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Methods, post-method, and mtodos

Submitted by Scott Thornbury on 27 May, 2009 - 15:06 This is the first of two articles by Scott Thornbury for TeachingEnglish.

'A language teaching method is a single set of procedures which teachers are to follow in the classroom. Methods are usually based on a set of beliefs about the nature of language and learning.' (Nunan, 2003, p. 5).

Ask teachers what method they subscribe to, and most will answer either that they dont follow a method at all, or that they are 'eclectic', and pick and choose from techniques and procedures associated with a variety of different methods. Some might add that, essentially, their teaching follows the principles laid down by the communicative approach, itself a mixed bag, embracing anything from drills to communicative tasks, and everything in between. But the concept of a single, prescriptive 'method' - as in the Direct Method, or the Oral Method seems now to be dead and buried.

The end of methods

The demise of method is consistent with the widely held view that we are now in a 'postmethod' era. Thus, as long ago as 1983, Stern declared that 'several developments indicate a shift in language pedagogy away from the single method concept as the main approach to language teaching' (1983, p. 477). One such development was the failure, on the part of researchers, to find any significant advantage in one method over another. As Richards (1990) noted, 'studies of the effectiveness of specific methods have had a hard time demonstrating that the method itself, rather than other factors, such as the teachers enthusiasm, or the novelty of the new method, was the crucial variable' (p. 36). Moreover, recognition of the huge range of variables that impact on second language learning fuelled a general disenchantment with the notion of a 'quick fix', or what, in the social sciences, is sometimes called the 'technical-rational approach', i.e. the notion that social change and improvement can be effected through the strict application of scientific method. This had very much been the mind-set that impelled the spread of audiolingualism, founded as it was on (now largely discredited) research into animal behaviour. The last decades of the last century, however, witnessed a challenge to 'scientism' in the social sciences, a challenge associated with the advent of postmodernism, and its rejection of the idea of universalist, objective knowledge. Accordingly, Pennycook (1989) argued that methods are never 'disinterested', but serve the dominant power structures in society, leading to 'a de-skilling of the role of teachers, and greater institutional control over classroom practice'(p. 610).

The postmethod era

At around the same time, Kumaravadivelu (1994) identified what he called the 'postmethod condition', a result of 'the widespread dissatisfaction with the conventional concept of method' (p. 43). Rather than subscribe to a single set of procedures, postmethod teachers adapt their approach in accordance with local, contextual factors, while at the same time

being guided by a number of 'macrostrategies'. Two such macrostrategies are 'Maximise learning opportunities' and 'Promote learner autonomy'. And in a much-cited paper in 1990, Prabhu argued that there is no one method, but that individual teachers fashion an approach that accords uniquely with their 'sense of plausibility.'

Nevertheless, and in spite of the claims of the postmethodists, the notion of method does not seem to have gone away completely. In fact, it seems to be doggedly persistent, even if the term itself is often replaced by its synonyms. In the on-line advertising for language courses, for example, we find the following:

'Developed and used over years in the classroom, the earworms mbt method has shown phenomenal success.'

'The Byki approach to learning languages is the fastest possible way to lock foreign words and phrases in your long-term memory.'

'Rosetta Stone software is built around a concept called Dynamic Immersion, an [sic] unique learning method that uses a computer to mimic the ways in which you learnt your first language.'

It seems that in the public mind, at least the method concept is not dead. As Block (2001) notes, 'while method has been discredited at an etic level (that is in the thinking and nomenclature of scholars), it certainly retains a great deal of vitality at the grass-roots, emic level (that is, it is still part of the nomenclature of lay people and teachers)' (p. 72). This is a view echoed by Bell (2007) who interviewed a number of teachers on the subject, and concluded:

'Methods, however the term is defined, are not dead. Teachers seem to be aware of both the usefulness of methods and the need to go beyond them.' (p. 143).

On the other hand, in a recent paper, Akbari (2008) suggests that, in EFL contexts such as Iran, it is textbooks that have largely replaced methods in their traditional sense:

'The concept of method has not been replaced by the concept of postmethod but rather by an era of textbook-defined practice. What the majority of teachers teach and how they teach... are now determined by textbooks' (p. 647).

Textbooks and mtodo

In fact, the conflation of method with textbook is an idea with a long history, especially in the Spanish-speaking world, where the two concepts share a single name: mtodo. Direct Method and Grammar-Translation courses, in particular, were often named after their progenitor, as in El Mtodo Kucera (Barcelona, 1954), El Mtodo Girau (Barcelona, 1925), and the El Mtodo Mass-Dixon(Barcelona, n.d.).

