19 Feb Principled Eclecticism: A Recipe in the Making. For the Connoisseurs
Author: Ilinca Stroe, International House Bucharest
Jazz isn’t the kind of music you like as a teenager. Or in your twenties. Its subtle manipulation of a symphonic range of rhythm patterns and melodic lines, its mesmerising blending and fusing, its puzzling mélange of sounds and sensations is something that requires a public as maturing as good ageing wine.
So is principled eclecticism in English language teaching (ELT). To be into it you need to have had gained experience as a teacher of English: you need to have up your sleeve and master a decent range of teaching approaches, methods and techniques, from traditional-style to communicative ones, from classical to more “eccentric”.
While the “right recipe” for principled eclecticism is always in the making, in such a continuously innovative field as ELT, some of its general ingredients are relatively easy to identify and certainly worth a quick outlining reminder. So here are the overarching teaching approaches that can blend into principled eclecticism.
That’s short for Presentation, Practice, Production – a teaching model and at the same time a lesson format particularly useful in teaching grammar or vocabulary. PPP implies a certain succession of lesson stages, a specific pattern in introducing, practising and using in oral or written communication the language point taught. It’s arguably the most widespread (and quite popular, too) lesson shape used in ELT. Not really applicable to skills lessons, though.
That stands for Task-based Learning, an approach which favours fluency over accuracy and aims at building learner confidence through the completion of meaningful, relevant, real-life tasks (visiting a doctor, conducting an interview, designing a tourist brochure, etc.). Just like PPP, TBL implies a certain lesson shape with a specific sequence of stages converging towards the preparation and presentation of the task. A format particularly useful to get things done in classroom projects such as posters, notice boards, school surveys, etc.
That’s a classic. Probably since Shakespeare’s times up until not so long ago, really, generation upon generation of schoolchildren had to suffer dictation as the main teaching method especially in language classes. You listen and write, listen and write. Dusty mind-dulling technique? Not necessarily. Recent varieties of dictation are fun and effective: there’s running dictation (a kind of exciting relay race), reverse dictation (spell a sentence from right to left), the hugely popular “banana dictation” (say “banana” instead of the target vocabulary) and many other types of dictation that actually add variety and a game element to the class.
The Lexical Approach
Initiated by Michael Lewis in the 1990s, this method requires getting away from the idea of vocabulary as a list of discrete single-word items, and shifting the focus, instead, on “chunks” of language. Oral and written communication is made up of lexical phrases or “chunks”, pieces of language that usually go together by dint of pragmatic daily usage. Grammar can be taught that way, too, if you look at a phrase like “have you ever…?” not as an example of Present Perfect interrogative but as a chunk inquiring about life-time experiences.
This is a recent (2012) proposition coming from two ELT gurus, Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener. They noticed that communicative teaching has become rather complacent and dull: “good enough” is a standard and being always (excessively) nice to learners is the pervasive stance. Instead of that, Demand High asks for more intentionally “unhelpful” teaching. Teaching that challenges the learners: with teachers playing the devil’s advocate, putting on a blank face, not rubberstamping, not hearing keen loud students, saying “not good enough” more often, correcting errors on the spot, taking risks, demanding more – teachers exerting “more muscular” classroom management, squeezing learning out of their students.
The Silent Way
What happens if the teacher is silent? Well, the student will obviously have to speak more, instead. Silence can well be a language teaching method. That’s what educator Caleb Gattegno maintained in the 1960s. The Silent Way he theorised and practised boosts learner autonomy and active participation. Focusing learner attention and eliciting responses is done entirely through gestures, as is error self-correction. Cuisenaire rods are an important teaching aid and, perhaps surprisingly, pronunciation is taught via colour associations. Used wisely, some of this method’s ideas are extremely influential today.
This is the brainchild of yet another ELT ace, Scott Thornbury. Course book texts and tasks are often artificial, he maintains: there’s “laboratory English” there, instead of authentic, real-life language. So make the English you teach authentic: use the classroom’s social environment as a source of raw material, use the teacher and students as language-teaching resources, let the learners’ “needs, interests, concerns and desires” generate the English you teach. And as a teacher engage in lively, real conversational exchanges with the students. Dogme is all about using English as a natural authentic language even in the protected “habitat” which is the English classroom.
Having reviewed all of these general ingredients of principled eclecticism, one question remains: how do we know the right dose of each of them? How do we know when to use more of this method and less of that other one? What’s the right way of combining all (or just some) of them into a good lesson? Here’s the key: know thy learners’ needs. Whether by means of a start-of-course formal needs assessment or during each class, live, on the spot, on your feet, do notice your students’ learning styles and preferences, be also aware of your shared learning context, with its social, cultural and even political specifics, and choose accordingly: a lot of TBL with a little bit of dictation, some Dogme and a dash of Silent Way. Or whatever else – whatever other finely customised “teaching mix” responds perfectly to your students’ needs then and there. That’s the principle at the core of principled eclecticism.
International House Bucharest (IHB) runs regular CELTA courses for teachers of English at its Teacher Training Centre. We also organise social & professional gatherings (workshops, Coffee Talks) for teachers of English as a foreign language who want to exchange good practices and great teaching ideas. To sign up for any of these events, contact [email protected].