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Delta Module One Course


Syllabus area 2
Approaches and methodologies


This section of the course covers the second area of the Delta Module One syllabus.  At the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Identify and compare different methodological perspectives and approaches
  • Describe current developments in ELT
  • Critically assess and evaluate the practical effectiveness of various approaches, methodologies and techniques in different contexts and learning environments

This guide will lead you to all three targets.
From time to time, you will invited to go off to guides on other parts of this site to consolidate what you have learned and there will be some worksheet tests of your understanding as we go along.


An overview of what you need to know

  1. A methodology will be based on two theories:
    1. what language is.
      That is to say, whether it is a system of meanings set in discoverable grammar rules or whether it is primarily a communicative tool in which rules and the memorisation of vocabulary play little part.
    2. what learning is.
      That is to say, whether it is a matter of acquiring good habits, of repeating what one hears or making an internal grammar of the language alongside a set of precepts about how the language is used.
  2. A methodology will be recognisable because the design of materials and teaching procedures will reflect one or other of the first two theories.
  3. The teaching techniques and procedures adopted in the classroom will be appropriate to the underlying theories from which the educator / trainer / coach / materials writer etc. is / are working.

This section of the course is designed to help you identify these three aspects of a methodology and to be able to engage in some critical discussion of them.
If you come across a piece of material and a proposed way of using it in the classroom (for example, listening to a tape recording of models of vowel sounds and requiring the learners to repeat them), then you should be well placed to speculate intelligently about the teacher / course materials writer's underlying assumptions about both learning and language.

The main guide which we shall use in this section is entitled Methodology unpacked and refined and you will shortly be asked to access it.
Before then, however, we'll lay some groundwork.


What qualifies as a methodology?

Unfortunately, the term methodology is used very loosely because it is employed in non-technical areas and in areas far removed from English language teaching.
We need, at the outset to define our terms because in the examination you will be expected to apply terms such as approach, technique and method with a certain care.
Here's an overview of a popular way of defining the term for us, taken from the guide you will shortly encounter.
A methodology contains three elements:

  1. The approach
    This concerns a twofold understanding of
    1. What language is
    2. How language is learned
  2. The design
    This concerns the practical implications of the approach to issues such as syllabus design, the role of learners, the role of the teacher, the activities which are undertaken in the classroom and the ways the materials are presented.  It also concerns overall lesson design, e.g., Task-based, Test–Teach–Test or Presentation–Practice–Production formats.
  3. The procedure
    This refers to what we can see happening in the classroom and concerns teaching techniques, ways of approaching skills and systems lessons, error handling, questioning, elicitation and so on.

Area 1 of this course, theoretical perspectives, has covered theories of how learning happens in some depth and how the assumptions which materials writers (and teachers) have concerning the process affects the design of the material and the tasks which accompany it.
This part of the course is concerned with the rest of a methodology.

  1. Download and print the worksheet for this task.
  2. Think for a moment about your own views of the methodology you use in the classroom.  Assuming you are not completely random in your approach to teaching, there will be underlying assumptions that you make about what language is and how it is learned.
    What are these assumptions?  Write them on the worksheet.
  3. Now think about three techniques, tasks or procedures you used in your last (successful) lesson.
    How was your choice of these influenced by what you believe?
    Was it?

Now click here for some comments.


What is language?

This seems a simple question but the answers people provide will, if they are in a position to act on them, radically affect how they design materials and activities in a classroom.
Fundamentally, there are two opposing camps: those who view language as a system of grammar, phonology and lexis and those who view it as a way to communicate.
These are not necessarily mutually exclusive views, of course, but the emphasis one places on one type of analysis or the other will be very influential.
We can discern four ways to answer the question:

  1. Language is a system
    If you view language as a system of lexemes, phonemes, structures and grammar, which it is, of course, then you will emphasise what Chomsky refers to as competence (i.e., the language that in theory can be formed) over performance (what people actually say and write).
    This is a structuralist view of language (and within structuralism there are many competing theories about what the structure actually is).
    Materials and teaching techniques (the design of the course) will focus on formal matters above all.
  2. Language is a communicative mechanism
    If you view language as a way of communicating ideas between people, which it is, of course, then you will emphasise performance over competence.  Although most theories of communicative competence will state that formal linguistic competence (the ability to produce well-formed utterances) is part of the ability to use language to communicate, they will not stop there.
    Materials and teaching techniques (the design of the course) will focus on communicative ability above all.
  3. Language is a marker of identity
    The view here, which does not compete with the first two views is that the language we speak confirms in part who we are or think we are.
    Materials and teaching techniques (the design of the course) will have some focus on affective factors and may make efforts to personalise the language which is produced and practised.
  4. Language is a cultural artefact
    The view here, again, not incompatible with the previous three views, is that language is a culturally formed system of meanings which determine how we think about the world and are determined by the needs of the society in which the language developed.
    Materials and teaching techniques (the design of the course) will focus on the concepts and cultural influences on the target language.  The argument will be that it is difficult to understand and use any other language unless you know something about the environment, activities, needs and concerns of the people who speak it.

