A SHORT HISTORY OF EFL
Check out the 42 questions which sprang from this text and which are aimed at promoting reflection about your teaching.
Although this short history is by definition incomplete, it is a personal attempt to look at those developments in EFL which still affect us today in our classrooms albeit in some cases indirectly. Each section looks at a particular method or train of pedagogical thinking and, after briefly describing its theories of language and teaching, it gives a few examples of activities which have been handed down to the present day classroom. Theories of learning and acquisition will be touched on only briefly, and alternative approaches are mentioned by name only. As this is a personal look at EFL it is heavily influenced by my own opinions and beliefs. One and all are welcome to disagree on any viewpoint put forward.
2. GRAMMAR TRANSLATION
This method came to the fore as modern languages began to be taught alongside the classical languages of Greek and Latin. Scholars believed that the study of these languages was valid as an educational discipline but little else, and therefore other languages were taught as Latin and Greek were. It reached its height in the period between 1880 and 1920 although it still forms the basis of much English teaching in schools throughout the world. It was only when travel possibilities meant that more people needed English for conversational purposes that the method came under criticism.
The first phrase books started to appear toward the end of the last century and their publication continued and spread throughout the early decades of this century. Marcel, Prendergast and Gouin all influenced changing attitudes to Grammar Translation and as the IPA (International Phonetic Association) gained in prestige Sweet and others found a platform from which they could attack a method of teaching they saw as out-dated and failing to meet the needs of the times.
The English language was viewed in the same way as the classical languages. Rules, conjugations and parts of speech were the cornerstones and its primary form was written, expressed most eloquently in the literature of the great English authors. Grammar rules could be written out in technically obtuse terminology and long lists of vocabulary should be committed to memory. Many of the problems we have in the classroom today with grammar try to undo age old grammatical myths which were caused by the imposition of a Latin style grammar on the Anglo-Saxon English language. This mix was clearly incompatible, and yet we still hear people tell us that a sentence should not end in a preposition. There was little aural / oral work, as the aim of studying the language was to understand the literature.
c) Teaching and Learning
The grammar was taught deductively - from rules to examples - and the vocabulary introduced in long word lists which were memorised by rote learning. These lists of structure and vocabulary formed the basis of any syllabus. The methodology was restricted to grammar exercises, translation and dictation. The written essay was the most communicative activity and it must be admitted that it is indeed a lot more communicative than many of the L2 activities that were to follow in the next hundred years. The theory of learning could be best summarised as 'what is taught is learnt.'
Despite the fact that Grammar Translation has received a century's worth of bad press it is notable how many of its techniques are still applicable to our classrooms today. This is especially true when we consider our students here in the UAE and their educational background. We need to tap into their phenomenal powers of memory which have been honed by years of rote learning both the Quran and numerous other school subjects. The English language's irregular past tenses springs to mind. It is the way we test what has been rote learned that needs to be communicative, not necessarily the learning.
Dictation is another example of an activity which has been handed down, although hopefully our dictations bear little resemblance to those of the Grammar Translation Method. However, it is interesting to note that the purpose and aims of a dictation have not changed significantly. Board dictations, picture dictations and article grouping are just three communicative forms of this activity which come to hand quickly.
3. AUDIO LINGUAL & STRUCTURAL SITUATIONAL
These two methods were respectively the American and British continuations of the Direct Method which had taken over from Grammar Translation following the Coleman Report in 1929. The Direct Method was a reaction against Grammar Translation and totally avoided the use of L1. It was strongly linked to the IPA and dealt with phonetics as it emphasised oral communication. It looked at every day language rather than literature and focused on narratives and question / answer techniques. Its most famous followers were Sauveur and Berlitz whose schools today follow an almost identical methodology using lots of realia and stressing accurate pronunciation.
These basic methodological concepts were taken on board by both the Audio Lingual Method (AL) and Structural Situational (SS) schools. The AL started to be used in 1943 as part of the US army training program and remained at the forefront of language teaching until the sixties when Chomsky, Hymes and Austen attacked its language and learning precepts in a way that can only be described as violent. Nevertheless, both methods are still widely used today and many of their beliefs are widely held in the teaching profession.
