17 Nov Methods or Principles? by Eric Herman
The following post is reprinted with permission from Eric Herman. It is an abridged version of a supplement to Issue 4 of the weekly Acquisition Classroom Memo, a review of must-know second language acquisition research and the implications for classroom teaching.
What is a Method anyway?
Richards & Rodgers (1986) conceptualized a model of method as containing three levels, each consisting of numerous elements:
- theory of language
- theory of language acquisition
- tasks and activities
- student roles
- teacher roles
- material roles
- interactional patterns
- teacher and student techniques
“Method” refers to the whole of all these levels and elements. If it is possible to describe all these elements for a way of teaching, then it is considered a ‘method.’ Notice that a method is much more than what you do in the classroom.
Q: What do researchers mean when they talk about “principles?”
A: Principles are teachers’ informed guidelines and evaluative criteria for everything they do in the classroom. When second language acquisition (SLA) researchers and applied linguists talk about “principles” they are talking about theoretically-informed recommendations (pedagogical implications of SLA) for method design and procedure. Principles are the direct implications of an “approach” and there are numerous ways for them to be realized in classroom practice.
Q: Why do I need to know theory and principles? (I just want to know what to do in class on Monday).
A: If instructors do not know the science in order to determine principles, then they either adopt someone else’s approach and principles (and hope they got it right) or rely on experience and intuitions (folk science). Understanding the “why” helps teachers to make the best plan for their teaching situations and their students. Knowledge of SLA and having principles guides teachers in making sound decisions about how to teach.
Q: How do language teachers determine principles?
A: Principles are derived from our understanding of language and language acquisition (approach). That comes from our knowledge of research, our personal experiences as a teacher and as a student, and our beliefs.
Q: Are methods ‘bad’?
A: Yes and no.
In a chapter titled “The post-methods era” in the 2nd edition (2001), Richards and Rodgers state a major shortcoming of methods is that they are one-size-fits-all prescriptions that do not consider contextual factors, such as student needs, age, proficiency level, teacher experience, style, socio-economic situations, cultural differences, literacy levels, institutional demands, etc. On the other hand, a major shortcoming of teaching by an approach/principles is that it does not give you the specific prescriptions of “what” and “how,” which less-experienced, less-trained teachers generally want and need.
New teachers often need a method to get them started, but are encouraged to adjust and modify the method to the context. As teachers gain experience and knowledge, they should move toward making instructional decisions based on principles. The result is the development of a teacher’s own personal approach and method, from the reshaping of a brand-name method or the development of a new method entirely.
Q: What’s wrong with saying “I do CI?”
A: CI in and of itself is not a technique or a method. What a teacher does is modify input, interact, and use other supports in order to make messages in the target language better understood.
Q: Can I say “I teach with CI?” (CI = comprehensible input)
A: I know what is intended, i.e. “I utilize a comprehension-based approach or method.” A comprehension-based approach puts the comprehension of input first and tries to maximize the amount of comprehensible input provided in class. The problem with saying you “teach with CI” is that every additional language teacher provides input in the target language, whether to talk about grammar, to tell stories, etc. Whenever the learner comprehends the meaning of that input, then they are getting CI. Thus, every teacher can be said to be teaching with CI. Classrooms can be distinguished based on the quantity and qualities of the input provided.
Q: How do teachers conceptualize a method?
A: Teachers think predominantly in terms of procedures, e.g. concrete steps. They argue about what the specific steps should be as if there were one correct formula for all situations. There is not. Perhaps teachers need to be explicitly told: You have the freedom, and in fact, are encouraged to adapt methods to your situation. That’s where principles are necessary.
Q: Should we worry about whether we are following a brand-name method?
A: If we have principles, then we are freed from blind obedience to a brand-name method, tradition, folk science, and from a considerable amount of trial and error. We do not have to think “Am I doing what the method dictates?” Instead we can ask ourselves “Am I following my principles?” What matters in our instructional decision-making is not whether a specific technique is part of a particular method, but whether that technique fits with our scientifically-derived guidelines.
Q: What is teacher understanding of particular methods based upon?
A: Understanding of any method unfamiliar to a teacher comes primarily from beginner teacher lessons and workshops, which are focused on helping novice and inexperienced teachers. This leaves some teachers with the assumption that the narrow set of techniques and steps presented are to be strictly followed, when in reality, procedures evolve.
Q: What happens when methods are understood primarily in terms of first day lessons?
A: Teachers get caught up in the trees (procedures) and can’t see the forest (approach). For example, TPRS presents heavy questioning of known statements (circling) and the intentional repetition of pre-determined language chunks (target structures) in first day lessons and the inventor, Blaine Ray, talks a lot about these techniques (because his audience is largely novices). These are teacher-proof techniques for providing input that is more likely to be comprehended. This is misunderstood by some teachers to mean that these techniques should characterize all classes at all levels.
Q: What is revolutionary about methods?
A: Not much. For example, there has always been a tradition of language being taught in more communicative and natural contexts. Therefore, it is inaccurate to equate traditional teaching with grammar-oriented teaching. I encourage teachers to learn more pedagogical history so as to avoid reinventing the wheel.
Q: How does a teacher determine and develop his/her personal method?
A: The logical development of a method would progress from why -> what and when -> how. All teachers, regardless of subject (or linguistic) matter, should proceed through the progression to develop a program that aligns with the research. This requires that teachers receive more education in the science of acquisition and in pedagogy. More education includes more experience with different methods, which also informs the development of an effective method. It is this initial and ongoing education which will distinguish teachers as professional educators and earn for them the respect that other well-studied professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, are deserved. It is to that end that the Acquisition Classroom Memo and Forum contribute.
I have devised a template for language teachers to fill out in determining their method, which is available to subscribed Acquisition Classroom Members. Additionally, you can access the template all filled out based on my personal comprehension-based and communicative method!
Visit the Acquisition Classroom website to view and download the free unabridged version of this post about methods and principles.
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Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (1986). The nature of approaches and methods in language teaching. In J. C. Richards & Rodgers, T. S. (Ed.), Approaches and methods in language teaching: A description and analysis (pp. 14-29). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.