Language teaching methods require thorough analysis before they are implemented into practice. This paper is aimed at analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the four approaches to language teaching: Communicative Language Teaching, Lexical Approach, Task-Based Language Teaching, and Natural Approach.
“Methodology of language teaching has been characterised in a variety of ways. A more or less classical formulation suggests that methodology links theory to practice” (Larsen-Freeman, 2000). However, methodology is not limited to this type of theoretical-practical links. Methodology emphasises strengths and weaknesses of particular teaching and learning methods. In this work, several language teaching methods are to be evaluated and analysed: Communicative Language Teaching, Lexical approach, Task-based language teaching, and Natural approach.
Communicative Language Teaching
Communicative language teaching (CLT) is one of the basic approaches to teaching languages at all educational levels. “CLT has enormous intuitive appeal” (Jacobs & Farrell, 2003). If utilised properly, CLT may substantially facilitate the process of language learning for the majority of students with various educational backgrounds. There are several basic principles which turn CLT into an effective means of language teaching. First, CLT takes language as a “whole communicative entity” without being divided into separate pragmatic (lexical, syntactic, or grammatical) structures (Savignon, 2002). Second, CLT focuses on language as the means of delivering messages; persuading others; making requests; agreeing or disagreeing to other people. Structural syllabus in CLT is replaced with communicative syllabus. Traditional grammatical forms (e.g. tenses) are expressed and explained with the help of real life examples (sentences), which help better understand the way language works (Savignon, 2002).
CLT is primarily a learner-centred teaching approach. CLT encourages group work and pair-work, in which students and the teacher participate on equal grounds. Objectively, CLT is a very efficient approach to language teaching: students are provided with sufficient freedom to interact with each other, with the teacher, to formulate and express their thoughts, and to expand the range of vocabulary. Proponents of CLT imply that learner-centred approaches help avoid teacher’s domination in classroom, and promote students’ interactions and information exchange between the student and the teacher (Jacobs & Farrell, 2003). This is why the teachers, who utilise CLT approaches in classroom, develop a “natural communicative environment”, in which “the classroom becomes like the world outside the classroom where we see people using language spontaneously and communicatively” (Savignon, 2002).
CLT is not a perfect method of language teaching. CLT frequently replaces the importance of form with the importance of meaning (Jacobs & Farrell, 2003). CLT proponents forget that there should be no conflict between form and meaning, and form should always be taken as the indispensable element of meaning in language. Out of the two language domains (generative and pragmatic) CLT obviously neglects the former (Savignon, 2002). Communication cannot become effective without extensive knowledge of syntactic and structural forms. In this context, CLT is seriously misbalanced. Speech acts cannot be effective if they are not structured, but CLT misses this aspect and turns speakers’ attention to what they want to say, and not to how it should be said.
CLT uses student-centred principles in teaching, and this is another weakness of CLT approach. “The narrow of fundamentalist version of CLT can easily become a stifling orthodoxy in which things like rote-learning, memorisation, ‘display questions’, ‘teacher-talk’ automatically mean bad. None of these things alone is bad” (Jacobs & Farrell, 2003). Student-centred approaches undermine the basics of effective language learning: teachers need sufficient authority and power to implement various language learning strategies, and to make students work. It is critical that teachers are able to balance their authority with the power and communicative freedom of students to make language teaching efficient.
CLT places special emphasis on replacing structural syllabus with communicative syllabus, but learners should also possess sufficient structural knowledge to fit their speech acts to various life situations. “A competent speaker has to know different ways of performing the same speech act” (Larsen-Freeman, 2000). The speaker cannot utilise vocabulary to the fullest, if he (she) is not able to generate various grammatical forms in speech. CLT considerably narrows communicative goals. A typical goal in CLT suggests that “by the end of the lesson students should be able to talk about themselves and properly use the Present Continuous tense when describing their current activities” (Savignon, 2002). Such communicative goals turn teaching into behaviourism and undermine language accuracy. CLT should not erase the difference between the classroom and the world outside. Teacher-dominative approaches should pay special attention to complex syntactic and grammatical structures, which native speakers use almost unconsciously. Students need to learn them, and to know them, because as soon as they appear in real language environment, they will have no time to think about them.
Lexical approach to language teaching
“Language teaching has traditionally viewed grammar and vocabulary as a divide, with the former category consisting of structures (the present perfect, reported speech) and the latter usually consisting of single words” (Thornbury, 1998). In this structure of teaching methodology, certain language categories were prioritised. Grammar served the stem and the basis of language teaching methods, while vocabulary served the secondary element in learning. This is why Lexical approach was designed to help professionals teach “real language” and revisit (recycle) the most important language elements.
