We Don’t Need No…Methodology

A couple of weeks ago, in listening to teawithBVP — a weekly radio show focusing on language education and second language acquisition hosted by self-proclaimed SLA diva, Bill Van Patten — I had an aha! moment. This episode centered on the role of methodology courses in teacher-education programs; toward the end of the show, BVP said this:

“Teachers don’t need methods; they need principles to evaluate methods that are given to them.”

This really resonated with me, not least because this is precisely the solution to the problem I discussed in an earlier blog post. That is, nowadays, with so many new methodologies, techniques, and technologies, perhaps the most important concentration during (and after) teacher-education programs should be learning and keeping in mind the fundamentals, which, as I see it, can be grouped into two categories: 1) how languages are learned (i.e., SLA) and 2) what it means to “speak” a language.

The first category includes questions of input, feedback, output, the nature of communication, focus on form, etc. If teachers truly understand these concepts and their role in language acquisition, then they will be well prepared to evaluate new methodologies and technologies and decide whether they are appropriate for their students. I know, I know — is there really any agreement in the SLA literature on these fundamental issues? While I agree that there isn’t broad consensus on some of these issues, there is consensus on many, such as the primacy of input. And, where there is still some disagreement, I’d argue that, even in these cases, there is enough agreement to evaluate and greatly whittle down the pool of methodological and technological options. To give an example, the research on grammar instruction has pretty clearly demonstrated that “focus on formS” is ineffective and, in fact, can lead to regression (yet, interestingly, it continues to be somewhat popular nowadays, both in the classroom and in publishing houses). The real controversy in this area centers on the other two options for grammar instruction, namely, “focus on meaning” and “focus on form.” However, in the whole scheme of things, these two techniques are not all that different and share many of the same characteristics (focus on communication, primacy of meaning, etc.). Forget this disagreement for a moment — just think how different the available body of curricula, materials and instruction would look if teachers and materials writers discounted “focus on formS” in favor of “focus on meaning” or “focus on form.”

The second category — what does it mean to “speak” a language? — can be addressed through careful study of proficiency standards. I particularly like the ACTFL standards (probably, in part, due to the training mentioned below), but there are of course of other options (CEFR, ILR, Pearson GSE, etc.). This is essential because it gives teachers a firm understanding of language proficiency, which they can in turn use to formulate and assess student learning outcomes. What’s more, it provides a common language for teachers, programs, etc. to discuss students’ levels and progress. Without proficiency standards, my “advanced” or “intermediate” is bound to be different from yours. I’ve often said that one of the most influential training experiences I’ve had (the source of many, many “aha! moments”) is the 4-day ACTFL OPI workshop, which provided me with a firm of understanding of language proficiency in general and assessment in particular. Unfortunately, during my master’s program in applied linguistics, I had little exposure to proficiency standards and assessment, yet all of my language-teaching activities now revolve around these standards.

Armed with knowledge of these two categories, teachers are much better positioned to select (or even develop) more sound methods, techniques, and technologies. They are able to ask important questions like “does this syllabus provide for sufficient comprehensible input?,” “does that method provide ample opportunities for my students to communicate in authentic tasks?,” or “how does this lesson plan relate to my students’ current level of proficiency and how will it help them get to the next level?”

As I’ve mentioned previously, my resolution for this year is to solidify my understanding of these fundamentals and to move them closer to the front of mind. I think the field in general would benefit from the same.

For further reading (related, in particular, to EdTech), check out this blog post by Scott Thornbury, in which he describes an SLA-based framework for developing and evaluating EdTech.

You can also check out episode 14 of teawithBVP mentioned above (or other episodes) at https://soundcloud.com/teawithbvp.