Chris Bowles

My teaching approach

How you would approach teaching English design your own method and explain why you think it would be the most beneficial for your students?



A teaching approach is a method used to teach students taking into account the way students learn. When deciding on the best approach to teaching English initial questions have to be answered. What is the optimum way to teach English and how do students learn English? Once these questions have been answered, and only then can an effective approach be formulated. In order to effectively critique the two factors I will introduce my experiences as a student learning Spanish and a teacher teaching English.


Prior to enrolling on the course teaching was a skill that I perceived to be relatively simple. My only experience teaching was coaching mainly children tennis, a sport I had achieved a high level in. The teaching element was very technique based where a person built a kinetic memory of a stroke which with time they performed naturally, without thinking too much about it. What are the similarities of teaching tennis and a foreign language? The technical approach to teaching tennis was only one of many ways of teaching tennis. Surely the comparison of teaching a second language, L2 and the ‘technical’ approach to tennis coaching would be learning the structures in English, grammar. Drilling grammar, to be precise; to the point where the student is able to naturally speak without thinking. But does it work like that?


Now is a good time to draw on the experience I had learning French at school. The approach taught in my school in the ‘90s was the famed grammar-translation approach, GMT. Despite being taught in this way for 6 years my level is more or less at an elementary proficiency. But my mind was closed to thinking this was the only and best method of teaching a language.


As a student studying Spanish I have an empathic view of how a language can be learnt. My partner is Spanish which it could be suggested has given me an advantage learning Spanish. Before meeting my partner I had no reason or desire to learn Spanish. Since though, there have been various inputs in my life which have helped me to absorb and acquire a better understanding of the language. At first I used books to build vocabulary. This enabled me to understand words in a conversation but at first the words were few and far between. The big breakthrough with my learning occurred around a year ago when it was decided that we would move to Madrid. I downloaded podcasts off the internet and started listening to them religiously. Being exposed to Spanish with an English commentary helped me to build and progress with the language. Once we arrived in Madrid I had an intensive two week course at International House, IH, which meant that I was exposed to the language for a minimum of 4 hours per day intensively but of course my learning did not stop there and I was able to further my learning by reading books and grammar books from the UK. As the lessons were expensive I decided that the best way forward was to buy another book and work from there. The days became long and my enthusiasm dropped. Lacking the drive and not knowing why I consulted the internet and discovered that it would be possible to find likeminded people looking to learn English in return for teaching me Spanish. There were two ways this exchange worked. Either I would talk for an hour in Spanish and by partner would speak in English or we would both speak Spanish for half an hour and then the final half hour in English (or vice versa). This was an eureka moment in my language learning. Finding partners was relatively easy and I was able to effectively learn Spanish and I could certainly quantitate my advances. But could my learning have been improved? Did I discover the best (optimum) method of learning a new language?


From my experience, what can I learn? The reason for learning a language is essential. Without a reason, an ordinary person, like me, would not normally look to learn a language. How can I get people interested in learning a language? This is impossible to influence. It is the factors which influence a person’s life or their personality which determines their desire to learn. We will make the assumption that students who learn English have a desire or reason to do so.


Now let us focus on the factors which influence learning.  The age at which a person learns a language will change the person’s ability to learn. Neuron pathways are more developed in adults making it harder for them to learn compared to the immature brain of a child which is yet to develop. This flexibility makes it easier for a child to learn new things and a reason that many suggest that children are like sponges soaking up information. There is even a trail of thought that suggests that anyone learning a foreign language over the age of 12 will never become completely fluent. The definition of fluency, of course, then becomes important. My definition of fluency is a person who can communicate in a language.  Why make this generic goal too high or complicated to define? Tim Ferriss suggests that a student only needs to know 1000 to be fluent. Using my own level of Spanish I think my vocabulary exceeds 1000 word, comfortably, but I do not classify myself as being fluent. Do I know the wrong words, is this even possible? There is certainly a strategy to learning words, starting with general words like bag and then as your level improves learning types of bags, ie rucksack, satchel, briefcase etc. The number of words is not important but having the ability to be able to understand enough words to understand someone is important.


Should we make a distinction between understanding someone face to face or over the phone? For a lot of a people communication can be conveyed through body language. James Borg even suggests that 93% of a person’s communication is relayed through body language. Does this make spoken language irrelevant? I don’t speak German but if I am in Germany I could act out a question such as ‘where is the train station?’ Hand directions could then be used by the German to suggest a route. This would not be possible over the phone.


