The weekly column

Article 84, January 2002

Bringing learners up-to-date on CLT classroom approaches

By Robert Wyss, M.A.

Most visitors to Italy at one time or another find themselves seized unawares by what is known as the 'Stendhal syndrome'. A sense of wordless awe often overtakes tourists upon encountering for the first time such spectacular and enduring ancient architectural wonders as the Colisseum, the Pantheon, and vast acqueducts towering over golden wheatfields, lining the horizon and seeming to meld into the dusky haze of some distant epoch.

Then there is the shining array of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque artistic masterpieces, rendered in every known creative medium, filling the peninsula's countless museums and churches. Still there are the Italians themselves, who embody the peculiar juxtaposition of the ancient-rural beside the modern-industrial which characterizes their country's landscape; a people mindful of the dialectal differences in the rustic speech of the provincial towns and proud of the tantalizing culinary traditions of the different national regions. Although many younger Italians are anxious to keep pace with ever-changing modernity and its cell-phones and designer fashions, the Italians are a people surrounded by and steeped in history.

But what has all this got to do with the art of Teaching English as a Foreign Language? Well, a great deal actually. Or, better, it has to do with what educators of antiquity-Teachers of Latin as a Foreign Language, for instance-called, forma mentis, or, 'mindset'; the way a person's native culture and formal education shape that individual's specific worldview. In the TEFL vernacular forma mentis might be defined as the fixed set of ideas a person holds about what constitutes 'good' language learning pedagogy, notions which derive from the learner's prior exposure to language learning and teaching approaches.

Here in Italy, (where the writer has taught EFL and Creative English Writing at a college preparatory school for several years), the 'Classical', or Grammar-Translation Method, dominated popular language pedagogy in secondary schools and universities until very recently. This approach was developed in the early 1800s to teach Latin and Ancient Greek to secondary school pupils throughout Europe, where it persists to this day among traditional educators. With course objectives focused exclusively on the accumulation of linguistic knowledge, students are required to memorize vocabulary lists, engage in elaborate grammar analysis, and translate difficult passages by classical authors. Admittedly, the approach has been effective in achieving its aims. Thanks to the G.T. Method, many Italians can recite passages from Ovid and Virgil by heart in the original Latin, as well as handle Latin and Ancient Greek translations with impressive ease and accuracy.

So what's wrong with that? Nothing, so long as the overall learning objective lies in acquiring linguistic information for the splendid cultural enrichment which the ancient tongues and classical poets generally bestow upon learners. Most people today, however, enagage in EFL learning in order to meet practical, communicative exigencies--Italians included. And while language researchers have been busy the past twenty years or so developing and implementing communicative-based syllabi, many an EFL learner's forma mentis has, by contrast, remained stuck in the 19th century with its learning-by-rote (i.e, Grammar-Translation) pedagogy. In other words, many of today's EFL learners cling to antiquated ideas about 'good' language learning, assumptions which are counter-productive to their achieving desired communicative competence levels in EFL. This is particularly the case with middle-aged professional people, for whom an EFL course may represent their first exposure to formal learning in decades, and their first ever experience of communicative language teaching and learning. So, an ideological rift may stand between you, the EFL teacher, and a number of your learners even before the course will have begun.

As the field of language pedagogy has developed and matured over the past few decades, we have experienced a number of reactions and counter-reactions in methods and approaches to language teaching. We can look back over a century of foreign language teaching and observe the trends as they came and went. How will we look back 100 years from now and characterize the present era? Almost certainly the answer lies in our most recent efforts to engage in communicative language teaching (CLT) (Brown, 1994).

The following lists of features characteristic of the two approaches reveal the gulf that separates the CLT approach from the Grammar-Translation Method.

Grammar-Translation Method (Prator and Celce-Murcia, as cited in Brown, 1994)
Communicative Language Teaching (Brown, 1994)
1. Much vocabulary is taught in the form of lists of isolated words. 1. Students ultimately have to use the (target) language, productively and receptively, in unrehearsed contexts.
2. Long elaborate explanations of the intricacies of grammar are given. 2. Classroom goals are focused on all the components of communicative competence and not restricted to grammatical or linguistic competence.
3. Grammar provides the rules for putting words together, and instruction often focuses on the form and inflection of words. 3. Organizational language forms are not the central focus but rather aspects of language that enable the learner to accomplish those purposes.
4. Little attention is paid to the content of texts, which are treated as exercises in grammatical analysis. 4. Language techniques are designed to engage learners in the pragmatic, authentic, functional use of language for meaningful purposes.

