Is There Any Best Approach, Method and Technique for ESL Classes? I Like all; I Like none
Nothing is right, nothing is wrong; everything is right, everything is wrong.
Nothing is best, nothing is worst; everything is best, everything is worst.
One day, I asked my B. Ed. students, “Which is the best method for teaching English?” They quickly responded in a single voice that the communicative method (CM) is the best method. I remained silent for a while looking around the class. All the students had the same answer. Even the students who did not respond seemed to agree in the same matter. Similarly, when I went to Bhajhang, Bajura, Doti, Dadeldhura for examination conduction and research work, I asked the same question to some English teachers there. They also answered that CM is the best method. Like them, I had the same understanding when I was a student, and before familiarizing myself with the concept of postmodernism and post-method pedagogy in ELT.
They do not seem to have postmodern mind. They were guided by the truth; rather than by a truth. They did not strive for potential perspectives and alternatives in ELT. They did not become critical rather became blind supporters. They viewed CM from BANA perspective. Postmodern mind believes that everything considerably varies according to contexts. In this connection, Tarnas (1993) writes, “There is an appreciation of the plasticity and constant change of reality and knowledge, a stress on the priority of concrete experience over fixed abstract principles, and a conviction that no single a priori thought system should govern belief or investigation.”
In this world, nothing is final, nothing is absolute and fixed; everything is relative and fallible. Postmodernism accepts multiples truths and realities in everything. The concept of postmodernism also applies in ELT. Many teachers and students are still unaware of this fact. Like in many spheres of life, innovations are also being explored in the field of ELT. Teachers and students should be familiar with the changing trends of ELT around the world. They should not be guided by the fixed ideas and values. This is the world of postmodernism; it is the world of options, possibilities, and alternatives. There are many options in every sector, for example, in education, media, communication, auto-mobile, mobiles, business, transportation, politics, manpower, politics, and fashion, etc. There is no hegemony of a single thing. The same applied in ELT. Postmodern pedagogy allows ELT to be flexible and contextual. It gives freedom to use teachers and students’ experiences, values, cultures. It also considers socio-economic status, political realities and local circumstances. Hence, we need to teach in local realities in which we find our values, cultures; rather than following others’ practices blindly. Teachers and students should keep abreast of the new trends and best practices of the world emerged in ELT, but act locally and contextually. Pertaining to it, Freeman (2008) has rightly remarked ‘think globally, act locally’.
In the past, ELT was virtually led by methodologists and experts. What they told was followed strictly by the teachers and students. The teaching learning activities which followed certain methods strictly would be counted as the good teaching. In the field of ELT, different methodologists have introduced different approaches, methods, techniques one after another rejecting and criticizing the previous ones and claiming theirs as the best ones. Over the last 100 years, the ELT professionals searched for a single, ideal method, generalizable across widely diverse student bodies around the globe. They vainly searched for the absolute method that would serve as the panacea in language teaching. However, they always failed to do so. It is because they had wrong the assumption that they could find a universal method. As a matter of fact, searching a universal method is like peeling off an onion and never getting into its core.
During 1990s, the ELT professionals came to realize that no approach/method/technique can be ideal. Actually, all approaches, methods, techniques are context specific. They can be very effective, depending on a particular context, place, students, purpose, etc. It is the context which determines how teaching and learning should take place. Hence, while teaching we should consider the contextual factors such as the place where teaching learning activities are taking place, the students and teachers, culture, time, available resources, socio-economic condition, purpose, motivation, etc. Teachers need to be able to use approaches, and methods flexibly and creatively based on their own judgments and experiences. They should look for alternatives, question the existing practices if they have doubts and explore their own practices that best befit in their contexts.
Going through the literature of language teaching, we find myriads of methods, approaches and techniques discussed by methodologists. Grammar translation method, direct method, audio-lingual method, communicative method, nativist approach, functional approach, oral structural situational approach, task-based approach, behaviorism, rationalism are to name but too few. All these have own importance in their own places. Most of these have well-established background and theory. Yet, they cannot be regarded as the best methods in all the places, for teaching all language items, and for all teachers and students. There are various views regarding the best way to teach a language. Prabhu (1990) writes:
…no single method is best for everyone, as there are important variations in the teaching context that influence what is best. The variations are of several kinds, relating to social situation (language policy, language environment, linguistic and cultural attitudes, economic and ideological factors, etc.), educational organisation (instructional objectives, constraints of time and resources, administrative efficiency, class-size, classroom ethos, etc.), teacher-related factors (status, training, belief, autonomy, skill, etc.), and learner-related factors (age, aspirations, previous learning experience, attitudes to learning, etc.). (p.162)
Regarding the best method, the prevalent notion is that if a method yields the best results in terms of learning outcomes that is the best method. Different methods are best in different teaching and learning contexts. A method which is regarded best in one context can be far removed from classroom reality, and become impractical in another context. Brown (1994, p. 15) maintains that “the best method is one which you have derived through your very own careful process of formulation, try-out, revision, and refinement.” Likewise, Tarnas (ibid) writes: “One must try the new, experiment and explore, test against subjective and objective consequences, learn from one’s mistakes, take nothing for granted, treat all as provisional, assume no absolutes.”