From my personal experience language is used to develop a relationship with a person. Without intimate dialog it is impossible to really know the personality of someone and build rapport.


With the developments that have been made regarding learning it is now possible to look more objectively at formulating an approach to teaching which is beneficial to learners.


My first task is to look at learners and categorise them as best as possible. It has already been determined that learners learn at different paces with age. Inputs and experiences make a difference too. It will be impossible to find two learners at the same level. Modern theory suggests that age does not determine the ability of a student to learn. I disagree because of the reason suggested above however, does it then rely on the approach used? The motivation of the learner will change. A good approach will address this.


It is beneficial for teachers to be aware of the difference between teaching and learning because it will help the teachers understand how to make students progress and ensure the students learn.


The first teaching approach I experienced when learning an L2 was at school learning French. Using the infamous Tricolore textbook as a bible to follow our teacher taught us using the Grammar-Translation Method. In truth the lessons were boring and there were huge discipline issues within the class, especially seeing as the teacher lacked the control often associated with the GTM approach. Often the class was set homework such as learning verb tenses and vocabulary. It seemed the goal of the teaching was to simply pass a GCSE exam. Although part of this examination was speaking there was little emphasis put onto this part. Getting good grades in tests and homework (lots of drilling) was essential to being given good grades for your end of term report.


When I arrived in Madrid, for the first few weeks I studied Spanish in International House language academy. The course was intensive, four hours per day, 5 days per week. The system is based on the needs of the pupils who were at an elementary level of Spanish. Probably because of the lower class level there was a large amount of TTT. The teacher stood at the front of the class and used a white board to write key vocabulary or verbs. Our seats were shaped in a U orientation and there were 8 – 12 pupils in the class mostly around 20 years old. The classes were structured around a variety of activities which lasted 30 minutes each. Often, the teacher introduced talking in pairs. On a Friday the class would listen to music noting down words or doing gap fill exercises writing in the missing words. Lots of the exercises were photocopied from a textbook. The teacher was positive but did not overly praise. There were disciplinary problems which the teacher struggled to manage. The teacher rarely used L1 language even though she was not often understood. Personally I took the class very seriously completing the optional homework set and made progress over the two week period.


The Oxbridge approach is the newest teaching approach that I have experience. Established in 2002, the key component of the approach is to maximising STT. The teacher is expected to be well prepared which will allow them to anticipate any potential problems. Another key factor is that the approach will evolve with time taking into account feedback and also the implementation of new ideas. There is minimal teaching performed by the teacher but instead a conversation forms under the guidance of the teacher, known as the playmaker. Only English is spoken and used in texts which help the students to think in the target language and not translate. Students learn to write through having an ability to speak. Questions are used to warm up and also prove the students understand and have achieved the communicative goals laid out in the class preparation.


The positive points to take from the above thee approaches are as follows. With the GMT method I was able to prepare for exams and although I had self-proclaimed low level of French I still achieved a B grade. My vocabulary knowledge is probably not too bad when reading. I could write using simplistic forms but it will take a long time to make sentences. If I was able to regularly converse in French with natives, I feel my level would improve quickly.


At IH in only 2 weeks my level improved but I cannot quantify the improvement. In my opinion the approach used was a hybrid between GMT and a communicative approach. The teacher did encourage the class to talk by answering questions but also by talking in pairs. The teacher was a native Spaniard so talking with her was better because talking amongst the other students could lead to the replication of errors. Maintaining interest for 4 hours is difficult for a teacher but with a variety of exercises this was achieved. Only being allowed to speak in Spanish was a good feature of the class.


To date the only situation that I have witnessed the Oxbriddge approach in use is in businesses with adults as students. It is possible to see the progression of students as they prove they have learnt the content of the class through concept check questions, CCQ’s and the wrap up.


Other approaches and their advantages worth including are the Direct Method. This approach includes working on the four domains necessary for language acquisition, according to Linda Mikottis. Oral ability is the most important skill learnt in this approach. Objects and pictures are used which I think is very important especially when teaching children. Modern teaching, in the UK, focus on using visual aids to assist with learning from an early age. Grammar is inductively learnt like in the Oxbridge approach.


Suggestopedia is an interesting approach, developed by the Bulgarian psychotherapist Georgi Lozanov. It focuses on eliminating the physiological barriers associated to language learning. To get the most out of a lesson being an extrovert is important. Students lacking confidence will act like introverts and not get involved in the class, thus inhibiting learning.  


