More than two thousand years ago the Greek Philosopher Plato wondered about the advent of writing that was taking place in his times. In his book Phaedrus he analyzed the nature and implications of writing. Writing, he said, has this strange quality about it, if you ask books something they maintain a solemn silence. He also stated that writing would implant forgetfulness in human souls and therefore they would stop exercising memory because they would rely on that which is written. Plato thought that dependence on writing would create as well human beings that apparently knew something but they wouldn´t have real knowledge. With this the Greek Philosopher was suggesting that learning and teaching was related to oral transmission and therefore to a direct communication between human beings. The paradox about all this is that all his thoughts were being transmitted in a written form.
Much water has flowed under the bridge since the Greeks and we can see that the advent of writing has led to a veritable revolution in the way we relate to the world. Communication nowadays is related not only to direct interaction between humans but also to reading and writing. Books, magazines, computers, documents, signs, laws, text messages, and the internet are essential in our daily life and all the education theories and policies have given a fundamental importance to literacy. We could say without fear of error that western civilization is based on writing and this has obvious advantages that are not to be discussed here. But it therefore has, as Plato could see with great insight, certain disadvantages that, when we are speaking of education and more specifically of teaching languages, cannot be overlooked.
I think that we could distinguish in language teaching methods two attitudes, the theoretical attitude and the practical attitude. The theoretical attitude is related to the traditional teaching systems. When we theorize we are observing something from the distance, taking it out of context and speculating about it. Here the most important thing is to know what something is. In the context of teaching languages this attitude underlines such things as What is a verb? What is the present perfect continuous tense? What is an adjective? And so on. This attitude focuses on reading and writing and has the advantage of facilitating analysis of language but it fails because to know how to speak a language is of the upmost importance.. If we want to learn a language we want to be a user of the language, not a linguist. Our attitude towards the language is practical and this means that we have to speak the language in context and the communication has to be face to face. This means that in the practical attitude towards teaching, teachers have to create situations where the student has the need of communication. This second attitude is related to teaching methods such as the Direct Method, the Audio Lingual Method, The Silent way Method, The Total Physical Response, The Communicative Approach and the Oxbridge System.
Having said all that, it is obvious that my approach on teaching English has to do much more with the practical attitude than with the theoretical attitude. I believe that learning and teaching has to do much more with the receptive skill of listening and the productive skill of speaking, however skills like writing and reading are important but secondary because written sentences symbolize ideas that are primarily expressed in oral communication. Therefore, I consider that the balance between teaching receptive and productive skills has to be based fundamentally on listening and speaking. Trying to find the balance between the teaching talking time and the student talking time is one of the main features that has to be taken into consideration.
The ideal situation is one where students are talking constantly and interacting between each other and the teacher only says something when someone is making a mistake. Nevertheless, ideal situations are just that we expect and, lots of times in our lives we realize that expectations are not always being met. That is the reason why I think it is very important to know what kind of people we are going to be teaching. We have to know what they think about mistakes and make them realize that mistakes and confusion are very important steps for knowledge. But we have to know as well which their fears are, their personality, their interests and motivations and we can only start realizing that when we have been in contact with them after a few classes. In my opinion students have lots of things to say and to explain and It is important that they have the need to talk about things that they really want to talk about. As I have said earlier, students must have the necessity to communicate something, and we as teachers have to be able to create these communicative needs. Creating good speaking contexts for these needs is crucial for the acquisition of a language.
But how do we create these contexts? I believe that putting lots emphasis in “real world” situations and trying to represent them as close to reality as possible. Of course for all these activities we must grade our language depending on the age of the students and their level but I think that rapport is even more important. I can remember a class where students had to act as if they were in a restaurant asking for a meal. One of the students had to pretend that he was a waiter and the other two had to ask for the menu. The problem was that the teacher didn´t emphasize the importance of the role play and consequently the students didn´t try to represent the situation as realistic as possible. They just did the exercise like a simple routine; if the waiter would have stood up and played the part convincingly they would have all remembered much more all the vocabulary and would have enjoyed much more that exercise.
Another thing which I think is very important is the way we structure our classes. Structuring classes doesn´t mean that they have to be linear. A structured linear class with a correct distribution between topics structure and vocabulary makes the information understandable and it is a great improvement over traditional teaching methods but I think that a Spiral communicative approach must also be considered.
What do I mean by Spiral Communicative Approach and why do I think that I would teach that way? In the Oxbridge system the syllabus is linear in all levels. The Syllabus contains issues and dates that must be covered. You begin with certain issues in a course and at the end of it you finish with others. I consider that this method is linear because you are not going over lessons or parts of lessons that maybe should be repeated. In a linear way of teaching, lessons are conceived like a line. In class two you cover vocabulary and topics that are different from class one and in class three you cover vocabulary and topics that are different from class one and two and so on. But sometimes I think it´s necessary to go back and practice things that may have not been understood even if there has been wrap ups in previous classes.
In a Spiral Communicative approach you go over and over again and again topics, vocabulary and grammar that has been covered in previous lessons and you only go further in your lesson planning if you are sure that the students have learned what it has been learned in previous lessons. With this you guarantee that students are learning how to speak. The only way to go further is to accomplish the objectives and it is useless to go to step five if you still have problems with step two.
Does spiral approach mean that classes are improvised? Not at all. The only difference is that in the linear syllabus the intention is to cover a certain amount of items in a fixed and logical order whilst the spiral syllabus wants to cover the same items but by constant repetition and not with a fixed date to teach a determinate issue. With this I think that the language could be acquired more effectively.
The spiral communicative approach is function based and the teacher´s role is the one of a playmaker a psychologist and an actor, someone that only appears when it´s necessary and that introduces some elements (explanations, visual aids, games, role plays) that make the student have the necessity to communicate something and to learn. I believe that this can only be accomplished with the help of order, a very good contextualization speaking practice and good planning. But I believe as well in a more personal relation with the students and something that is as well related to chaos, poetry and oral transmission. The union of all these qualities may be the perfect recipe for a perfect teacher and for a perfect teaching system, and I believe that the Spiral communicative approach may be the best one but at the end an essay can only be a written piece were we express our thoughts about something. As it was said at the beginning of this essay to know what is not the same as to know how. The real challenge is to try to put in practice, learn and create different teaching methods and choose the one we think is the best one.