If you’re a curious teacher (and you’re reading this, so I guess you are!), then I’m sure you will have some idea about the different teaching methodologies and approaches that have emerged throughout the history of English language teaching. The last century saw a radical shift from the now outdated Grammar Translation method all the way through to the beginnings of communicative language teaching (CLT) in the seventies.
But what you might also notice is that since then we haven’t really seen any new credible methodologies emerge. We’ve had different ways of approaching a lesson, like the Lexical Approach and Dogme, but these are both ways of approaching a general CLT lesson, admittedly in a challenging and interesting way.
I think it’s interesting that we’ve reached this status quo and I wonder what it means for the future, but if we think about what the current state of affairs is for teachers, it seems to me that we are in a slightly odd position where the best practice of our field is hard to define. Most of us would acknowledge that there is some value in all of the methods that have been tried, even the more unusual ones like the Silent Way and (De)Suggestopedia, and that they have had some influence on our current practice. Even Grammar Translation, which has rightly been consigned to history, has not killed the potential for intelligent and principled translation in the classroom.
We also have to acknowledge the place of the coursebook in this, as most of will be using them and to a large extent our methodology is dictated by the book we use. It takes an adventurous teacher to ‘mess around’ with the coursebook, even though I suspect the vast majority of coursebook writers would be more than happy for you to amend their materials as you see fit. But institutional, student and parental concerns about how the lessons proceed may make it difficult for the teacher to teach exactly as they wish to.
So where does that leave us? On one hand we have the syllabus, the coursebook, the expectations of our school, students and possibly their parents, and on the other we have a hotchpotch of methodologies and approaches that all have some inherent value but also have their flaws. The modern English language teacher is left with no choice but to pick their way through, constantly adapting their own methodology to suit the needs of their students. And if we wish to leave ourselves space for spontaneity, and I think we should, it has to be a conscious and deliberate decision on our part to find those gaps where we can personalise our content, and respond naturally to what is happening in the room.
It’s a messy situation, but I think it’s actually a positive thing if you are a teacher who enjoys a stimulating and challenging job. It means that you can’t be lazy, you can’t just rely on the tried and tested ideas that you’ve always used because you know that no two classes are ever the same and a lesson can always be improved. It’s what keeps us motivated and engaged, and keeps us coming back to the classroom. In that sense, there’s never been a better time to English language teacher. The challenge for us to juggle all of these of different elements and find a way to give our students the best lessons we can.