Brown (ibid) says that different philosophical theories have appeared and disappeared in history, so have language teaching methods ‘waxed’ and ‘waned’ in popularity. Likewise, Harmer (2008, p. 48) writes: “Both abstract theory and practical techniques have been debated, have gone in and out of fashion, and have influenced what was and is included in classrooms and teaching materials.”
The above mentioned discussion implies that no approach or method or technique, etc. can be best or worst in its own right. It is the context which makes it effective or ineffective. None of them is universal. Brown (ibid) mentions that no method can guarantee success, because every learner is unique, teacher is unique and every learner-teacher relationship is unique.
No single method can suffice to fulfill all the needs and expectations of all the learners at all times. If we talk in the context of Nepal, it is more complex. It is difficult to meet all the widely differing expectations held by individual students and too difficult to ensure that everyone learns by a single method. If we glance at most of the Nepalese ELT classrooms, we will find heterogeneous learners in terms of levels, competence, age, academic background, family background, economic background, mother tongue, personality, sex, language aptitude, learning style, culture, geography, etc. . Hence, it is a big challenge to teach ELT effectively and successfully by a single method. Hence, teacher needs to practice “enlightened” eclecticism. The teachers of English can use different approaches, methods, and techniques that can be suitable for their own classes. Therefore, some professionals started to speak death of the methods and the term ‘post-methods era’.
Richards and Rodgers (2002) have made some criticisms of approaches and methods.
The top-down criticism
Almost all the methods typically prescribe for teachers what and how to teach; they fail to consider their potential application to practical situations. The role of the teacher is sidelined; his or her role is to understand the method and apply its principles appropriately. There is often little freedom for the teacher’s own personal initiative and teaching style. Likewise, learners are sometimes viewed as the passive recipients of the method and must follow the prescribed exercises and activities strictly. But, today, it is commonly acknowledged that learners bring different learning styles and preferences to the learning process that they should be considered in the process of developing a teaching program, and that teaching methods must be flexible and adaptive to learners’ needs and interests.
Role of contextual factors
Pedagogical experts often propped up their approaches and methods as all-purpose solutions to teaching problems that can be applied all over the world and under any circumstance. That is to say, they regarded their approaches and methods as universal. In the application of approaches and methods teachers ignored the context in which teaching and learning takes place, including the cultural context, the political context, the local institutional context, and the context constituted by the teachers and learners in their classroom.
The need for curriculum development processes
Curriculum planners view debates over teaching method as part of a broader set of educational planning decisions. A careful examination of all available sources of knowledge, objectives, piloting of those methods and materials which are judged most likely to achieve the objectives which teachers agreed upon, the assessment of the work and objectives and feedback of all experience gained are to be taken into account in the process of curriculum development processes (Nicholls and Nicholls, 1972 as cited in Richards and Rodgers, 2002, p.248). Choice of teaching method cannot, therefore, be determined in isolation from other planning and implementation practices.
Lack of research basis
Approaches and methods are often based on the assumptions, claims, and assertions, without research evidence, so as to have the understanding of second language learning process. There is lack of clear evidence to be believed. Assumption cannot always be true in all contexts. Most of the approaches and methods are not empirically tested. Hence, there is the need of research over these approaches and methods.
Similarity of classroom practices
It is very difficult for teachers to apply approaches and methods in the ways that precisely mirror the underlying principles of the method. Theory and practice are not consistent with each other.
For Brown (1994) language teaching and learning should be “a principled approach” that is, having a finite number of general research-based principles on which classroom practice is grounded. He has mentioned the twelve principles, for example, automaticity, meaningful learning, the anticipation of reward, intrinsic motivation, strategic investment, language ego, self-confidence, risk taking, the language-culture connection, the native language effect, inter-language and communicative competence. This principled approach is oriented to diagnose the needs of students, to treat the students with successful pedagogical techniques and to assess the outcome of those treatments. For him, a teacher has to be engaged in diagnosing their learners’ needs, offer treatment as per the needs and assigning the effectiveness of their own practices.
To conclude, we can say that all approaches, methods and techniques cannot work in all contexts. We should not take them for granted. We should raise vital questions if we have some doubts and adapt them as per our contexts instead. Therefore, we should remake, reset, rethink, revisit, and reinvent the teaching learning activities for our lessons ourselves.
Mr. Paudel is a teaching assistant at Dandeldhura Campus ,Dandeldhura and he has been teaching English for Nepalese learners of English over the last seven years.
Brown, H. D. (1994a). Principles of language learning and teaching. London: Prentice Hall.
___(2002). English language teaching in the “Post-method” Era: toward better diagnosis, treatment, and assessment. In Richards and Renandya
(eds.). Methodology in language teaching. Cambridge: CUP.
Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English language teaching. London: Longman.
(2008). How to teach English. London: Longman.
Prabhu, N. S. (1990). There is no best method- why? TESOL Quarterly Journal.
Richards, J. C. and W. A., Renandya (eds.) (2010). Methodology in language teaching. Cambridge: CUP.
Trana, R. (1993). The Passion of the western mind: Understanding the ideas that have shaped our ideas. Random House Publishing Group