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Topic 1B – Didactic evolution of languages. current tendencies in the didactic of english as a foreign language. Communicative approaches

1- Introduction

Second Language teaching methodology has experienced. We may generally say that three main factors have had an influence on these changes:

  1. a change on the concept of language and grammar, which constitutes what needs to be learned, and not only that, but on the idea that being able to communicate is not only a question of knowing linguistic elements, but of having communicative competence, a concept which has had a tremendous impact on SLA methodologies.
  2. Research on the nature of SLA, that is, on how we learn. Together with theories on language, this constitutes the approach on which teaching methods(assumptions and beliefs about language and language learning)and it refers to theories about the nature of language and of language learning are the source of principles in language teaching. Within a theory of language, at least three different theoretical views provide current approaches and methods in language teaching. The first, the structural view, within its theory, language is a system of structurally related elements for the coding of meaning, and is defined in terms of phonological and grammatical units, grammatical operations and lexical items. From the second, the functional view, language is seen as a vehicle for the expression of functional meaning. A main tenet within this view is the notion of communication within a theory that emphasizes the semantic and communicative dimension rather than merely the grammatical characteristics of language. Content is also organized by categories of meaning and function rather than by elements of structure and grammar. The third, the interactional view, sees language as a vehicle for the realization of interpersonal relations and for the performance of social transactions between individuals. Its main tenet is the creation and maintenance of social relations focusing on the patterns of moves, acts, negotiation, and interaction found in conversational exchanges. The eclectic approach must be included on language teaching theory due to its prominence on our present educational system. For her, some teachers experiment with novel techniques for more successful teaching, retaining what they know from experience to be effective. Its main tenets seek the balanced development of all four skills at all stages, while retaining an emphasis on the early development of aural-oral skills. Their methods are also adapted to the changing objectives of the day and to the types of students who pass through their classes. Moreover, to be successful, an eclectic teacher needs to be imaginative, energetic and willing to experiment. This approach is being currently applied to language teaching as part of our present educational system, LOE, based on communicative methods.
  3. Teaching practice itself and other factors such as what the purpose of learning was, to whom the methods were addressed and, under which conditions they could be developed have also shaped teaching methods at the level of design, that is in de objectives proposed, the design and sequencing of contents (syllabus), the design of activities, the roles of teachers and students as well as the materials; and at the level of procedure, that is, the day to day techniques and procedures using in the class (order of presentation of materials, relevance of treatment of errors and the role of feedback).

We are going to try to present an overview of the most relevant teaching methods up to now. In order to do so, we are going to group them into three different chronological sections: methods devised until the end of the XIX century, those which appeared in the first half of the XX century and those which have developed from 1960s onwards.

II. Early Language Learning Methods

It has been estimated that sixty percent of the world’s population is multilingual. Both from a contemporary and from a historical perspective, bilingualism and multilingualism have been the norm rather than the exception. Throughout history foreign language learning has been an important practical concern. Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian kings sent bilingual representatives in their delegations to foreign countries and wealthy Romans were taught Greek by teacher-slaves.As the Roman Empire grew, Latin became the language of the Western World, the language of church and state and for a long time the only language for instruction. During the Middle Ages, the only languages considered fit for learning were Latin, Greek and Hebrew. During the Renaissance and due to the invention of the printing, scholars realised that the Latin in which the classics were written was several centuries older and different than the one spoken in academic circles. Yet the language of these classicscame to be regarded the original and correct form. Latin grammars became longer and more complex, and the study of them became an end in itself rather than the preparation to read the Classics. In the XVI century, French, Italian, English and Spanish gained importance as a result of political changes in Europe, and Latin was displaced as a the language for spoken communication of learned people in Europe, however, the method used for teaching Latin, that is, the study of grammar, lists of vocabulary and translations became the only model for foreign language study from the XVII to the XVIII centuries. Speaking the foreign language was not the goal, and oral practice was limited to students reading aloud. These practices continued during the nineteenth century, until other methods appeared, those in favor of oral practice (Direct Method, Audiolingual Method and the Natural approach), and later on, Communicative Approaches.

