Beatrice Tansley

My teaching approach

Contemporary Teaching of English as a Foreign Language.

There is continuing debate about which are the best methods to use when teaching English to non-native speakers. Foreign language education theory has advanced from the traditional methodologies that were favoured throughout the 19th Century, to more modern teaching methods that place greater emphasis on the development of practical linguistic skills . Many reject the perhaps overly-academic and dry presentation of foreign languages where the focus is on memorising grammatical rules and where the objective is that the student learn how to read literature in the target language and to be able translate from and into their mother tongue.
            It is important to take into account existing methodologies. I would argue that there is no one methodology that has been rendered entirely invalid because of the development of new approaches. It is possible to take elements from several different schools of thought and combine them to create a teaching method which suits the teacher and their students and achieves the central aim of improving students’ English language proficiency. For this reason, it is vital to have a clear understanding of the key approaches to English Language teaching when formulating a teaching methodology.
            The dominant foreign language teaching approach for much of the 19th Century was the Grammar Translation Method. Jeremy Harmer argues that the this approach, which involves “presenting students with short grammar rules and word lists, and then translation exercises in which they had to make use of the same rules and words,” still has relevance today, but that it cannot be applied in the same way as when it was first introduced.[1]
It could be argued that the Grammar Translation method effectively helps build a strong base of grammatical knowledge. Complex grammar points can be explained in the mother tongue and may perhaps be grasped more quickly and easily by learners than if they were presented in the target language. Written language skills are also well-developed in this approach as the focus is on grammatical accuracy and written translation.

            However, many contemporary theories criticise GTM’s lack of “natural language input” and argue that students are not required to use the second language for real communication and that what they have learnt is not activated as part of the learning process.[2] I would suggest that whether the GTM approach is appropriate for a particular learner is very much dependent on the learner’s needs and aims. A revised version of Grammar Translation could be beneficial for a student wanting to focus on improving their written language production and wanting to build a sound understanding of grammatical rules, perhaps before then going on to build on their communicative skills at a later stage. However, for the majority of contemporary learners who are studying English in a context where globalisation and international commerce and relations are the key motivation, surely a greater focus on practical application of linguistic knowledge than GTM provides is necessary.
            Another key teaching methodology is known as the communicative approach. William Littlewood suggests that the purpose of the communicative approach is for the learner to be “placed in situations where he must use language as an instrument for satisfying immediate communicative needs, and where the criterion for success is functional effectiveness rather than structural accuracy.”[3] So this approach focuses on teaching learners essential, useful and practical elements of the target language to give them a working knowledge of the language early on in the learning process. This approach works in almost the opposite way to GTM, in that it is intended to empower and require the student to produce spoken language from the very beginning of the process. I would argue that GTM, contrarily, places such emphasis on the students’ familiarity with accurate grammar and ability to re-produce this in written form that the student is not enabled to produce spoken language until very late in the learning process.

If, in analysing the student’s needs and learning objectives, the teacher identifies the necessity to prioritise oral skills, the communicative approach is surely the preferable teaching method. If we bear in mind the most prevalent contemporary motivation for learning foreign languages; to engage with a world made ‘smaller’ by advances in communications and technology, it is clear that the communicative approach is best -suited to most modern learners of English. Students require practical knowledge of the language and this is most easily acquired through the communicative approach rather than more traditional methods such as GTM, which enables learners to write the target language, but not necessarily to speak it.
            The audio-lingual method is another teaching approach that has achieved some success since its introduction. Jeremy Harmer describes this method as being comprised of “constant drilling of the students followed by positive or negative reinforcement.”[4] This method attempts to get students to acquire the second language as they might form a habit, through repetition and reinforcement. Harmer states that this method was successful in the training of the military, and it is arguable that this style of teaching implants the information firmly in the students’ memory. However, this approach perhaps lacks what is a key component of the communicative approach; the requirement for students to produce language in an authentic and natural way. ‘Drilling’ students on vocabulary is by its very nature based on students having to memorize vocabulary and structures in a context divorced from any real situation in which they would use the target language. This would not be an element that I would prefer not to include in my teaching approach.
            No single approach is without its disadvantages which is why it is important to analyse and learn from existing methods. I would argue that GTM is problematic principally because it teaches the second language in the mother tongue, which is constantly used as a reference point. I feel that this counterproductive and takes up time and resources that could be better spent learning the target language in a more authentic way. The difference is essentially whether we wish to teach a second language through translation or through the essential meaning of the target language. The communicative approach is taught almost exclusively in the target language and language is acquired through connections being made between the target language vocabulary and the object or concept that this represents, as opposed to the connection being made between the word in the mother and in the second language.
            Criticism has also being directed towards the GTM because it is seen by some as not focusing enough on the development of students’ productive skills. I feel that this is a highly significant element of language acquisition; that the student is able to produce language independently, not only to have good comprehension skills. The aim for most learners is after all to be able to speak the target language, not just to understand it. Receptive skills are developed quite naturally in a teaching system that includes students listening to audio material, even if it is just the teacher’s speech and reading exercises. In my English Teaching approach I would prioritise productive skills, as these are more difficult to develop. I would do this by creating a syllabus that required students to regularly produce language and not to just passively receive it.

As a teacher it is essential to be aware of difficulties that your students might face and to understand why they might make particular errors or struggle with particular elements. Language interference is a key issue, particularly at lower ability levels. I would try to confront this issue by focusing on vocabulary that students habitually found difficult or confused with similar words in their mother tongue. I would attempt to find creative ways to engage students in order to deal with affective factors such as tiredness and apathy and try to ensure that students did not end up feeling discouraged because they faced some of the aforementioned problems.
            This is where the teacher’s approach to the class is key. Encouragement and positive reinforcement are vital in terms of enabling a student to progress in the learning process, particularly in foreign languages. This is perhaps an element that I would adopt from the audio-lingual method. The teacher must of course correct students’ errors, but in a way that offers constructive criticism.
            I would advocate the use of interesting and engaging teaching materials such as the use of authentic pieces of language that are likely to be of interest to the students, use of colourful, attractive materials to stimulate the senses and inspire students to engage with a class beyond minimum participation. I think it is important to use varied materials to keep regular classes interesting and so that the class doesn’t become predictable and dull, as students will automatically engage less with the lesson and therefore achieve less.
            Grammar must always be an important element of a syllabus, but I would avoid making it the dominant element as this is unlikely to engage students or to develop their productive skills. I would focus a syllabus rather on the teaching of essential structures and vocabulary that will enable students to gain practical knowledge of the English language. It is important to have a good balance between the elements of grammar, vocabulary and also cultural factors.
            The ideal teaching method for English would combine engaging material, an encouraging teaching style, practical application of the language and elements designed to deal with common student problems. The Grammar Translation Method seems to me to be somewhat outdated and broadly unsuitable for meeting the demands of modern learners, whose priorities are more to do with the development of spoken language. The Audio-Lingual method may be suitable for some learners and may be effective in helping them to attain a certain level of proficiency, but I would suggest that because of its lack of language in real context, it will be difficult to achieve higher levels of fluency. The communicative approach is probably the most successful methodology at meeting the needs of the modern learner of English, largely because of its focus on productive skills, particularly speaking.

[1] Harmer, Jermey, How to teach English (Pearson, , Harlow, 2007) p.48

[2] Harmer, Jeremy, How to teach English, p. 49

[3] Littlewood, William, Communicative Language Teaching: An Introduction, p.7

[4] Harmer, Jeremy, The Practice of English Language Teaching, p.32

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