My Methodology by Costas Gabrielatos

Originally published in IATEFL Issues 172, April 2003.
Points marked with an asterisk (*) were not included in the original article.


Much has been written in the ELT literature about the importance of a teacher's self-awareness, and the extent to which personal views and interpretations shape teaching. I for one am convinced that knowing why I teach the way I do gives me control over my teaching and development.

Prompted by an online discussion on ELT methodology1 I decided to draw a brief outline of my practices and the rationale behind them, as an exercise in self-awareness. I expected to end up with a short piece, but the more I thought about the 'what' and 'why' of my practice, the more I wrote. I apologise for the list format, but a proper text would defy the purpose of the exercise.

Of course this isn't a comprehensive account, and I would be surprised if it contained anything that hasn't already been said or done. Still, it's unique, because it's a subjective interpretation of thinking in ELT and its informing disciplines through an individual teacher's personal filters. I present it as an invitation to colleagues to share their own personal theories and methodologies.

How I see language

• Language was born, is used and develops in context; language out of context has only potential for meaning. Given a de-contextualised stretch of language, we automatically create a context in our heads.
• Language is social and personal; it embodies and expresses the world-view and experience of communities and individuals.
• Language is not only a means of communication, but also of getting things done (from declarations of love to political propaganda).
• Language not only expresses, but also creates realities (e.g. fiction and advertising).*
• Language is not uniform; it has different varieties according to the contexts of use, and so it characterises its users, in terms of socioeconomic class, education, culture, personality etc.
• Language use varies according to the interaction between medium (spoken or written) and context. There can be no safe generalisations about spoken and written language. For example, is the language of plays and comic books spoken or written?
• Language is organised - with the same level of success as human communities. It's imperfectly organised, not only because its creators aren't perfect, but also because it's always in the process of changing.
• Language is form and meaning. Meaning needs a body to become communicable (sounds and symbols). Form that hasn't been assigned a mutually agreed meaning, or form the meaning of which we don't know, is useless for communication. Form and meaning are two sides of the same coin.
• Presence or absence of form carries meaning (e.g. He's so shallow and boring! - Oh, come on, he's not shallow.). Selection between 'alternative' forms carries meaning - synonyms don't have exactly the same 'meaning'. Language meaning is layered - this is what makes metaphors possible.
• Language is greater than its parts - texts are much more than the words and structures in them.

How my views on language translate into methodology

• Helping learners investigate and produce language in context (both real and imaginary). Examining language in its natural environment (texts/discourse).
• Helping learners become aware of and accept the fuzzy and inconsistent aspects of language, as well as understand its organising principles, and create a basic framework on which to build.
• Teaching the 'coin'; that is, helping learners to manipulate form to produce intended meaning, and interpret form to infer meaning.
• Helping learners realise the existence of different registers and genres, and become aware of the factors that influence variety in language use, so that they can make informed choices.
• Helping learners see the link between the language and the culture behind it. There are two problems here: Which culture? What is the culture behind 'international English'?
• Making language use both social and personal, by treating the classroom as a social context and helping learners use the new language to develop a communal identity and interpersonal relations in class, and helping them project their own personality through the new language.
• Making language use purposeful, not only by creating opportunities for the transmission of information, but also helping learners use language to achieve goals.
• Making language use critical, i.e. aiming not only at comprehension, but also at interpretation.

