By Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers. (Cambridge Language
Review by David Overton
Are you familiar with the history of ELT (English Language Teaching)?
Do you know how the Grammar Translation Method and Audiolingualism
still influence our teaching today? Do you know what the Communicative
Language Teaching revolution was all about? Would you like to
know more about “alternative” approaches and methods such as the
Silent Way, Suggestopedia, or Counseling-learning? Or how about
more recent innovations such as Task-Based Language Teaching and
the Lexical Approach? If you’re interested in these things, this
is a good book to read.
The 19 chapters are divided into 3 parts. The first 4 chapters
form Part 1, which is called “Major trends in twentieth century
language teaching”. Chapter 1 describes the Grammar Translation
Method and the transition to the Direct Method. Grammar Translation
has no rationale or theory to back up its practices, and is based
on the teaching of Latin, a dead language. Its goal is for students
to learn a language in order to read its literature and involves
detailed study of grammar rules, then the translation of stilted
prose to demonstrate mastery of those rules.
However, in the mid and late 1800s Europeans began to travel
around more, bringing about a need for oral proficiency in foreign
languages. A Reform Movement came about in which the best way
to teach languages was debated, and from this came the Direct
Method, which was the other extreme of Grammar Translation: primacy
was given to the spoken language, pronunciation was emphasized
using the new field of phonetics, words and sentences were taught
in context to make meaning clear, grammar was taught inductively,
and translation was taboo. In the 1860s the first Berlitz academy
was opened, and here the Direct Method was quite effective with
highly motivated paying students and native-speaking teachers,
but it didn’t work well in public schools. By the way, this time
also marked the beginning of the field of applied linguistics,
and was when the basic issues of language teaching were first
set down and discussed.
Chapter 2 interrupts our history of English Language Teaching
to examine the issues surrounding it and define the terms used
in this book when evaluating approaches and
methods. Basically the terms “approach”, “design”, and “procedure”
are put on a scale from more abstract to more specific. “Approach”
is the most abstract term being the theory of language, and the
theory of language learning. “Design” is organizational issues
such as deciding the course objectives, the types of learner and
teaching activities, and the roles of the learners, teachers,
and instructional material. Finally, “procedure” is the actual
techniques used in the class.
By the way, I found the use of the word “method” is sometimes
confusing in this book because at times it seems to be synonymous
with “approach”, as in the title of the book, and at times it
seems to mean “design” and “procedure” as explained above, and
yet at others it seems to be the sum of approach, design and procedure.
Chapter 3, The Oral Approach and Situational Language Teaching,
brings us back to our history lesson. The Oral Approach and Situational
Language Teaching are basically the same thing. It was developed
by British applied linguists from the 1930s to the 1960s and was
the first method based on systematic study and research. It differs
from the Direct Method in that vocabulary and grammar are carefully
selected and graded, and it’s based on behaviorist habit-formation
theory. Classroom procedure includes the famous PPP paradigm (Present,
Practice, Produce), and the practice phase consists of the extensive
use of oral drills.
Chapter 4 is about the Audiolingual Method, which is basically
an American equivalent of Situational Language Teaching, so I
won’t go into that here.
Part 3 of the book includes chapters 14 to 19 and is called,
Current Communicative Approaches. If we want to continue our history
lesson we need to jump ahead now to chapter 14, Communicative
Language Teaching (CLT). Here we see how it began and how it compares
with Audiolingualism. In CLT “communicative competence” is paramount,
that is, being able to use language for communication; whereas
in Audiolingualism, the main goal is “linguistic competence” (being
able to manipulate grammatical structures). CLT introduces the
idea of “functions”, using language for a communicative purpose
such as asking for directions and ordering in a restaurant.
