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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 5; Issue 2; March 03

Seth Column

Making sense of the approach, method and a few neighboring terms

Seth Lindstromberg

  1. Introduction
  2. How approach got mangled
  3. Further injury to approach, grave harm done to method
  4. First aid for approach
  5. A preliminary grand proposal
  6. Micro-level terms
  7. Conclusion

1 Introduction

The sad example of hermeneutics shows that a body of helpful concepts and terms is not something that a discipline just automatically has. We in TESOL should be thankful that it is only now and then that we come across a term which ought simply to be shot on sight1. And thankful too that we have relatively few terms which, despite being partly useful, have a history of causing wholly unnecessary perplexity. So, what I am going to go on to discuss are a couple of terms which are unclear because a few TESOL authorities uncircumspectly took it upon themselves to declare—

  • either that a term should have a meaning very different from any known in everyday English
  • or that the then current technical meaning of a term should be radically changed.

The confusion they caused has endured too many decades. Enough already!

2 How approach got mangled

In everyday life, approach, as a noun, is often used to mean 'the way one sets about tackling a problem'. It is a semantic relative of method but does not to the same degree suggest a chronological list of explicit steps. Rather, an approach is the gist of a method.

The first injury to approach, as a term in TESOL, seems to have been inflicted in 1963 with the appearance of an article by Edward Anthony in which the following was proposed—

  1. Approach should be a general, or macro-, level term used to refer to a set of beliefs about language and how people learn languages, especially in classroom settings.
  2. Method is a mid-level term with a technical meaning not too different from its everyday meaning.
  3. Technique is a specific, or micro-, level term for some such feature of a method as a type of task (e.g., translation of a text) or employment of a sort of material (e.g., using Cuisenaire rods to represent constituents of a chunk of language).

The most glaring flaw in all this is Anthony's definition of approach; in English otherwise, the noun approach (or rather one meaning of it anyway) is about putting beliefs or assumptions into effect. It is not a word for beliefs themselves. Although related, belief and approach signify concepts so naturally distinct that I am at a loss as to why anyone would want to lump them together.2 Well, we all make mistakes, but if we and our posterity are fortunate, others other people won't go on to propagate them. Sadly, this is exactly what happened with respect to Anthony's redefinition of approach, with what results we shall shortly see.

3 Further injury to approach, grave harm done to method

In an influential paper Jack Richards and Ted Rodgers (1982) offered a greatly revamped and extended version of Anthony's scheme of terminological/conceptual levels. In a nutshell3:

  • Anthony's approach => Richard and Rodgers's approach
    Richards and Rodgers (hereafter, R&R) stipulated that an approach consists not just of particular beliefs about language and language learning but also of beliefs about how teachers should put those prior beliefs into practice. This of course was a further forced distancing of the technical sense of approach from its nearest everyday meaning. There was, though, an interesting result of this terminological hocus pocus: R&R were able particularly neatly to justify use of approach in the labels Structural Approach, Oral Approach, Communicative Approach, and Natural Approach. Indeed, it may have been just this happy result that led to widespread acceptance of R&R's definition of approach even though the terminological innovations now to be touched on were largely ignored.

  • AAnthony's 'method' => R&R's design; Anthony's method => R&R's 'methodology' Anthony's level of method was renamed design. Existing at this level of 'design' would be relatively tightly defined ways of teaching such as Counseling Learning, Total Physical Response, The Silent Way, Suggestopedia.
    To the term method, R&R gave the meaning of 'methodology'—that is, the intellectual activity of considering what R&R called approaches, designs and procedures.

  • AAnthony's TechniqueàR&R's Procedure
    Anthony's term technique was replaced by procedure.

    What I wish to focus on is the readily verifiable fact that R&R's typology has led to a lot of confusion over the years. In spending just ten minutes (in mid-Dec. 2002) looking at the first few results of a search using Google (keywords: richards rodgers approach method), I chanced on the following statements plus more in the same vein:

  • www.sil.org/lingualinks/LANGUAGELEARNING…WhatisALanguageLearningMethod/ “There is often confusion among the terms approach, method and technique

  • A bulletin board for teacher educators (!):

    “I am having difficulty with [Richard and Rodgers's] framework and the way they categorize the various methods/approaches…I find this text to be a great resource but am having difficulty explaining to [university] students the terminology used.” (Laurie A.)

    “I'm with Laurie! these terms are often used interchangeably. It can make your eyes water trying to sort out differences. The problem seems to lie in who is doing the defining.” (a second correspondent)

    “...Richards and Rodgers [sic] rather unclear distinction between methods and approaches…” (a third correspondent)

    No wonder! There can be few better ways of confusing people than that of lumbering them with poorly motivated changes to the meanings of basic terms.

    A remedy is called for! Luckily, the one I will recommend preserves what appears to me to be the single advantage of the scheme proposed by R&R—the justification of the by now established use of approach in the rubrics Structural Approach, Communicative Approach, and so on.

    4 First aid for approach

    I say that we should refuse to accept the proposition that the term approach refers directly to beliefs or assumptions. Let these latter concepts be referred to by other words—belief and assumption should do nicely.

    Now the TESOL term approach can once again mean just what it means in everyday English—i.e., 'a general method, a method not spelled out in detail'. It works like this—

    Example belief Translation into a resolution which (along with several other resolutions) may make up an approach
    Periodic review promotes the recollection of learned vocabulary. Let's see to it that learned vocabulary is reviewed periodically.

