Victoria Wilkinson

My teaching approach

July 2012                                                                                                                                                                 Victoria Wilkinson

Oxbridge Essay



Teaching a second language is a topic that has always been highly debateable. There are many different recognised methods to the teaching of a language, with each one often using a unique and exclusive structure in their teaching. There are few answers as to how exactly one learns a language, and for this reason, and because every student approaches a foreign language differently, it is difficult to tell which method is the most successful. 

One of the oldest and perhaps less successful methods is known as the ‘Classic Method’, also known as the ‘Grammar Translation Method’. This dates back to as early as the seventeenth century, when the ability to read and write classical languages such as Greek and Latin was considered highly important as it raised an individual’s status as an intellectual. As the classical languages were not being taught in order for the students to be able to speak it, the approach focused mainly on grammar, memorisation of vocabulary and sentence structure. This approach is often used in schools in the teaching of modern languages such as French and Spanish.  Since the focus is on grammar rules, it often leaves the student with very limited ability to communicate sufficiently in the language.  The teaching is often partaken in the student’s native language, which contributes to limiting the communication in the language being learnt. If it is the student’s goal to purely be able to read and write a foreign language, the method cannot be faulted. But when it comes to learning how to communicate, it is defunct.

A more successful and popular method for learning a foreign language is known as the ‘Direct Method’. It was developed by Maximilian Berlitz in the United States of America in the late nineteenth century. The method follows Berlitz’ belief that the learning of a second language should be similar to how a child acquires his or her mother tongue during infancy. It is vastly different to the ‘Grammar Translation Method’ as it focuses on developing the communicative skills of a second language speaker. Grammar and sentence structure is taught and learnt, but seldom explained. The method tries to stay as relevant as possible, with only every day vocabulary being taught and higher level vocabulary being developed through the advancing conversational skills. The use of the student’s native language is not used at all in the class, with the teacher addressing the student solely in the language being learnt.

The Direct Method saw a slump in popularity during the early twentieth century but during WWII, it underwent a rival with the new name of the ‘Audiolingual Method’. It follows the same principle as the ‘Direct Method’ and believes that the key to learning a foreign language is through habit formation. It focuses heavily on correcting errors made by the students as to prevent bad habits forming in communicating.  The ‘Audiolingual Method’ includes a lot of mimicry and memorisation of certain phrases and structure is taught with drills.

Second language learning and teaching underwent a mini revolution in the nineteen seventies, with lots of new and unconventional methods being introduced. One such method is known as ‘Suggestopaedia’. It was developed by the Bulgarian psychotherapist Lozanov. Lozanov believed that the best way to learn a language was by being as relaxed and comfortable as possible during the lessons. He believed that playing classical music and having his students sink into comfy armchairs would leave their brains more able to retain new information.

Another method developed in the nineteen seventies is known as the ‘Silent Way, and it is exactly what it sounds like. The teacher never talks to the students, which is supposed to encourage the students to have a more active role in the learning of the language and to be able to correct their own errors.  The students are encouraged to help their peers. However, the teacher’s presence is not entirely pointless, with the teacher being able to mouth words and/or use hand gestures to help the student.  The teacher can also use coloured Cuisenaire rods and charts during the lessons. The rods can be used to practice colours and numbers, and to an extent, more complex grammar.  They are wooden and come in ten different lengths and colours. The charts, namely the sound-colour chart, word chart and Fidel chart focus mainly on the pronunciation and word stress of a language.  The sound-colour chart is composed of blocks of colour that represent different sounds. The teacher simply taps to the colours. The word chart consists of vocabulary and is also colour coded to show the words’ pronunciation. The Fidel chart lists the many different ways a sound can be spelt. It is also colour coded. The Silent Way is not a very common method today, as it is seen as being largely unsuccessful due to the distance of the teacher.

It is my opinion that there is no one perfect method to learn a foreign language. I think that the old fashioned methods of focusing solely on grammar and sentence construction are only ever useful if reading and writing the language is all you are interested in, which is not common for modern languages. I think that the Berlitz method, whilst clearly being one of the most famous and successful methods to learning a foreign language, falls short in many areas – I think that while verbal communication is definitely more important than the learning of grammar, we cannot discredit the importance of having a good knowledge of how a language functions and operates. The ability to read and write a language is significant and the Berlitz method does not provide its students with the skills to be able to improve this.

I also agree with Lozanov’s idea that the best way to absorb a language is to be completely relaxed and comfortable during the learning process. I think that drilling and making your students repeat what you say will not get the best out of them. In that process they are not thinking for themselves and the information they are being drilled or forced to repeat will not be properly remembered.

An ideal method for me would be a combination of the Berlitz method and a slightly more classical approach that ensures a rapid development of both written and communicative skills. I think that the lessons should never be taught in the student’s native language and only in the language being taught as this increases the student’s understanding of the language.

It is clear that there is no clear, straight method to learn a foreign language. Every method has its advantages and disadvantages and works differently for each different student. The subject has not been closed, and I am sure that we will see many more methods being developed in the years to come.




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