XVII and XVIII c. two figures gave a new dimension to the study of languages, Locke and Comenius, for Locke the study of languages was not by rules of arts but by accident and the common use of people, speaking was done by rote memory. Commenius coined the term Didactics and defined it as the Art of Teaching. As vernaculars started to be taught in schools in the 18c., they were to be taught in the same basic procedures that were used for teaching Latin, by the 19c. This approach based on the study of Altin had become the standard way of studying foreing languages in schools. A typical textbook in the mid-19c. Consited of chapters or lessons organised around grammar points. Each grammar point was listed, rules explained, and illustrated by sample sentences. This approach became known as:

2.1. Grammar Translation Method

Therefore, the first set of practices that we can call a method was known as the Grammar-Translation Method, or Prussian Method in the United States. It dominated language teaching practice from the 1840s to the 1940s more or less, and it can still be found in modified versions in some parts of the world today. It was not based on any theoretical assumptions of language or language learning, its main goal was to learn the Target Language in order to read literature or to benefit from the mental discipline and intellectual development that results from foreign language study. At the beginning of the century grammar was taught inductively by the study of texts, but the texts were too difficult, hence to overcome this difficulty, Seinderstucker succede in writing a text based on simple sentences containing most of the grammatical features of the language. Karl Plotz put this disconnected grammar into a principle divided into -a)rules and paradigms, and b)sentences for translation in and out of the second language.

It was mainly focused on reading and writing, while speaking and listening were not practiced. The methodology was reduced to a rigid presentation of grammar, through exercises and memorization of vocabulary and morphological and syntactical patterns. Vocabulary selection was solely based on the reading texts used and sentences were the basic units of teaching and language practice. Accuracy was emphasized, grammar taught deductively and the student’s native language was the medium of instruction.

This method obviously posed several problems. First of all, the grammar terminology used Latin and Greek models, which did not coincide with the grammar of modern languages (for example, students could not see the equivalence of dative or subjunctive in English). Secondly, conversation was excluded from practice, and the method was not very popular among students, since it was repetitive and sometimes tedious. However, it had some positive aspects too, for example, it made very little demands on teachers, or it can be used in situations where understanding only written texts is the goal of learning.

2.2. The Reform Movement.

In the mid and late nineteenth century opposition to the Grammar-Translation Method developed in several European Countries, since new opportunities for communication showed the shortcomings in oral competence of this methodology. Initially this created a market for conversation books intended for private study, however, language teaching specialists such as Marcel, Pendergast and Gouin, laid the foundation for the so called Reform Movement, which insisted on

o the importance of oral communication, which was reflected in an oral-based methodology.

o They also proposed that learners be taught through speech, while written language had to appear later.

o Language should be presented in context and grammar rules explained after they had been practiced in a context-deductive way.

o Translation should be avoided

A precedent to these methods can be found back in the XVI century when Montaigne’s father decided to have his son taught Latin by a German tutor, totally ignorant of French, while the rest of the members of the family were forbidden to speak nothing but Latin in his presence.

Marcel proposed a teaching method based of his observation of child first language acquisition: he emphasized the importance of meaning in learning and the need for memorization of certain patterns and proposed the first structural syllabus.

From the 1890s, practically-minded linguists like Henry Sweet in England, Vietör in Germany and Paul Passy in France began to provide the intellectual leadership needed to give reformist ideas acceptance. The discipline of linguistics was revitalized, especially through the study of Phonetics – (The international Phonetics Association designed the IPA,1886), stressing the importance of learning correct pronunciation, due to the need of ear training led to standarised pronunciation.

Thie emphasis on the spoken langage, on learning inductively through texts, contexts that were learner interest, new material taught through gestures and pictures, this method was called The Phonetic or The Natural Method, and provided the foundation for the Direct Method, which became widely known in the States as the Berlitz Method (the eye is the enemy of the ear) whose teachers were native.Translation was forbidden in class. The method stood on the following methodological procedures:

· Classroom practice had to be conducted in the target language

· Only everyday vocabulary and sentences were taught and grammar was taught inductively

· Oral communication skills were built up in graded progression. New teaching points had to be introduced orally first and accuracy was emphasized

The direct method seemed to work reasonably well in private language schools, however, since native teachers were required and reliance on the skills of the teacher was too high it was not always easy to implement since they had to have a fairly fluent command of the language with plenty of vitality and resourcefulness to teach it . So teachers passed their own errors of pronunciation and this school of teachers is known as the Esker-Voozay School.

III. New trends in methodology, methods in the first half of the XX century

The turn of the century saw a change in the needs of L2 learning as well as new perspectives in SLA theories and Linguistics in general. Both in England and in the United States, the efforts of applied linguists brought about new methodologies and we need to mention the importance of Sapir and Bloomfield in the field of Structural Linguistics, as a language theory and Behaviorism, which described learning as a process of habit formation through repetition and reinforcement. Sapir combined his interests in general linguistics and anthropology, the social aspect between race, culture and language, providing the path for sociolinguistics and phycholinguistics. Bloomfield endeavoured to make linguistics as scientific as possible through behaviourst psychology and envisaged language as a series of stimuli-response habits acquired, a fundamental concept behaind structuralist grammars. Both theoretical approaches provided the basis for new methods, which were tremendously successful until the 1960s and 1970s.

