Humanising Language Teaching
Making sense of the approach, method and a few neighboring terms
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—
The confusion they caused has endured too many decades. Enough already!
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—
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
“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.
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—
It is not mere quibbling to pay attention to wording. After all, the words in the following are identical—
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
-------------- (macro-level) approaches
That is to say:
In proposing the above I am trying load the minimum amount of field-specific meaning onto the everyday meanings of the terms employed.
It is probably time to gloss the terms activity, task and technique, and say something about procedure.
Activity vs task
Procedure This term is used in everyday English as a near synonym of method. In TESOL, it is used—
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.
Anthony, E.M. 1963. 'Approach, method, technique'. English Language Teaching, 17: 63-67.