English Teaching Practical Hints


The Direct Method

Many "methods" have been inflicted upon long suffering generations of language students across the centuries. The simple idea of teaching students to speak a language by getting them to actually try to speak in that language was a long time coming. The idea of having the teacher speak only that language (in class) was added and that, basically is what is termed a "direct method". It is now pretty much accepted as a good idea across the board and, if somewhat out of fashion on its own, in various ways and in combination with other ideas is still slowly penetrating even the most hidebound bastions of teaching tradition as national curriculums come around to more pragmatic assessment of the results of language teaching courses.

Often it is not applied much in class because of the class sizes which teachers in state schools often have to deal with. Rather than do everything in the target language it seems quicker to translate words and explain grammar in the students' own language. This, however, tends to give a false impression of what has been learned. The word or even the grammar structure "explained" will probably have been understood but that doesn't mean the student can apply it in practice. I remember learning at school a list of all the French verbs conjugated with ‘Ítre’ instead of ‘avoir’. The list was written in such a way that it even rhymed! I still know it and ocasionally surprise my French students by coming out with it - usually to indicate the relative uselessness of this kind of learning. After all, as I tell them, they certainly can’t give me a list like that - and yet they never make a mistake with these words when they speak French. Which is more than I can claim!

Acquiring Skills

Learning a language is not like learning history or geography where one can sit down and learn facts from a book and then regurgitate them on demand. Learning a language is acquiring a skill, more like learning to drive, or to swim. And would you expect a non-swimmer to sit down with a book explaining how to do the crawl and then be able to jump into the pool and be able to carry out the instructions? Of course not! In language learning, as in swimming, people learn to do what they practice doing. If you read, you learn to read, if you write, you learn to write, if you listen, you learn to listen and it is only if you speak that you learn to speak. Like other skills, learning a language is 90% practice and 10% instruction.

Of the four skills involved in the use of a language, reading, writing, listening and speaking, it is certainly the latter which is the most difficult to master - and the most desired. Speaking is, in a sense the keystone insofar as if a student can actually use a word or a structure in his spoken English, he is unlikely to have problems when he hears it, sees it or needs to write it. (With some slight reserves as to the latter).

Passive and Active Vocabulary

So far as speaking is concerned, if a student hasn't actually used a word which has been ‘taught’ he will almost certainly not be able to in future. It will not form part of what one can term his ‘active’ vocabulary; The best that one can expect is a passive recognition of it when he hears it or sees it. The acquisition of ‘active’ vocabulary seems to happen in three stages: comprehension, pronunciation, ability to use. Comprehension comes from an effective introduction, pronunciation from simple repetition but in order to really have the word come out naturaly when it is required a student has to use the word in meaningful contexts, at least several times, maybe more.

The aim of these pages is to provide a collection of practical strategies, tactics, instructions and hints drawn from a long experience of language teaching, teacher training and classroom observation, mostly with French speaking students taught individually or in groups.

© Mark Yates 2001

bk00 updated Aug 2010