AT THE ELT SUPERMARKET
Principled Decisions & Practices
by Costas Gabrielatos
article is based on my plenary talk of the same title given
at the TESOL Macedonia-Thrace 8th Annual Convention, 14th
October 2000. It was originally published in ELT News 144,
February 2001. This is a substantially revised version, which
incorporates materials from my response article 'Teachers
or Materials Operators?', published in ELT News 152, November
This version: February 2002.
is nothing as practical as a good theory.
article reflects my ongoing development of a principled and
flexible methodological framework beyond pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all
methods; a framework free from traditional or dogmatic constraints,
flexible enough to take into account new ideas and insights,
but also critical of current popular trends and the claims
of authorities and experts.
this article I examine some common attitudes towards methodology
selection, discuss the notion of eclecticism and outline the
nature and implications of principled decision-making and
practice in ELT. I argue that principled teaching requires
a) awareness of different views on the nature and use of the
target language, as well as language learning (see Brown,
1994; Richards & Rogers, 1986; Rivers, 1972), b) awareness
of one's own beliefs and theories, and c) the ability to observe
critically, recognise patterns and draw conclusions.
ATTITUDES TOWARDS ELT METHODS
more than a century the ELT profession was preoccupied with
the quest for the elusive 'best' teaching method (see McArthur,
1983: 96-103; Sweet, 1899/1964: 2-3), in the sense of "a
'package deal' of attitudes, theories, methods, techniques"
(Strevens, 1977: 23). As a result, one method would reign
supreme for a longer or shorter period of time, only to be
succeeded eventually by a new 'perfect' method. Recent examples
include the rise and fall of the Audiolingual method, and
the criticism that followed the widespread acceptance and
adoption of Communicative Language Teaching (e.g. Johnson,
changeover brought in its wake changes (subtle or radical)
in syllabus design and teaching materials and procedures.
For example, explicit grammar teaching has come into, and
gone out of, fashion according to the predominant doctrine
of the time: 'in' with Grammar-Translation, 'out' with the
Audiolingual method, 'in limbo' with Communicative Language
Teaching (according to the individual teacher's interpretation)
and 'in' again more recently in the form of 'noticing' and
'consciousness-raising' (see Schmidt, 1990; Sharwood Smith,
on the comparative effectiveness of different methods were
unable to provide helpful answers. No clear picture emerged
from the body of research, as the conclusions of different
projects were contradictory (see Prator, 1976). What is more,
the conclusions themselves were questioned because "the
number of interrelated variables makes it extremely difficult
to attribute the results to the method variables in question"
(Woods, 1996: 5).
over thirty years, the consensus in ELT has been shifting
towards the realisation that a perfect method, that is one
that works independently of the teaching/learning context,
is unattainable (see Brown, 1994: 14-15, 291; McArthur, 1983:
96-97). Actually, Brown (1994: 292) goes so far as to describe
the stage of "looking for final, clear-cut answers"
as "professional childhood".
a solution to the methodological conundrum, an "eclectic"
attitude to teaching was proposed by a number of methodologists
(see Girard, 1986; Haskel, 1978; Prator, 1976). Eclecticism
was seen as an alternative to the adoption of existing pre-packaged,
ready-to-use methods. Unfortunately, the concept of eclecticism
was not rigorously defined. As a result, it was often misinterpreted
as 'anything goes' and led to haphazard combinations of procedures
and materials (van Els et. al., 1984: 156).
theorists and researchers have abandoned the search for a
single perfect method (see van Els et al, 1984: 156), there
are still language schools which use (or at least purport
to use) only one particular method. The ELT community, then,
still faces the pressing question of appropriate methodology.
ATTITUDES TOWARDS METHODOLOGY SELECTION
points of departure for my discussion I will use different
attitudes towards methodology selection that are not likely
to result in principled teaching. I have become aware of these
attitudes through my interaction with teachers and teacher
trainers/educators. I do not present them as either/or attitudes,
but as elements of a complex, composite attitude. Nor am I
making any claims about their relative popularity; in my experience,
they may appear in different combinations and varying degrees,
or may not appear at all.
What do you mean by 'methodology'? I just use the coursebook
and other published materials.
are three main problems with this attitude. First of all,
coursebooks are not always clear regarding the methodology
they use in terms of 'what' and 'how' to teach. There are
also cases of inconsistency between stated and actual methodology1.
Finally, coursebooks cannot be relevant to all teaching/learning
contexts (see Cunningham, 1995: 5-6; Dendrinos, 1992: 39-47).