“At the centre of a Lexical approach is the insistence on teaching ‘real’ English and a rejection of the ersatz language found in ELT coursebook” (Willis, 1998). Lexical approach to language teaching is initially directed at creating realistic language environment; Lexical approach to language teaching helps students learn real language structures and forms, which people use in daily life. Lexical approach potentially helps teachers avoid language distortions in the process of teaching. In addition to effective vocabulary learning, Lexical approach uses the principles of revisiting and recycling the most important language information. Willis (1998) writes that “lexis should be recycled between 10 and 12 times for higher level learners”. The author emphasises the fact that teaching vocabulary without using recycling is a waste of time (Willis, 1998). Recycling is especially relevant in ESL teaching: students are distanced from target language environment and native speakers, and require regular reviewing of the most important vocabulary structures. Lexical approach pays special attention to revisiting the already learned lexis over certain time periods.
As soon as teachers are willing to utilise Lexical teaching approach, they face the first problem: Lexical approach does not specify, what means “real” English. Lexical approach’s weakness is in that it requires adjusting lexical material to pedagogical purposes. The teacher is to decide, what “real” language material is culturally inappropriate in specific learning context (Thornbury, 1998). Lexical approach does not offer any criteria for selecting the most informative language material. It is very difficult to make the proper choice of the most relevant language structures. Very frequently, students need to learn several different variations of one grammatical (vocabulary) form, “but there is a limit to the number of items learners can learn at any one time (i.e. in a single lesson)” (Thornbury, 1998). This is why by using Lexical approach, teachers risk overwhelming students with the new information, and omitting the most important language elements.
Validity of language material and Lexical approach implementation are another two problems of lexical teaching methodology. In lexical teaching courses, all textbooks are characterised by having the so-called “hidden agenda” (Willis, 1998). That means that all lexical material is already prioritised according to language perceptions of each specific author. This prioritisation is misbalanced and lacks uniformity. Lexical approach in textbooks tends to overemphasise the importance of lexis, without paying attention to grammar. The lack of professional literature on how lexical approach should be used in classroom makes it look non-operationalisable (Thornbury, 1998). Lexical approach still lacks practicality of implementation; not a single syllabus is based on lexical language methodology. This is why Lexical approach to language teaching remains a set of theoretical assumptions, which require practical testing, analysis, and adjustment.
Task-based language teaching
“Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is a communicative approach to language instruction, using the successful completion of communicative “tasks” as its primary organising principle” (Nunan, 2004). In brief, Task-based language teaching methodology requires that students use language to fulfil numerous tasks. Task-based approach initially avoids exercising “finished” language forms, which makes it different from other traditional approach to teaching language.
Tasks help teachers structure the learning process. Tasks serve the blocks of the teaching process, and substantially facilitate assessment of learning outcomes. These blocks help the teacher sequence the lesson, create favourable conditions in which students can communicate with each other, and speak to the teacher. Task-based approach “allows students to focus on what it is that they are saying to each other, rather than on how they are saying it” (Nunan, 2004). Each task also limits students’ communication to one specific purpose (e.g., calling a taxi), and is prescribed one specific outcome (the taxi arrives on time).
Task-based language teaching methodology is based on the principle of authenticity. Authenticity is crucial for the success of language learning. Authentic (real-world) tasks motivate students to learn. Students are interested in attempting the tasks which will later apply to real-world situations (Leaver & Willis, 2004). Rather than having a free conversation, the students are supplied with the specific task, and its outcomes help assessing students’ success in language learning. Tasks can be made easier or more complex. In general, tasks represent an extremely flexible and adjustable approach to language teaching: in the process of fulfilling the task, students are free to utilise different language approaches to achieve the expected language outcomes.
TBLT displays the two major weaknesses. First, task-based learning is hardly applicable among young learners or beginners. Task-based language approach is often called “a strong approach to teaching language” (Nunan, 2004). A number of textbooks apply task-based language approaches to all levels of language learners, but these tasks are modified to suit the specific learning environment, and are recognised as “weak” forms of task based methodology (Leaver & Willis, 2004). Such modified task-based approaches “make compromises with some of the tenets of TBLT in order to target children and beginners, especially by providing language-based activities such as embedded grammar points” (Leaver & Willis, 2004). Ultimately, they are deprived of language authenticity, which serves the central element of any language teaching. Successful task-based language learning should be founded on authenticity. Modified (simplified) approach to task-based teaching is more effective in ESL classrooms, but in EFL environment teaching should be authentic, to allow recycling and revisiting the most frequently used forms of language. Beginners and younger learners are not able to properly perceive and evaluate this authenticity; this is why they cannot use the benefits of Task-based approach to the fullest.
