Information and communication technologies are currently being used in all fields of education to assist both students and teachers in either learning or teaching more effectively. In the past, technologies were not as developed as they are nowadays, but they nonetheless made their presence felt in the English language teaching field. For this reason, this paper aims at outlining the characteristics of three English teaching approaches and glance over early technological tools compatible with these approaches.
Note to the reader
The theory, philosophy and principles underlying a particular set of teaching practices are commonly known as “approach(es)” – a term used interchangeably with “method” throughout this paper – in language teaching. Language teaching is sometimes discussed in terms of three related aspects: approach, method, and technique. Different theories about the nature of language and how languages are learned (the approach) imply different ways of teaching language (the method), and different methods make use of different kinds of classroom activity (the technique) (Richards & Schmidt, 2002, pg. 20-30).
Historical background – the beginnings
Approaches to teaching foreign languages have changed considerably along the years. The numerous changes were triggered and shaped by a variety of aspects that had to do with the particularities of the languages that were being studied. For example, in the past, pupils and teachers had to rely on approaches and methods that entailed either translation or memorization in order to be successful at learning languages such as Latin or Greek. Towards more modern times such as the 20th century, given the multitude of changes that occurred all over the globe, teaching approaches and methods started taking different shapes.
Nowadays, books about the teaching of modern languages list a variety of teaching approaches that have been developed along the years. Altogether, these approaches refer to the pedagogical principles and strategies used for classroom instruction while teaching foreign languages, English in particular. Larsen-Freeman (2003), Harmer (2007), Horwitz (2008) and Vizental (2014) discuss in their writings a variety of teaching approaches that have developed along the years both in the USA and on the European continent. The following enumeration includes some of the most literature-cited teaching approaches that deal with the teaching of English. Grammar-Translation, the Audio-Lingual Approach, the Direct Approach, the Communicative Language Approach, the Task-Based Approach, Suggestopedia, Total Physical Response, the Silent Way, the Immersion Approach, the Natural Approach, and the Lexical Approach. All these are grounded upon a series of important aspects that have to do with theories on the nature of the language, how learners acquire and use language(s), the purpose of teaching and learning that language etc. Further on, the first three in the previous list are going to be discussed in order to discover the technological tools they made use of to enhance teaching and learning. Each following section provides a window of opportunity to understand how the characteristics of these three teaching approaches made them compatible with the technology that was available at that time.
Used by learners and teachers of Latin or Greek, this is one of the oldest teaching approaches, also referred to as “classical”. The name itself is very suggestive since it is formed of two independent words, grammar and translation, that imply the acquisition of vocabulary and grammar rules by means of translation. In other words, the acquisition process is mainly driven by rote learning and the pinnacle of the approach is reached when learners are able to translate L2 structures into L1 and the other way around. Even though Grammar-Translation was derived from classical methods of teaching Greek and Latin, it became popular among teachers of English in the late 19th century. Vizental (2014) argues in “Metodica Predării Limbii Engleze” that it was “the generally accepted method for teaching foreign languages up until 1950s” (p. 38).
Before the 19th century, access to education was limited only to intellectuals that pertained to rich families. Moreover, learning a dead language was a requirement of one’s social status. Many of those who did learn Greek or Latin were not doing so for meaningful reasons such as real-life use. In fact, Freeman (2003) states in her book that this approach “teaches students about the target language, but not how to use it” (p. 21). The learner’s success at learning dead languages was determined by intellectual reasons, such as reading literature in the original or analyse linguistic systems.
Although Grammar-Translation is considered old-fashioned by many English language teachers, there is plenty of evidence showing that it is still used across the world. There are many instructors that “sometimes use grammar translation activities to illustrate a particular grammatical point or to show the nuances of a word in a written text” (Horwitz, 2008, pp. 49-50). This is very useful since it helps the teacher emphasize how the target language is put together by means of translation that it is used in both directions, i.e., L1 to L2 and the other way around. This aspect makes the approach more appropriate for learners who require precise reading abilities.
