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Beyond Method

Kumaravadivelu’s (1994,2006) argument for striving for a “postmethod condition” was seminal in the new turn that applied linguistic designs for language teaching began to take in the last decade of the previous, and in the first decade of this century. In identifying not a new method or set of techniques associated with it, but rather a set of ‘macrostrategies’ for language teaching designs (Kumaravadivelu 2003; Bell 2003), he confirms the shift from designs directly relatable to method to a more open-ended kind of instructional design, that is at the same time more sensitive to local classroom and educational conditions. The macrostrategies, such as “Maximise learning opportunities” and “Facilitate negotiated interaction”, “Promote learner autonomy” and “Foster language awareness”, show a way for the reflective teacher to solve language instruction problems by devising plans that are locally appropriate and relevant, and unique to the circumstances of the particular context. By examining general findings in the literature on language teaching, such as that learners and their teachers often come to the task of learning a new language with widely divergent expectations (Kumaravadivelu 2003: chapter 4; Lepota and Weideman 2002), he suggests ways in which these general points can be concretized and made relevant locally. By referring to earlier studies undertaken on instructed language learning (and on activating, for example, in learners a sense of grammaticality in the target language), on creating critical language awareness, and on cultural understanding as prerequisite for developing a communicative ability in another language, Kumaravadivelu (2003) demonstrates, too, how teachers can develop into independent, reflective designers of their own language teaching.

Kumaravadivelu’s contribution in this regard builds on a direction in the design of language teaching associated with work that adjusts the focus away from teaching and on to learning (e.g. Allwright 2005). As Allwright (2005 : 14) observes, teachers are wrong to believe that “what learners get from a lesson is ... predictable merely from what is taught in that lesson and ... just from the teaching points covered.” Teaching does not automatically convert into learning, as many teachers erroneously believe. Therefore the focus of the language teaching design must not be on the teaching, but on how the learning might happen. Allwright (2005) therefore proposes a new set of design criteria for language teaching that will allow planning for a rich language experience to take precedence over teaching a particular point; for a deepened understanding of the learning experience by both teacher and learners; for emphasizing not improvement but understanding of how the learning happens.

There is a historical relation between these and other pleas for new and different principles influencing the design of language teaching during this phase in the history of the discipline. As was demonstrated in Chap. 6, in the discussion of a chapter (“From Research to Reality: Implications for the Teacher”) in Dulay et al. (1982: 261ff.), it was fashionable to formulate what its authors term ‘guidelines’ for the teacher. Their observation that they “do not prescribe a single method, but guidelines.” is a further illustration of the declared death of method. Their guidelines urge the teacher to expose the learners to ‘natural’ communication, to enable them to comprehend the content. As in the other examples given here, Lightbown and Spada, in their influential analysis of how languages are learned (2006 marked its 3rd edition, 2010 the 4th), similarly consider “Six proposals for classroom teaching” (2006: 137f.). Not all of the proposals pass muster. The first (labeled “Get it right from the beginning”), for example, is marked as potentially ineffective as a result of its emphasis only on error-free language production. Deriving from audiolingual design principles, this slant had nonetheless remained so important in language teaching that it was still worth mentioning as an influential style of designing language teaching. The second proposal (“Just listen ... and read”) may be suitable for language teaching designs aimed at beginners, but for advanced learners might need to be augmented (Lightbown and Spada 2006: 149). The third proposal, “Let’s talk”, is related mostly to studies done on conversational interaction, the most important design implication of which is the better organization of pair and group work (Lightbown and Spada 2006: 155), but it seems to favor the misinterpretation of communicative language teaching as a kind of perfected oral approach (as in the Direct method). Communicative interaction is of course much more than interaction through talk. The fourth proposal (“Two for one”) discusses the advantages and drawbacks of what has become an important strategy for language learning in what previously would have been called “second language” environments: the integration of language teaching with the content of other subject matter in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) (2006: 155ff.). The most significant drawback is the lack of an adequate level of mastery of the target language when the learners have to learn through it, as is the case in many postcolonial settings, including South Africa. The fifth proposal (2006: 160ff.) emphasizes that not everything that is lingually discernible is teachable: learners should be developmentally ready for certain forms of instruction before learning becomes possible in the context of an instructional space. The sixth and final proposal (“Get it right in the end”), on the other hand, combines an emphasis on communication-based instruction with sensitizing learners to points of grammar. Though not all of the research that they survey was done in a classroom setting, they conclude: “Approaches that integrate attention to form within communicative and content-based interaction receive the most support from classroom research” (Lightbown and Spada 2006: 176).

