Professional Development

Scott Thornbury and his 30 Language Teaching Methods

Scott Thornbury

It’s #TDWednesday, so what better way to partake in some professional development than with a video and sample chapter from ELT expert, Scott Thornbury! Ahead of next week’s release of his new Cambridge Handbook for Language Teachers, we thought we’d talk to Scott all about his newest title, Scott Thornbury’s 30 Language Teaching Methods. Scott chats about why he has organised the methods by what they have in common, rather than by chronology. He also reveals why he has included some approaches which you wouldn’t usually expect to find in a book on methods. Hope you enjoy!

If you enjoyed this video and want a taster of Scott’s new Cambridge Handbook for language teachers, here’s a sample of one of the chapters out of Scott Thornbury’s 30 Language Teaching Methods, entitled: Communicative Language Teaching.

Scott Thornbury’s 30 Language Teaching Methods (sample chapter)

In 1994, H.D. Brown posed the question ‘Is there a currently recognised approach that is a generally accepted norm in the field?’ and he answered it by saying, ‘the answer is a qualified yes. That qualified yes can be captured in the term communicative language teaching (CLT)’. A quarter of a century later, the answer is still ‘yes’, and still qualified.

The background In the early 1960s, the terms ‘communication’ and ‘communicative’ were all the rage. Communication had been invoked as a tool for post-war reconstruction; mass media were now being credited with turning the word into a ‘global village’. Driven by innovations in technology, university courses on ‘communication studies’ and ‘communication sciences’ proliferated. To sell anything or to get votes, ‘communication skills’ were considered essential. At the same time, a new branch of linguistics was emerging: sociolinguists were training their sights on the relationship between language and society, interested less in language as an abstract system and more in how it is put to use in actual communication.

It was in this intellectual climate, in 1966, that Dell Hymes put forward the idea of ‘communicative competence’, i.e. ‘competence as to when to speak, when not, and as to what to talk about with whom, when, where, in what manner’ (Hymes 1972). Communicative competence, it followed, involves more than having a command of the sum of the grammatical structures that were enshrined in the typical syllabuses of the time. It involves being sensitive to the effect on language choices of such contextual factors as the purpose of the exchange and relation between the participants. Communicative competence was to become the ‘big idea’ that would underpin Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and give it its name.

How this big idea might revitalize language teaching was the driving force behind the Council of Europe Modern Languages Project that was launched at Rüschlikon, Switzerland, in 1971, and which effectively marked the inception of CLT. It came to fruition a few years later with the publication of a number of courses based not on a syllabus of grammatical structures but on a syllabus of communicative functions – such as making requests, complaining, narrating and so on. As an epigraph to one of the first of these courses, Strategies (Abbs, et al. 1975) the writers quoted David Wilkins (1976), a consultant on the Council of Europe project, to the effect that: what people want to do through language is more important than the mastery of language as an unapplied system.

How does it work?

In the teachers’ guide to the same series, the authors spell out their approach (Abbs & Freebairn 1979):

If emphasis is placed on learning a language for communicative purposes, the methods used to promote learning should reflect this. […] A communicative methodology will therefore encourage students to practise language in pairs and groups, where they have equal opportunity to ask, answer, initiate and respond. The teacher assumes a counselling role, initiating activity, listening, helping and advising. Students are encouraged to communicate effectively rather than merely to produce grammatically correct forms of English.

By realigning the goals of instruction away from grammatical accuracy and towards fluency (however defined), and by making a strong commitment to experiential learning, i.e. that communication is best acquired by communicating, the quality and quantity of classroom interaction was set to change radically.

There was still the problem of the syllabus, however. The Council of Europe had urged the adoption of functional-notional syllabuses, i.e. syllabuses made up of items such as requesting, making comparisons, narrating, duration. Others argued for a task-based syllabus. Either way, allegiance to the grammar syllabus – on the grounds that grammar items are more generalizable, easier to sequence, and, of course, easier to test – was unshakeable.

And, since grammar items are not easily learned by experience, the ‘fluency first’ teaching cycle that had originally been proposed, in which learners communicate to the best of their ability, and then get feedback, was sidelined and re-packaged as Task-based Language Teaching (see chapter 16). It was replaced by a less deep-end version of CLT, in which pre-communicative activities (typically with a structural focus) precede communicative activities. Effectively, the PPP model inherited from Situational Language Teaching (see chapter 14) was dusted off and stretched a little, so as to include more production activities (such as information-gap tasks, role plays and discussions) but not a lot else changed.

For example, the unit structure of a coursebook series that claims to incorporate ‘the best features of proven and familiar communicative methodologies’ (McCarthy et al. 2005) follows this order:

  • Lesson A presents the main grammar point of the unit with some relevant new vocabulary …
  • Lesson B teaches the main vocabulary of the unit and builds on the grammar taught in lesson A …
  • Lesson C teaches a Conversation strategy and some common expressions useful in conversation, followed by a listening activity reinforcing this conversational language …
  • Lesson D, after the first three units, focuses on reading and writing skills while providing additional listening and speaking activities.By the time English language teaching became a global industry in the 1980s and 1990s, it was this ‘weak’ version of CLT that was taken to be the default form. In many EFL contexts there was no ‘communicative revolution’ at all.

    Does it work?

If widespread adoption is any indication of effectiveness, then CLT – especially in its weak form – would seem to have worked. Most teachers, teacher educators, publishers and institutions subscribe, in principle, at least, to ‘being communicative’. What this means is not always clear, but there seems to be a general commitment to the idea that fluency is at least as important as accuracy, that language is a skill as much as a system, and that the goal of second language learning is communicative competence, rather than native-like mastery.

However, CLT has not been without its critics. Resistance to CLT in many (especially non-Western) contexts is argued on the grounds that it might not be appropriate in cultures where theoretical knowledge is valued more highly than practical skills, and where accuracy, not fluency, is the goal of language education. Moreover, a method that prioritizes communicative competence would seem to favour teachers who are themselves communicatively competent, which in many – perhaps most – EFL contexts is not necessarily the case.

What’s in it for us?

The lasting legacy of CLT is the idea of the ‘communicative activity’. That is to say, an activity in which there is a genuine exchange of meanings, and where participants can use any communicative means at their disposal. In other words, they are not restricted to the use of a pre-specified grammar item. Whether or not a programme consisting solely of such activities enables language acquisition has been thrown into doubt by research suggesting that a ‘focus on form’ – such as attending to features of the grammar – is necessary. But such activities have made classrooms more interesting, and even fun.

All this month, we’re celebrating the  Cambridge Handbook for Language Teachers series. If you want to read more, check out 2 of the 100 hands-on tips taken from Penny Ur’s 100 Teaching Tips handbook.


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