Tailoring Teaching Approaches

From the 1950s various attempts to compare teaching methods or approaches have been made, but none has been truly exhaustive. All of them revealed ambiguous results.
Some teachers pointed the fact that approaches are largely or too generally presented and the point of view is too wide, so they cannot apply it into the classrooms. Seldom a method is accompanied by an examination of outcomes and classroom procedures.

When designing a lesson, a teacher takes into consideration various aspects: objectives, the syllabus, selection of language content, types of learning tasks and teaching activities, role of both teachers and learners,  role of instructional materials.

Differences among methods at the level of approach manifest themselves in the choice of learning and teaching activities in the classroom. Teaching activities that focus on grammatical accuracy may be quite different from those that focus on communicative skills.

Different philosophies at the level of approach may be reflected in the use of different activities and in different uses for particular activity types. For example, interactive games are often used in audiolingualism for motivation and to provide a change of pace from pattern-practice drills. In communicative language teaching the same game may be used to introduce or provide practice for particular types of interactive exchanges.

These differences are also visible in learners’ arrangement or grouping. A method that stresses repetitions and drilling will require different groupings of learners in the classroom from a method that uses problem solving or information exchange.

Also regarding the learner’s roles, questions raise concerning their contribution to the learning process. This is seen in the types of activities learners carry out, the degree of control learners have over the content of learning, the patterns of learner groupings adopted, the degree to which learners influence the learning of others, and the view of the  learner as processor, performer, initiator, problem solver.

The role of instructional materials within a method or instructional system will reflect decisions concerning the primary goal of materials (e.g. to present content, to practice content, to facilitate communication between learners or to enable learners to practice content without the teacher’s help), the form of materials (textbooks, audiovisuals, computer software), the relation of materials to other source of input (whether they serve as the major source of input or only as a minor component of it) and the teacher’s abilities (their competence in language or degree of training and experience).

For example, the role of instructional materials within a functional/ communicative methodology might be specified in the following terms:

1. Materials will focus on the communicative abilities of interpretation, expression and negotiation.
2. Materials will focus on understandable, relevant and interesting exchanges of information, rather than on the presentation of grammatical form.
3. Materials will involve different kinds of texts and different media, which the learners can use to develop their competence through a variety of different activities and tasks.

In choosing the best approach while teaching a foreign language, Harmer identifies two main principles for teachers to follow: adaptability and flexibility. In selecting the best method to use when teaching a foreign language, teachers will surely establish a teaching plan taking into account the following variables: who the students are, what their purpose is, what level of proficiency they are. The teacher has to know all these before starting to plan, establish aims or selecting materials.

Classroom activities and materials are dependent of purpose and aims and are selected according to how well they address the underlying linguistic skills; how well students are expected to attain the objectives, to acquire the specified skills and behaviors or to attain a particular level of proficiency – and all these implies the demand for adaptability. While flexibility refers to the behaviour of teachers in class and their ability to be sensitive to the changing needs of the group as the lesson progresses. This may involve that the teachers may change the plan during the lesson if necessary.

What is for sure is that choosing activities resembles more to the job of an artist.

The teacher has to make an attentive analysis of the whole factors and variables involved in the learning-teaching process like: considerations of the country, of the institution, the socioeconomic and educational background of the students, the purposes that students have in learning a language, learning styles and affective traits.  On a next stage the teacher should select the language forms and functions that should be programmed taking into consideration the class level, particularities and even single students particularities like well prepared students who need extra-work, students with special needs or energetic students.

The teacher carefully chooses among the vast diversity of options to create a correct, appropriate, logical, attractive learning initiative.

The psychological discoveries in language learning have raised interest in the language teaching field. The predominant view is that language learning is best served when students are interacting – completing a task or learning content or resolving real-life issues –where their attention is not directed toward the language itself, except when a focus on linguistic form is necessary.

There is another dimension to the question of teaching methods that must be considered – the permanent development and change that it is submitted. Learning is said to be a lifelong process, so learning teaching also matches this general truth. It is mandatory that teachers should be open-minded and aware of the new alternatives to what they have been taught in school and what they have been practicing as their own teaching repertoire.
As well as teaching approaches, methods and techniques, teachers should always keep an eye to the changes in language – as a dynamic system.

In order to move from ideology to inquiry, teachers should make inquiries into their own practice and also try to communicate, discuss, interact, exchange ideas with their colleagues.  They need to continually search for or device the best method they can for who they are, who their students are, the conditions and contexts of their teaching.
So, in time teachers develop their own teaching style, a unique mix between methodology and personality. While this offers means of dealing with school activities which involve routine, it appears the danger of considering it enough for a teacher’s work. How can teachers be helped to surpass their level of routine, be aware of how they teach and use their conclusions in order to be innovative?

In second language teaching a number of studies highlight teachers often negative attitudes to further study and research. There are various causes for this: from lack of encouragement and motivation to unsupportive institutional conditions, lack of research materials, time and in some cases negative attitude toward research and in other cases a perceive lack of relevance to their work. Often teachers find difficult to explain to others their findings from their teaching practice and experience. After working and repeatedly integrating it into what can be considered a good routine, they consider their findings something natural for them and for others or in other cases they are not confident enough to share and promote what they have discovered and don’t find it valuable or worthy of sharing.

In fact, teachers often find themselves discovering or innovating new techniques without realizing they are doing that. Thinking about it, analyzing, filtering through layers of experience and belief and writing to further transmit the knowledge represents a superior effort.

– Cook, V. 2008. Second language learning and language teaching. Fourth Edition. London: Hodder Education.
– Harmer, J. 2007. The practice of English language teaching. Fourth Edition. Essex:  Pearson Education Limited.
– Larsen-Freeman, D. 2000. Techniques and principles in language teaching. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Richards, J. C. 1990. The language teaching matrix. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
– Richards, J. C. 2006. Communicative language teaching today. New York: Cambridge University Press.
– Scrivener. J. 2011. Learning teaching. The essential guide to English language teaching. Third Edition. Oxford: Macmillan.

prof. Nicoleta Cobianu-Șontac

Școala Gimnazială Pietrari (Dâmboviţa) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/nicoleta.cobianusontac

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