U.S.A had an active period of experimentation during 1920 to 1935. the net result was the largest and most systematic study of its kind: Modern Foreign Language Study, devoted to different aspects of language teaching, the conclusions of the study were that most students wasted their time trying to achive the impossible so it should better try something attainable, a limited knowledge of the sencond language, list of words, syntax and idioms. As every language has a basic grammar as well as a complicated one, basic grammar should be taught first, and so was the most recursive basic vocabulary. These were the principles of Basic English. Which is based on structuralism. It was possible to classify 850 words in English which occur most frequently. At a rate of a dozen a day, in three months the language was learnt.

3.1. British methods: Oral Approach and Situational Language Teaching

The origins of these approaches began with the work of British Applied Linguistics in the first decades of the century, Palmer and Hornby, Jespersen and Jones. They studied, above all, the need to define the kind of vocabulary that should be learned and the careful gradation and selection of grammar contents based on the principles of Universal Grammar advocated by Jespersen.

This methodology claimed that teaching should begin with spoken language and materials need to be introduced orally, classes were conducted in the Target Language, but always situationally, and grammar items were carefully selected according to their difficulty. The syllabus was a structural one, and vocabulary was practiced through structural pattern drills, in the belief that repetition (Behaviourism) would lead to acquisition, and these drills should move from controlled to free practice.

3.2. The Audio-Lingual Method

The entry of the United States into World War II had a significant effect on language teaching, due to the need to supply the government with personnel who were fluent in German, French, Italian, etc. The Army Specialized Training Program was created by universities to teach soldiers oral proficiency in those languages. It was based on Bloomfield’s methods to teach researchers in American Indian Languages, from which there were no written texts. The army courses were very similar, small groups of students learning 8 to 10 hours a day for six weeks. The good results obtained called the attention of Applied Linguists, who recognized the value of intensive, oral-based approaches. Although the main factor of this was the strong motivation to learn. The ASTP was not a method itself but a variety of methods and techniques.

The University of Michigan developed the first Language Institute in the United States, specialized in LT and Teacher training, under the guidance of Charles Fries, a structural linguist. The method advocated aural training first, followed by speaking, reading and writing. Practice was achieved through structural pattern drills (substitution, repetition, transformation, etc), based, as we said above on behaviorist theories.

Audiolingualism viewed learners as organisms that can be directed by skilled training techniques to produce correct responses. This was a teacher-dominated method, as far as possible the TL was used as medium of instruction and lessons were highly structured: there was a presentation of a dialogue that students repeated and learned (paying attention to pronunciation and intonation), key grammatical structures were drilled and follow-up activities continued in language laboratories. This method was very active during the 1960s, until its theoretical foundations were challenged by other theories of language learning and linguistics (Chomsky’s generative grammar and ideas about “meaningful learning”). Furthermore, teachers found that practical results fell short of expectations, since students were unable to transfer skills acquired through Audiolingualism to real communication outside the classroom, and many found its procedures quite boring.

IV. Methods that appear after the second half of the XX century

Reactions against around the end of the 1960s. Partly as a response to the criticism that American Linguist Noam Chomsky had directed to structural linguistics, which was, in his opinion, unable to explain the fundamental characteristic of Language, its creativity, as well as the communicative potential of language.

Another impetus for different approaches came from an increased need for language knowledge in the European Community. The Council of Europe favoured research on language teaching methods, in 1971, a group of experts began to investigate the possibility of developing courses on “units”, each of which corresponds to a component of the learner’s needs. We also need to mention the work of applied linguists such as Candlin and Widowson, who drew on the work of British functional linguists (Halliday and Firth), American work on sociolinguistics (Hymes, Labov), studies on Speech Acts (Austin and Searle) and studies on communicative competence.

These new theoretical and practical perspectives encouraged the creation of a series of methods, some of them more successful than others. Communicative Language Teaching (in its many versions) has pervaded until our days, whilst some others, sometimes due to lack of materials or teaching constraints were not so widespread. We are going to mention briefly these other methods to move on to the last part of the topic to communicative approaches.

4.1. Methods based on the “Direct Method” and Krasen’s Monitor Model

Two methods appeared around the 1970, based again on the assumption that second language acquisition can be equated to the acquisition or the L1, these two methods were Total Physical Response, created by Asher, and The Natural Approach by Terrel.

Total Physical Response is a language method built around the coordination of speech and action. Asher based his approach on developmental psychology and child language acquisition, claiming that children receive input mainly via commands to which they respond physically before producing any verbal responses, and comprehension abilities are developed way before productive skills.

This approach was quite structuralist, as well as behaviourist method, based on repetition of orders followed by actions. The method was essentially built upon oral communication, and the courses were best designed for beginners, with imperative drills as the major classroom activity until more or less 100 hours of instruction, when conversation and writing activities began. Teachers play a very active role; he is an actor and a director of the class. There were no textbooks in these lessons; however, pictures, realia, word charts and small texts were employed.

The method enjoyed some popularity because it was supported by those who emphasized the role of comprehension in SLA, advocated by Krashen’s theories on input, however, it seemed to work only well for beginner’s levels, and it needs to be combined with other methods as the learners progress.

The Natural Approach is defined as the new version of the direct method and based on the same psychological principles of TPR, especially in Krasen’s Monitor model and the role of input in child language acquisition. Terrel (1983) felt that learners should be as relaxed as possible in the classroom and advocates the use of TPR techniques at the beginning level of language learning, when “comprehensible input” is essential for triggering the acquisition of language.

The natural approach is aimed at the goal of basic personal communication skills and everyday interaction. The initial task of the teacher is to provide comprehensible input, and the learner will start to talk when he/she feels ready to do so. Learners will move from the preproduction stage (listening, comprehension skills), the early production stage (marked with errors) and the stage of extending production into longer stretches of discourse.

4.2. Humanistic approaches, based on psychology and sociolinguistic analysis

We find here three methods which appeared at the end of the 1970s, which were not very extended, but offered interesting insights on learning: The Silent Way (1976) by Categno, Community Language Learning (1976) by Charles Curran, and Suggestopedia by Lozanov (1979).

The Silent Way, devised by Categno, was based on the premise that the teacher should intervene very little or nothing at all in the process of SLA, while learners should be encouraged to produce as much as possible. His assumptions were based on the premises that learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or creates, rather than reproduces what he’s being taught. Learning is encouraged by accompanying physical objects: Cuisinere rods, colorful wall charts, used to introduce vocabulary and syntax, and other realia.

The silent way was criticized mainly because it equated to an excessive state child language acquisition with adult learning, which is completely different, and it also seemed to work only for beginners.

Suggestopedia, proposed by Lozanov in 1979, was based on human cognitive characteristics and potential. According to him, people are capable of learning much more than they think, because they are not aware of their capacities. He created a method for learning which capitalized on relaxed states of mind for maximum retention of material. Music was central to the method, because it creates a state of relaxed concentration which is very useful for learning large amounts of material.

Teaching materials were nothing special in Suggestopedia, however, the setting in which they are used is very different: relaxed environment, music in the background and students sitting in comfortable positions.

The validity of this method was questioned mainly because the conditions for learning are not always available (never) and because results were not very different from other methodologies either.

Finally, Community Language Learning, by Curran, also relied on studies on the importance of the affective domain in language learning. Curran thought that the social dynamics of the group of learners were of primary importance. For learning to take place, it is first necessary to create a climate off confidence and good relationships between students, the anxiety caused by competence and the constant judging of the teacher is eliminated, and the teacher acts as a counselor – he offers help whenever needed, but does not decide on the content of the course or the development of the lessons.

The affective advantages of this method are evident; it is student-centred and can provide extra motivation for learners. However, in practice, students do need direction and demand that the teacher proposes activities, and, especially adults, may feel quite disoriented.


As I mentioned above, most of the advances in linguistic theory (Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, Functionalism, Speech Act Theory) and on the nature of Communicative Competence, new perspectives on SLA (Constructivism, Krashen’s Monitor Model, Socio-Linguistic perspectives) and the efforts made by organisms such as The Council of Europe, proposing the creation of functional-notional syllabuses (Wilkins), and studies in Applied Linguistics after the 1960-1970’s, together with the “feeling” that some previous methods were not efficient enough for teaching large groups of students and did not yield the expected results in fluency and the acquisition of native-like competence, provided the ideal ground for experimentation in new methodologies, that came to be named as Communicative Language Teaching

Communicative Language Teaching is not at a single set of methodological practices; on the contrary, it advocates a rather eclectic and open view on second language acquisition. Using Richard’s and Rodger’s model on description of teaching methods, we can say that, at the level of Approach, that is, theoretical assumptions on Language and Language teaching, we can say that CLT is rooted upon the new theories mentioned above, and is based upon the following assumptions about language

· Language is a system for the expression of meaning

· Its primary function is interaction and communication

· The structure of the language reflects its functional and communicative uses

· The primary units of language are not grammatical or structural features, but categories of functional and communicative meaning as exemplified in discourse

And about the nature of SLA, which is, according to CLT, based on a set of principles:

· Communication principle, that is, activities which involve real communication promote learning

· Task principle: activities which use the language for a real purpose promote learning as well.