These four views are considered in slightly more depth in the guide.

Now, you have a mini-task.

reading Most professionals in this area actually hold all four views simultaneously because they are not mutually exclusive.  If that is your position:
  1. Decide whether you hold each of the four views by re-reading the descriptions and then ...
  2. ... think of an example for each one you hold.

Your response is unpredictable so there's no right answer (although there are numbers of wrong answers).  If, in what follows, you replace references to your teaching with references to my materials, you will be putting yourself in the shoes of a materials designer and that's a good way to approach the task that asks you to do this in the examination.
Some suggestions:

You may like to re-read this section now, replacing reference to your teaching with reference to the materials I have designed.


Theoretical influences on design

This is something of an elephant in many classrooms, unnoticed but important.
Before taking a course at this sort of level, many teachers use materials because they are appealing, carry out techniques because they seem to work (or are engaging and enjoyable), use activities which get people talking or moving and so on, all without properly considering what principles underlie what they do.
Delta-level people know better and one of the functions of the Module One examination is to make sure they do.

We have already seen that a theoretical standpoint concerning how people learn language (whether their first or later ones) will have profound effects on materials, tasks and activities.
Now it is time to look at some other facets of what goes on in classrooms to try to see what hypotheses about language and learning are affecting them.

The essence of noticing is that learners need to have their attention drawn to specific features of the language so they can notice either how the language works or how their own production differs from, and is probably inferior to, a native-speaker model (or near offer).
Clearly, if language is seen as an unconsciously acquired (rather than learned) communicative tool, whether people consciously notice differences in the language they produce from what they are presented with makes no difference and is not important.
Noticing techniques will, however, be central to people whose theoretical perspective is that language is a system and its acquisition requires real cognitive effort.
Materials which use highlighting of one form or another can be expected to flow from this theoretical source.
This means that tasks in which learners are asked, for example, to focus on the underlined words or look at the words Mary uses etc. are consciously using noticing as a technique.
Clearly, again, someone who believes that language can be learned through a process of good habit formation and that can be encouraged by reinforcement of correct production will have little truck with the idea of allowing (or even encouraging) learners to guess at meaning and predict accurately from what is already known.
Someone who thinks language is learnt by making connections or by forming hypotheses will be more concerned about inferencing.  If that is allied to a belief that language is primarily about communication not accuracy, then inferencing techniques will form a part of course and materials design.
This means that you should be alert to materials which ask the learners to work out the meaning of words from co-text and match the meanings to definitions or graphics and similar tasks.  Including such tasks is tantamount to assuming that inferring meaning is both possible and useful.
This is more than helping or assisting as the guide to it tries to make clear.  It is linked to the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development because it is here that the teacher can engage the learner(s) in recognising the usefulness of targets, maintaining interest in their fulfilment and supplying just enough help, but no more, for them to be able to achieve a task.
Closely allied to scaffolding techniques and materials is the concept (from Krashen) of comprehensible input.
Materials writers from both traditions will take pains to ensure that the language presented is comprehensible and manageable even if it contains new target items and skills.
Materials which, for example, contain authentic or quasi-authentic materials which are clearly just above the level of the learners are included by materials writers who see comprehensible input and the effort to keep learners in the ZPD as important aids to learning.
Input and Intake
Cognitivists will have a lot to say about the ways in which input is converted to intake (and, eventually, output) through a process of engaging attention, lodging the item in short-term memory and then working on it in order that it can find its place in the long-term memory store (rehearsal and retrieval, in the jargon).
It is also not an idea that behaviourist theories will have much trouble with because underlying an audio-lingual approach is a process of drawing the learners' attention to a language item and, through a combination of imitation and repetition (rehearsal and retrieval is another way of saying that) lodging the data in the learners' long-term memories, ready to be retrieved and produced as the occasion arises for it.
When items are recycled in a set of materials, this is evidence that the writer of the materials believes that recycling helps to move items from the short- to the long-term memory and may also be evidence that the same writer believes that recycling helps to move lexis from the passive to active memory store.
Structuring lessons
Lesson structure is a key part of course and materials design and heavily influenced by theoretical understanding of approaches.
If one believes that, for example, error is to be avoided because it interferes with habit formation then a Test–Teach–Test (TTT) approach will be anathematic.  If, however, one believes that language is acquired in the effort to communicate then that approach to lesson design or a task-based approach will sit comfortably with the theoretical predispositions of the designer.
Look at the structure of the materials with which you are presented and try to see whether a TTT, PPP or TBL approach is being taken (or whether a combination is identifiable).  That will tell you a good deal about the writer's assumptions concerning the best lesson shape for learning.

Now, you have another mini-task.

think Most teachers use all five of these elements of lesson design because they are not mutually exclusive.  If that is your practice:
  1. Decide whether you do, in fact use the procedures and techniques re-reading the descriptions and then ...
  2. ... think of an example for each one you use.

