What principles guide your teaching practice?

By Mark Hershey

Mark Hershey has been living and teaching in Asia for over a dozen years.  He is especially interested in theories of learning.

I had no idea what I was doing the first time I walked into an English as a second language classroom. On that day I was volunteering to substitute for an absent teacher at a refugee and immigration center. As I faced a group of about 20 students from the Ukraine, Laos, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Armenia, my palms were sweating, my face was sweating, and I even believe my voice was sweating. It did not help much that a week before at the same centre, I watched a teacher conduct a class by merely using a series of hand signals, gestures, and facial contortions. Later, he explained to me that he was using The Silent Way and he swore by its efficacy – ‘the only language teaching method you will ever need.’ I managed to muddle my way through that first lesson using my own interpretation of his instructions. Despite possibly giving a Hmong woman or two a fright with my facial expressions, I think they all got something out of it. I could see the benefits of this method, but as a total system for teaching I did not think it would suit me. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work with another teacher at the centre who introduced me to what she called The Language Experience Method. I had asked her previously if she had used The Silent Way and she said, ‘No, I prefer the Talky, Talky Way.’ This method consisted of having the students draw pictures of their experiences, writing captions for the pictures at whatever level they were at (as simple as a word, as complex as a paragraph). The students could then orally explain their picture stories to other students. The teacher’s role was mostly to facilitate; occasionally the teacher could add one or two grammar or lexical items to the story. Students could also collaborate to add a word or two to another story if one student was at a higher level than another, and if the context of the situation was sensitive for that type of interaction. Before I had even heard the name Lev Vygotsky, I was introduced to a method that was meant to bridge the gap between learner knowledge and mentor competence. This way of teaching was much more suitable to my personality, yet I could see it also had its limitations. One more teacher at the same language centre ran her class like a military sergeant (granted a military sergeant who smiled a lot) as students merely engaged in substitution drills the whole time. I experimented with this method, and found it useful within limits, but did not think that I would use this method the whole time or as the main focus of my teaching.

Around this same time period, I had the opportunity to sit in on a class at a community college. I had a brief meeting with the teacher before, but he did not give me much clue as to how he taught. When he arrived to class he was carrying two enormous suitcases, proceeding to unload the items on some tables at the side of the room: play money, toy cars, skillets and spatulas, wigs, cups, bottles of water, play houses, hammers, wooden boards, nails, and a sundry of many other items. Fairly quickly the class was a whirl of activity, with first the teacher, and then the students, barking orders at each other to give, pour, hammer, drive, shave, comb, pay, receive and do just about every human activity one could think of that could be accomplished with the items in his suitcase. I was to discover later that this was referred to as the TPR method of teaching or Total Physical Response.

Later, when I went to Japan to teach for a language school, I attended workshops that introduced other promising language teaching methods. One workshop was about the Present, Practice, Produce method (or PPP). Teachers presented linguistic or topical input, the students practiced it in a controlled exchange, and then produced it in a somewhat freer, more meaningful exchange. Another workshop was about how all of teaching could be turned into a game. A workshop for teaching children introduced some methods that seemed to employ both game playing practices and elements of the Silent Way. Instructions for teachers were to rely on certain gestures and also to make exaggerated faces to illustrate the various emotions. When I tried this, attempting, as the guide had said, to ‘look quizzical, with an expression of extraordinary wonder and curiosity on your face,’ one little girl burst into tears. As I further progressed in my teaching career, as well in my education, I eschewed certain methods that seemed less pedagogically sound than others. Nevertheless, I did retain elements of many of these various approaches, depending on the context I was teaching in.