Similarly, supplementary materials (i.e. collections of tasks/activities
for the teaching of specific areas, such as vocabulary or
listening) usually give little or no information about their
underlying methodology, or the place of the activities in
a lesson. Consequently, teachers need to adapt published materials
according to the needs of particular classes.
appropriate adaptation requires teachers to recognise and
be informed about the methodology used by the author(s), or
be able to identify the lack of clear methodology. What is
more, teachers need to be conscious of their own methodological
orientation, that is their theories and beliefs about the
nature of language and teaching/learning (Woods, 1996: 190-212).
Such awareness is important because teachers' actual practice
may contradict their perceived methodological orientation
(see Karavas-Doukas, 1996; Scrivener, 1996: 80). Therefore,
the effectiveness of coursebook use is contingent on the level
of the teachers' awareness and knowledge.
I use what has worked and discard what has failed.
are too many parameters involved in language teaching/ learning
for success or failure to be attributed only to the procedures
and materials used. For example, the reason may lie in the
way teachers interpret the procedures suggested by particular
'methods', and the way they employ materials - not the actual
procedures and materials themselves. Johnson (1992) in her
critique of ill-perceived 'communicative' teaching procedures
method has its Frankenstein's monsters, grotesque parodies
of whatever it is the teaching has emphasized.
interaction does hold great potential as an aid to learning,
but standard methodological procedures adopt a rather naïve,
hope-for-the-best view of the communicating/ learning relationship
and may need re-thinking."
method or technique may not 'work' because the materials and/or
procedures are unfamiliar to the learners and have been introduced
abrubtly. Learners may also react negatively to methodologies
if they are not convinced about their effectiveness. In such
cases it can hardly be expected that their use will yield
positive results. Still, even when learners are willing to
try out the new methodology, there may well be an initial
period when their performance will deteriorate. A study on
children's problem-solving (Karmiloff-Smith, 1984, reported
in Shorrocks, 1991: 269) showed an initial decline in performance
before final improvement. The decline was attributed to the
children's experimenting with new strategies before finally
I use the most popular methodology.
is not necessarily an indication of quality. As was mentioned
in the introduction, methods that enjoyed immense popularity
in the past were eventually abandoned for other, 'better'
methods, which were in turn succeeded by others. What is more,
the majority who elevate a method to its cult status may not
share the same context with other teachers. More importantly,
the popularity of a particular methodology may not be the
result of its adoption by the majority of teachers worldwide
(which would at least indicate that a large number of teachers
in a variety of contexts find it effective), but of its promotion
by a small number of influential educational and/or political
centres (see Canagarajah, 1999: 103-105; Phillipson, 1992:
171-218). Finally, the popularity of some methods may well
be due to successful advertising. Van Els et al (1984: 156)
note that in foreign language teaching "novelties are
propagated which sometimes show a remarkable similarity to
sales stunts in commerce", something that reflects rather
badly on the level of professionalism in ELT.
I use the methodology I was trained in.
key word here is 'trained'. Training (as distinct from education)
aims at "the development of a partial competence, which
endows one with a limited number of ready-to-use techniques
without ensuring that an understanding of the underlying principles
has been achieved nor that choice can be made with reference
to a set of criteria" (Vassilakis, 1998: 7). Furthermore,
by their very nature, training courses are usually quite short
(usually ranging between 50 and 200 hours), which makes it
very difficult, if not impossible, for teaching issues to
be dealt with in any breadth or depth.
in specific methods or procedures (e.g. Presentation-Practice-Production)
may help teachers to address particular teaching/learning
situations or issues with some degree of effectiveness, but
does not equip them with the flexibility required to address
the multitude of interrelated issues in ELT. Courses purporting
to train teachers in an eclectic methodology may well offer
a "cluttered kaleidoscope of one-off sessions" (Edwards,
1996: 100-101). What is worse, teachers may have been led
to misunderstand the very nature and relation of the method(s)
and procedures covered in some training courses. For example,
Scrivener (1996: 80) mentions that "a curious by-product
of many current training courses is that trainees schooled
in PPP come out believing themselves to be trained in 'communicative
have come to this conclusion through my experience in using
coursebooks as well as evaluation workshops for teacher courses
and language schools. For an example, see a detailed comparison
of the stated aims regarding the treatment of pronunciation
and the actual materials and procedures employed in the New
Cambridge English Course, which showed considerable inconsistency
page 2 of 5
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