During the time when Grammar-Translation was popular, technologies were not so developed as nowadays. Nonetheless, for the learning and teaching processes to take place successfully, both learners and teachers needed some type of technology that would allow them read or write the forms of the language they were learning. One such piece of technology was the blackboard, which Warschauer & Meskill (2000) describe as “one of the most ubiquitous technologies in education” (p. 304). Given the characteristics of the approach, this was the perfect one-way medium of transmission of the information. This simple piece of technology was later accompanied by overhead projectors and early computer software programs. According to Warschauer & Meskill (2000), these “technologies” … were another two excellent media for “teacher-dominated classroom… and drill-and-practice grammatical exercises” (p. 304). Given the discrepancy between classical languages and modern languages, a new approach made its way among teachers and learners concerned with the teaching and learning of foreign languages. One of the first such approaches that arose as a reaction against the Grammar-Translation was the Direct Approach.
The Direct Approach
The Direct Approach, also known as the Conversational Method or Natural Method, was developed by Maximilian Berlitz towards the end of the 19th century. The birth of this approach was very much assisted by the arguments concerning the teaching of foreign languages that were exchanged among linguists, scholars and teachers of foreign languages at that time. Current literature writings designate the period when the Direct Approach appeared as the Reform Movement period. This movement was also much influenced by the variety of economic problems that were taking place in Europe at that time. Given the poor economic situation of many major countries in Europe, countless people emigrated to the USA to find better means of living. In order to do that successfully, they were supposed to learn English quickly and efficiently as they needed to use the language meaningfully in real-life contexts.
Phonetics also played an important role in the shaping of the new approach. The International Phonetic Alphabet was founded in 1886 and many linguists emphasized that speaking, rather than writing, was the primary form of language and that it should constitute the core of any teaching approach. Richards and Rodgers argue that some of the most important ideas of linguistic reformers were that “the findings of phonetics should be applied to teaching, learners should hear the language first, grammar rules should be taught inductively, and translation should be avoided” (as cited in Renau, 2016, p. 85).
Modern psychology was another field of activity that shaped the characteristics of many teaching methodologies, among which the Direct Approach. The Frenchman F. Gouin is one mid-19th century reformer who included modern psychological ideas into language teaching. His ideas included “visualization, engagement of sense in learning, association of ideas, centres of interest and acting out sentences” (Lišková, 2014, p. 26). Moreover, Gouin is also known for his belief that the process of acquisition of any foreign language is facilitated by “using language to accomplish events consisting of a sequence of related actions” (Richards & Theodore, 2001, p. 8). Gouin’s concept of sequencing was to play an important role in approaches that were to evolve in the domain of ELT.
Elena Tamura (2006) refers in her paper on the methodology of teaching methods to a linguist of that time called Harold E. Palmer who taught his students English through oral exercises and believed that “grammar is not the best way to teach language” (p. 173). What Palmer claimed at that time gradually became the core of the reforming period that followed in the second half of the 19th century. In a short period of time, the idea that English should be the language of instruction during classes and that listening and speaking skills are key elements in the process of acquisition of a foreign language grew stronger and triggered a total rejection of the previous approach. Overall, this approach gradually emerged under the impact of more than one source of stimuli. For example, Otto (2017) claims that among the influences on the Direct Approach were “the Berlitz Method and the Natural Method which was an adaptation of the 1902 German Reform-Methode” (p. 11).
Pictures, drawings and intuition were used by teachers to make learners associate previous knowledge with the meaning of new foreign words. Horwitz (2008) writes that the teachers using the Direct Approach in English classes were “often dramatic and artistic, using their personal talents to act out what they are saying or employing elaborate props and pictures” (p. 53) in order to make their learners understand the language better. Also, teachers helped students to make sense of more difficult notions by paraphrasing language structures or referring to synonyms or antonyms. Nonetheless, grammar rules were secondary, and proficiency was achieved by practice and not by rote learning.
As every language teaching approach has had its own technologies to support it, the Direct Approach was supported by audio-visual technologies emerging at the time. Using these technologies, teachers brought to the classroom samples of authentic language spoken by native speakers. Clark and Stocker claim that the audio materials and the audio formats that the teachers used during English classes changed rapidly from “cylinder recordings to phonograph recordings” (as cited in Otto, 2017, p. 11). Later, the radio was another piece of technology that supported the principles of the Direct Approach. The radio provided samples and models of pronunciation of the English language to a large category of listeners and learners. For example, BBC English by radio was a radio programme that developed during wartime. Smith (2005) claims that “five-minute monolingual programmes were first introduced into the European Service in July 1942” (Introduction, p. 20). Moreover, Quinault discusses the challenges and the innovations that the radio brought into the field of language teaching. She highlights the fact that monolingual programmes broadcast in post-war years were “the biggest experiment in language teaching by radio on purely ‘direct method’ lines” (as cited in Smith, 2005, Introduction, p. 20). Even though this method was very popular all over Europe, it could not “provide a solution for public education, with its large groups of students” (Vizental, 2014, p. 40). Gradually, the Audio-Lingual Approach settled in to satisfy the needs of a diversity of learners.
