Zoltán Szarka

My teaching approach


Teaching methods

In the long history of language teaching several teaching methods were defined as “the best method of all.” Each time had the specific approach as the world has changed; people’s need towards English teaching has changed as well. The “old” teaching system where the teacher played the role of a dictator in the 20th century became old-fashioned; still it gives the basis of the methods used today. Among several teaching methods the Grammar Translation method, the audio-lingual method and the communicative method are the most examined approaches of all time.

The Grammar Translation method’s basic approach is to analyze and study the grammatical rules of the language, usually in an order roughly matching the traditional order of the grammar of Latin, and then to practise manipulating grammatical structures through the means of translation both into and from the mother tongue.

The method is very much based on the written word and texts are widely in evidence. A typical approach would be to present the rules of a particular item of grammar, illustrate its use by including the item several times in a text, and practise using the item through writing sentences and translating it into the mother tongue. The text is often accompanied by a vocabulary list consisting of new lexical items used in the text together with the mother tongue translation. Accurate use of language items is central to this approach.

Generally speaking, the medium of instruction is the mother tongue, which is used to explain conceptual problems and to discuss the use of a particular grammatical structure. It all sounds rather dull but it can be argued that the Grammar Translation method has over the years had a remarkable success. Millions of people have successfully learnt foreign languages to a high degree of proficiency and, in numerous cases, without any contact whatsoever with native speakers of the language.

There are certain types of learner who respond very positively to a grammatical syllabus as it can give them both a set of clear objectives and a clear sense of achievement. Other learners need the security of the mother tongue and the opportunity to relate grammatical structures to mother tongue equivalents. Above all, this type of approach can give learners a basic foundation upon which they can then build their communicative skills.

Applied wholesale of course, it can also be boring for many learners and a quick look at foreign language course books, for example, will soon reveal the non-communicative nature of the language used. On the one hand they have motivating communicative activities that help to promote their fluency and, on the other, they gradually acquire a sound and accurate basis in the grammar of the language. This combined approach is reflected in many of the EFL course books currently being published and, amongst other things, suggests that the Grammar Translation method, far from being dead, is very much alive and kicking as we enter the 21st century.

Audiolingualism was in vogue in the 1960s when there was a pressing need to train key personnel quickly and effectively in foreign language skills. The results are generally regarded to have been very successful, with the caveat that the learners were in small groups and were highly motivated, which undoubtedly contributed to the success of the approach.

The approach was theoretically underpinned by structural linguistics, a movement in linguistics that focused on the phonemic, morphological and syntactic systems underlying the grammar of a given language, rather than according to traditional categories of Latin grammar. As such, it was held that learning a language involved mastering the building blocks of the language and learning the rules by which these basic elements are combined from the level of sound to the level of sentence. The audio-lingual approach was also based on the behaviourist theory of learning, which held that language, like other aspects of human activity, is a form of behaviour.

In the behaviourist view, language is elicited by a stimulus and that stimulus then triggers a response. The response in turn then produces some kind of reinforcement, which, if positive, encourages the repetition of the response in the future or, if negative, its suppression. When transposed to the classroom, this gives us the classic pattern drill- Model: She went to the cinema yesterday. Stimulus; Theatre. Response: She went to the theatre yesterday. Reinforcement: Good! In its purest form audiolingualism aims to promote mechanical habit-formation through repetition of basic patterns. Accurate manipulation of structure leads to eventual fluency. Spoken language comes before written language. Dialogues and drill are central to the approach. Accurate pronunciation and control of structure are paramount.

Although the audio-lingual approach in its purest form has many weaknesses (notably the difficulty of transferring learnt patterns to real communication), to dismiss the audio-lingual approach as an outmoded method of the 1960s is to ignore the reality of current classroom practice which is based on more than 2000 years of collective wisdom.

The approach to language teaching that can be broadly labelled as communicative language teaching emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as the emphasis switched from the mechanical practice of language patterns associated with the audio-lingual method to activities that engaged the learner in more meaningful and authentic language use.

Most present-day practitioners would probably like to think that their classes are "communicative" in the widest sense of the word. Their lessons probably contain activities where learners communicate and where tasks are completed by means of interaction with other learners. To this end there will probably be considerable if not extensive use of pair, group and mingling activities, with the emphasis on completing the task successfully through communication with others rather than on the accurate use of form. During these activities the teacher’s role will be to facilitate and then to monitor, usually without interruption, and then to provide feedback on the success or otherwise of the communication and, possibly, on the linguistic performance of the learners in the form of post-activity error correction. In terms of the organization of the lesson, the classic present, practice and perform model, where careful input of a particular structure is typically followed by controlled, less controlled and freer practice is likely to have been replaced by a more task-based approach, possibly on the lines of test, teach, test, where the learners are given a communicative task which is monitored by the teacher and then their language use while performing the task is fine-tuned by the teacher in a lesson stage which focuses on error correction or a particular form that is causing difficulties. This is typically followed by a further task-based stage, where the initial task is repeated or a similar task is performed, ideally with a greater degree of linguistic accuracy than during the first attempt.

Another feature will probably be that the traditional grammatical approach of starting the beginner’s syllabus by presenting the present tense of the verb ‘to be’ will have been replaced by a more communicative focus, with basic introductions, requests and questions enabling learners to begin communicating in English from the very first lesson.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the communicative approach will be that it has allowed teachers to incorporate motivating and purposeful communicative activities and principles into their teaching while simultaneously retaining the best elements of other methods and approaches rather than rejecting them wholesale.

In my opinion all the three methods are good and useful depending on several factors. Teachers need to recognize that not every student learns the same way. Some students learn material quicker and easier than others. If only one type of teaching method is used, not every student's learning needs will be accounted for. Various teaching methods need to be combined so that students have the opportunity to learn in multiple ways. The more opportunities that are available for a student to learn, the more valuable the education becomes. Therefore, the most successful teaching technique is one that involves a variety of different methods in order to accommodate every student's unique learning style. I think using the more enlightened principles of the Communicative Approach and combining these with the systematic approach of Grammar Translation, including some parts of the audio-lingual method may well be the perfect combination for many learners.




  • About:
  • Message:
  • From: