Teaching English and the future of English teaching

In January 2014, after completing a TEFL Course, I wrote this essay and I would like to share it here as it is what I found quite “challenging” about teaching English at that moment.

Past, present and future of the Teaching English as a Second Language could be the title of this essay in which I will focus on various teaching methodologies that were designed and used over the years in order to offer the proper language contexts for learners of English as a second or foreign language.

When we talk about “how to teach English” some key-words appear to shape this challenging way: approach, method and technique are the three terms which are often overlapped in language teaching. There are many theories on language teaching but the reality of a class must focus on engaging activities and teachers have to use specific techniques to teach the new language. This is why language teachers may develop their own techniques and as a result new methods appear, but these techniques are theoretically related to an approach and to some extent different methods may have similar techniques even though they aim to be different.

There have been many methods introduced in language teaching, some of them well-known and used all over the world: the Direct Method, the Grammar Translation Method, the Audio Lingual Method, the Silent Way, Suggestopedia or Total Physical Response.

The emphasis on the communication in the target language was the core of all these methods and since it is impossible to teach the whole of a target language, selection of teaching materials and usage of proper activities are necessary and all of these methods focus on different aspects learning process.

For example, The Direct Method encourages the use of objects, as realia or pictures, and the teaching is done entirely in the target language, no translation being provided. The learner is not allowed to use his or her mother tongue, grammar rules are avoided and there is emphasis on good pronunciation. The syllabus is based on situations or topics, not usually on linguistic structures and writing is an important skill.

The method appeared as a reaction against the teaching of grammar through explanation and translation and it replaced the Grammar Translation Method whose main principle on learning prioritised translating to and from the target language, grammar rules were to be memorized and students had to learn by heart long lists of vocabulary. As there is little or no emphasis placed on developing oral ability, the Grammar Translation Method came to an end with the coming of the inductive teaching of grammar.

Similar in some aspects to The Direct Method, The Audio Lingual Method drills students in the use of grammatical sentence patterns and it teaches students the target language without the use of the native language, while it stresses the use of speaking and listening, through repetition, transformation or substitution drills.

These methods involve, in a certain way, both teacher and students to take part in the class and even if some of them mainly focus on grammar patterns or vocabulary, they still seem to “treat” the target language from a “passive” point of view, allowing the students little time to really get involved in the speaking and communication fails to flow due to repetitive exercises of simply learning rules. Practicing the target language seems far away from the real aim and perhaps this is why more methods were designed and tried to engage more the students offering them the possibility to interact, as long as the teacher was there to correct and to control the whole process of learning.

The Silent Way is perhaps the method that apparently “ignores” the role of the teacher and emphasizes the learners’ talking time; even if the teacher has to be passive and silent, this strategy encourages group cooperation and silence becomes a tool that helps students to foster autonomy. This “silent” method is meant to allow students develop inner criteria for correctness during the class and the name of the method seems to be a response to some previous traditional methods with which language teachers were very active in dominating classroom activities. The idea is to create an environment for the learners to interact, because when students are encouraged to be more active in producing as much language as possible, the time of learning – teaching interaction is in fact given to language learners, not to the teacher.

Suggestopedia or Total Physical Response are methods that have been developed to bring the learners closer to the active usage of the target language, but this time from a psychological perspective. Learners are facing fear and frustrations when learning a new language and this is why Suggestopedia is based on the power of suggestion or positive suggestion that helps students to learn in better conditions. Learners are also taught to overcome the psychological barriers that are inevitable when learning a new language is a new experience. Emotional barriers are meant to be overcome; otherwise those frustrations may produce a feeling of lack of confidence or even insecurity that will make the learning process even more difficult. If the learners feel that they will lose their confidence or self-esteem, they are likely not to reach the success in learning and this is when the teacher’s role is important, because s/he should attempt to “desuggest” students’ psychological barriers and using Fine arts – music, art, drama, and classical paintings – could enable positive suggestions to reach the subconscious for the students.

The method that combined some of these previous aspects is Total Physical Response, a method that has been developed from developmental psychology, learning theory and language learning procedures. TPR is based on the premise that the human brain has a biological program for acquiring any language, but language learning is for sure more effective when the process of learning is fun. Having fun makes language learners interested in learning the target language and TPR especially enables the students to learn vocabulary faster, because it is a fast, easy, practical and effective method. The principle that learning a foreign language will be more effective if language learning includes fun activities also belongs to other methods, but the difference is that in the TPR fun is provided through physical activities that are meant to reduce that state of stress that usually people feel when studying foreign languages.

This is the reason why many people first believed that TPR is only appropriate for children but later on it was proved that the method can be used not only to children but also adults. Anyway, age shouldn’t be a problem, because learning languages should involve motivation and depends on (self)discipline and commitment.

From my experience, teaching and learning are closely related to a variety of factors, with both psychological and linguistic traits.

The methods described above can offer a general view on relevant approaches on teaching English, even if the most beneficial approach could probably embrace the sum of the most realistic aspects. The agents involved in the process of teaching and learning are definitely the students and the teacher, but the method used is of great importance.

Languages are acquired in a special way, the rhythm of acquisition of a second language most of the time is a challenging experience for the learner. Specialists talk about different stages of acquisition: pre-production, early production, emergent speech, beginning fluency, intermediate fluency and advanced fluency -, but learners are always willing to know perhaps the answer to the question that arises during this special process: “How long does it take for a language learner to go through these stages?”.

This is when the efficiency of the different approaches and practices to teaching evolves and all the contributions of these methods to the learning process can draw a clear image on the process itself. Achieving different results in learners depends basically on the quality of the method and implicitly on the syllabus that will reflect the linguistic competences that the students are to achieve.

Speaking and listening, reading and writing, the efficient usage of grammar are the skills to be learned and practiced always in a very interactive way. I think that students have to feel comfortable and to enjoy the classes, to really get involved using the target language. They should be guided to put emphasis as much as possible on speaking and on using the language in constructive contexts of real situations, encountered in everyday life.

A consistent lesson planning reflects in this case a good classroom management and conveys a sense of useful and productive class, focused on achieving learning objectives and goals that enable the learners to simply put their ideas into words in the target language.

To assure successful results, teachers have to dedicate time and get involved in preparing and adapting all the resources they have in order to make the best of the class because delivering good classes should be always a challenge to take as a professional. Teachers should adapt their approach to teaching different levels, ages and specific purposes because the reality of a class is always the one that marks the rhythm and the success of the teaching – learning process will depend on the teacher and on how s/he controls these aspects.

Learners’ specific difficulties in acquiring a second language are to be contemplated in order to avoid critical moments during the class and from my experience with Spanish and Catalan students, language transfer is one of the major problems, because students tendency is to simply “transfer” from their mother tongue structures and vocabulary that make the learning process difficult and sometimes quite annoying if the students do not learn how to separate the L1 from L2. As teachers, in this situation we have a crucial role, because we must guide the students to use the target language effectively and I think that using only English at the class marks from the very first moment the rhythm of the learning. Students won’t have the feeling that in critical moments they can simply “jump” to their mother tongue to get the problems “sorted out”.

The methods that “avoid” translating and encourage the usage of the target language during the class offer, in my opinion, a good model of learning and make students adopt a natural manner to learn the TL.

A part from interlanguage problems, there are also affective factors which influence learning and as they can have a negative effect, teachers have to adopt a proper attitude and to build a positive group dynamic in order to avoid them occur. For example, in mixed groups there are always students that simply feel “shy” in front of the rest of the class because perhaps they cannot interact easily and the teacher should anticipate and help them to cope with it.

This is where Suggestopedia can be used as the leading teaching methodology, which has most worked towards overcoming these barriers: building up the learners’ confidence and eliminating their feelings of failure, their anxiety and stress.

I am sure that once the students control these barriers, the learning becomes exciting and leads them to accept the new language easily and in the end they will be able to communicate naturally. In the class, the receptive and productive skills would be balanced, and the activities graded too according to the level and interests of the students.

The teaching methodology I use with my students resembles the communicative approach because I feel that it really helps me to adapt to nowadays students: they need to learn English in a different way, with authentic materials and they prefer to learn the grammar and vocabulary from a different perspective, of the functions and the situational contexts.

The future of English teaching depends on those methods that nowadays struggle to offer high quality courses which adapt to the learners’ needs and reflect the collaborative effort of the teachers and trainers that work together and share their experience in order to design authentic resources and always aim to get satisfactory results among the learners.

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