What are traditional methods, why are my colleagues using them, and should I say anything?

At a department meeting the other day, I was talking to one of our student teachers. She’s doing French and Art, and was telling me about her  University methods professor– the person who teaches student teachers “how to teach French.”

her Uni has a system where the student teachers get a general intro course, then do a short practicum, then get more methods, then do along practicum, then get a mega-methods class. Sometimes, depending on intake, the order is scrambled (e.g. the STs will get long methods then practica, etc). Anyway, she was telling me that her methods professor– a French woman with a Ph.D.– was all about

A) immediate grammar correction
B) explicit grammar teaching and practice
C) grammar homework
D) lots of “oral practice,” etc

I told here “all that stuff is junky, because it’s not supported by the research.

This brings up two good questions:

A) what are “traditional practices”?

B) why do people still do them?

B first. I wrote about traditional practices and why there are so few comprehensible-input teachers here

So what are “traditional practices”?

Traditional practices– a.k.a.”legacy practices” (not my term, and a term I’m no longer using, because it comes off as judgmental) are old methods of doing things. In language teaching, to put it crudely, traditional practices are things that teachers do which are not supported by research. In languages, this (now) means things tried before Krashen began gathering the data that supports the comprehensible input hypothesis. Tradiional  methods include

  • asking for output in the first stages of acquisition
  • using learner-created output with other learners (especially in early stages)
  • explaining grammar rules for any length of time
  • making people copy down grammar notes
  • giving grammar-focused assignments (fill in the blanks, conjugate the verb, etc)
  • assessing grammar knowledge
  • basing assignments around output
  • organising curriculum around themes

We know that talking isn’t necessary for acquisition, that there are limited (and short-term) returns on grammar instruction and practice, that there is no way to ensure that acquisition follows a textbook, etc.

At the early 20th century, Latinists influenced language teaching, and thought, rules plus practice = acquisition (see the scene near the start of  The Dead Poets’ Society where the Latin teacher is having his kids decline agricola, the Latin word for “farmer”). Skinner– drill, baby, drill for rewards– seemed to reinforce this. Chomsky, who is not only the most quoted but the most misunderstood researcher, put the boots to Skinner but seemed to reinforce the “rules plus practice” formula (he didn’t). Grammar, plus audiolingual (listen then talk) was all the rage for awhile, partly because of the U.S. Army’s insistence on audiolingual methods. It was not until the late 1970s that people began experimenting with the communicative-experiential approach (broadly, using realistic language in communication-gap scenarios, plus grammar practice, to develop acquisition).

While the C-E approach must have been a breath of fresh air compared to the grammar grind– it was for me in high-school German–, we now know that forcing people to talk makes many uncomfortable, is unnecessary, and deprives people of the rich, quality L2 comprehensible input that drives acquisition.

So what do you do when your Department either a) just doesn’t like comprehensible input or b) refuses to read the research and change methods, or c) both?

You speak your piece. As Michael Fullan says, without the difficult conversations where people confront their biases, outdated practices, etc, there is no progress in schools. When in our languages department questions come up– we have been “directed” by admin to come up with inquiry questions to guide departmental practice– I will base my conversation around research and fact, and not what “I like” or “what I believe in.”

I was criticised, called “out of line” for my suggestion that some of my colleagues’ use of legacy practices was not appropriate practice.

Well…we teach in a public school, we answer to the public, and we had BETTER be able to justify our methods. I can. I know the research, I have demonstrable results, I’ll share everything I know– and I’ll come and demo in any of my colleagues’ classes, in any language I know. I will not sit there and discuss the question “how can the languages department implement project-based learning?” if the research on acquisition does not support that. I do not want the departmental budget directed toward “the French café” (the crêpe wagon comes and kids can say 3 words in French to buy a crêpe) because this is not helping acquisition. (I wouldn’t support the taco stand or the samosa wagon either, FWIW). I don’t want to waste time on discussing which textbook to buy, because we know– from research– that textbooks don’t follow the acquisitional “brain rules.”

In short, it is the comprehensible input/T.P.R.S. teacher’s job to advocate for activities, policies and materials which reflect current research, and not to go along with legacy practitioners’ outdated practices. Gonna do T.P.R.S.? Get ready to have some tough, but very rewarding, discussions.

As of 2016, I have reflected on this post from two years ago and I have realised one thing: personal bridges come first.  People will generally only listen if you develop a bit of a bond and it generally does not help to start a conversation with arguing.  So I have had to start being/appearing less confrontational.  (interesting side-effect of this: a communicative/grammarian colleague–despite her protestations that TPRS is weird etc– is becoming a C.I. teacher!  She has ditched the worksheets, started doing novel reading, tells stories, etc…)

To someone who has never seen T.P.R.S. in action, and/or who hasn’t (or won’t) read the research, or who refuses to experiment, or who “believes” in his/her legacy method, T.P.R.S. can sound like craziness.  No grammar notes?  No practice dialogues?  No grammar tests?  No vocab lists or discrete-item testing?  Madness, or at least, eccentricity.

But hey!  Remember what Bertrand Russel said: “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

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