It is noteworthy that these ‘proposals’, while deriving from certain methods (such as the grammar translation or audio-lingual methods) or methodological techniques (such as TPR), are not called methods, but proposals, i.e. different possible approaches to the design of language teaching. The combination of a focus on form with a focus on meaning and communication that is suggested here, however, seldom becomes specific or concrete in terms of the format or style in which learners are ‘sensitized’ to points of form. From a pedagogical perspective, an approach which merely reinforces a traditional ‘telling’ style on the part of the teacher (as in the injunction that “teachers should not hesitate to correct persistent errors” - Lightbown and Spada 2006: 179) is potentially as problematic as a course that avoids overt grammatical instruction. What is more, an emphasis on ‘form’ may well embody a narrow definition of what is considered as ‘grammar’ (e.g. only those syntactic points that are known to be different between the student’s first language and the target language). What if the ‘known’ differences are only those that have been analyzed and discovered from the vantage point of a certain insight into what grammar is? As later conceptualizations of grammar, such as Halliday’s systemic functional grammar (SFG) have shown (Halliday 1985; Weideman 2011: 45-48), there are operative at the level of the clause a great many more intricate layers of language organization than are conventionally distinguished: we encounter here thematic structure (theme + rheme, in the unmarked and marked case) intertwined with, for example, information structure (the arrangement of a clause into Given and New - in the unmarked case - or New and Given information, the latter being the marked form). This kind of organization, which may go unnoticed in a restrictive conceptualization of grammar, emphasizes that grammar carries meaning; it is therefore a point of consideration what ‘grammar’ should be taught other than a prescriptive variety emanating from a restrictive perspective on the formal organizational features of language. And the injunction to use contrastive analyses to identify formal differences between the learners’ first language and the target language presumes that this will be feasible, since it assumes that all learners in language classrooms have just a single first language. In many contexts, for example in inner-city South African pre-schools where English is a kind of default target language (and certainly the language that is the preferred medium for the upwardly mobile, urbanized lower middle class and middle class parents who place their children in these schools), this is not the case: there are literally dozens of first languages among the learners. Parents who speak different ‘first’ languages are no longer a rarity in these urban settings.

In a different approach to making second language acquisition studies relevant to teaching designs, that was already referred to above, namely the investigation of how motivation to learn affects (individual) language learners, we have a slightly more confident approach. Extrapolating from the results of empirical investigations, Dornyei and Csizer (1998), enumerate “Ten commandments for motivating language learners”. These would include, for example, the desirability of the teacher setting an example, creating a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere in the classroom, and increasing learners’ confidence, purposefulness and interest (see Dornyei and Csizer 1998: 215 for the tabulated list). As can be expected, they hedge and explain that these are to be read not as strict injunctions, but rather as part of a “more pragmatic, education-centred approach” to motivation research (1998: 204). Significantly, too, the ten requirements are labelled ‘macrostrategies’ for the nurturing of motivated learners.

The new design principles discussed above, along with ‘proposals’ and so-called macrostrategies for language teaching or for motivating learners do not signal as radical a departure from the conventional as may be implied. In fact, as Bell (2003: 332) has observed, many of the macrostrategies identified by Kumaravadivelu have a remarkable resemblance to the main tenets of communicative language teaching: “[P]ostmethod strategies and design principles can be understood as articulating the design features ... of the current paradigm of CLT” (2003: 333). The same would seem to apply in respect of the affective components of instruction in classrooms that potentially motivate language learners (Dornyei and Csizer 1998). I shall return below (Chap. 9) to the issues of continuity and discontinuity in applied linguistic designs, but such observations are a first indication of the dominance of continuity in the plans we make, and strategies we pursue, in making language learning possible in the classroom.

What is important from the point of view of the history of applied linguistics, moreover, is not only that such postmethod conceptualizations of language teaching designs confirm that the modernist search for the best method has been called off, but also that they herald a new era of either refined, or sometimes less refined, eclecticism. In the place of the quest for a scientifically sanctioned method of language teaching, we now have a postmodernist design approach in applied linguistics, such as that described in Kumaravadivelu’s (2003) work. To its credit, this kind of conceptualization much more realistically anticipates improvement in language teaching designs in terms of incremental gains that are for the most part locally conceived as well as highly contextualized. I shall return in Chap. 9 below to a critical discussion of the effects on the practice of language teaching of endorsing eclectic designs.

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