Thursday, May 22, 2014

Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching by Diane Larsen-Freeman [Second Edition]

Why I Read This Book
          This book was recommended as supplemental reading on the Distance Delta (W) course that I am currently doing.  Furthermore a friend and colleague who had already completed the Delta course recommended this book as being particularly useful for the exam.

The Review
          Despite the very dry-sounding title, this is a very readable and very engaging book. 
            Larsen-Freeman is a writer with a talent for expressing ideas easily and simply, and writes very readable prose.
            The readability of the book is also helped by the narrative format it uses.  For each language teaching method, Larsen-Freeman describes a sample class of that method.  The descriptions are clear enough so that you often feel as if you are right in the classroom.
            For example, here’s an excerpt from the chapter on Desuggestopedia:
            “The teacher puts on some music. It is Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A. After a couple of minutes, in a quiet voice, she begins to read the text. Her reading appears to be molded by the music as she varies her intonation and keeps rhythm with it. The students follow along with the voice of the teacher, who allows them enough time to silently read the translation of the dialog in their native language.  They are encouraged to highlight and take notes during the session.  The teacher pauses from time to time to allow the students to listen to the music, and for two or three minutes at a time, the whole group stands and repeats after the teacher, joining their voices to the music.” (p. 75)

            The clear narrative description of each teaching method is followed up by an equally clear listing of observations about the method and the underlying principles behind those observations.  This is further followed up by a section answering and answering questions about each language method: (In order for easy comparison, the same questions are asked for each method: 1. What are the goals of the teachers who use this method? 2. What is the role of the teacher? Etc.)
            Again, it sounds boring, but it’s actually alright.  These constant lists of observations and principles certainly have the potential to be boring, but Larsen-Freeman’s clear and readable prose saves the day, and, contrary to all my expectations, I actually found myself engaged by the lists of principles.

            I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend this book for pleasure reading (no one who’s not an English teacher need ever pick up this book), but I will say it was one of the few books I’ve read for professional development during which I didn’t find my eyes glazing over.  I could read it easily, and I found the ideas engaging.

          The purpose of Larsen-Freeman’s book is to examine several different methods of language teaching, and compare them with each other.
          The purpose is not, as Larsen-Freeman says clearly in the introduction, to determine which methods are good and which methods are bad.  Nor is the purpose to prescribe a method for teachers.  Rather, the purpose is to examine what are the underlying principles behind each method in order to encourage teachers to think about what principles underline their own language teaching.
            Throughout the book, Larsen-Freeman encourages the reader to keep an open mind about all the methodologies, and try to “put on the eyeglasses of another person—to adopt his or her perspective—to see the method as the originator saw it. Further … [to adopt] a willingness to explore what is new” (Elbow quoted in Larsen-Freeman, p. 6)
            At the end of the book, the reader is not forced to choose one exclusive method from the various options, but simply to take what they like from any of them.  In other words, a thorough knowledge of this book is not meant to limit your teaching options to one narrow methodology, but to expand your options to all of them.

            Of course there may be some limits to how much you can mix and match these methods, because some methods, if taken in their purest forms, are contradictory.  (Or perhaps more accurately, the ideologies behind the methods are contradictory.)  As Larsen-Freeman writes “For instance, notice that the use of the students’ native language in the Direct Method and Comprehension Approach … is proscribed, whereas in the Grammar-Translation Method and Community Language Learning, it is prescribed.  Witness the divergent views regarding the level of input in the Audio-Lingual Method, to less controlled in the Natural Approach, to virtually uncontrolled in task-based, content based, and participatory approaches.  Contrast the views regarding what to do with learners’ errors, which range from doing everything to prevent them in the first place (Audio-Lingual Method) to ignoring them when they are made under the assumption that they will work themselves out at some future point (for example, TPR). ” (p. 180-181)
            However, even these contradictions need only be a problem for the methodology in its purest, most restrictive forms.  As Larsen-Freeman emphasizes in her book, it is still possible to take activities from these methods even if you don’t fully agree with their ideologies. 
            For example, the Audio-Lingual Method is influenced by the ideas of verbal behavior expressed by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s—that language learning is a matter of good habit formation.  Since Chomsky’s  critique of Skinner, the ideas of learning-language-by-habit-formation have (mostly) fallen out of favor.  However, when reading Larsen-Freeman’s description of the highly controlled language drilling in the Audio-Lingual Method, I found nothing objectionable about it.  Even if you incline towards a more Chomskyian view of language acquisition, you can still use sentence drills and habit formations as a supplement.  (It would, after all, simply be more language exposure.)  As Larsen-Freeman writes, “even if you do not agree [with the Audio-Lingual Method in its entirety] there may be techniques described below that you are already using or can adapt to your approach” (p. 47)

Personal Response
          As Larsen-Freeman mentions in her introduction, each new method introduced will often evoke a “doubting game and a believing game” in the reader.  Part of you immediately doubts everything that is new and unusual.  Part of you starts to see the appeal of it.
            So it was with me.
            With each new method described, I found myself having a lot of doubts (mainly on grounds of practicality—how feasible it would be to implement that particular method in my teaching context). 
            But with each new method described, I also found myself attracted to it.  In the end, I am having a hard time deciding which method I liked the most. 
            Since one of the goals of Larsen-Freeman’s book is to encourage her readers to try to see what is good in each methodology, I suppose it is a measure of the book’s success that, on some level, I liked them all.  Or it could be indicative of my lack of critical thinking.  Either way, as I have just now finished the book, I’ll need some time to digest it first before deciding what activities I’ll take from it.