AL's theory of language was based on the school of American Structuralism which placed form above meaning and showed that the language could be broken down into lists of structural patterns. Within each structural pattern there could be only one paradigmatic element of change which would come from one word class. Interestingly fillers were considered a word class in themselves, and this is probably the only grammatical point I am in agreement with. The European equivalent took their language theory from the works of Firth and Halliday who linked structure to situation and argued that meaning came from context. These beliefs were shared by some of the biggest names in EFL including West, Palmer and Hornby.
c) Teaching and Learning
In reaction to Grammar Translation these two methods were totally inductive in their approach to teaching grammar. In other words, they let students figure out the rules for themselves from the myriad of examples they were presented with. In fact, it was preferred if the students did not think about grammar at all and the theories clearly stated that no grammar rule should be explicitly stated by the teacher. When we look at some of the EFL rules of today (e.g. some = positive, any = negative and questions), we have to wonder if this was not a very wise approach after all.
For methods which refused to teach any explicit grammar rules, it is extraordinary that their syllabuses were grammar based, with the least complex structural patterns coming first and then the order of structure dependent on complexity. These structural patterns were drilled using substitution tables in AL, whereas teachers presented the language in situational contexts before drilling it and giving further related practice - the time worn PPP method.
Both methods treated the learners as empty vessels whose heads should be filled with language as a jug would be filled with water and drew heavily on the Behaviourist learning theories a la Pavlov's dog which Skinner and others had applied to human learning. Personally I am not sure I like the idea of being a jug, although it has been proven that repeated drilling is necessary in the formation of some sounds which require unaccustomed muscle movement (e.g. /r/ and /l/ for Chinese speakers).
Repeated mistakes were viewed as worse than sin and teachers were encouraged to correct every false utterance immediately. Errors had to be avoided at all costs. Both methods separated the four skills and determined that they should be learnt in the following order with no exceptions; listening, speaking, reading, writing. Finally, no L1 would be permitted and it was somewhat facetiously assumed that once the learner knew all the patterns they would know the language.
It is extraordinary that we still use so many activities from these two methods considering their totally uncommunicative nature. The PPP method is still taught in most certificate courses as the ideal to aim for although this tells us more about the courses than the usefulness of PPP. Substitution tables and drilling are both common in classes world-wide and have been well adapted to communicative methodology. Hidden drills are one of the activities I use most frequently and reducing dialogues are another. We have our use of realia and a lot of good pronunciation work for language labs from these methods. All in all a pretty impressive selection.
4. COGNITIVE CODE
This was a train of psychological and linguistic thought and did not actually lead to any one operational method, but it provided significant influences, not least the re-emergence of grammar in the classroom and more emphasis on the guided discovery of rules. The Cognitive Code rejected Behaviourism and put an emphasis on the learning of rules through meaningful practice and creativity. It came to the fore in the 1960's as Chomsky released his early works on first languages and universal grammars. Although it did not have an immediate effect in the classroom, it resulted in a liberation for teachers from the strait jackets of the Audio Lingualism and Structural Situational methods. More than anything else it changed the orientation of teachers and above all their attitude to errors.
Basically following Chomsky, it stated that there are universals which underlie all languages. These are rules which can generate any sentence from a universally common deep structure and each language may use different transformations to get to the surface structure. From a finite set of rules an infinite number of sentences can be created was Chomsky's claim, and it is difficult to find a more convincing grammar today. The effect on the classroom was to take language study into the realms of sentence structure and view it as a system comprised of phonology, grammar and lexis.
c) Teaching and Learning
We should remember that Chomsky himself said that his work had nothing to offer to language teachers and we were fools if we took it on. Nevertheless, this did not discourage many and teachers jumped at his work on language and theories of learning even though it was not until Krashen that his principles of natural acquisition were applied to L2 learning. Chomsky's theories of learning were in line with the cognitive and mentalist approaches of the time and stressed the importance of learners making sense of things for themselves but with the guidance of a teacher. This reaction to Behaviourism stated that learning was not a habit but required cognitive processing and mental effort. It meant that teachers became more comfortable about showing rules, presenting grammar and allowing students to work out rules in class. Most importantly of all it allowed teachers to treat errors as not only natural but as a positive indication that learning was taking place.
There are no set examples as such from this period, as the methods which evolved over the next decade or so all drew on the Cognitive Code and I have decided to list the examples under the sections that follow. Enough to say that we still hopefully guide students to discover rules for themselves and continue to use what was then called the guided inductive approach to teaching.