CLT consists of broad principles which allow for a wide variety
of classroom activities. For example, for some people CLT was
just Audiolingualism plus functions; but for others it meant major
changes in procedure too, such as the use of information gaps,
role plays and games; and a more learner-centered class. Because
of its broad principles, it tends to be an umbrella approach,
that is, the Lexical Approach and Task-Based Teaching are versions
The rest of the book is about “alternative approaches”. The ones
in part 2 are considered to be non-mainstream or developed away
from mainstream ELT, and so receive less attention. The ones in
part 3 are considered mainstream developments since the 1980s
and are explained in more depth. However, from my experience of
language teaching in Madrid, the most interesting recent developments
in ELT are Task-Based Language Teaching and the Lexical Approach.
Yet the Lexical Approach (which was developed in the 90s) is relegated
to part 2, while the Natural Approach (developed in the 70s) is
in part 3. It’s true that the Natural Approach was very important
because it started the learning vs. acquisition debate, but compared
to the Lexical Approach, it cannot be considered a recent innovation.
Anyway, I’ll make quick comments about each approach in part
2 to whet your appetite and make you want to buy the book and
find out more. For example, Total Physical Response combines English
with physical movement and involves extensive use of imperative
drills such as, “Get up. Walk to the door. Open the door”. It’s
meant mainly for low-level students and is intended to be combined
with another method.
The Silent Way believes that students learn best when they figure
things out for themselves, so teacher modeling and feedback are
minimal. Typical of Silent Way are rods, pronunciation charts
called “fidels”, and a pointer. The teachers’ role is “to teach,
to test, and to get out of the way”. We don’t want teachers interfering
Community Language Learning is famous for being very learner
centered, for example, students create their own syllabus: they
sit around a table with a tape recorder and come up with their
own text which the teacher helps them to correct or translate
Suggestopedia claims that in the right conditions, when we’re
relaxed, we’re capable of “superlearning”. The most famous classroom
activity to achieve this is the “séance” or “concert session”
where students listen to a text being read along with music.
Whole Language views language as a whole and resists breaking
it down into its component parts. Classroom activities focus on
reading literature and process writing.
Multiple Intelligences tries to adapt classroom activities to
cater to the different intelligence types, such as linguistic,
logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, interpersonal, or bodily
Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) is not a language teaching
method at all, but a humanistic philosophy designed to make us
better learners by encouraging us to feel better about ourselves.
It’s hard to say what the Lexical Approach is doing next to NLP,
but here it is. The Lexical Approach believes that multi-word
items such as collocation deserve much more attention in order
to help students achieve communicative competence. By the way,
this chapter doesn’t mention the Lexical Approach’s view that
learning is an organic process, not linear as per behaviorist
learning theory. In fact this book doesn’t mention the organic
nature of learning at all.
Competency-Based Language Teaching is an output approach, which
is useful when students have specific needs such as survival English.
As I’ve mentioned before, Part 3 is about current mainstream
ELT. We’ve already looked at Communicative Language Teaching.
Next is the Natural Approach, which is interesting because of
the belief that language can only be “acquired” subconsciously,
and conscious “learning” is only useful to “monitor” what you’ve
said: to self correct.
Cooperative Language Learning advocates cooperative activities
such as process writing.
Content-based Instruction means teaching other subjects, such
as geography, in English.
Task-Based Language Teaching involves doing some sort of task,
then hearing native speakers do it. This encourages students to
“notice the gap” between their production and the native speakers’.
At this point there is a language focus, and afterwards students
prepare a “report”, which actually could be some sort of repetition
of the task.
Finally, the last chapter is called The Post-Methods Era. I was
surprised when they say that studies indicate many teachers’ core
beliefs about teaching were formed by the teachers they had when
they were children; also that the more experience we have as teachers,
the more set in our ways we become. They’re suggesting that most
teachers are reluctant to innovate and try new things, which is
Maybe they should read this book. I’ve found it interesting and
useful, despite my objections here and there. It’s easy to dip
into, the explanations are clear. So whether you’re a new or experienced
teacher, I recommend this book.