    It is not mere quibbling to pay attention to wording. After all, the words in the following are identical—
    You follow me. - Follow me?
    But we don't for all that call them both questions (or both statements). Nor should we say that a statement of belief is a resolution about approach, or vice versa.

    5 A preliminary grand proposal

    I'm going to get ahead of myself a bit—because I have not said much about techniques and so on—but what seems sensible to me is a breakdown like this:

    beliefs ----- <= => ----- materials
    | ----------------------------- |
    ways of teaching (or implementation), i.e.:

    -------------- (macro-level) approaches
    -------------- (mid-level) methods
    -------------- (micro-level) activities, tasks and techniques

    That is to say:

    • Beliefs underlie ways of teaching.
    • An approach is a relatively loose specification of a way of teaching—e.g., the Communicative Approach. An approach is made up of resolutions about putting major beliefs into practice.
    • A method is a relatively tight specification of a way of teaching—e.g., the Silent Way.
    • There is no clear boundary between an approach and a method; they differ continuum-wise in scope and detail.
    • Any particular way of teaching, be it an approach or a method, is a set of tendencies in the employment of particular tactics.
    • Tactics is a blanket term for 'activities', 'tasks' and 'techniques'.4 (More about these concepts in Section 6.)
    • Use of particular materials depends, ultimately, on beliefs as well as on the conditions of a particular teaching/learning situation. However, an interesting piece of material may also give rise to certain beliefs or cause one to choose one way of teaching over another.

    In proposing the above I am trying load the minimum amount of field-specific meaning onto the everyday meanings of the terms employed.

    6 Micro-level terms

    It is probably time to gloss the terms activity, task and technique, and say something about procedure.

    Activity vs task
    In everyday English the word task is typically used to speak of an activity that leads to a more or less tangible outcome. Proponents of Task Based Learning wisely use task in just this way (e.g., Skehan 1998: 98). In their parlance, the difference between a 'task' (such as noting down similarities between two pictures) and a mere 'activity' (such as an ordinary roleplay or a question and answer session with the teacher), is that an activity does not fairly predictably lead to a tangible result (Skehan 1998: 99). All this is not only technically clear but also in fair accordance with everyday English usage. The ideal state of affairs.

    In everyday English a technique is an act—

    • whose purpose is to gain an improved result in the context of an art or craft
    • which has few steps, often only one consisting of a change of a single variable—e.g., getting down to eye level when conversing at close quarters with sitting students rather than speaking to them while standing.
    Anthony's paper notwithstanding, technique is often used by TESOL folk in just this sense. Why? Because it is useful to do so. Let's go with that.

    Procedure This term is used in everyday English as a near synonym of method. In TESOL, it is used—

    • at the micro- rather than the mid-level term level
    • as (or so it seems to me) a blanket term encompassing both 'activity' and 'task'. It does not seem to include 'technique' for the reason, I suppose, that procedure most aptly refers to cases where there are at least a couple of distinct, chronologically ordered steps leading to an outcome (if not necessarily a particularly tangible one). Doubtless there are authorities who have given procedure a very different sense. (R&R for sure wanted to give it a wider meaning.) I have not included this term in my lexical/conceptual map because I am not sure it would be fruitful to formally adopt it as a technical term with a narrowly specified scope of reference. People would be too likely to use it in its everyday sense in one paragraph and in its technical sense in the next. (One often sees this with approach.)

    8 Conclusion

    With respect to belief, approach, method, activity, task, technique and procedure, my contention is that all the pertinent concepts can be well expressed if these terms are allowed to have meanings very like ones they have in everyday English. If these meanings are allowed, teacher educators and trainers will be freed from having to waste a certain amount of time every year in perpetuating the puzzled acceptance of, for instance, a too long established and inherently misconceived distinction between approach and method; and in-service teachers would be freed to spend their time scratching their heads over other elements of the rambling, forever under (re)construction terminological/theoretical edifice of the inter-discipline of TESOL.


    1. One such term is the utterly vacuous code (as in code switching which means precisely 'language switching'). Perhaps I ought, by the by, to mention that I follow the practices (normal in publications on linguistics) of italicizing terms which are a focus of discussion (e.g., code switching) and using single quotes to indicate their meanings (e.g., 'language switching').
    2. By one formulation of the Principle of Economy in Explanation (or Occam's Razor), unnecessary factors should be kept out of any explanation that one proposes. But making an explanation too simple (e.g., by strapping two necessary entities together under one term) is an error no less grave.
    3. While accurate overall, this is a rather stark summary. Readers interested in the subtleties might wish to read Richards and Rodgers (1982 or 1986, the latter being a book which includes a restatement of the former) and also study Strain (1986).
    4. I have borrowed the term tactics from Woodward (1991: 144-45) but apply it more broadly. Woodward (1999) offers a reflection task likely to be of interest to readers wanting to learn more about the connection between their own beliefs and techniques.


    Anthony, E.M. 1963. 'Approach, method, technique'. English Language Teaching, 17: 63-67.
    Richards, J. and T. Rodgers. 1982. 'Method: approach, design, procedure'. TESOL Quarterly, 16: 153-68.
    Richards, J. and T. Rodgers. 1986. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching University of Cambridge Press.
    Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford University Press.
    Strain, J.E. 1986. 'Method: design-procedure versus method-technique'. System, 14/1: 287-94.
    Woodward, T. 1991. Models and Metaphors in Language Teacher Training. Cambridge University Press.
    Woodward, T. 1999. 'A way of getting from classroom tactics to talk of beliefs and values'. The Teacher Trainer, 14/2: 8-10.

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