5. COMMUNICATIVE LANGUAGE TEACHING (PHASE I)
This was less a method than a collective change in classroom practice world-wide during the seventies and came as a direct result of the Cognitive Code, especially its linguistic theories. In reality it was to take another decade until the learning and teaching theories of the Cognitive Code made themselves felt in the classroom. The seventies were a decade which saw the emergence of functional and notional syllabuses through the work of the Council of Europe in response to the language needs of the EEC. It was also a decade which saw schools of practice breaking away from mainstream EFL and concentrating on narrower areas of focus. ESP and EAP made their first steps in this period and we saw Silent Way, Suggestopedia and Community Language Learning all rise in the public's attention as they looked for a quick and easy way to learn a language fast. At the academic level it was the decade of research starting in discourse analysis, error analysis, learning vs. acquisition and interlanguage.
Wilkins, van Ek and other European linguists with the Council of Europe were working on theories of meaning which reflected communicative events. Language was now viewed as a communicative force with functional exponents used to express a particular communicative need like offering. Style and register also began to take on importance as more ESP schools opened their doors. Interestingly research at Bristol University, which tracked 120 kids for two years with radio mikes found that language development had nothing to do with function but that syntactic structure showed patterns in the learning process. Whether this is as true in L2 as it is in L1 still has to be shown.
This did not mean that all the language work of the time was on functions and notions. In fact language theory was rich and eclectic with seminal works from the likes of Widdowson, Hymes, Candlin and others coming out. However, unfortunately this had little to no effect on the EFL classroom until the eighties.
c) Teaching and Learning
This decade had immense influence on syllabus design but in fact resulted in a step back to the Behaviourist teaching patterns as old structural lists were replaced by functional ones sequenced according to their usefulness and complexity. Now it was these which were drilled and PPP'd to death. There was no real theory of learning involved except that it was assumed that this type of language structuring would be more motivating to all students. A highly dubious claim, but at least they were thinking of the students. The focus of the decade was on language and syllabus not on learning and teaching.
This decade provided us with a wealth of activities often taken from those approaches away from the mainstream. We have the cuisinaire rods from Silent Way, the use of background music from Suggestopedia and the recording of students and negotiated syllabus from CLL. These methods died out but their values and attitudes continued. The humanistic element had entered the classroom.
6. COMMUNICATIVE LANGUAGE TEACHING (PHASE II)
The 1980's heralded a real advance in the quality of learning as the methods of the last hundred years gelled together and signalled a decade of innovation, imagination and improved practice. The Natural Approach of Krashen and Tyrell caused huge interest not least because Krashen was probably the best salesman EFL has ever seen. Stevick built on the humanist work of Carl Rogers in the sixties and Skehan started the individual learning strategies ball rolling. It was an exciting decade and one I was grateful to be trained in.
Widdowson's influence started debates on interaction, discourse rules, use (the communicative use of language in natural settings) versus usage (the display language so often used in the classroom), and value versus signification. However, this was a time which focused on teaching and learning far more than on the language itself.
c) Teaching and Learning
Grammatical syllabuses re-emerged and the task based syllabus was born as well. However, most textbooks were now moving towards a multi-syllabus approach with methodologies concentrating on student interaction, humanistic values, authentic materials - starting the great accuracy versus fluency debate which still rages - and individualisation. Learners began to be viewed as individuals for possibly the first time in the history of EFL and learning theories reflected this with social and emotional factors coming to the fore. Individual learning strategies were looked at in depth and teachers began to question academics on the differences between conscious and unconscious learning as well as learning versus acquisition.
Krashen was at the centre of this new found dialogue between those at the chalkface and the academics. He had strong support from teachers but was dismissed by many, especially British, academics for being an unscientific showman. It may well be that the largest contribution Krashen has made to our profession is the advent of the researching professional teacher who set out to disprove those ivory tower professors.
The total review of correction in the classroom and how it should be carried out is, in my mind, the most significant contribution that came from the first years of the 1980's. It allowed us as teachers to become aware of the effect our use of a variety of correctional techniques would have on learners and we could, accordingly, adapt and improve those techniques.
The final influence that must be mentioned was Munby and his needs analysis approach to syllabus design. Although his book 'Communicative Syllabus Design' was published in 1978, it was during the eighties that it began to be refined into a workable approach especially in ESP.
There are so many different activities which could be listed here but I will restrict myself to the following handful: the use of correction cards and sheets both individual and class, the use of TPR, authentic reading at low levels and most importantly the idea of the information gap which is now a given in almost every class taught.