The standout approach for me is the Communicative approach. Maximising the SST the approach uses authentic text combined with fun games to integrate the four skills. Communicative goals are set and achieved, as demonstrated by the students. The success of the approach is built on the basis that the teacher knows and understands the students. As a native it will take time to understand the errors made by Spaniard learning English.


Another approach I can relate to is the Total Physical Response approach where students use all of their senses to learn. The approach is fun and students talk when they are ready. As an active person using this method to learn would certainly be fun, especially as a child.


Now that I have looked at the learning and teaching processes and different approaches it is time to design the approach. As previously stated the approach must cater best for the students. But even categorising the students into age groups will not organise their characteristics. Different children have differing levels of behaviour, concentration, openness and ability when learning a new level. Plus add in other factors like inputs and levels which significantly impact on a student’s level and ability. This will be difficult but I will attempt to offer a universal approach which has the flexibility to adapt to the student.


One important difference between students is goals, short term and long term. A common goal to work towards would be to offer students the goal of being fluent, using my definition above. Being fluent does not mean the course has finished because there is always room for improvement which will become harder the higher the level of the student. This will demotivate the student as well as the teacher who will find it difficult to see the progression of the student. In order to cater for this type of student there will need to be tests which will allow the student to show progression.


In designing an approach it is important to create a fun environment where the students learn rather than study. The environment is also important for the teacher who will be enthused by a light-hearted classroom.


The approach needs to prioritise and enhance the productive skills, speaking and writing, of the students but also improve the receptive skills, listening and reading, because a student will not be able to communicate to a fluent level without them. Teaching time should be focused on engaging the students in conversation minimising TTT.


Knowing the students will be important because they must engage in the topic of conversation. Then they can study and activate target language or new or known structures. Writing is less important but as it is essential for English learners so there must be a part of the lesson devoted to writing. It is harder to make this part fun and engaging to the student. Examples of writing activities could be dictating a text which the students write down or asking the students to write a short story using a structure or set of vocabulary, preferably in the same semantic field. In order to improve their receptive skills the students will be given a website address to view a video where they can listen to spoken English. The problem with setting homework is that it may not be completed and will give the students an excuse to not go to the next class (because they feel bad for not completing the exercise). Therefore it would be best to set non-compulsory homework which will not be mentioned in the next class.


Building a rapport is important for the teacher. Setting up the classroom with the teacher being the focal point is important so that the teacher can see all the students. The teacher can then use eye contact to build a trust. Sitting down and being at the same level as the students will also help with rapport building. Smiling and looking presentable with a well prepared lesson plan with also help the teacher to win over the class. First impressions are also important.


The syllabus for the course must have the flexibility that anyone can join the course which acts as a conveyor belt improving students to the next level. One problem in the International House course was that one student had been taught that week’s material previously and wanted to move class because the class was not new to her. Having an evolving teaching material is a characteristic of the Oxbridge approach. There are ways to borrow a syllabus like using a textbook but to do this the content will need to be adapted to use and also discarded where appropriate. Creating a course as the lessons unfold will be time consuming but necessary as there is no other alternative. This will be time consuming but tailored to the needs of the class. Keeping a recorded copy of this course will be useful in the future and can be reused or modified as appropriate. There will be occasions where students are only looking to pass an exam to gain a qualification for their CV or require English for a specific purpose like a job in an airport tower. In this case the students only need to learn the criteria outlined in their course or for their job, like with my French GCSE. It does deviate from the idea that all of the students have the same goal to be fluent. This, however, shows that the approach and syllabus needs to have the flexibility to cater for the needs of the student.


The syllabus needs to implement the rules of a language but also allow the student to know and use words pragmatically. Introducing around 10 new words per half an hour lesson and having the students use the words along with checking the students understand the meaning and when to use the words. Therefore there must be 3 stages to learning new vocabulary. Introduction, the teacher pronounces the word before showing the word written down because students preconceive a pronunciation of a word using their language when beginners or rules which may or may not be correct. Then the teacher needs to demonstrate the meaning of the word. For lower level students, pictures, objects or even body language will help learners to understand. There is no reason why we cannot do the same with higher level students but it is more likely they will understand a definition.

Introducing games at all levels will help the students to study and activate the target language.


Common sense must be applied along with the experience of the teacher when constructing a syllabus. For example, a teacher will not introduce the past perfect continuous to students with a basic ability.


