Nov 24, 2012

The Principles of Principled Eclecticism according to Chia Suan Chong

A summary of the closing plenary (Mis)-Applied Linguistics at the TESOL France colloquium on 18 November 2012

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 USA, 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… 

[Long pause]

The Silent Way
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:

Useful link
Georgi Lozanov
James Asher
The Silent Way
Caleb Gattegno
Charles Curran
An article on TeachingEnglish with a lesson outline

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" 

Chia Suan Chong is a teacher and teacher trainer with IH in London. She is an avid blogger ( and and a self-confessed conference junkie.

With Chia at TESOL France | Photo by Bethany Cagnol

Further reading

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


  1. So . . . um . . . what PRINCIPLES of principled eclecticism were actually suggested, then?

    Hard to tell from this summary.

  2. Sorry if it wasn't clear, Hugh!
    I'd say the main principles are:
    1. Cherry picking
    2. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater
    3. Stay informed and up-to-date, for example, by attending conferences even if you have a bad case of diarrhea

  3. I enjoyed this, Leo.



  4. Awesome summary!
    Seems there were some approaches I missed - can you imagine using CLL in a class of 40 students? Shudder. Or such a video clip, for that matter?
    Thanks for this!

    1. Thank you, Naomi.
      Actually the link to the article on the TE website I included above talks about using CLL with large classes.
      Which reminds me now that Chia also traced back the origins of TBL to Prabhu and the Bangalore Project (late 1970s - early 80s). As far as I remember, he also taught large groups.
      Thank you for the comment!

  5. Hi Leo,
    I really enjoyed the time we spent together discussing, chatting and debating at TESOL France, and certainly enjoyed having this opportunity to deliver the closing plenary.
    You have written an excellent summary and it is always interesting to see how your talk is interpreted by those who watch it.

    First of all, you mentioned that you first thought the talk would be about how the theories of Applied Linguistics were misapplied in our daily teaching practices. So did I.

    As I wrote this talk, I realised that although the theories of Applied Linguistics have been applied in what might seem inappropriate and even strange ways, especially knowing what we know now, what mattered was there was an attempt to apply and incorporate the theories of its time.

    And I realised how much we had to learn from the different eras of SLA theories. I realised that I did not want to only speak about what we were doing wrong, but perhaps to look at what we can learn and what we can improve on instead.

    Part of this learning and improving means that we should learn to cherry pick (as you mentioned) and use the different methods and approaches judiciously to suit our learners and our learning contexts.

    I am of course not here to tell teachers how to cherry pick or to presume that I know their teaching contexts and their learners. But I do know that having a better knowledge of SLA theories and using this knowledge to inform the decisions made in the classroom and to reflect on what we do could contribute to our continual development.

    As for the issue of Audiolingualism versus The Direct Method, there has been a lot of argument as to the differences between these two very similar Behaviourist approaches.

    Like the Audiolingual Approach, the Direct Method was also used to teach languages in the military, but more in Europe and the UK, rather than in the United States.

    The school that I used to work for (which I mentioned in my talk) has bases in the UK and around Europe and started out by teaching English to the soldiers in Italy in the 1960s. It is famously known for using the Direct Method. Being based in the UK myself, and speaking at a conference in Europe, I took the liberty of addressing only the Direct Method and not the Audiolingual Approach.

    I hope the above has clarified some of the gaps or queries left after the talk...
    Thanks once again for this summary and for the lovely time in Paris.

    You're a star!


    1. Hi Chia,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and clarifying. I didn't see this connection between DM and ALM before you talk. Nor did I know that DM was a sort of a European equivalent of ALM. I've always associated DM with the Berlitz Language Schools. Interesting...

      I enjoyed your talk and the time we spent in Paris and hope to see you soon - IATEFL in Liverpool I presume?


  6. Not connected to this topic (which I enjoyed very much) but I just want to say I love the way I have been able to follow TESOL France online through both videos and posts like this. Thank you. What wonderfully connected times we live in.
    On the issue of eccectism, I think your Widdowson quote hits the nail on the head, Leo. Skehan had some similarly pithy observations, but a quote escapes me. Perhaps someone else can recall?

  7. Hi Vicki
    Thank you for stopping by. I am glad I've contributed to you virtually attending TESOL France :)
    If you remember that Skehan's quote, please do share.

  8. Good article, very interesting ...
    Unfortunately, all these theories are very difficult to be applied in real life.
    Personally I learned English through writing in 2005). Now I use English daily in the family and at work. You have to use the language if you want to learn it.
    Besides being a learner of English I am a teacher of English as well. I teach English for 14 year old Vietnamese (they are grade 8 students). Very little from what I have learned (regarding to teaching methodology) can be applied to this group of students. I won't go into details because the comment will be too long.
    Yes, Task Based Learning is usually effective and a very interesting approach!

  9. Hi Dan,

    Depending on your teaching context some of these theories can indeed be difficult to apply. But surely every teacher can find something that suits his/her learners and their needs - like you and TBL.

    Thank you for your comment!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...