AT THE ELT SUPERMARKET
Principled Decisions & Practices
by Costas Gabrielatos
I use the most modern methodology.
an attitude is problematic, as it implies that the selection
was made uncritically, solely for reasons of novelty. The
practices of teachers who adopt the latest word in language
teaching methodology are not expected to be consistent with
(and may well contradict) what the methodology actually stands
is more, 'modern' does not necessarily mean 'better'. It is
true that the word 'modern' carries connotations of 'improved'
and 'developed'; it is as a result of such connotations that
methods presented as modern have an intuitive popular appeal.
What I would like to stress here is the other side of the
coin: 'modern' can also be interpreted as 'not thoroughly
what is presented as modern may well be reheated old ideas.
This point is illustrated by the following quiz (Gabrielatos,
the excerpts below and decide when they were written
but none of these methods retain their popularity
long - the interest in them soon dies out. There is a
constant succession of them ... They have all failed to
keep a permanent hold of the public mind because they
have all failed to perform what they promised: after promising
impossibilities they have all turned out to be on the
whole no better than the older methods. The methods I
have just mentioned are failures because they are based
on an insufficient knowledge of the science of language,
and because they are one-sided.
A good method must,
before all, be comprehensive and eclectic. It must be
based on a thorough knowledge of the science of language
... In utilizing this knowledge it must be constantly
guided by the psychological laws on which memory and the
association of ideas depend."
"When it comes to foreign language teaching, the
generally accepted view is that the same mistaken approach
based on the written language, the same kind of school
grammars, will be able to work miracles and teach a new
language. They never have, and they never will. And even
if you actually succeeded in stuffing the pupils' heads
with the best grammars ... they still would not know the
language! ... Language, moreover, is formed and moulded
by the unconscious action of the community as a whole,
and like the life of the community is in a constant state
of change and development. Consequently, we cannot compress
the grammar of a language into a series of rigid rules,
which, once laid down by the grammarians, are as unalterable
as the laws of the Medes and Persians. On the contrary,
grammar is what the community makes it; what was in vogue
yesterday is forgotten today, what is right today will
be wrong tomorrow. ... Even if we further know all the
rules of the grammarians, we shall find ourselves unable
in actual practice to get very far in stringing our words
together or in understanding what is said to us in return."
3. The role of learners
"Every individual [has an] ability to instruct himself.
The function of a teacher [is] to respond to the learner,
not to direct and control him by explaining things in
advance. ... Students should look for similarities and
differences, generalize their observations, form and test
hypotheses, and discover how the language work[s]."
excerpts above touch on some of the central attitudes in contemporary
ELT, such as learner-centredness, focus on actual language
use, the importance of communication, data-driven learning,
noticing, awareness-raising, and the influence of social context.
I find it extremely interesting (and educational) that so
many of the 'modern' attitudes in language teaching were actually
proposed up to a century and a half ago (if not even earlier
than that). What I find disturbing is that it took so long
for these attitudes to start finding their way in mainstream
ELT thinking and practice.
I use the methodology advocated by the experts.
of all, there is no unanimous expert opinion. ELT professionals
who have reached expert status disagree, either because they
come from different theoretical and/or methodological schools,
or because they simply need a niche to maintain their 'expert'
status. Which of the different expert recommendations are
teachers of that attitude to follow? Different views aside,
there are more reasons why it would be wise for teachers to
be sceptical and critical of the wisdom of experts.(2)
may not be practising teachers. In order for expert advice
to be helpful to the ELT practitioner it has to be not only
based on a theoretical and research foundation, but also rooted
in current and ongoing classroom experience and reflection.
Unfortunately, since being an expert is a full-time job, experts
tend to be divorced from the classroom, or at best have minimal
contact with language learners.
may not have experience of specific contexts. Even in
cases of ELT professionals who are practising teachers and
have reached a high level of knowledge and skill, their ideas
may not be helpful as they stand. Their ideas come from their
particular experience in specific contexts, which may have
little in common with the contexts in which other teachers
They have their own filters. Experts cannot be expected
to be entirely objective; their interpretation of theory,
research and experience is bound to be influenced by their
own beliefs and views.