My own experience of teaching was to mirror, to some extent, the history of language teaching itself, marked by stumbling, experimental episodes, periods of confidence, with a return to futher stumbling, exploratory searches for better approaches and methods. The wide range of teaching methodologies that were churned out in the past century have included highly structured approaches such as Audio-Lingualism as well as a host of methods falling under the umbrella of Communicative Language Teaching, including Task-Based Language Teaching. In recent years, however, some language teaching theorists and linguists have suggested that the era of methods is over. We are in a phase in the field that liberally borrows from the cornucopia of past and present methods, but is informed by a set of best practices or principles that cut across many of them. In his 2006 book Understanding Language Teaching – From Method to Postmethod, B. Kumaravadivelu presented 10 Macro-Strategies that underpin sound teaching practices from a variety of methodological assumptions:

1. Maximize learning opportunities

2. Facilitate negotiated interactions

3. Minimize perceptual mismatches

4. Activate intuitive heuristics

5. Foster language awareness

6. Contextualize linguistic input

7. Integrate language skills

8. Promote learner autonomy

9. Ensure social relevance

10. Raise cultural consciousness

All of these deserve further elaboration, but in the interest of space I will just elaborate on a few of these that might not seem so immediately transparent.

Facilitating negotiated interactions means ensuring exchanges where ‘learners have an opportunity to initiate and navigate interaction.’ Kumaravadivelu further explains that research results have demonstrated that ‘what enables learners to move beyond their current receptive and expressive capacities are opportunities to modify and restructure their interaction with their interlocutors until mutual comprehension is reached.’

Minimizing perceptual mismatches refers to seeking to bridge the gap between the teacher’s intentions, plans, and goals and the learner’s interpretations of those features. Good practices involve continually seeking out student impressions of lesson plans and guidelines and helping students to narrow the gap between the teacher’s intentions and approaches and the student’s interpretation of those intentions and approaches.

Activating intuitive heuristics is in reference to weaknesses in methodology that sought to explicitly analyse, explain, and instruct the whole of the language system beyond the elementary level, especially before students had a chance to meet and muddle through a practice in the language system. The complexity of the language system renders such an endeavour generally out of reach of the average learner. Results of such teaching have not been promising. A better alternative is to use a heuristic approach, which allows more time in the experience or practice in the structure of the language. As Chomsky says, quoted by Kumaravadivelu , teachers should design classroom activities that ‘give free play to those creative principles that humans bring to the process of learning a language.’ In addition, Chomsky suggests providing a ‘rich linguistic environment for the intuitive heuristics that a normal human being automatically possesses.’ Instead of starting with long lists of rules to explain, it is better to immerse students in the language they are meeting, and let them gradually discover the rules for themselves, with teacher guidance as needed.

Of the strategies presented by Kumaravadivelu, two especially have stood out for me. As I progressed in my own teaching career (and as I engaged in skirmishes with languages like Japanese, Thai or Vietnamese) I came to believe it is especially important to provide opportunities for contextualization of linguistic input. When students are learning grammar or lexis they need access to text or audio materials as references. They also need opportunities to apply and experiment with new linguistic input in the four skills. Additionally, learner opportunities for discovery and experimentation with the language system, before delving into any analysis and explanation, strike me as especially important. I believe students learn more through osmosis and immersion than through examining reams of explanatory texts. Most likely this practice would fall under the activating intuitive heuristics strategy. Another practice I find useful that might come under this heading is the recycling and/or transformation of tasks. In the old Present,Practice,Produce method, and some other methods of teaching that are sometimes called Communicative, lessons are often taught as one-off activities. When I first became acquainted with this method, I focused on creating entertaining activities for learners, with numerous activities following one after the other in a short time period. Of course I would not argue that one should avoid creating engaging materials or that such materials do not have value if they are entertaining. The problem is sometimes one of emphasis and opportunity cost. With the PPP style of teaching, there are fewer opportunities to go in depth into the four skills and to reflect on learning. Recycling of an activity, however (as in TBLT), after the teacher and the class have examined what has been learned in the first cycle, and exploring what (and how much) new grammar and lexis can be introduced again, allows the teacher and learners to bridge the gap between their respective levels of knowledge. Most importantly it allows learners opportunities to notice how they have progressed from the first cycle of the task to the last cycle. Transformations of tasks (such as first having students write a newspaper article on a theme, then turn it into a role play) allows for similar possibilities to witness acquisition of new language. Delving this deeply into the task, however, involves negotiation with the program, one’s colleagues and supervisors, and the institution one teaches for, and is unfortunately not always possible given these various constraints. Admittedly in my own teaching practice, it is also very much a work in progress, and I cannot claim that I am always able to pull it off to a degree I find fully satisfactory.

