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Principled Decisions & Practices
by Costas Gabrielatos

This 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 2001.
This version: February 2002.

There is nothing as practical as a good theory.
(Kurt Lewin)


This 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.

In 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.


For 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, 1992).

Each 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, 1986).

Studies 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).

For 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".

As 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).

Although 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.


As 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.

1. What do you mean by 'methodology'? I just use the coursebook and other published materials.

There 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.

But, 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.

2. I use what has worked and discard what has failed.

There 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 states:

"Every method has its Frankenstein's monsters, grotesque parodies of whatever it is the teaching has emphasized. … Communicative 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."

A 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 mastering them.

3. I use the most popular methodology.

Popularity 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.

4. I use the methodology I was trained in.

The 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.

Training 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 language teaching'."

(1)I 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 (Gabrielatos, 1994/2002).

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