            However, practicality is naturally the biggest concern.
            All the time I was reading the book, I kept thinking to myself, “Well, that’s good in theory.  But my young teenage learners would never do that without a struggle.” Or “That’s all well and good, but I have a pre-set curriculum, and a pre-set textbook from my school that I’m stuck with.”
            For example, I might be attracted to some of these methods which de-emphasize grammatical accuracy, were it not for the fact that in my school the students must take a grammar test at the end of every term.
            Or I might be attracted to some of the methods which emphasize communicative activities, were it not for the fact that many of my young teenage learners have low motivation to communicate, and many communicative activities I try to set up simply degenerate into the students talking in their native language instead of in English.
            I was, therefore, glad to find that at the end of the book Larsen-Freeman acknowledges these difficulties:
            “Finally, it is true that many decisions are outside the control of teachers. They must teach for a test, for instance.  Or they may have a class where students come with negative attitudes toward the study of language.  Fanselow (1987) observes that perhaps as little as two percent of the variance that contributes to learning may be controlled by the teacher.  And yet as he says, ‘But so what? If learning equals one hundred percent, and the lack of learning means anything less than one hundred percent, the two percent we are responsible for makes the difference between learning and not learning.’” (p. 184)

            In other words, Larson-Freeman encourages the teacher to use their own ideas about language learning and methods to influence the two percent of the situation they have control over, even if they have no control over the other 98%. 
            And I suppose that’s fair enough—even if, during the middle of the book, I did often feel as if the practical difficulties were being glazed over.

My Own Methods
          I suppose this is as good as place as any to write down what my own current ideas and methods are.  (Although as I wrote in a previous post, my ideas about language learning are constantly changing, and what I write here now may not be what I believe six months from now.)

            My own experience in the Japanese public schools has taught me that the Grammar-Translation Method is inadequate to enable students to learn to communicate in a language.  (Despite the fact that many things in the Grammar-Translation Method appeal to my personality.  When I am learning languages, I like looking at written language so I can more easily analyze it, and I like the safeness and predictability of a clear and explicit focus on set grammar rules.)
            My own experience in conversation schools in Japan has convinced me that communication activities by themselves are not enough for the students to learn grammatical forms.

            I also tend to believe that when someone is learning a language, a lot of it is happening subconsciously.  So I’m attracted to Krashen’s* ideas that acquisition will take place if the learner is fed enough comprehensible input.  However, I believe that a large amount of language can be acquired this way, but not all of it.  In contrast to Krashen, I believe that some explicit focus on grammatical form is necessary.
            I also believe that this explicit focus on grammatical form is most beneficial if it is presented as a clarification of an already familiar form instead of as an introduction of a totally new form.  Ideally any grammar point that I focus on in the lesson is something that the students have already encountered many times in the input, and are hopefully at least already receptively familiar with.
            So, in a given lesson, I try to spend two-thirds of the time focusing on comprehensible input activities (graded readers, songs, et cetera), vocab activities and (in classes where the students are co-operative) communication activities.  I try to spend only one-third of the time on explicit grammar focus.

            My current teaching doesn’t match exactly any of the methods described by Larsen-Freeman, but I suppose, of all of them, it is most similar to the Direct Method.

* I hope I’m not mischaracterizing Krashen.  I’m only familiar with his ideas through the writings of his critics.  One of these days I’m going to have to read his books myself, but in the meantime, someone let me know if I’m getting him wrong.

What Does the Research Show?
          I hope I’m remembering this right (and if I’m not, someone please correct me), but one of the things I think I remember from my master’s degree is that in the 1970s there was a big effort in second language learning research to compare different methods of teaching, and determine which one was actually the most effective for learning.  Huge research projects were launched on this objective, but they all fell apart because there were too many variables that couldn’t be controlled for.  It was impossible to completely standardize all the teachers, the teachers’ personalities were different, the language background of the students were different, the motivation of the students were different, the cultures were different, the class times were different, the length of study was different, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

            As a result of the collapse of these projects, we never did get a definitive answer to the question: which methods work best?
            Larsen-Freeman decides to avoid the whole controversy all together, a decision she makes explicit in both her introduction and conclusion.
            From the introduction: “Readers of the first edition have told me that they wished that I had concluded with a more explicit evaluation and comparison of the methods. I chose not to do so in the first edition of this book, as I am not of the opinion that the purpose of learning about methods is so one can adopt the right one, or that I could choose for others which one that would be.” (.xii)
            And from the conclusion: “What makes a method successful for some teachers is their investment in it. This is one reason why the research based on methodological comparisons has often been so inconclusive. It sought to reduce teaching to the faithful following of pedagogic prescriptions—but teaching is more than this.” (p. 182)

            Still for all that, I (and apparently many other readers from the first edition) would have liked to hear what the research had to say about these teaching methods.  As flawed and as inconclusive as all the research is, I was still curious to know it and to see if it shed any light on the effectiveness of the various methods that Larsen-Freeman details.  I thought it would have made an interesting little addendum to this book, but apparently it’s outside the scope of what Larsen-Freeman wanted to write about.

Other Notes
* I think I’ve linked to it before, but this is probably a good place to throw in another link to Noam Chomsky’s famous 1957 review of Skinner [LINK HERE].

* The edition of this book I read was the second edition published in 2000.  Since then, there has been a 3rd edition of this book published in 2010.  But this was the version available at the teacher’s resource center at my school, so this was the version I read.

Link of the Day 
The Politics of Red Lines: Putin's takeover of Crimea scares U.S. leaders because it challenges America's global dominance

Also from, a very interesting article that goes a long ways to explaining all the textbooks I used to read during my scholastic days: 6 Disturbing Things I Learned Writing Your Textbooks 

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