How to design a method: Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury writes books about language and teaching. He is the author of 30 Language Teaching Methods and 101 Grammar Questions. He is also the series editor of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers. Scott will be talking at this year’s Better learning Conference, in Cambridge. Below he discusses how to design a language teaching method, something he’ll discuss further at our conference in July.

Scott Thornbury

Let’s say you wanted to design your own language teaching method. How would you go about it?

Of course, the question is somewhat fanciful. Anyone who is working in an institutional teaching context will probably already be working from a textbook and/or a syllabus, itself an embodiment of a particular set of principles that constitute a method. And they will have been trained according to a similar set of principles, using techniques and procedures that are associated with a specific method or approach. Chances are, nowadays, that these techniques will be consistent with what we call communicative language teaching.

But it’s generally agreed that no one method is going to be appropriate for all known contexts. One size does not fit all. Indeed, communicative language teaching itself has been criticized for its lack of fit with some non-Western educational traditions. For example, ones that value accuracy over fluency, or rule-learning and memorization over more experiential approaches to learning.

Hence, before they can be adopted, methods need to be adapted. A method that places a premium on meaningful communication, for example, might need to be counterbalanced by activities that focus attention on formal accuracy. Teachers and course developers need to be sensitive to local needs and need to know how to make the relevant adjustments to their curricula.

From time to time, however, adaptation of existing methods is not always enough. Changes in the socio-cultural, political and educational environment may require even more radical measures, such as the design of new methods from scratch.This is what happened in the 1960s and 1970s, on the demise of audiolingualism – until then the dominant approach, especially in North America. When the psychological theory that underpins audiolingualism – i.e. behaviorism – was discredited, a methodological vacuum was created, into which swept a number of ‘off-the-shelf‘ or ‘niche’ methods, such as The Silent Way, Suggestopedia, and Total Physical Response. These all aligned with what might be called ‘the humanist turn’ in educational thinking. It wasn’t until the advent of the communicative approach, in the mid-1970s, that the dust settled a bit. Although there were still to be a number of offshoots of this approach – such as task-based and content-based learning – that self-propagated in its shade. But who would be so bold as to argue that communicative language teaching is here to stay?

So, supposing you felt the time was ripe for a new method, what would it take to design one?

Method theories

First of all, you would need to have a theory of learning (and specifically language learning, and more specifically still, second language learning). And then you would need to have a theory of language. Ideally, the two theories should be compatible!

The beauty of audiolingualism was that it was the perfect match of learning theory (‘language learning is the formation of correct habits’) and language theory (‘language consists of well-formed sentences based on a finite set of structural patterns’). By the way, if you subscribe to those two theories, you don’t need to design a new method – you just need to revive audiolingualism!

In terms of second language learning theory, methods fluctuate between nativist views: i.e. we learn a second language like we learned our first, such as through immersion; and scholastic views, i.e. we learn a second language through studying it. Theories of language have also experienced a pendulum swing: from those that emphasize the forms of the language (e.g. its grammatical structures) and those that emphasize its meaning-making potential, e.g. its functions.

Next, you will need to devise the kinds of techniques, activities and materials that realize your theoretical stance. In the case of audiolingualism, the iconic technique was, of course, the pattern practice drill.

Communicative language teaching, on the other hand, promoted information-gap activities, consistent with its nativist belief that language is best learned through using it, and that language itself is a communicative resource.

You will also need to sequence these activities into a syllabus, e.g. of structures, functions, or tasks, depending on your theoretical disposition. You’ll also need to devise assessment procedures in order to measure progress. These assessment procedures will prioritize either accuracy (if you have adopted a structural approach, for example) or fluency (if your goal is communicative competence).

You now have all your need for the next – perhaps hardest – stage in method design: promotion! Methods come and methods go, but very few establish a foot-hold. Those that do, succeed partly because they capture something in the Zeitgeist. Suggestopedia, for example, capitalized on a conviction that the most durable learning was unconscious and stress-free.

But many methods succeed because they have been heavily, even aggressively, marketed. How? Well, it helps if it has a catchy name – The Direct Method persisted long after its alternative names (e.g. the Oral Method and the Reform Method) had reached their sell-by dates.

Audiolingualism started life as the Army Method before it was re-branded. In similar fashion, communicative language teaching (formerly known as the functional-notional approach) was able to exploit the late twentieth-century obsession with communication and the rapid growth of communication studies.

Having found a name, you now need to make some extravagant (possibly untested) claims about your method. you can achieve this through the use of adjectives like modern, effective, scientific, systematic, and so on. A catchphrase, such as French without tears, always helps.

These claims will, of course, ignore generations of research that show that second language learning is typically effortful, prolonged, idiosyncratic, and only occasionally successful. But who needs research when you have a method!

So, here’s my question: if you were to design your own method, what would it be like?

Better learning Conference 2019

To find out more about this year’s Better Learning Conference, taking place at Robinson College, Cambridge, this July explore our programme. ELT trainer, Matthew Ellman attended last year, read what he learnt at the Better Learning Conference 2018.

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