Structures must also be introduced to learners who must understand the functions of the structures so they know when to use them. In a 30 minute class it may be possible for the students to learn 10 new words and one structure and then blend the words and structure into practical use. For example, the new words could relate to hobbies like play, tennis, etc and the structure being present simple (of course!). The goal of the class is for students to discuss their hobbies. Drilling is not used in this approach. Students practice and demonstrate understanding. Magic moments may occur but are not essential for the lesson to be a success. If the communicative goal has been achieved then the lesson has been excellent.


Authentic texts are a good material to use but my approach is very much based on the learner’s level. It is going to be hard to find text which fits the student’s level or the specific goal of the class. Creating short texts with the appropriate target language and structures will be used where appropriate. It could be argued that for more advanced learners the frame of the text could be used with some alterations.


Structures get progressively harder and are repeated in more complex conditions with new vocabulary. STT increases as students are able to communicate with greater complexity and ease. There is also a presumption that their confidence will rise as inhibitions fall. Over time the students will also become accustomed to the teacher and visa versa.


Classroom sizes are an important factor to consider. In my French class there were around 16 students yet in IH there were 8-12. Having more students will reduce the STT per person as this time will become diluted. What is the optimum number of students? Surely one on one will maximise the STT per student. Therefore the introduction of a cap on the number of students to 4-5 is a necessity in order to optimise the learning of each student.


Learners could use a website created for the course to play games or watch videos in only English used as non-compulsory homework activities. Stephen Krashen suggests reading is also important so there could even be news articles on the site, simple enough for the learner to follow.


The difficulties of the individual students need to be examined. There are certainly ways to help Spanish students understand which are different to German students learning English. For example, having a command of Spanish will allow a teacher to suggest a cognate as a synonym to help a student understand the meaning of an unknown word. It is unlikely (but I accept possible as it could have the same root) that this word is a cognate across all three languages. From my own experience using inter-language between Spanish and English has hindered my progress because I have tried to use similar grammar rules where they have not been appropriate.


The attitude of the teacher is very important. Previously mentioned the teacher must make a good first impression but also remember that their attitude is likely to be mirrored by the student. A tired teacher or one lacking motivation will have an adverse effect on the class. The students will become uninterested in the lesson and not want to be there. The teacher needs to be enthusiastic and praise students where appropriate but not too much. At lower levels lapses can be ignored but once the lapse has been repeated it becomes an error which needs to be corrected. At higher levels all mistakes in pronunciation, words and structures need to be corrected so that the student practices the language correctly and improves accuracy. For lower levels communicating is more of the focus. A teacher who prepares well for a class can anticipate potential problems with the students or lesson plan.


A pace in the classroom is vital because without it students become bored and lose concentration. Too fast a pace will mean the students don’t have time to study and activate. A teacher needs the awareness to maintain a good pace to engage study and activate the learning process.


It is also important to consider the use of teaching materials like whiteboards etc. We must understand that not all classrooms are going to be equipped with high-tech gadgets to aid learning. The approach therefore needs to assume these are not available. It is more likely that teachers will have access to household items and pictures which can be printed or photocopied. Using these props will help especially young learners remember as we are influencing more senses which may suit certain learners. Also the idea of learning vocabulary in the learner’s day to day life will help learning.


In order to separate learners a test will be performed prior to the first lesson so that students can be separated depending on their ability. Having a flexibility to move students too good or bad for that level is also important. The levels will be set according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – A1, A2 for basic level, B1, B2 for intermediate level and C1, C2 for advanced level. These levels are universally recognised and will help students to register their ability.       


To conclude the approach; the key is to implement speaking reading writing and listening into the syllabus focusing the class time on students speaking with as little listening as possible. Some writing will be performed and the rest will be carried out via online homework which is optional and will not be discussed in class. The presumed goal is fluency although it is accepted that some students will have specific goals like passing exams or English for Specific Purposes. The approach is flexible enough to adapt to these needs. Texts will rarely be authentic as they must be adapted to suit the student’s level. Games and variety ensure that the lessons are fun and maintain a pace suitable for the students. Errors are tolerated and there is a strategy to correcting them depending on the level of the student. Within each lesson plan there is a communicative goal along with vocabulary to learn and practice using. The key is the engage the students and teach the students in an enthusiastic manor which I believe to be contagious in a class room environment. No L1 is used in class, only English is used and spoken.

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