The Audio-Lingual Approach
The principles of this approach gradually developed in the 1960s and were much influenced by a variety of factors. These influencing factors originated in the innovations that were taking place in different scientific fields. For example, many operating principles of the Audio-Lingual Approach were influenced by the scholars’ modern view on animal and human behaviour, the structure of the atom etc. Vizental (2014) argues that the new approach was indebted to two main principles of the age, “the structural view of the period… and the behaviourist concept” (p. 41). The first principle refers to the fact that the constituent parts of every living or non-living organism can be broken down into smaller units, i.e. atoms, and the latter refers to the behaviouristic view on language learning which posits that language acquisition is a form of a reflex that gets triggered by a response to certain stimuli in the environment. Horwitz (2008) argues that the new approach drew some of its principles from “the insights into language learning offered by the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis” (p. 51). According to this behaviouristic theory, foreign language structures that share similarities with the learners’ native language are easier to acquire than those which do not. Similarly, the activities through which the learners were learning the foreign language had in fact been influenced by behaviourist psychology theories. For example, Fenner & Skulstad (2018) claim that the learner’s “‘good language habits’ were formed based on imitation, repetition and drill exercises” (p. 27). Moreover, again in line with behaviourist psychology theories, the teacher provided the learner with immediate feedback if mistakes were made. Any form of feedback aimed at preventing the development of bad language habits.
The Audio-Lingual Approach did not emerge as a new teaching principle that made use of no previous work in the field of ELT. In fact, it adopted many didactic principles of the previous teaching approach. One of the most important principles of the Direct Approach that was taken over by Audio-Lingual Approach practitioners included the prohibition from using the student’s native language during class. Therefore, the target language was the main instructional language. Other principles that the new approach borrowed from the Direct-Method were “the contextual presentation of vocabulary and grammar, and the importance given to habit formation” (Vizental, 2014, p. 41). Overall, the aim of the new approach was for the learners to be able to use linguistic structures in speaking automatically. Moreover, the principles of this approach asked teachers to focus the language acquisition process on the listening and speaking skills; according to Fenner & Skulstad (2018), the four language skills were specified in the following hierarchical order, “listening, speaking, reading and writing” (p. 27).
The techniques and the principles of the Audio-Lingual Approach included the use of a variety of visual materials. By doing so, teachers aimed at changing the dynamics of the foreign language acquisition processes. Given the major importance of visuals in the teaching act, grammar aspects were no more taught in a theoretical manner. For example, educators made use of “funny visuals, patterns, arrows and icons” (Vizental, 2014, p. 42) in order to help the learners visualize the relation among linguistic structures. Moreover, linguistic structures were presented to the learners contextually so that they could memorize situational dialogues easily and in a more meaningful way. Simulation and role play were also used during English classes. The Audio-Lingual approach brought about considerable improvements in the teaching of English and other foreign languages; many of these improvements were accompanied by the technologies that were available at the time.
According to Otto (2017), behaviourist learning theories “prompted a surge in language laboratories” (p. 12). Many educational institutions had reel-to-reel audiotape language laboratory classrooms that allowed learners to hear recordings of native speakers. The English language classes taking place in such laboratories gave learners the chance to “internalize sentence patterns and promote automaticity” (as cited in Otto, 2017, p. 12). Moreover, language laboratories were used by the teachers not only as tools to deliver repetitive drill exercises, but also as tools to deliver instructions and feedback. Some of the equipment that could be found in these language laboratories included microphones, headphones and recording devices.
This brief research points out that three of the most literature-cited language teaching approaches made regular use of technological tools in various ways. Moreover, it can be argued that the current importance of technological tools in ELT can be traced back to these three approaches, i.e., the Grammar-Translation Approach, the Direct Approach and the Audio-Lingual Approach.
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