Teaching methods can be thought of as being, on the one hand, of the ‘everyday’ variety, and of the ‘grand’ kind on the other. The former are those which teachers devise as a result of their experiences, i.e., the techniques they feel work best for teaching particular groups, their personally preferred ways of teaching. The latter are academic constructions, bodies of theory and practice which are (or were) promoted as ‘context free’, ‘scientifically-proven’ ways of teaching, e.g., ‘Audiolingualism’, ‘Grammar Translation’, ‘Total Physical Response’, ‘The Silent Way’, ‘Suggestopedia’, ‘Task-based Learning’ (TBL) and so on (see Richards and Rodgers, 2001). They prescribe how teaching should be done to be as effectively as possible, and proscribe other methods as (supposedly) less effective.
From an academic point of view, however, the method concept has been widely discredited, and as a result the current period is characterised as having entered a ‘post-method condition’ (Kumaravadivelu 1994). This has happened for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the results produced by method comparison studies, in which the effects of one teaching method was compared with those of others.
For example, the ‘Pennsylvania Project’ (Smith, 1970), a major study of this kind, failed to show that the newer, more ‘scientific’ Audiolingual method was more effective than ‘traditional’ methods. As a result, in an attempt to account for such outcomes, the focus of research began to change from the study of methods to the nature of classroom teaching and learning processes (Allwright 1988, Allwright & Bailey 1991). Investigations of this kind soon began to throw light on the highly complex and frequently unpredictable nature of classroom interaction, and thus the need for much greater understanding of its processes before attempting (if ever) to prescribe classroom inputs such as teaching methods.
Among others, Kumaravadivelu (1994) has therefore argued that an alternative to method is needed as the basis of teaching methodology. His own recommendation has been for the adoption of a set of pedagogical principles (‘macrostrategies’), derived mainly from Second Language Acquisition research and theorising, which he sees as providing a consensus of understanding about the main features of effective teaching methodology.
However, as Bell (2003) argues, rather than a true alternative, Kumaravadivelu’s proposals can be seen as yet another (albeit somewhat less prescriptive) attempt to impose a top-down and culturally-biased set of theoretical constructs, thereby perpetuating the method tradition in another guise. Similarly, TBL and other ‘discovery-learning’ methods have been increasingly advocated in academic circles in recent years as methodological ‘cure-alls’ (Waters 2012). As Littlewood (2004: 319) puts it:
The task-based approach has achieved something of the status of a new orthodoxy: teachers in a wide range of settings are being told by curriculum leaders that this how they should teach, and publishers almost everywhere are describing their new textbooks as task-based.
At the same time, there is evidence that among ‘rank and file’ ELT practitioners, other, more ‘traditional’ teaching methods, such as PPP (Presentation, Practice and Production), despite being subject to increasing academic criticism, appear to have become further entrenched, rather than eroded (Waters 2012; cf. Tomlinson 2001). In other words, the post-method academic philosophy appears to have failed to stem the tide of ‘methodism’ at the ‘official’ professional discourse level and at the grass-roots practitioner level as well.
This is probably because the anti-method stance is best regarded as a critique of method-oriented pedagogy, rather than a practical alternative to it. In other words, however complex the nature of classroom interaction, teaching of necessity involves some kind of attempt to intervene within it in such a way as to maximise the potential for learning: the teacher cannot afford to wait until research at last manages to identify the best way to teach (something that is in any case very unlikely to ever happen, of course). The perspective offered by the post-method condition, rather than leading to an abandonment of method, can therefore best be seen as helping to lower expectations about the potential effectiveness of any one method and create better understanding about why methods may frequently turn out to be less successful than anticipated.
Also, all this said, as Lightbown and Spada (2006: 179) indicate, recent findings from classroom-based research, rather than providing no evidence at all to guide methodological decision-making, at least:
offer support for the view that form-focused instruction and corrective feedback provided within the context of communicative and content-based programmes are more effective in promoting second language learning than programmes that are limited to a virtually exclusive emphasis on comprehension, fluency, or accuracy alone.
In this light, it is ‘interesting’, to say the least of it, that, despite Lightbown and Spada’s conclusions, the main type of method preferred by the ELT professional discourse, on the one hand, is largely ‘fluency’ oriented, while, on the other, the tendency for the ordinary ELT practitioner is to favour a more ‘accuracy’-based approach. This important issue is explored further in other blog posts (see, e.g., ‘Memory’ and ‘Task-based learning’ [to come]).
Allwright, R. L. (1988) Observation in the Language Classroom. Harlow, Essex, London; New York: Longman.
Allwright, R. L. & Bailey, K. M. (1991). Focus on the language classroom : an introduction to classroom research for language teachers. Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bell, David M. (2003). Method and Postmethod: Are They Really So Incompatible? TESOL Quarterly, 37(2), 325-336.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994). The Postmethod Condition:(E) merging Strategies for Second/Foreign Language Teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28(1), 27-48.
Lightbown, P. M. and N. Spada. (2006). How Languages are Learned (3rd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Littlewood, William. (2004). The task-based approach: some questions and suggestions. ELT Journal, 58(4), 319-326. doi: 10.1093/elt/58.4.319
Nunan, David. (1999). Second language teaching & learning. Boston, Mass.: Heinle & Heinle.
Richards, J. C. & T. Rodgers (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Second Edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Smith, P. D. (1970). A comparison of the cognitive and audiolingual approaches to foreign language instruction: the Pennsylvania foreign language project. Philadelphia: Center for Curriculum Development.
Tomlinson, B. (2001). Materials Development. In R. Carter & D. Nunan (Eds.), Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (pp. 66-71). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Waters, A. (2009). A guide to Methodologia: past, present, and future. ELT Journal, 63(2), 108-115. doi:10.1093/elt/ccn037
Waters, A. (2012). Trends and issues in ELT methods and methodology. ELT Journal, 66(4), 440-449. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccs038