Approaches and Methods in English Language Education


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Well… It might take me a few more years to get through my entire reading list in preparation for a Cambridge DELTA course, but I’ve at least made a start by going over the books dealing with the history of language teaching approaches, and below is the resulting chronological summary. If this summary is of use to anyone else preparing for the DELTA, please feel free to make use of it.

What becomes noticeable about the history of English language education is the influence that was exerted by French and German scholars around the turn of the 20th century.

Useful references: Stern (1983) Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching; Richards & Rogers (1986), Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching; Kelly (1969) 25 Centuries of Language Teaching

Stern: We should distinguish between the history of ideas on language teaching and the development of practice.


Middle Ages – Learning from books and focus on literary study emerged; at this time, England was trilingual: French (royal court, nobility, legal system), English (lower classes), Latin (scholars)

17th, 18th, 19th C – The ability to read and translate classical texts gave rise to the ‘grammar-translation’ method (first known in US as ‘Prussian Method’ because of German roots – e.g., Ploetz and Seidenstuecker); reading & writing paramount; sporadic anti GTs, e.g., Comenius – practice is all-important; learning grammar rules is not important

19th C – Series Method (variation of Direct Method)– Gouin: lang should be used to talk about experience rather than memorizing random word lists

1878 – First Berlitz school opened in Providence, Rhode Island [links: Direct Method – speaking & listening important]

1883 – Foundation of the Modern Language Association of America

1886 – Foundation of the International Phonetic Association; IPA felt that studying other languages should begin with the drilling of sounds (re. creation of International Phonetic Alphabet), followed by the study of everyday spoken language not formal literature

1892 – Foundation of the Modern Language Association (UK)

Early 20th C – Grammar-translation persisted; the ‘nature vs nurture’ study of children emerged and the Direct Method (or ‘Natural Method’ or ‘Reform Method’) arose in opposition to GT (inductive approach to grammar; Q&A based on a text; realia; role play; importance of pron – the first lang should be abandoned as the frame of reference) [links: Situational Language Teaching and TPR and Berlitz Method]; DM criticized for lacking a rigorous theoretical basis, and conversation practice considered impractical in schools with large classes

1904 – Jesperson, How to Teach a Foreign Language

1906 – Saussaure delivers the first tertiary linguistics course in Geneva; ‘langue’ vs. ‘parole’

1917 – Palmer, The Scientific Study and Teaching of Languages; Palmer = ‘father of British applied ling’, started as a Berlitz teacher

1920s & 1930s – Piaget’s theory of cognitive development – learning by interaction and scaffolding with an adult

1920s & 1930s – Situational Language Teaching, led by Palmer and Hornby; attempted to develop a more scientific foundation for the Direct Method; vocab and reading important; grammar was classified into sentence patterns (= substitution tables) and taught inductively; SLT coexists with the Oral Approach (teaching begins with the spoken language; new language points are introduced and practiced situationally; chorus repetition; dictation; drills; pair practice; visual aids)

1923-1927 – Ogden & Richards, Basic English – an attempt to simplify/rationalize language learning problems

1929 – Coleman The Teaching of Modern Foreign Languages in the United States. (= The Coleman Report); the recommendation that the primary objective of language teaching should be reading fluency = Reading Method

1933 – Bloomfield, Language – American structuralism: linguistics should be an empirical, descriptive science [links: Audiolingual, Silent Way, TPR embody structuralist view]

1939 – University of Michigan started the first English language institute in the US

WWII – had a huge impact on modern language study with large-scale migration and deployment of military; language study should now be delivered to the masses not just scholarly elite (through e.g., ‘language labs’ and Audiolingual Method – pattern drills; dialogs; intensive study; speech at core, but mastery of grammatical structures important; reflects behaviorism and habit learning)

1950s – Neo-Firthian Theory – UK-based – language must be understood in context of culture and meaning (re. anthropology)

1951 – Centre d’Etude du Francais Elementaire (CREDIF) established to counteract the falling global status of French

1953 – West, A General Service List of English Words and Hornby, Gatenby, Wakefield, The Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English – standard references for developing learning materials

1954 – Hornby, Guide to Patterns & Usage in English – another standard reference for developing learning materials

