English Language Teaching: Approaches, Methods, and Techniques

When we are looking at the effectiveness of our teaching, we often get tied up in the minutiae of classroom practice. However, sometimes it’s useful to take a bit of a step back and examine what we are doing more broadly. Here we take a look at some of the different options we have as teachers in the hope it allows you to contextualise your own practice.

English Language Teaching: Approaches, Methods, and Techniques

When we are looking at the effectiveness of our teaching, we often get tied up in the minutiae of classroom practice. However, sometimes it’s useful to take a bit of a step back and examine what we are doing more broadly.  

In order to look at our different options as teachers, it is handy to use a consistent framework. I am indebted to several writers on TEFL methodology, but I have chosen specifically to apply the useful distinctions between approachmethod, and technique made by Richards and Rogers in their 1986 work Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (London: CUP). Although the book is now 25 years old, it still provides one of the neatest and most accessible descriptions of some of the most influential approaches. The terminological distinctions they draw are particularly useful and are summarised below. I have then applied them, as succinctly as I can, to a variety of current and historical approaches. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, but I hope it will allow teachers to contextualise their own practice.

APPROACH, METHOD, AND TECHNIQUE

An approach describes the theory or philosophy underlying how a language should be taught; a method or methodology describes, in general terms, a way of implementing the approach (syllabus, progression, kinds of materials); techniques describe specific practical classroom tasks and activities. For example:

  • Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is an approach with a theoretical underpinning that a language is for communication.
  • A CLT methodology may be based on a notional-functional syllabus, or a structural one, but the learner will be placed at the centre, with the main aim being developing their Communicative Competence. Classroom activities will be chosen that will engage learners in communicating with each other.
  • CLT techniques might include role-plays, discussions, text ordering, speaking games, and problem-solving activities.

SOME DIFFERENT APPROACHES, METHODS, AND TECHNIQUES

The Audiolingual Approach

  • The Audiolingual Approach is based on a structuralist view of language and draws on the psychology of behaviourism as the basis of its learning theory, employing stimulus and response.
  • Audio-lingual teaching uses a fairly mechanistic method that exposes learners to increasingly complex language grammatical structures by getting them to listen to the language and respond. It often involves memorising dialogues and there is no explicit teaching of grammar.
  • Techniques include listening and repeating, oral drilling to achieve a high level of accuracy of language forms and patterns. At a later stage, teachers may use communicative activities.

CLIL - Content and Language Integrated Learning

  • CLIL is an approach that combines the learning of a specific subject matter with learning the target language. It becomes necessary for learners to engage with the language in order to fulfil the learning objectives. On a philosophical level, its proponents argue that it fosters intercultural understanding, meaningful language use, and the development of transferrable skills for use in the real world.
  • The method employs immersion in the target language, with the content and activities dictated by the subject being taught. Activities tend to integrate all four skills, with a mixture of task types that appeal to different learning styles.
  • Techniques involve reading subject-specific texts, listening to subject-based audio or audio-visual resources, discussions, and subject-related tasks.

CLT - Communicative Language Teaching  (The Communicative Approach)

  • CLT emphasises that the main purpose of language is communication, and that meaning is paramount. The goal of the Communicative Approach is to develop learners’ communicative competence across all four skills. It has been the dominant approach in mainstream language education for many decades.
  • Most methodologies use an amalgamation of a structural and a functional syllabus, with a relatively common consensus having emerged concerning the order in which language elements should be taught. Language is generally contextualised, and communication is encouraged from the start. Native speaker input is seen as highly desirable, though not essential. Much teaching is learner-centred.
  • Techniques are an eclectic mix - with techniques often borrowed from a range of other approaches. Because of this, it is often criticised for a lack of robust theoretical underpinning. Specific activities and games are chosen for their perceived effectiveness in relation to the knowledge or skills being taught. Typical activities include physical games such as board races and running dictations, information exchange activities, role-plays – and any tasks and games that involve communication between learners.

DOGME

  • DOGME is a humanistic communicative approach that focuses on conversational interactions where learners and the teacher work together on the development of knowledge and skills.
  • In terms of method, it generally eschews the use of textbooks and published materials in favour of real communication and the development of discourse-level skills. Language may be scaffolded by the teacher, with attention paid to emergent forms. Topics are chosen based on their relevance to the learners.
  • Techniques include conversational activities and exposure to the language through real-life texts, audio, and video materials.

Grammar Translation 

  • An approach to language study is generally used to prepare students for reading classical texts, notably Latin, in their original. It is thought that students benefit from learning about the ideas of classical thinkers, and from the rigour of rote learning and the application of grammatical rules.
  • The method commonly involves students learning grammar rules plus vocabulary lists based on the content of chosen texts. These are then applied to the written translation of texts from and into the target language. The teaching is usually done in the students’ native language. There is little emphasis on speaking, other than to recite sections of text.
  • Techniques include rote learning and drilling, translation activities, and recitation.

This approach is not really used in teaching Modern Foreign Languages but is still sometimes the basis for the teaching of classical languages such as Latin or Greek.

The Lexical Approach

  • An approach based on the notion that language comprises lexical units (chunks, collocations, and fixed phrases). Grammar is secondary and is acquired through learning these chunks.
  • The method focuses on learning sets of phrase-level, multi-word vocabulary and linguistic frames that can be manipulated by the learner using substitutions and adaptations. This can be done through adapting many standard EFL activities.
  • Techniques could include searching texts for lexical units, collocation matching games, lexical drills and chants, story-telling, role plays using fixed and semi-fixed expressions, activities with de-lexical verbs and examining concordances.

The Natural Approach

  • An approach to language learning that seeks to mirror how we learn our first language.
  • Methods focus on the possibility of ‘acquiring’ a second language rather than having to learn it artificially. Teaching is by a native-speaker teacher; the syllabus mirrors the order in which we acquire our first language; there is an initial ‘silent phase’ when the learner assimilates aspects of the language, before moving onto producing it. Errors are seen as important attempts to form and use appropriate rules.
  • Techniques focus on meaningful interactions and may include listening and following instructions; ordering activities; memory games; miming activities; describing and guessing games.

The Silent Way

  • The Silent way sees the process of learning a second language as a cognitive task, with learners as intelligent autonomous individuals, who can infer language use from well-structured input.
  • The methodology employs a graded structural syllabus, with the elements of language presented in a deliberately artificial way, using teaching aids such as charts and Cuisenaire rods.
  • Techniques involve, for example, mapping individual sounds and sequences onto the colours or physical characteristics of the teaching aids, then having students infer rules based on recognising the systematic similarities and differences in the input material.

Situational Language Teaching (SLT)

  • This approach views language as a purposeful means of achieving goals in real-life situations.
  • The method employs oral practice of sentence patterns and structures related to these specific situations. It often uses props and realia in practice activities.
  • Techniques include drills, repetition and substitution activities, spoken dialogues, and situational role-plays. Oral practice aims towards accuracy and mastery of the situational language, moving at a later stage to the other three skills.

Written by Mike Turner

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