It is estimated that up to 7,000 different languages are spoken around the world. Speaking and communicating is natural to humans and, with such a large number of existing languages, it is only natural that we would want to learn more than just our own. Over the last 100 years, the methods of teaching have developed greatly from using gruelling and arduous translation exercises to using classical music with performed language. Of course there is no single 'correct' way to teach; everyone is different so there’s no doubt that some strategies will work better than others. However, with the increasing number of people embarking on an adventure to master another language, there has been more opportunity for research to examine and refine the most effective teaching methods and approaches from the results they produce. From my school days, I would struggle very much to be able to tell you much about what I learnt in my French classes and I’m sure that’s true of many people you speak to. The classes were taught because language classes were compulsory and the students went because they had to. We covered a strict syllabus, covering little quality material that would help us to be able to communicate in the language; we were taught to pass an exam. After all, what is the point of language if not to communicate? Whether it is speaking, listening, reading or writing, these are all forms of communication. And it is this emphasis on communication that has been placed on recent approaches to language teaching and learning, which I would like to explore further.
Communicative Language Teaching, being more an approach than a method, makes the most amount of sense to me. Rather than defining a strict set of teaching instructions, a set of broad principals are defined whereby any exercise that helps students develop their communicative competence (in an authentic context where possible) is deemed an acceptable and beneficial form of instruction. Just as every student learns and thinks differently, every teacher teaches and thinks differently too. To have an approach which still has objectives in mind, serves as a good guide for teachers whilst also giving them the freedom to make the classes their own and to make them suitable for any given group of students. Like this approach believes, that all areas of communication should be covered i.e. reading, writing, listening and speaking, I also think that teachers should provide support across all communicative skills. This approach also leaves teachers to be able to cater for different types of learners e.g., visual, audio or kinaesthetic, since they create exercises with learning objectives in mind.
I believe that, in classes, speaking should have the highest priority and should be incorporated into any activity whether it be for Reading, Writing or Listening. Confidence needs to be built in this area and there are plenty of opportunities to listen to and read English outside of the classroom which is not necessarily so for speaking. Speaking needs to be monitored to avoid interlanguage causing errors which could then turn into, less fixable, fossilized errors. A teacher may be able to give tips on what to listen to but will not be able to monitor, as well as with speaking, the errors made when listening. Sure, they can check the understanding of what has been said, but they cannot know what is happening inside the student’s head, and there are other benefits to listening besides just understanding e.g., as a model for pronunciation. With intermediate or above students, reading skills can be developed somewhat in class in a collaborative manner to increase the communicative production e.g., webquests. Writing skills can be developed when learning a particular framework e.g., an email or postcard, but time for general development can be achieved outside of class time.
I think that writing can help develop your speaking skills. Both are productive skills and since you have taken the time to write something with care (maybe have it corrected), you will have created a path in your brain for that structure, thus priming the language, to be accessed more quickly when speaking. Since we do not have much time to think in natural conversations, we will often take the easiest route to get our message across, whether it be correct or not, whereas with writing, you have the time to really develop what you want to say clearly, and it’s this material that can be retrieved at a later date. It can also serve as further practice for self-correction; a student won't always have a teacher to help correct them so this skill is important to develop.
Unlike the Direct (Berlitz) Method, which has a strict rule of no translation in the classroom, I think that in certain circumstances translation can be effective, especially when it comes to time management. Students want to get the most out of their lessons and if explaining one word uses too much of class time, a translation may be the best course of action. Objects e.g., realia, pictures etc., gestures, and using cognates where possible should be used in the first instance in order to keep translation to an absolute minimum.
The theory of Suggestopaedia places an importance on breaking down linguistic barriers in order to achieve better learning. I don’t necessarily agree with the method as it’s executed in the classroom with students being so passive but the principal behind its creation is more than relevant. People talk about how easily children learn language and although their brains maybe more elastic at that age, they also don’t put up so many barriers as adults do. In my Spanish classes in Barcelona, only after a month or so of daily classes did the teacher choose to have a proper pronunciation class. She said that she didn’t think we knew each other well enough and therefore weren’t relaxed enough to feel comfortable making potentially embarrassing attempts at pronouncing words. And she was right; I certainly wouldn’t have felt comfortable in week one trying to pronounce sounds completely alien to me e.g. the alveolar trill [r] or the phoneme [x] (letter J). Pronunciation is important however, as are many other activities in a foreign language learning classroom that could be worsened by the presence of linguistic barriers. To break down some of these barriers, I think it’s important for the students to establish a good relationship with the teacher and their fellow students. I think ice breakers at the beginning of a term, which help to build a team feeling, are essential to achieving this. Also at the beginning of every class, a no pressure exercise to get the students warmed up with a smile on their face is a necessary way to start. By creating a cheerful environment where the students look forward to the lessons, they already have motivation to learn English even if they didn’t have external motivational factors affecting them previously.
Very important to the learning processes is identifying the student’s needs; getting to know students individually is not only important for understanding where their strengths and weaknesses lay, but also important for students’ motivation. Teachers need to perform a variety of roles depending on the situation, sometimes an authority figure, sometimes resource but the role of counsellor/psychologist can often be forgotten. I’m not suggesting that teachers need to provide some sort of deep psychological analysis of their students but in the frame of English teaching, treating them all as individuals and providing student-specific support can be greatly motivational and can help students to reach the same level in all communicative areas. For this reason, I would set student-specific homework in their area/topic/structure etc. of weakness or area they wish to improve the most based on an initial needs analysis questionnaire. In an ideal world, teachers would have the time to think of, create and mark homework in this manner. I can see that this would place too much strain on teachers and having stressed teachers will result in underprepared classes and they will not have the energy to give the class to the best of their potential.
Something like the Oxbridge system but for homework therefore, would be a good compromise. Homework could be organised by level, communicative area, specific construction e.g., future perfect, a particular phrasal verb, so that the teachers can easily search for a suitable task for each student. Speaking may not be quite as useful as a homework task as a listening one for example; the students may not have someone available with whom they can speak English. Also given that the classes will have a speaking element in every exercise, this area will probably need the least amount of ‘topping up’ work outside of class.
Summarising all the above, the basic rules of my approach include:
All students are different, all teachers are different but the goal is generally always the same: to be able to get learners communicating in the target language. I therefore believe that the above approach, which is based on the Communicative Language approach but with more emphasis on students’ needs and speaking during class activities, is a good way to teach in a world full of unique and wonderful minds.