The second problem is in distinguishing task complexity from language complexity, and determining their connection in task-based language teaching. Researchers cannot find common agreement on how language and task complexity interrelate (Leaver & Willis, 2004; Nunan, 2004). Although the notion of task complexity is clear in itself, it is not easily linked to the complexity of language. Theoretically, the complexity of the task directly determines the complexity of language the student should use in order to fulfil it. Practically, it is not clear, whether the student has the right to use simpler language forms to complete more complicated tasks. “There is no strong consensus on whether students being able to perform one particular task are necessarily proficient at performing all tasks of the same type” (Nunan, 2004). Complexity remains the most problematic aspect of task-based approaches, and teachers are to decide on the way to link task complexity to complexity of language.
“Language is the best taught when it is being used to transmit messages, not when it is explicitly taught for conscious learning” (Krashen, 1983). Natural approach is grounded on the assumption that language is better learnt through natural acquisition (reading, listening, etc.) than through conscious memorisation of language rules. The assumption is partially correct, direct exposure to target language opens unlimited opportunities to language teaching and learning. Natural approach possesses several important benefits. First, there is a clear distinction between acquisition and learning. Krashen’s “acquisition-learning hypothesis” suggests that acquisition is real communication, while learning is a formal process of studying language (Krashen, 1983). As a result, learners become more language proficient, when they communicate, and do not simply learn language structures by heart. Second, natural approach uses the principles of learning first language by a child. Natural approach aims at logically connecting language teaching to the development of the human cognitive abilities. As a result, natural language teaching methodology initially views “language as a vehicle for communicating meanings and messages” and results in “explicit knowledge about the forms of a language and the ability to verbalise this knowledge” (Krashen, 1983). The traditional form of formal learning does not lead to acquisition of the real world language forms; correction of errors is minimised, and learners are given the fullest freedom of communication in classroom.
Natural approach takes into account the emotional state of the learner, and provides an opportunity for the learner to articulate the exact language needs. The Affective Filter Hypothesis suggests that language acquisition cannot be effective if the learner is not motivated, lacks self-confidence, and / or displays anxiety (Krashen, 1983). Natural approach is focused on reading and listening language activities; speaking emerges as a result of constant exposure to target language.
Natural approach to teaching language is beneficial in that it utilises the principles of learning the first language through subconscious learning mechanisms, without being too concentrated on formal grammatical structures. Simultaneously, natural approach is heavily criticised for distorting the parallels between learning the first and the second language: “First language acquisition is very closely linked to the cognitive development of infants, but second language learners have most of these facilities present, even as children” (Paradis, 1998). There is no guarantee that the order of language comprehension and production is the same for first and second language learning processes.
In his natural methodology, Krashen constantly implies that grammar is secondary to language exposure (Krashen, 1983). Moreover, natural approach suggests, that only “meaning errors” should be corrected. However, language teaching cannot completely neglect formal grammar. Grammar is the integral element of meaning in language. Acquisition should be added with revisiting and recycling the key grammatical forms. The problem of correcting grammatical errors is the central issue of Natural approach. Many teachers face the problem of making objective, relevant and timely corrections while students are speaking. Generally, to correct a student’s error means to break down the student’s speech and to deprive the student of further stimuli to speak. “Language learners and teachers everywhere know the feeling that the harder they try to make a correct sentence, the worse it comes out” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001). Limited psychological capacity does not allow the student processing the two types of incoming information simultaneously (e.g. form and meaning). In Krashen’s view, correction of grammar mistakes should take the form of slight editing only at the stage of language production. By using Natural approach, teachers may resolve the majority of psychological issues in error correction. However, language teaching methodology cannot completely neglect grammar. By overemphasising meaning, Natural approach loses to form, and eventually makes meaning irrelevant in all language contexts. Explicit grammar knowledge substantially facilitates the learner’s transition from language production to comprehension. The existence of learners who have learned language without being exposed to natural language environment suggests that such exposure is not the central element in language teaching, and grammar and vocabulary should be given equal attention in the process of teaching language.
To teach languages means to possess sound analytical skills. Language teacher needs to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of particular teaching method, before implementing it in practice. This paper has revealed serious inconsistencies in contemporary language teaching methodology. None of the four analysed language learning methods is perfect. The role of teacher in these methodological schools dramatically varies: while Natural approach sees the teacher as the language role model, Communicative Language Teaching limits teacher’s role to collaboration with students and background facilitation of communication processes in classroom. In contemporary learning environment, synergism remains the best approach to teaching. Combining the best elements of various language teaching methods allows using the benefits of numerous teaching methods. Although each method is claimed to be unique, the teacher has to meet the challenges of the so-called “disciplined eclecticism”, when language teaching practices are reasonably combined to bring the desired learning effect in classroom and beyond.
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