible input (i+1) has been misinterpreted to cover only grammar input, and not lexis or features of discourse. The unfortunate result is careful sequencing of grammar items according to their perceived complexity – hardly an approach advocated by the fathers of the CLT such as Widdowson or Nunan. Chia talked favourably of the Task-Based Learning (TBL) as an approach focusing on meaningful communication and negotiation of meaning before summing up the main factors necessary for Second Language Acquisition: interaction, negotiation of meaning and engaging in meaningful tasks.
Eclecticism according to Chia (and me)
In conclusion, Chia stressed that principled eclecticism (I prefer the term "informed eclecticism") and "cherry picking" are even more important today because our students know more thanks to technology. This put me in mind of my Pecha Kucha at the ETAI 2011 conference entitled "On Eclecticism and Other Exotic Fruits" where I used similar metaphors. I talked about how an eclectic approach allows teachers to draw on aspects of a variety of methods and select what is appropriate to particular students in particular contexts. But teachers who adopt such an approach need to know the ingredients of the diet they are offering their students.
Or, to use one of my favourite Henry Widdowson's quotes:
"If you say you are eclectic but cannot state the principles of your eclecticism, you are not eclectic, merely confused"
|With Chia at TESOL France | Photo by Bethany Cagnol|
If you are interested in the evolution of language teaching methods, these two titles are particularly recommended:
Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching: A Description and Analysis. CUP 2001
Diane Larsen-Freeman. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. OUP 2000