Elise Grisolia





My teaching approach

Teaching Methods and Approaches to Language Learning Elise Grisolia

When we approach language teaching we are presented with different systems to find the most effective way to help students understand a new language. There is a wide variety of methods designed to fulfil this purpose; from the traditional, like the Translation Method, to the more innovative ones like Suggestopedia and the Communicative Approach. Their characteristics give us an insight so we can clearly distinguish and understand how they fall into these two different categories of old and new. Obviously most new methods intend to correct possible errors made by approaches from the past, and improve methodology, but concentrating exclusively on one of them, can be insufficient and actually do more harm than good on a practical level.

Generally speaking both the Grammar Translation method and the Audio-lingual method which are based solely on repetitions and drills are deeply flawed, and offer very little margin to produce true communication skills. Translation in itself won’t develop the language knowledge fully, and learners will ignore how words sound and how they are pronounced. If we add to that the fact that words have been learnt by heart without any logic or understanding, when we put them to the test in a different context, chances are students won’t recognise them and therefore they will be unable to use them properly. This problem is not unique of the Translation method and it equally occurs with the Audio-lingual one. I don’t see how by repeating a sentence students will take things any further when confronted with real life situations. Repetition can only work when we make sense of what we’re learning, but repeating sentences for the sake of it won’t bring a very productive outcome. The constant use of translation may polish reading and writing skills but will leave students bereft of a more natural understanding of the target language.

The Translation method is heavily dependent on written language which makes it too passive, plus there’s no input from the students who can get easily bored without interacting. In contrast the Communicative Approach seems to solve this problem, but only partially. It is definitely more active allowing students to be more vocal, but on the downside they miss out on writing, reading and spelling. So both the new and the old systems are incomplete and present challenges that fail to make them entirely suitable for everybody. I think ideally the use of translation should be confined only to those times when a new word is first encountered. If the same word appears for a second time and on successive occasions, then they should make use of a monolingual dictionary.

On the other end of the scale we find groundbreaking approaches like Suggestopedia and the Silent Way that verge almost on utopian expectations. Music, mimicking and games won’t make our students necessarily more fluent or confident. The Silent Way where the teacher is quiet one hundred percent of the time, and communicates through gestures, raises some questions. Enduring sixty minutes of non-stop mimicking can become just as tedious and unbearable as grammar, making it hard to implement. At the most, we can do an activity that lasts approximately ten minutes, and then move on to a new one unrelated to this method. On a similar case Suggestopedia endorses music and other artistic formulas as the best alternative. From my point of view if anything, working on a song per class will suffice. That’s the reason why I consider them purely experimental, with quite a few weak points and no clear context to refer back after each lesson. If we really decide that this is an option to put into practice I would be careful and introduce it occasionally, in small doses more as a complementary activity than anything else.

Other popular methods like Vaughan, have become a big hit thanks to the use of the internet and partly because the teacher is seen as a friendly person who is approachable and brings a smile to your face. People feel attracted to the way the teacher speaks and communicates because he is perceived as someone funny and hilarious, triggering an immediate positive reaction. Charisma plays an important part especially in mainstream methods that are supported by audiovisual aids, making them accessible to a larger number of people. As appealing as it might be for the general public, it still includes translations, and whether that guarantees better results though remains to be seen. Speaking from personal experience I have

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come across countless students who have been enthusiastic about the Vaughan method in the beginning, saving numerous YouTube links and watching the videos for a few minutes every now and then. However, a couple of weeks down the line the initial interest gradually fades and fizzles out. It makes me wonder whether people are really learning or if it’s all just a fad. Probably the content of a successful English course popular with the masses is no different from that of a more conventional approach. Somehow it reminds me of the BBC TV series from the 90’s called ‘Muzzy’, which is still used as a valid method today. The main character is likeable and acts as a magnet, just as Vaughan is friendly and bubbly, Muzzy was cute and lovable, and children felt an instant connection with him. Regardless of the media frenzy that gives these methods an advantage over others less well known, the secret of this success may lie in the empathy between the teacher and his or her audience.

It’s that very same connection we should aspire to establish as a common ground with our students. Our role should primarily be that of guidance and support. For me above all, teachers should inspire confidence and be good motivators, capable of working with students as a team not as an authoritative figure, but as a reference point. We can manage to do this by being positive and handle mistakes gently pointing out what is right and emphasizing this to reinforce what is valid and deflect the attention from what is not. Gaining our students trust is probably the best achievement we can get, and at the same time the best ally to make lessons work.

The Communicative Method can be useful once students have reached a more advanced level and they master the language with a certain degree of confidence. However in order to reach that stage, there must be some previously acquired knowledge that should have been built up with the aid of a slightly more basic approach. I think students need to develop a good foundation first before they can take their language skills to the next level. Many students could feel potentially lost with a Communicative method that offers them no explanation when they desperately need one, and examples can only help to a certain extent. In this respect the Communicative Method lacks the support many beginner and intermediate students may need. It’s like asking them to play a game without explaining the instructions. Many beginners and even intermediate levels may be put off because they’re still not able to understand conversations in English, causing them to switch off and give up. It’s then when the Communicative Approach runs the risk of having a counter-productive effect. The other side of the argument though, is that more advanced levels will benefit hugely from it as it is a superb boost to increase fluency.