7. LEXICAL RE-EMERGENCE & LEARNER INDEPENDENCE
Vocabulary had been almost completely ignored since the 1930's and Grammar Translation. A very slow re-emergence could have been seen since as early as 1964 when Halliday said that the most crucial criteria of any register was to be found in its lexis, but then vocabulary was swallowed under the blanket of functional exponents. From 1985 onwards we saw vocabulary re-emerge to its rightful place alongside grammar and phonology and this culminated in the publication of the Lexical Syllabus and COBUILD. In the classroom the focus has been on making students better learners and LRCs (Learning Resource Centres) and ILCs (Independent Learning Centres) have become part of our educational language.
Vocabulary is viewed as central to communicative effectiveness - something that is definitely difficult to argue with. As a whole language is seen as a mix of generative rules and fixed patterns. The language of structure (pre-packed chunks) is learnt one way as vocabulary whereas the language of rules (e.g. sentence formation) is learnt cognitively. This is borne out by a number of studies including one which saw a class taught the present perfect as a series of set phrases. It was not until upper intermediate level that this tense was looked at as a tense. The production of the students from the control group was both more accurate and fluent than that of students from other groups.
c) Teaching and Learning
Grammar teaching was seen more as a consciousness-raising exercise and we moved thankfully away from phrases such as; 'They've learnt the past continuous.' Variety was the buzz word, and choice and appropriacy of the methodology to the learning context were foremost in teachers' minds. Teachers became researchers in their own right and principled eclecticism in teaching methods allowed learning to be viewed in the same eclectic manner. Students were given space to organise their own learning and the classroom came to be seen as a primer to language acquisition. The work started by Skehan moved on and teachers were seen more as learning facilitators than language judges, and students were required to take responsibility for their own learning as well as being seen as active portrayers of information.
The best examples from this period are all still available around us in published form, the most noteworthy being Ruth Gairns 'Working with Words'. Vocabulary grids for nuances of meaning is one activity I use frequently, the classroom management strategy of moving pairs and simulation also come from the late eighties. Exercises on learning strategies and study skills abound and most of them are workable.
8. THE NINETIES & INTO THE 21ST CENTURY
We are now in the enviable position of putting everything that has gone before into our own workable unit and combining it with the remarkable development in educational learning tools we have seen in the last few years. We can take from anywhere, use anything and give our students choices that were not possible in earlier teaching climates. Combine this with the latest technology and, if we remain open-minded, we can move positively into a new century which could well see teachers becoming free agents and educational institutions becoming monoliths of the past.
We now recognise that there are probably hundreds of grammars in the world. There is no right or wrong grammar, just different ones. Our job is to break the language down for our students in the way which we understand it and in such a way that they can grasp it. We can now accept that each student will construct their own grammar and it is for us to check this through their interlanguage and help them to adjust it accordingly.
The study of language has moved far beyond the sentence, or even paragraph, stage and we need to access the viability of much of the work being done at a discourse level and decide how it can benefit our students. We need no longer back away from dealing with language at a textual level even with low level students.
c) Teaching and Learning
It is now widely accepted that each context and / or learner needs its own methodology. We have to be flexible and able to change to suit the needs of our students in whatever way necessary. This can be problematic as our role both in and out of the classroom is constantly being redefined. The modern EFL teacher has become a researcher, publisher and innovator.
Some students feel frustrated when presented with something they do not completely understand while others are very relaxed about it. We have to keep both types of student motivated and learning in a conducive environment. How? I believe that questions like this and the answers are available in the history of EFL. Rutherford captures the essence nicely as he suggests that teachers should never assume they have taught anything. All teachers do is make students aware of something which the student will later learn if they want to. To this end it is the enjoyment of the process of learning and acquisition, and motivation which are paramount.
From a teacher's viewpoint I think the approach which has most influenced me in the last five years is Test - Teach - Test, as well as negotiating syllabus and materials with students and using long and high level texts in class.
Much of my own recent work has been on the importance of the classroom environment and creating a learning atmosphere which does not threaten students. I drew heavily on the work of people like Rinvolucri, Richards and van Lier to name just three. This is one example where I became innovator, researcher and then author. All of you reading this have the same possibilities, and I would encourage you to find an area you enjoy working on, do your own research in your classrooms and then look to publish your work.