They may not be entirely sincere. ELT has developed
into a multi-million industry, the popularity of one methodology
being translated in increased sales of materials. Experts
can be instrumental in their successful promotion.
may not be truly experts. It is not impossible for ELT
professionals to have made a name for themselves for reasons
not directly proportionate to their actual knowledge and skills.
is important then that teachers do not accept or reject expert
opinions wholesale, but are in a position to review and interpret
expert suggestions critically and adapt them to their own
I apply proven theories and conclusive research findings.
are three problematic concepts here:
utility of theory and research does not lie in their application
to practice. The function of theory and research in ELT is
not to provide recipes and dictate practical applications,
but to construct informed and coherent frameworks for principled
interpretation of experience and discovery of implications.
Theories are helpful because they provide a framework for
gaining insights "into the 'why' of experience"
(McLaughlin, 1987: 14). What is more, no theory can claim
to have all the answers and offer the only true set of explanations.
This is probably why all methods which purported to apply
a specific theory of language and/or learning to ELT ultimately
failed the test of practice.
cannot be proven. McLaughlin (1987: 16) states that "the
successful theory is tested and escapes being disconfirmed.
Theories can be confirmed only to a certain degree.
That a theory is validated does not mean that it is true,
but only that it is more probable, at present, than other
evidence cannot be conclusive. Teachers should keep in mind
that "the classic position of the researcher is not that
of one that knows the right answers but of one who is struggling
to find out what the right questions might be!" (Phillips
& Pugh, 2000: 48-49), and that "researchers who claim
that their theories have been definitely substantiated by
research are misleading practitioners" (McLaughlin, 1987:
16). A case in point is a recent study (Marinova-Todd et al,
2000: 9-34), which re-examined and re-interpreted the data
from past research studies that had concluded that children
learn more quickly and easily than adults. The study discovered
that past studies had misinterpreted the data, and had under-emphasised
cases of successful adult learning. The recent study attributes
the differences in the speed of learning and the final proficiency
levels attained not to neurobiological factors, but to motivation
and expectations. The study concludes that "children
learn new languages slowly and effortfully - in fact with
less speed and more effort than adolescents and adults."
have used this example not to propose that we change our attitude
towards teaching children and adults, but to illustrate that
what is the accepted doctrine today may be laughed at as old
hat tomorrow. My point is that research conclusions should
be treated with care, and compared and contrasted with other
sources, as well as one's experience, because "statistics
are tools for thought, not substitutes for thought" (McLaughlin,
1987: 5). Uncritical acceptance of research conclusions may
result in teachers imposing self-fulfilling prophesies on
learners, or creating unrealistic expectations. For example,
teachers who are convinced that adult learners cannot hope
to attain a high level of competence may not challenge their
adult learners enough and rob them of opportunities to realise
their full potential.
seems then that teachers are faced with three options, as
regards theory and research: to ignore them altogether, to
rely on 'experts' to translate theory and research for them,
and to acquire the knowledge and skills which will enable
them to discover the implications of frameworks and findings
themselves. The first and second options result in teachers
falling into the pitfalls described above and becoming reduced
to mere 'materials operators'. The third option results in
Answers to the quiz above:
1 - From Sweet (1899, reprinted 1964).
Wilhelm Vietor (1886) Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren
(Language teaching must start afresh), translated
by A.P.R. Howatt and David Abercrombie, with Beat Buchmann.
Translation printed in Howatt (1984: 340-363). Excerpt from
3 - Excerpts from the discussion of the method developed by
J. J. Jacotot between 1815-1830. Reprinted in Howatt (1984:
my reading of ELT periodicals I have become increasingly aware
of the following pattern: the more a publication is directed
at teachers (rather than teacher educators, theorists or researchers
in ELT), the fewer the references either to frameworks or
to other people's ideas, and the higher the reliance on the
authors' experience and expertise.
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