 

So, how will Italians and other traditionally-oriented EFL learners around the globe-Japanese learners, for instance--react to CLT approaches? Can it be safely assumed that all learners will be able, if willing, to forgo the familiar grammar-based curricula for a communicative language learning syllabus that is at least partly organized around such language functions as identifying, reporting, requesting, offering, denying, expressing opinion, and so on?

It may come as a surprise to EFL teachers who have never taught beyond the academic confines of native Anglophone countries that a number of EFL learners may initially fail to appreciate what CLT advocates have come to value above all else; namely, a comprehensive communicative approach which at times values fluency over accuracy, which keeps learners meaningfully engaged in using the target language in the classroom, and which enables learners to take responsibility for their own learning process. Some learners may view such activities as role-play and semi-guided conversation as precious time squandered on mere 'chatting' or 'playing silly games', time which could be put to better use memorizing lists of vocabulary or taking dictation. Moreover, the traditional, teacher-centered approach provides learners with a sense of familiarity and involves low-risk exercises which challenge neither the learner's spontaneity nor creative capacity. Such a pedagogy, although outdated, may therefore feel 'safe'.

Unless EFL instructors are willing to compromise teaching approaches which are either entirely or partly grounded in CLT, learners will have to get updated on communicative language learning and teaching--and the sooner the better. But how can this be done? How can language teachers, in effect, bring their learners' forma mentis up to date? The following list contains four guidelines which the writer has developed and followed over the years in an attempt to answer this question. It was designed to help teachers familiarize their learners with communicative language learning and teaching approaches and to enable learners to feel the need to engage in the 'functional' activities implicit in a CLT syllabus.

1. Know thyself.
Before attempting to help your learners to appreciate the importance of communicative language learning and teaching, it is essential that you, the language instructor, are conscious of why you do what you do. Take a moment to reflect on your teaching approach. Compare your approach with those of other instructors you know. Is it more effective or less effective than some other approaches? Identify some of the basic features which characterize your teaching approach.

2. Inform learners.
Be open with learners. Discuss your teaching approach and the goals you have set for your learners right at the outset of the course in simple, non-technical language, using graphs or charts if necessary. Do this in the learners' mother tongue if possible. Focus learners on the cyclical aspect of the learning process. Even something as simple as writing a basic progression on the board, language input > practice > review > further practice > new input > practice, etc., and explaining your and their respective roles as they relate to this cycle may help learners conceptualize the learning process. They will begin to see how in-class communicative activities are essential components of the 'bigger picture' of the overall learning process; they will also begin to understand how your role as a teacher is in large part dependent on the participation expected of them as learners.

Take time to go through the syllabus together with learners. If you don't do this already, you may be surprised to discover how much learners will appreciate it. Invite questions and explain how the course syllabus effectively enables learners to reach their desired EFL communicative competence goals.

Discuss CLT and other recent trends in language learning and teaching from time to time; demonstrate how your syllabus takes these into account. Engage learners in developing and discussing their personal goals for the course and show how these goals are already implicit in the syllabus. Emphasize a learner-centered pedagogy and encourage learners to view the course as a mutual endeavor which requires effort from both the teacher and learners.

3. Emphasize progress.
Indicate milestones of progress periodically; show learners that the CLT approach has in fact 'worked' thus far in bringing them nearer to reaching their long-term communicative competence objectives. Have learners record their progress through diary-keeping.

4. Stay your ground.
As a wise, old Zen buddhist monk once advised his disciples, "Either stand or sit, but don't wobble". Once having discussed and debated your CLT approach with the class, it is important to stick fairly closely to the syllabus you have devised for the course. Most learners will eventually come to see the value of a communicative teaching style in time, despite its apparent unorthodoxy. In fact, many learners will come to appreciate your efforts all the more for having introduced them to a 'new' and effective way of reaching their EFL communicative competence goals.


References

Brown, H. Douglas H. (1994). Principles of language Learning and Teaching (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.


About the author

Robert Wyss is currently employed as Director of Studies at a language school in Milan, Italy. He has also taught several years at a Roman college preparatory school (Lyceo Classico Statale). His undergraduate degree is in Journalism/Anthropology and he has recently completed a Master of Arts Degree in Applied Linguistics from Ball State University, Muncie, IN, USA.

 

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