How I see (language) learning

• Learning an additional language is not the same as learning your native language. Also, learning within a community that speaks the language is not the same as learning outside such a community.
• Trying to explain something helps you clarify and increase your own knowledge.
• We need an incentive in order to put time, effort and money into learning something. The incentive may come from interest (which also makes learning enjoyable) and/or need. Interest is maintained by combining the familiar with the new/unexpected.
• Some people need to take something apart in order to understand it, and then try to put it back together again. Others prefer to be given the parts and try to put it together.
• Some people like to observe (and usually reflect on) how something works before trying their hand at it. Others prefer to spring into action first and then reflect on the process and outcome. Others combine elements of both.
• Some people need to have things demonstrated and/or explained before putting them to use. Others need comments (and usually demonstration and/or explanations) after they've given it a try.
• Learning language chunks is very helpful, particularly in the initial stages. Some learners can use their observations of how such chunks behave and interact to deduce the underlying mechanisms of language; others need to be told, shown, or guided to understand how those mechanism work.
• Conscious knowledge about the 'what', 'how' and 'why' of a language enables us to be productive, flexible and autonomous. It can be particularly helpful when we encounter difficulties.
• We don't always understand something completely, commit it fully to memory, or do it perfectly the first time round. Repetition and recycling are necessary, particularly when levels of attention are low.
• Learning is helped by support and challenge. Different people need different proportions: too much support stifles development; too much challenge is discouraging.
• Learning involves making mistakes - and some people don't like that. A feeling of safety minimises the negative impact of mistakes and encourages risk-taking.
• Learning language for real-life use entails that learners should be in a position to use language in situations of conflict.
• Learning involves interaction. The chemistry between teacher and learners, and among learners, can make or break attempts at teaching/learning.

How I see (language) teaching

• Language teaching is about helping others develop 'detective' skills - observation, juxtaposition, inference. Input, demonstration, exemplification, guidance, practice and feedback all contribute towards that goal.
• The ultimate goal of teaching is for the learners to no longer need the teacher; not because they have learned everything, but because they can keep learning on their own.
• Teachers are not authorities, they just have knowledge and skills that learners don't have (and vice versa). Teaching is essentially about mutual collaboration towards a common goal: language learning.
• Teaching is not a performance, though some acting skills can prove helpful.

How my views on learning and teaching translate into methodology

• Treating learners as team members or fellow explorers, rather than guinea-pigs or disciples.
• Trying to make learning interesting, by dealing with topics relevant to learners' interests and needs, but also exposing them to new issues/angles/views.
• Fostering an investigatory approach to learning. Helping learners develop study and observation skills, so that they can keep learning autonomously.
• Providing opportunities for both reflection and interaction, by mixing individual and group work, offering and inviting feedback, and encouraging collaboration and peer-feedback.
• Using both input and discovery techniques, as well as revision/recycling.
• Finding the right balance between support and challenge.
• Trying to achieve the following balancing act: on one hand, helping make the classroom a safe, collaborative environment where all learners' efforts and views are equally respected; on the other trying to create conditions of friction and competition to prepare learners to use the new language in different types of real-life situations.*

Instead of a conclusion

Looking back at this outline I confirm that there isn't a clear one-to-one correspondence between principles and practices. To me, this implies that looking for direct applications of theories and principles may not be the most productive course of action. It also shows that we can gain insights into appropriate methodology from the nature and use of language as much as from the way languages are learned.

Finally, this outline strengthened my view that merely choosing among packaged methodologies is too inflexible and limiting. What looks more promising is recognising the oblique and contextualised implications of our knowledge and experience and developing our own methodology.

Note
1. IATEFL Teacher Trainers and Educators Special Interest Group discussion list, 13-19 June 2002, http://groups.yahoo.com/groups/ttedsig/messages.

Related articles
Gabrielatos, C. 2002. 'The Shape of the Language Teacher.' In Pulverness, A. (ed.) 2002. IATEFL 2002: York Conference Selections. IATEFL. (Also available online: http://www.ihes.com/ttsig/resources/articles/31.doc).
Gabrielatos, C. 2001/2002. 'Shopping at the ELT Supermarket: Principled Decisions and Practices.' ELT News 144, February 2001. Revised version published in Developing Teachers.com, March 2002: http://www.developingteachers.com/articles_tchtraining/eltshop1_costas.htm.


Bio note

Costas Gabrielatos is a teacher and teacher educator, currently working towards a PhD at Lancaster University, doing corpus research on conditional sentences in English. His interests revolve around the implications of language description for English language teaching and learning.
E-mail: c.gabrielatos@lancaster.ac.uk; website:
www.geocities.com/cgabrielatos

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