I, too, contend that the concept of method is not only alive and well, but has been reincarnated in the form of coursebooks, such that it would be valid to talk about the Soars and Soars Method, or the Cunningham and Moor Method, since it is coursebook series like Headway and Cutting Edge that more than any other factor determine and define current teaching practice. That is to say, rather than the mtodo embodying a specific method, the mtodo is the method.

What is a method?
What is it, after all, that defines a method? In their Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2002), Richards and Schmidt make the reasonable claim that 'different methods of language teaching... result from different views of:

a. the nature of language b. the nature of second language learning c. goals and objectives in teaching d. the type of syllabus to use e. the role of teachers, learners, instructional materials f. the activities, techniques and procedures to use'

(p. 330)

Even a cursory glance at their content and at the way they are marketed confirms the fact that the writers and publishers of coursebooks take particular positions, either explicitly or implicitly, with regard to each of these areas. The theory of language that coursebooks instantiate, for example, is clear from their contents pages, where language is typically construed as a system of 'accumulated entities' (Rutherford, 1987), or what I have referred to elsewhere as grammar McNuggets. As Basturkmen (1999) concluded, after reviewing the cover blurbs of a number of current coursebooks, 'the emphasis [is] on the underlying generative base or language rules rather than on surface level aspects of use' (p. 34).

Coursebooks and second language learning

The 'nature of second language learning', as evidenced from coursebooks, seems generally to follow a cognitive model, where declarative knowledge is proceduralised through successive practice activities. The back cover of Inside Out (Kay and Jones, 2001), for example, makes the claim that 'easy-to-use exercises put rules into practice and are then recycled as speaking activities'. As for 'the goals and objectives of language learning', these tend to be loosely aligned with those of the communicative approach. Inside Out, for example, 'has been designed to develop real-life communicative skills and powers of selfexpression' (Kay and Jones, op. cit), while Cutting Edge(Cunningham and Moor, 1998) aims at 'improved confidence and fluency' as well as 'a clearer understanding of how language is used'. (There is, of course, no recognition that the discrete-item focus of the syllabus might be at odds with these more holistic objectives.) With regard to the syllabus, the grammar 'canon' predominates, but the influence of the lexical approach (Lewis, 1993) and of corpus linguistics is now apparent. Innovations (Dellar and Hocking, 2000) 'has a strongly lexical syllabus, presenting and practising hundreds of natural expressions which students will find immediately useful', and Natural English (Gairns and Redman, 2002a) offers 'a new syllabus area called natural English accessible, high-frequency phrases which intermediate students can pick up and use'.

The role of the teacher

The 'role of teachers, learners and instructional materials' is most clearly demonstrated in the Teachers Book component, where the teachers role is both didactic and facilitative, and serves primarily to mediate the coursebook materials, by, for example, explaining, demonstrating and modelling language items, and by setting up and monitoring student interactions. For example (from Gairns and Redman, 2002b):

'Once learners have thought about exercise 1, go over the language in the natural English box. You could model the phrases and replies yourself and ask learners to repeat them, then practise the two-line dialogues across the class' (p. 24).

The guidelines typically construe the teacher as the locus of control in the classroom and even at times imply that the learners are potentially disruptive:

'Dont let the false beginners dominate the real beginners or pull you along too quickly Encourage [the false beginners] to concentrate on areas where they can improve (e.g. pronunciation) and dont let them think they know it all!' [Oxenden and Seligson, 1996, p. 15]

Nevertheless, occasional reference is made to the need to encourage learner agency and autonomy. For example, 'Choices within tasks encourage learners to take charge of interactions' (Kay and Jones, op. cit). Unsurprisingly, though, the coursebook forms the core component of instruction: it is both the medium and the message.

Finally, the types of 'activities, techniques and procedures to use' draw on a range of methodological approaches (but scarcely ever involve translation, or encourage the use of, or any reference to, the learners L1). The influence of the communicative approach appears to be strong, with most courses including information-gap tasks, and texts that, if not authentic, attempt to simulate the same. There is a strong skills focus, and the distribution of the material is weighted more towards skills-based activities than language-focused ones. The dominant model for representing English is a native-speaker one, and both the topics and the design of the materials reflect an 'aspirational culture' (Gray, 2002) of travel, consumerism and popular culture.

Here, then, are the ingredients of a method, enshrined in a mtodo. Teachers who claim not to be following a method, but who are using a coursebook, are as much method-bound as the Direct Method practitioners of Berlitzs day, or the Audiolingualists of Lados. Of course, teachers will argue that they use coursebooks selectively, in accordance with their own principles as well as the needs of the learners. Fair enough, but however selective a teacher is, he or she is still tied to a theory of language, embodied in the way that the course selects and describes language, and to a theory of learning, as manifested in the way the course prioritises certain types of activity over others.