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There is no best method

I've been reading the excellent concluding chapter of Diane Larsen-Freeman and Marti Anderson's book Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2011). Having analysed a range of language teaching methods practised around the world, they consider the question which many teachers would ask: is there a best method? The answer, unsurprisingly, is no. But they examine the question in much more detail.

One of the arguments they make for learning about methods is that it helps keep your teaching practice alive. They quote from an article by N.S. Prabhu (1992):

...if the teacher engages in classroom activity with a sense of intellectual excitement, there is at least a fair probability that learners will begin to participate in the excitement and to perceive classroom lessons mainly as learning events - as experiences of growth for themselves.*

I like that. It chimes with something I have always thought, namely, that if you believe in your approach and can justify it in principle, it is more likely to succeed.

The authors go on to say that this is one reason why research into comparing methods is so fraught with difficulty. If you compare two methods over time with the same teacher, that teacher will not invest the same enthusiasm into each one, so any claim to scientific validity disappears. (Not to mention all the other variables involved in comparative studies: students, time of day, school culture and so on.)

Most teachers implicitly or explicitly accept there there is no one best method, so they choose a 'relativist' position. One version of this is called 'principled eclecticism'. Teachers pick and choose the best bits from the various methods (grammar-translation, direct method, communicative approach, natural approaches, audio-lingualism etc). By doing this they create their own principled, hybrid method which can be adapted to classes, depending on a range of factors, one key one being the nature of the assessment regime. But principled eclecticism has to be principled. It is not a random pick 'n mix. The teacher "should be able to give a reason for the particular reason for why they do what they do".

The authors go on to explain that choosing a method is a developmental process. If I may mention my own experience briefly, I was taught and trained in the adapted direct method approach (oral/situational question-answer). When I began teaching in 1980 my lessons were very teacher-led, I used little English and generally avoided doing much grammar explanation. I used audio-lingual style pattern practice and tried to get students to avoid error (marking is easier that way too!). I did a little pair work, but not much. As my career progressed I became more influenced by the communicative approach (which had a good deal in common with my version of direct method). I was also influenced by my study of Krashen's natural acquisition, comprehensible input hypothesis.

In my later career I stuck to similar principles, added much more pair work, but included a bit more explicit grammar teaching and translation. I worked on an assumption I formulated: with younger students you needed more skill-building and structured, grammatical work, taught orally and in writing. With high intermediate and advanced students it seemed to me that the 'natural', comprehensible input approach came into its own - bombard students with good input and let them communicate. In another school I may have adapted that approach, perhaps significantly.

I did always think about the why of each activity and would often share my reasoning with classes so the would buy into it a bit more. In my particular context (above average ability high school students), I am confident my approach was successful, but often questioned it with colleagues who had marginally different emphases and from whom I pinched other good ideas.

To conclude, one of the aims of the handbook Gianfranco and I are writing is to encourage teachers to think about their principles in this way, to analyse the effectiveness, at every stage, of each activity. We shall not naively recommend a best method (remember? there isn't one!), but we are happy to try and help establish, from research and own experience, what tends to work well and, by implication, what does not!

* N.S. Prabhu (1992). 'The dynamics of the language lesson.' TESOL Quarterly 24/2.


  1. The teacher "should be able to give a reason for the particular reason for why they do what they do".

    What would be an acceptable reason?

  2. Replies
    1. Yes, if it works, keep doing it unless you find/invent something that works better to replace it with!


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