At this TEFL course we have had the opportunity touch the subject of Teaching English as a Foreign Language from all its different aspects. We have studied the theory, observed experienced teachers in action and the practised ourselves teaching in real classes with real learners.
This has given us the opportunity to study different teaching methods that scholars have for many years worked on, and continue to develop, each trying to find the best way of teaching a new language. As it is reasonable to assume, in the same manner that general education practices have evolved over time, the language teaching approaches have also been adapted to modern times. The use of interactive technology and the ease of access to video and audio material where the language is used in real situations, are just some of the most obvious novelties that are available in language teaching these days. The evolution, however, has not taken place only in the technological or instrumental field, it is not only affecting to the tools that employed in class or the medium used to deliver the class, but the differences are mainly down to the aspects of language that is given priority, the techniques and types of activities that are used to teach these aspects or skills and the teachers’ role in the classroom.
In this sense, we find some methods prioritise the learning of grammar and structure rules, while others put more emphasis in the communicative skills and the development of fluency. At the same time, some methods favour repetition and the use of drills while others aim towards fluidity. Finally whether the teacher acts as a drilling sergeant, an orchestra director, a model, a moderator or any other is also a factor that varies amongst the main language teaching methods.
From just reading the details of each method, there are some that immediately feel outdated and others that feel much more appropriate. In my opinion, the Grammar-Translation Method and the Audio-Lingual Method feel obsolete in that they start by explaining the rules and structures and later try to apply them. The Silent Way, Suggestopedia and the Total Physical Responsewhere miming is predominant to explain the meaning seem good methods to use as an aid for other types of teaching but they look too extreme to be used on their own through a whole lesson.
The Direct (Berlitz) Method and the Callan Method have an approach that are based primarily on speech, they both teach by use instead of by theoretical explanations, both remark that the goal is communicative proficiency and that the syllabus is structured around situations instead of following grammar structures. These two last ones in theory sound appropriate but seeing videos of experienced teachers in these two methods impart class, the sensation is that they become in oral drills where hardly any real communication takes place.
Nowadays, “communicative approach” seems to be the buzzword in the language education world. Nearly every academy seems to be finding the way of adding this to their brochures, but the truth is that it is the approach that feels most natural to every new EFL teacher. Probably because we have been able to move between different countries much easier than previous generations, most of us have by now experienced the advantages of using the new language, in real context and situations. So the aim of the communicative approach for EFL is to replicate the real input as closely as possible in the classroom.
This is a much harder task than it sounds like. In real communicative situations, the learner is immersed in real communication needs for carrying a job or daily routines. This creates an intense need for understanding and a magnified desire to make the correct ways of expression one’s own. This intensity and desire are translated into the development of quick and effective methods of acquisition of the language. These acquisition or learning techniques are most of the time unconscious and are triggered by the situations one is exposed to. Therefore, it isn’t easy at all to replicate the same scenarios in class, neither to act in real communicative ways while at the same time having an agenda or lesson plan.
Teachers who are going to take the challenge of using purely a communicative approach should live the role to such extent that common habits or making a student repeat sentences until they master a certain structure, or correcting every mistake, or translating should be out of his / her repertoire.
For a teacher to master this method, he / she has to act as close to what a friend would in a regular conversation, but having in mind that there are pre-determined objectives to every particular interaction. The lesson shouldn’t feel so much as a class but more as a dialogue. There will always be a difference in the role that teachers and learners take as none of them will really forget the purpose of their interaction, but ideally, the communicative approach could be taken to the extent of momentarily forgetting the teacher-student differentiation.
The purely communicative approach is also harder to assimilate for the students, as well as being harder for them to perceive their own progress. There are no formal written tests with standard marks. They might not have a feeling of being in class, at least not in one like what they have traditionally known. Therefore it is the teacher’s job to make sure that the learners are able to judge their own progress
The theory for all of the above is in place and is well formulated. I believe that if it were properly applied it could give great results and be the most efficient and enjoyable method for learning a new language. Personally, I would like to apply this to my teaching as much as possible, but from the observation and from own practice I have been able to note a few habits that most teachers seem to fall back into.
For example, on one hand, traditional activities that involve questions and answers, repetitions and near-drill-like routines, have been recurrent in the classes; these are clearly activities that would never appear in real life communicative situations. On the other hand, emphasis has been given to making classes lively and entertaining; in many cases, this has translated into rushing through the activities without giving time to the learner to really assimilate a new concept. Finally, linked to that, I believe that too much attention has been given to the activities themselves and teachers have been sometimes satisfied with having a participative class even though, in certain instances, none of the target structures or new vocabulary terms were actually being produced by the learners.
I don’t think that these issues are caused by flaws in the method proper. As mentioned earlier, I believe that a purely communicative method seems the most efficient one. I’m afraid that the problem may lie in the execution.
As teachers, we should focus on learners needs. The very top line of our plan should be what the learner needs the new language for. We should then plan every lesson with that in mind. This requires getting to know well the learner and building a relation.
By following a strictly communicative method, learners will first improve greatly their listening, understanding and speaking skills. Writing and reading skills would come naturally. In this sense, some communicative methods seem to avoid written text and discourage students from reading aloud. I don’t believe this is necessarily a good practice. I would say that in real life situations, we are immersed in a language in its written way as much as in its auditive way, if not more. It would be unavoidable for someone to read new words as soon as they step in a new language environment. Even when signs are so different that we may not know their sound, we will soon start identifying the image of the word with its associated meaning. This happens naturally when learning new languages naturally, therefore, I believe that incorporation of written text and attempts to read should be embraced within the communicative EFL teaching.
Another taboo which I believe should be broken is the Teacher Talking Time / Student Talking Time ratio. Obviously the aim is to get the learners to produce the new language as much as possible so they can practice and learn from their errors. However they also need a model to copy. If there isn’t enough for the learners to copy on they will have no means to know how to express their ideas. Setting examples is essential and I believe that the teacher should set examples that are long enough for each learner’s level. More than asking questions to make learners talk, the answers should come from learners wanting to express something similar to what the teacher has. The prompts and examples, the real language inputs, at the end of the day, could come from any source; they could be in form of text, audio, video... Anything that the teacher believes is worth sharing and worth talking about.
The teacher will be the initiator of the subjects most of the time but if possible the “teacher” – “student” labels should be avoided, as in the name they carry a connotation of the role they play in class. A purely communicative lesson should feel more like a time of the day where the learner practices the new language with the help of someone who is proficient at it. If we prepare the activities in a way that the teacher makes an introduction, gives instructions and then, lets the learners act, the teacher is adopting a distance from the learners. If a some kind of game or activity is planned for the lesson, it should be one where the teacher will take part at the same level as the learners. Also, in the ideal communicative language-teaching environment, learners should feel entitled, as much as the teacher, to start a conversation and to take it wherever they want. Teachers should be flexible enough to know how to embed the new target language and structures there.
My immediate goal after graduating from this TEFL course will be to set a system in my hometown for people who would like to learn English through other activities that they already enjoy or would like to learn. Through the use of only a purely communicative approach, I would like to bring English into these people’s lives instead of them having to search for it in an artificial environment. We'll see how the practice works.