Arguably, the few points I have outlined above are simply elements of Task-Based Language Teaching. Some would say that TBLT is more of an approach than a method (an approach being broader in practices and principles than a method). If we follow this line of thinking, then it is not that we have entered a new era; it is just that our definition of TBLT needs to more liberally embrace the strategies outlined above.


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About MarkHersh

A blog about living and working in Asia and other random musings

6 responses to “What principles guide your teaching practice?”

  1. Heather Swenddal says :

    Wonderful points, Mr. Hershey! I share your appreciation of the post-method era, with its focus on objectives and strategies over prescriptive (and often philosophically dubious) formulae. You’ve reminded me here of Doug Brown’s celebration of eclecticism in language teaching. Guided by principles that we value (like Kumaravadivelu’s macro-strategies), the eclectic teacher can use aspects of various methods to accomplish specific aims, without being beholden to one method’s narrow view of teaching and learning.

    Thank you, also, for placing TBLT under the umbrella of CLT, where it belongs. Let’s hope that these remain approaches, not methods. I fear it might be impossible, though, for these to retain their post-method elasticity; it’s probably a natural human tendency to systematize procedures (dare I say it? What is the CELTA but CLT-as-method?). But if people like you keep emphasizing principles, strategies and (my pet focus) objectives, maybe we can stave off the norming for a few more decades. Here’s to eclecticism!

    • Mark Hershey says :

      Thanks for the comments, Heather. I found the discussion of eclectism and so on very interesting. I’m curious how you are defining “objectives” and how it’s distinguished from “principles” or Kumaravadivelu’s “strategies” which I’m kind of using interchangeably. Care to elaborate? Also, I actually had mixed feelings about placing Task-Based Language Teaching in the Communicative Language Teaching category. On the one hand, it IS communicative so it’s easy to see how it belongs, especially if CLT is defined as an approach. The danger that I’m concerned about though is that I do think that TBLT theorists, at least the camp of Ellis and the two Willises (The Willisi?) et al, really were creating a radical departure from many other older, CLT methods when they came up with it (or rather how it evolved out of a variety of experiments…I have an impression that it evolved and is evolving, rather than it was created). The attention to running tasks in cycles, of letting students reflect on how much they learned from one cyle to the other, seemed like one important departure. Another was letting the language emerge out of the task rather than pre-selecting it; this seemed like an even more radical shift (yet, admittedly, some tasks at least try to predict language options for students). So, I wouldn’t want to say that it really wasn’t anything new when it came along, or that it’s just dressed up CLT; that could lead to a lack of attention to important elements of TBLT. Additionally, it strikes me as closer to what happens in actual language acquisition than some of the older CLT methods. As opposed to Present/Practice/Produce, students are Meeting the language, Muddling through it, and then Meeting it again, albeit in a little more modified form, and it’s negotiated (who was it that described this as Meet/Muddle/Meet?). Also, when I was looking over Kumaravadivelu’s strategies it seemed to me that most of them were in keeping with TBLT, that they were elements of it. And some older methods probably do not fit under any of these strategies very well, like engaging in decontextualized drilling. However, I like what you are saying about eclecticism and the importance of not falling into dogmatism no matter how compelling one might find a method. Hence, the need for Macro-Strategies of some sort. Maybe even there are times that even something that has fallen out of favor in teaching, really might have a place. Perhaps after a task has been complete (if that’s how you like to roll), one could engage the students in a substitution drill if that seemed to make sense for those students. If students come from a background where that’s how they have learned in the past, perhaps it would make sense to use that occasionally, especially if they found it motivating. This would lead me to add one more strategy to K’s list: “Be Sensitive to the Cultural Context.” So, it raises a question for me about the tension between follwing sound principles and letting it all hang out, if you will (though I’m sure that’s not what you or Doug Brown are saying). Maybe the trick is finding the right sweet spot in between.