· Meaningfulness: Language which is meaningful to the learner supports the learning process. This is based on Ausubel’s constructivist theories and on Krashen’s Input hypothesis.

Therefore, learning activities and materials will be designed and selected according to how well they engage the learner in meaningful, real-life communication, taking into consideration the affective and socio-cultural dimension of language and communication, and the need to promote understanding of cultural values, social norms and politeness principles involved in communication.

At the level of design, CLT has certain salient features which were not present in other methods so far explained. For example:

· Regarding objectives, language is seen as a semantic system to construct meaning and to express interpersonal meanings too (feelings, emotions, etc). Furthermore, objectives must include also looking at learners needs, and to developing students’ Communicative Competence, that is, linguistic, social, discourse and strategic competence. (Canale and Swain)

· Regarding syllabus design, CLT considers it a core element, and there have been different proposals. We can find notional syllabuses (Wilkins), notional functional, based on notions, functions and situations, and others which add structural linguistic components to a functional core. These three are called by Nunan (1992) Product oriented syllabuses, since they stress the product that learners need to acquire. There is a second group of syllabuses, called Process-oriented syllabuses, those which focus on the importance of negotiating content between students and teachers and the need to reshape syllabuses on the basis of student’s needs. As an example of the last group we can mention: Interactional syllabuses (Widowson), Learner-Generated Syllabuses (Candlin), and Task- based syllabuses, which seem to be one of the latest trends in methodology. However, syllabus seems to be the eternal point of discussion on SLA, due to the difficulty of defining what is exactly what our students need and what is what they have to master, and in what sequence, to acquire communicative competence.

· Teacher and Learner’s roles. CLT emphasizes the process of communication, rather than mastery of language forms. Learners need to actively participate in the lesson and to negotiate meaning, interact with the material, the teacher and his peers with a sufficient level of autonomy. Teachers need to be, above all, facilitators of communication in the classroom, a source of information, organizer of activities and carry out needs analysis and evaluation of students, the learning process and his own teaching practice.

· Materials should have the primary role of promoting communicative language use. They can be either text-based, authentic or adapted and coming for a wide variety of sources. They must also be task-oriented: games, role plays, simulations pairwork and information gap activities in which a task, a communicative task must be performed.

Finally at the level of procedure, that is, day to day practice, we must say that CLT uses all kinds of techniques and classroom procedures to carry out its taks: presentations, reading, dialogues, question-answer techniques, deduction of grammar rules, etc, depending on the skill being practice. The only important thing is for the teacher to consider to which extent these activities are communicative, and to which extent they contribute to the development of communicative competence, which is, as we can see, a rather loose concept.

Communicative Language teaching can be considered, therefore, a continuously reshaping theory and methodology, which depends a lot on the interpretation of the syllabus designers, of learner needs and on classroom situations. This methodology, which is what today most learning methods claim to follow, has brought to discussion the absolute dire need for teacher training and materials development, and the growing demand that it lies on teachers who do not always have all means available for them.

V. Conclusion

The variety of methodologies that we have presented in this topic and the enormous amount of materials currently available at the market seem, to some extent, to make the teaching profession more complicated instead of making it easier. However, we must be positive and try to approach this issue with eclecticism and with an open mind. Every teaching situation is different, students have varied needs and motivations, and this has always to be assessed in order to establish the goals we are going to set four our courses. Teaching activities must then be selected in accordance with those goals we have set, and there is no need to stick to a single method or technique. In this sense, Communicative Language Teaching seems to be working quite well, not because it is the last method in the market, but because it sees SL teaching not from a unique perspective, but as a multi-level task which needs to be addressed through a variety of activities, with the intention of providing communicative situations to the students, as similar to real life communication as possible.

Therefore, as a conclusion, we may cite the words of Mary Finocciaro when referring to what is the best possible method for teaching a second language. She claims that it must be “an approach which works within your student population, within your school, according to your personality as a teacher and adequate to your environment”

VI. Bibliography

Richards and Rodgers (1987). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP

Savignon, Sandra (1997). Communicative Competence: Theory and Language Practice. NY: McGraw-Hill

Lee, J and Van Patten (1995). Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen. NY: McGraw-Hill

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