ESL Methods—English Language Teaching
The field of linguistics and teaching in the 20th century is marked by the development of different foreign language teaching methods and approaches. Some have either no, or a small following and others are widely used.
Although modern foreign language teaching has adopted completely new methods, the work of language professionals in the period between 1950 and 1980 contributed significantly to scientific views in the field of second language teaching and learning.
Even when methods are not frequently used or have fallen into obscurity, they may offer useful insights into the general teaching methodology. Surely, modern teaching is also based on the elements derived from these methods.
What Is a Method?
Before we present the teaching methods and their classification, it would be useful to remember what method is in terms of its definition and application in classrooms. One of the most widespread definitions is a short statement that method is a plan for presenting a certain language material to be learned. It is agreed among linguists that it should be based upon a selected approach.
- Yet, not all linguists actually agree on the use of the terms ‘’method’’ and ‘’approach’’. It seems that some linguists tend to cancel the term method; some hold that a certain method is actually an approach or that a certain approach is, in fact, a method.
- Nevertheless, most linguists agree that a certain instructional system must be elaborated in relation to the objectives of teaching and learning. This means that the selection and organization of the content must be considered in terms of these objectives, task types and the roles of teachers and students.
Basic Classification of Methods
Basic classification of methods falls into three main categories:
(1) Structural methods: the grammar-translation method and the audio-lingual method (described below)
(2) Functional methods: situational language teaching (described below)
(3) Interactive methods (in alphabetical order):
- communicative language teaching,
- direct method,
- language immersion,
- natural approach,
- proprioceptive language learning method,
- silent way,
- teaching proficiency through reading and
- total physical response (TPR).
The Grammar-Translation Method
This foreign language teaching method is a structural method based on the traditional (also called classical) method of teaching Greek and Latin.
- In the 18th and 19th centuries, an adult was considered mentally prepared for the world and its challenges only if the person had learned classical literature of the Greeks and Romans and mathematics.
The goal of the grammar-translation method was to make learners able to read and translate literary masterpieces and classics and not to speak a foreign language.
It stayed in schools until the 1960s (including American schools), but the evolving teaching methodology found many weak points of this method and it was consequently replaced with the audio-lingual and direct method.
Note: However, India, where a number of methods and techniques have evolved in foreign language teaching, this method is the oldest method of teaching and it is still in active use.
In this method, students strictly follow the textbook and translate sentences word for word in order to memorize abstract grammatical rules and exceptions and long bilingual vocabulary lists:
- The teacher translates from the foreign language into the mother tongue and the students from their mother tongue into the foreign language.
- Grammar points are presented contextually in the textbook and explained by the teacher.
- The only exercised skill was reading but only in the context of translation.
Because of these limited objectives, language professionals found more disadvantages in this method than advantages.
- Namely, it is thought to be an unnatural method because it neglects the natural order of learning (listening, speaking, reading and writing).
- It also neglects speech by placing very little or no attention to communicative aspects of the language. Therefore, students lack an active role in the classroom and as a result, they fail to express themselves adequately in spoken language.
- Also, translating word for word is wrong because the exact translation is not always possible or correct. Moreover, translation is nowadays considered an index of one’s language proficiency.
- Another disadvantage of this method is that it does not provide such practice to the learner that the person can internalize the patterns of a language to the extent to make it a habit.
Positive and Negative Sides
Note: Language learning means acquiring certain skills, which can be learned through practice of listening, speaking, reading and writing and not by just memorizing rules.
The Audio-Lingual Method
In the audio-lingual method, students are taught directly in the target language without using their native language. New words and grammar are explained orally in the target language.
Unlike the direct method, the audio-lingual method doesn’t focus much on vocabulary, but on static grammar drills. There is no explicit grammar instruction, just memorizing in form and practising a certain construction until it is used spontaneously.
- The innovation, however, was the use of the language laboratory or lab (an audio or audio-visual installation aid). In this context, the teacher presents the correct model of a sentence and the students repeat it. The language lab stayed in use in modern teaching, especially to practice listening comprehensions. However, the students exposed to this method have almost no control on their own output and exactly this is in direct opposition to modern language teaching.
- The audio-lingual method is also known as ‘’the army method’’ because of the influence of the military; this method is the product of three historical circumstances and the third factor of its birth was the outbreak of World War II. American soldiers were sent to war all over the world and there was a need to provide them with basic verbal communication skills.
- In addition, the launching of the first Russian satellite in 1957 motivated the Americans to give special attention to foreign language teaching in order to prevent possible isolation from scientific advances in the world.
- The other two circumstances include:
- the work of American linguists such as Leonard Bloomfield, who led the development of structural linguistics in the US (1930-1940) and
- the work of behaviourist psychologists (e.g. B.F. Skinner) who believed that all behaviour (language included) was learnt through repetition and positive or negative reinforcement.
Note: The prevailing scientific methods of the time were observation and repetition, conveniently suited for teaching masses.
The primary concern of American linguistics in the first decades of the 20th century were languages spoken in the U.S. and linguists relied on observation in order to theoretically describe native languages.
- The Pennsylvania project conducted in the period from 1965 to 1969 by Philip Smith provided significant proof that the traditional cognitive approach involving mother tongue was more effective than the audio-lingual methods.
- Other research also produced results which showed that explicit grammatical instruction in the mother language is more productive.
- Since 1970, audio-lingualism has been discredited as an effective teaching method, yet, it continues to be used today, although not as the foundation of a course. It is rather integrated into lessons covered by modern language teaching methods.
The structural view of language was eventually replaced by the view presented in oral approach. The philosophy of the oral approach consists in viewing speech as the basis of language and structure i.e. the basis of speaking ability.
American structuralists such as Charles C. Fries shared this view, but the British linguists (such as M.A.K. Halliday and J.R. Firth) went further and stated that structures must be presented in situations in which they could be used. Thereby, they opened the door to Situational Language Teaching.
An Example of a Functional Method
Situational Language Teaching
In applied linguistics, Situational Language Teaching is considered an oral approach developed by British linguists in the period from 1930s to 1960s. Its main principles are learning vocabulary and practising reading skills.
This approach (some linguists refer to it as a method) has a behavioristic background; it deals less with conditions of learning and more with the processes of learning.
These learning processes are divided into three stages:
- receiving knowledge,
- memorizing it by repetition and
- using it in practice to the extent that it becomes a personal skill and habit.
Characteristics of Situational Language Teaching:
- In theory, language learning is a habit-formation, which means mistakes should be avoided as they make bad habits.
- Language skills are presented orally and then in written form as they are learnt more effectively that way.
- The meanings of words are learnt only in a linguistic and cultural context.
- There is strong emphasis on oral practice, thereby this form of teaching still attracts the interest of many practically oriented classroom teachers.
The view of this method was called into question by Noam Chomsky, who in 1957 showed that the structural and behavioristic approaches to language teaching were not right. He claimed that fundamental defining features of a language such as creativity and uniqueness of individual sentences were neglected by their application. He also believed that a learner must have an innate predisposition for a certain kind of linguistic competence.