1957 – Skinner, Verbal Behaviour – anti-systems; account for language learning through observable events; language learning is developed just as other human behavior is developed – i.e., through habits – stimulus > response > reinforcement

1957 – Chomsky, Syntactic Structures – anti-behaviorist: need to understand the system of rules ‘in’ a learner; Chomsky argued that behaviorist theory was inadequate for explaining creative language use; an innate language acquisition device (LAD)

1958 – Experiment in a British grammar school with an audiovisual language course (Ingram and Mace 1959)

1959 – Penfield & Roberts, Speech and Brain Mechanisms – explained critical period hypothesis (if language acquisition does not occur by puberty, full mastery of a language is not possible)

1960s – Focus on the learner as an individual; re. sociolinguists and the ‘speech community’

1960s – Pimsleur Method – dialog-based translation; instruction starts in learner’s L1; Pimsleur Lang Aptitude Battery (PLAB)

1963 – Anthony, defined approach (assumptions about lang), method (theory put into practice), and technique (implementation)

1965 onward – French immersion in Canadian schools started

1965 – Transformative generative grammar – led by Chomsky who (based on Humboldt) asked what linguistic knowledge must be presupposed in a native speaker to be able to produce and interpret sentences; TGG is a rule-governed system

1966 – TESOL Association (USA) founded

1968 – Bilingual Education Act (USA)

1970s – Reactions against the ‘method concept’: The Silent Way (Gattegno), Community Language Learning (Curran), Suggestopedia (Lozanov); a shift from methods to objectives, with attention on syllabus design (re. Allen, Candlin, Corder, Widdowson, Wilkens)

1970s – Communicative Language Teaching arose in UK – essentially integration of grammatical and functional teaching with learner-centered focus; language is a system for the expression of meaning

1970s – Asher’s TPR – adult language acquisition should parallel child first lang acquisition; develop comprehension skills first (aka Comprehension Approach); nonabstractions – e.g., imperatives – can be taught first by actions; stimulus-response view; draws in psychology findings around right-brain learning of motor movement

1970s – Gattegno’s Silent Way – Cuisenaire rods; learner should discover or create and solve problems rather than repeat – discovery learning similar to child development; early learning focuses on pron using Fidel charts; teacher should be silent

1970s – Curran’s Community Language Learning – learner-centered; learners ‘overhear’ others; the learner tells the knower what they want to say, and the knower tells them how to say it; focus on oral proficiency; learners become members of a community; echoes child learning

1972 – ‘Communicative competence’ was first used by Hymes (1972) (in contrast to Chomsky’s ‘linguistic competence’) to reflect the social view of language

1975 – Publication of the Threshold Level syllabuses (van Ek 1975) – forerunner to CEFR

1976 – Wilkins Notional Syllabuses – notional-functional approaches to language learning; in the functional view, language is a vehicle for the expression of functional meaning; a notional syllabus would not only include grammar, but also specify the topics, notions, and concepts the learner needs to communicate about; criticized for idea of merely replacing one item (grammar) with another (a notion/function) and is too simplistic [links: Communicative Language Teaching]

1978 – Widdowson – teaching a second language as communication rather than a system

1980s – Krashen’s ideas (e.g., Monitor theoryinput hypothesisnatural order hypothesisaffective filter hypothesis)

1980s – Terrell and Krashen’s Natural Approach – communication is primary focus; unlike Direct Method/Natural Method, places less emphasis on teacher monologues and accuracy; emphasis is on input/exposure (I + 1 input hypothesis) before re-producing the language; more about acquisition rather than structure – acquisition is the ‘natural’ way, whereas ‘learning’ is a conscious act

1980s – Lozanov’s Suggestopedia (similar to ‘Superlearning’) – utilizes Baroque music, classroom décor to maximize memory capacity; learners detach themselves from the past, like infant learners; teacher reads texts with varied delivery to help aid retention; 30 days of study, 12 learners, sitting in a circle

1980s – Prabhu’s Task-based learning (task-based instruction) – notion of ‘authentic’ lang to do meaningful tasks; assessment is based on outcome rather than accuracy; learners don’t necessarily need ‘language’ problems to learn a language

1990s – Ray’s Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling – a variation of TPR