Modern methods work well in particular areas of language learning but students will miss out on others which are vital for a successful process. In my view language shouldn’t be taught as an isolated something but as a whole, that is, the four components should be present and combined simultaneously and one would support the other. So for instance, when we teach vocabulary we should introduce new words for the first time in such a way that the students should be able to know not only how to pronounce, but to read and write them as well. This is possible if we manage to create a habit of learning new words in this kind of ‘three-dimensional’ way. Every time students look up a word in the dictionary, learning how it sounds is just one step, but it’s incomplete unless they can link that sound with how the word looks written and they can, in turn, manage to write it correctly. Eventually by following this pattern students will be able to associate any given written word with its sound and vice versa. Although this may seem extremely long-winded, it’s just a matter of creating a habit and getting used to it and as with everything, practice makes perfect.

The main difficulty with sticking to just one method is the absence of flexibility, leaving the teacher unable to modify things according to the response they get. I consider that imposing restrictions (like removing grammar from the syllabus) is detrimental to the students and should be avoided. Instead we have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to help students understand how they’re learning the language, even if we have to write on a blackboard or give them some homework.

In order to illustrate this point I’ll take the Communicate method as a reference, which is plagued with this somehow rigid trait. Compared to more traditional methods the Communicative Approach suggests that getting rid of all kinds of additional support material like blackboards or the so dreaded homework is the way to go. Personally I have nothing against

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blackboards or whiteboards, quite the contrary; any additional support is more than welcome. The key is to get the balance right using resources wisely and only when we need them. I find it incredibly restrictive and limiting to give examples and describe things verbally without any additional support. It can be time-consuming and not fully straightforward, plus delaying the pace of a lesson for the sake of our chosen method is not exactly helpful. Conversely if we can write an example, the visual impact the words will have, is much more powerful than just us talking.

I see grammar as a necessary evil; I don’t advocate making students memorise rules without making sense, but rather I’m all in favour of making them understand the logic behind it. For example, when we speak in English we tend to follow a pattern in the order words have in the sentences. Students need to be aware of these simple guidelines. I’m not so much interested in them knowing what an auxiliary verb is, but more in how and when we use it. This is the reason why I’m convinced flexibility is the key. It’s paramount for any teacher to follow not just one method, but to be flexible and allow bits and pieces of many other methods to come into play. I would say it’s essential if we want students to communicate effectively. That is why grammar, among many other elements, must be part and parcel of any language course. But again, grammar alone is not enough to create a successful or effective method. Parts of different methods should be combined and mixed in our system to create an all-round experience.

I also feel it’s a misconception to claim students won’t enjoy homework because this is neither accurate nor realistic. It all depends on what type of homework we plan to propose. I regard homework as nothing more than an extra activity introduced with the main objective of familiarising students with the target language. For a Communicative Method to be truly efficient students should in theory attend lessons almost every day, if not daily. I believe speaking English for just a few hours a week is a feeble attempt to make the target language something familiar. The minute students go back to work or get home, their mother tongue will dominate their environment, and the target language will always be something alien and detached from their lives. By asking them to read a simple text or write a brief paragraph, or even just a short sentence, students remain in touch with the things they learn and the experience continues beyond the classroom. I would go as far as saying they can create their very own homework. We can, for example, suggest writing four short sentences using Simple Past to practice this tense picking irregular verbs and topics of their choice. These extra activities will contribute to bring English closer to the students and strengthen their knowledge.

Whichever method we choose though, it’s my belief that the most important aspect is the student and not so much the method. From my point of view we must adapt to the student and not the other way around. It’s basic not to lose sight of what really matters and try not to be totally self-absorbed with our own system. Everything should revolve around our students and they should be our main priority. Teachers should be prepared to customize their lessons as methods are mere tools to assist us and should be used with enough flexibility to allow appropriate adjustments if needed. We shouldn’t be blinded by our method, because we are the ones who have to conform to the student in each particular case.

Finally to conclude, despite having mixed feelings about most methods I’m open to take on board their highlights but there’s always something missing. So for instance, I agree on the Communicative Approach idea that teachers shouldn’t follow a textbook. This is quite true and yet there’s nothing wrong with following a textbook either. Textbooks, blackboards and grammar are not the enemy and are there just to serve us; it all depends on how we use them. As long as we can find the balance between speaking, listening, reading and writing, and blend them harmoniously, we will get closer to an authentic approach to language. The challenge is to integrate all the components as one, and not to compartmentalize and ‘chop’ English as if spoken and written language were divided entities working separately. Keeping an open mind is important in relation to our teaching methods and goes hand in hand with being tolerant enough to allow several systems to come together as one; even if that means interfering with our own preferences. Personally I don’t subscribe to any particular method, the only method I follow is whatever works best for each individual student and makes them feel comfortable and happy.



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