      Speaking of the context of the situation, one problem I have found with TBLT is that it can take a lot of time, if one wants to engage in any recycling. I ran into this a couple of weeks ago when the students in one of my classes were doing a role play. I wanted to run it again, but thought better of it at the moment for two reasons. There were other things they needed to do, and I intuitively sensed they wouldn’t want to do it again immediately. So, I thought we’d try to do another round later in the week. Never happened as other things needed doing, and I ended up feeling like I had failed a bit on that task, even though the students were heavily engaged in the first cycle. Perhaps there are ways to modify it so that, if time does not allow, a complete recyling from beginning to end is not necessary; or maybe it can be truncated; or maybe something else can be substituted so that at least some of what was learned could be tested in some other way (a take-home transformative task?). Or finally, maybe one could run a pre-task that would be shorter and something of a test to see where students were in the content and the language before beginning. Well as I said in the article, for me it’s a work in progress. And who knows, maybe years from now, there will be new ways of approaching the whole language learning process we haven’t considered. No doubt.

      • Mark Hershey says :

        Just to follow up on that last note in brief: maybe it’s would be too dogmatic to insist that every task need be run in cycles: better to put it as a strategy like this, perhaps?: “There should be a mechanism for teachers and students to collectively notice the language and content they are familiar with prior to or during a task or activity, and then for both parties to be able to notice what new language or content has emerged out of the process when they have finished a task or activity.”

  2. Heather Swenddal says :

    Wow, lucky me: engaging with the author! Dialogism at its most explicit!

    To clarify, I’m using “objectives” in a narrower way than “principles” and “macro-strategies,” which I’m using somewhat interchangably as long as we’re talking about Kumaravadivelu’s version of this latter term. (Though the phrasing would be different, I suppose: “Teachers should” or the like versus an imperative). Objectives, I would say, are more closely tied to a teacher’s knowledge of the class and its students: an attempt to apply strategies/principles on a more micro level to achieve certain aims.

    Regarding the issue of TBLT’s categorization (alternative to CLT or instantiation of it), I couldn’t resist pulling out my trusty H.D. Brown book that I schlepped across the Pacific for moments such as this! This excerpt might provide some clarification–however tinged as it is with Brown’s view:

    “One of the most prominent perspectives within the CLT framework is Task-Based Language Teaching. While some researchers (Kumaravadivelu, 2006a) argue that TBLT is a significantly different approach, other proponents (Ellis, 2003) would claim that TBLT is at the very heart of CLT.”

    That he used those names in that way I found fascinating. Of course, maybe he’s misunderstanding Ellis; maybe we should pull that up, as it’s been far too long for me to be sure! I suspect, though, that what this comes down to is exactly what you said: if CLT is an approach with “many interpretations and manifestations” (Brown, paraphrasing others, including Savignon, 2005), TBLT is just one of those manifestations. Kumaravadievlu seems to see CLT quite differently: as a problem-laden method in need of being replaced with TBLT.

    I should be clear that despite my preference for Brown’s view of CLT as encompassing TBLT, I’m really not trying to be a cheerleader for any particular researcher’s view on this. There are many different perspectives out there, and I’m just curious to understand them. Did you see the Diane Larsen-Freeman video I posted on the Prof Learning page? She problematizes the very terminology that our conversation is grounded on, purposely conflating “method” and “approach.”

    It’s Pandora’s Box!

    • Mark Hershey says :

      Hi, Heather, thanks for clarifying. Reading all this and thinking about it some more makes me think that what’s most important is how these various approaches or methods are realized; not so much the labels they fit under. Certainly the way Willis, Kumaravadivelu, and even Ellis *describe* or recommend how TBLT should be carried out, suggests that they see it as something quite distinct from older, specific methods of CLT (though, not necessarily CLT as an approach – and that’s where I guess Kumaravadivelu and Ellis differ – as you’ve made clear).

  3. Mark Hershey says :

    Since I wrote this, I’ve been mulling over how an idea of macro-strategies differs from methods. One conclusion I’ve come to is that in an explicit, specific method, there’s a set of prescribed stages that are recommended to follow: a beginning stage, steps that follow from that, and a place to end up. However, macro-strategies are non-linear. You foster language awareness at any point in the lesson. You can seek to narrow the gap between learner perceptions and your intentions also at any point in your lesson, in the beginning, middle or end.

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