Techniques, methods and approaches: first things first!
There probably isn’t a topic less frequently associated with the canons of early in-service ELT teacher training courses than that of methods, approaches, techniques and their differences, similarities and peculiarities. In fact, the now seminal and often-cited paper by Edward M. Anthony (1963) is fifty-two years old and many other publications that followed his work contributed enormously to the understanding of these three dimensions of English language teaching. Nevertheless, if the discussion on methods and approaches has stood the test of time, a few teachers still define methods in the pejorative narrow sense used by post-methodologists, that is, in a rather utilitarian fashion (Larsen-Freeman and Anderson, 2016). These think of methods in terms of techniques which realize a set of principles or goals and they are willing to make use of any apparent “method” that offers practical solutions to problems in their particular teaching context irrespective of the method they represent or the principles these techniques aim to give a body (Bell, 2007 apud Larsen-Freeman and Anderson, 2016). The points raised by these scholars show that despite being a relatively frequent topic in the ELT universe, some practitioners still cut their teeth on drawing clear distinctions between methods, approaches and techniques. Thus, although we do not aim to provide an exhaustive account of the existing distinctions in the three terms, we will try to contribute to the discussion with a quick general characterization based on Anthony (1963):
If approaches, methods and techniques can be epistemologically puzzling in the micro area of ELT, other areas of research must confront the idea of approaches with that of theories. This is probably because, to many scholars, these are areas whose boundaries are hard to distinguish given how intertwined they are on practical grounds. In the ELT, it would probably be best to characterize an approach as a framework that is meant to outline a view of language as well as a view of learning. As such, approaches are not ELT internal, that is, ELT approaches are oftentimes drawn from other autonomous and independent disciplines such as linguistics (for the view of language) and education theory (for the view of learning). Among the examples of approaches adopted by the ELT community are the behaviorist, structuralist, cognitivist and functional approaches to language.
The word method is etymologically reducible to the Greek words metá (through) and hodós (route, way, direction), that is, it specifies the route one must take in order to get somewhere. In other words, in logical terms a method cannot preexist an approach since it is bound to it and it serves the purpose of applying the chosen approach in an orderly and principled manner. Some of the widely known methods are the grammartranslation method, the direct method, the silent way, suggestopedia, etc.
Techniques are at the most practical end of the continuum since they embody the operational stepby- step procedures in the classroom. Techniques are
meant to make it possible for the method to be followed and guarantee the accurate execution of the principles predicted in the adopted approach. An example of a communicative language teaching technique for reading would be the three-phrased reading process which is composed of pre-reading step (students make predictions about the content of a text, for instance), a while-reading step (students answer information-based questions) and lastly a post-reading step (students react to the content presented in the text by casting their own opinions about a specific point raised therein).
In the words of Edward M. Anthony, the three dimensions can be summarized by stating that approaches, methods and techniques should be hierarchically organized in a way that exhibits the extent to which the boundaries and functions of one layer are defined in light of the layer immediately below in the hierarchy (see the figure).
An approach is axiomatic, that is, it’s self-evident and generally accepted. Methods, on the other hand, are procedural in that they state how a theoretical approach will be applied by coming up with viable and tangible principles to be used in the classroom. Techniques are procedural and they usually come in the form of a finite number of prescriptive steps that should be executed while teaching takes place.
Methods & approaches in the teacher’s learning process
Although the study of some methods seems to have fallen from grace with teachers in the current post-method era, a whole body of research on teacher education points to the fact that methods can help teachers become aware of why they teach what they teach and how they teach what they teach. Since teachers spend years as students and, to a reasonable extent, can be considered successful learners, there are reasons to believe they have a lot of tacit knowledge about how languages are learned and taught (Shulman, 1987). This implicit knowledge, however, will not suffice for anybody who pursues autonomy in their practice. Instead, teachers who seek self-improvement might want to reflect on the techniques they engage with on a daily basis so as to unveil the true nature of their practice from a theoretical standpoint. In other words, methods can serve as models for the integration of theory and practice towards the understanding of the teachinglearning process (Larsen-Freeman and Anderson, 2016) and they also offer an array of options, which allow teachers to respond meaningfully to particular classroom situations.
Also, with regard to the current post-method era ELT is going through, it is commonly characterized by the strong adherence to the practical solution of problems thought through in terms of the local scenario in which they take place, that is, in the words of Johnson (2006:239 apud Larsen-Freeman and Anderson, 2016):
“…. teachers are users and creators of legitimate forms of knowledge who make decisions about how best to teach their L2 students within complex socially, culturally, and historically situated contexts”.
Such a view has transformed the notion of teacher learning from one in which teachers’ duty was to put theory into practice to one in which practice can be theorized. According to the new paradigm, it’s up to the teacher to take up the challenge to go from practice to theory, or from practitioners to theory builders (Prabhu, 1992; Savignon, 2007)
Final words: post-modern or post-mortem era for methods?
As we have argued so far in this brief article, knowledge of methods is part of the knowledge base of teaching. This knowledge can provide teachers with a new avenue for professional growth in the most intuitive way possible, that is, by discovering general principles of the learningteaching process while trying to tackle real-life problems. Furthermore, the more experienced teachers are to experiment with different principles, the easier it will be for them to travel from practice to theory and vice-versa. Once they are aware of the methods their practice stems from, teachers are able to make informed decisions and choose to teach differently form how they were taught and also argue for or against a particular method or approach. This view on the role of methods and approaches in teacher education is the theoretical backbone of our postgraduate module Teaching Techniques at Faculdade Cultura Inglesa SP and the reason why we believe it’s still worth discussing this subject. Post-modern, not post-mortem era for methods and approaches!
|ANTHONY, E.M. 1963. ‘Approach, Method and Technique’. English Language Teaching, vol.17.|
LARSEN-FREEMAN, D.; ANDERSON, M. 2016. Teaching & Principles in Language Teaching (3rd edn.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
PRABHU, N.S. 1992. ‘The dynamics of the language lesson’. TESOL Quarterly 26/2: 225-41.
SAVIGNON, S. J. 2007. ‘Beyond communicative language teaching: What’s ahead?’. Journal of Pragmatics, 39, 207-220.
SHULMAN, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational
Review, 57, 1-22.