There is no right answer.

If, as before, you replace references in the following to your teaching and your lessons with references to my materials, you will be putting yourself in the shoes of a materials designer and that's a good way to approach the task that asks you to do this in the examination.

Some suggestions include, however:


Theoretical influences on techniques and activities

Teachers are rarely free, if they are using published course materials, to select any technique or procedure that pleases them.  Many materials designers would aver that they shouldn't be.
Built in, therefore, to many materials are activities and teaching procedures (another word for techniques for some) which betray the materials constructor's view of what language is and how it is learnt (or acquired).  Teacher's guides to materials are often quite explicit in this regard.
For example:

Writing down what you hear
Many materials require learners to take notes, write what they hear or match what they hear to the written word.
All such techniques are based on the implicit understanding that doing so is a cognitive process which focuses learners on structures in the language, even if they are not overtly looking for how the structure realises a function.
These sorts of activities stem from the understanding, too, that language is a system of structures and that these have to be identified (i.e., noticed) before they can be learned and used.  They do not come from an understanding that language can be acquired from appropriately graded exposure or from one which assumes that repetition leads to learning.
Asking questions
Many materials elicit or require the teacher to elicit facts, views, opinions and experiences from learners.  Often, such techniques come at the beginning of teaching units masquerading as schema activation procedures.
A theoretical standpoint which views competence as more important than performance or views error as a failure will not lead to activities like these.
However, from a social interaction point of view such activities are important because they often personalise a topic and enhance learning through motivational factors.
A firmly structuralist view of language will have little time for such activities because the outcomes are often random collections of structures which have no clear connections.
Talk to your partner
Activities which require learners to exchange views or information stem from the view that language is essentially a communicative tool and not, primarily, a set of structures.  People who believe that language is socially constructed will place a good deal of emphasis on interpersonal activities like these.
The view is reinforced if one also believes that personalising an activity makes it memorable and motivating.
Audio-lingual / behaviourist approaches will not involve such activities as part of the design of materials or courses because there is no overt structural focus and chatting is simply a waste of valuable classroom time.
Those who are convinced that language is a system of forms and structures will have less time for the development of skills because mastering the forms of the language will naturally lead to better spoken and written production and more effective listening and reading comprehension.
From a social interactionist standpoint, however, skills will be forefronted because it is by appreciating audience, interlocutor's intentions, communicative purposes of texts and so on that language ability is built.
Strictly acquisition-led approaches will also contain a good deal of skills work because, by its nature, it allows the learners to encounter rich data from which to learn.

Now, you have a slightly larger task.

  1. Download and print the worksheet for this task.
  2. Work through the guide to methodology refined.
    The guide will open in a new tab so simply close it to come back.
  3. Complete the worksheet without, preferably, referring to the guide.
    Take your time.

Welcome back!  Now click here for some comments.


Are we nearly there, yet?

What we have covered in these first two guides will allow you to tackle the questions based on these concepts with some confidence.  However, if you aim a bit higher than just passing the Module One examination (or, indeed, if you find the area quite interesting), you may like to consult some of the other related guides on this site.

All the guides open in an new tab so simply close them to return.
You may already feel that you have learned enough, of course, and if you are confident when you take the examination practice tests, there is no need to go any further.

Guides you may want to follow
The history and development of ELT a guide to how methodology has developed over the years.  It will also act as some revision.
Communicative Language Teaching a guide to the dominant methodology in ELT including some criticisms of it
Methodology index the index to all the other guides in the in-service section of this site which concern methodologies
Ten types of Resources a guide to how resources fit in with the theoretical standpoints
Noticing the dedicated guide to this increasingly important area
Post-method methodology a guide which considers whether methodologies are now outmoded and too constraining
Language and thought a guide which considers the idea of language as a cultural artefact in some detail


If you have time ...

Now you are well placed to browse the materials on the shelves in your institution or home and get some solid practice in evaluating them by asking these questions:

  1. What theory (if any) of what language is lie behind the design of the materials and, especially, the activities and tasks?  Consider:
    1. Do the designers believe language is primarily a set of skills?
    2. Do the designers believe language is a set of grammatical structures and lexis?
    3. Do the designers believe that language is a means of communication and a set of communicative functions and notions?
  2. What theory (if any) of learning lies behind the design of the materials and, especially, the activities and tasks?  Consider:
    1. Is learning a matter of acquiring good habits?
    2. Is learning an active cognitive process which requires learners to develop and refine hypotheses about the language and its structures?
    3. Is learning enhanced by repetition and imitation?
    4. Is learning a collaborative process?
    5. Can language be learned (or acquired) by solving problems and undertaking tasks?

where next

Where next?

Here are the choices:

A set of tests to check what you can remember.  Do these first.
Revision course index there is a section of the Delta Module One Revision Course for this area of the syllabus
Examination practice apply the knowledge you have gained to practising for the examination (new tab)

index small exam practice
course index exam practice