During pre-service training teachers learn how to apply the PPP formula for teaching new language: Present Practise Produce. “Language” in this sense is in the specific and narrow meaning of Target Language i.e. grammar, functional exponents, lexis etc.
As teachers progress beyond their initial teacher training qualification they might continue to employ the PPP formula or they may move on to other approaches. In fact, I have come across a number of teachers who vehemently support the application of Guided Discovery to all lessons where new language is taught, or Task-Based Learning, or others who insist on a Dogme approach.
Regardless of your preference, it seems before any discussion about the best approach can take place there needs to be some understanding of what goes on in the background: what’s behind the language teaching approach?
Systems and Skills
As with most things true to ELT, language is a dichotomy and can be divided into two aspects: systems and skills. Systems represents the knowledge element of communicative meaning. Once a language user has in mind what they want to say, they then need to apply the correct morphological rules, appropriate lexis and employ phonological features.
Language systems, such as grammar, lexis, functional exponents, discourse and pronunciation, are distinguished in that they all express a common set of features:
- they are learnable
- they can become knowledge
- they follow rules
- they can be identified as correct or incorrect
- they are accuracy-based elements
Skills, on the other hand, represent the ability to decode what you read or hear, and encode what you say or write. They are classified into two groupings:
- Receptive Skills: listening and reading [decoding]
- Productive Skills: speaking and writing [encoding]
For a language learner to perform, they need both knowledge (systems) and ability (skills). This dichotomy is really an on-going balancing-act: you can ‘learn’ the knowledge about systems but in order for that knowledge to move from conscientious application to automation you need to ‘practise’ developing your skills; however, your skills can only be developed and used on the basis of your knowledge.
For those who aren’t new to ELT, you might recognise this as the Accuracy – Fluency Debate. The accuracy end of the spectrum represents what Thornbury determines as, “the extent to which a learner’s use of L2 conforms to the rules of the language.” The fluency end, on the other hand, is the “ability to produce and maintain speech in real-time.”
In other words, what Thornbury is saying here is that fluency is the ability to get the message across; however, to get the message across effectively, you need to be accurate: lots of meaning is lost in inaccurate speech.
The Accuracy / Fluency Debate
The big question here is how much focus should be placed on accuracy and/or fluency. In the past there was a strong tendency to focus primarily on accuracy – think of the ‘older methods’, such as the Direct Method or Audiolingualism, where learner creativity was non-existent, drills prominent and room-for-error intolerable.
This debate has since moved more towards a fluency focus, primarily on the basis of studies in First Language Acquisition, which have discovered that children focus primarily on getting the message across – accuracy comes later.
This would suggest that language teachers should focus on fluency. However, the reality is this: the focus needs to be on what the learners need. Teaching a group of adults General English who will probably use English while on holiday? Focus on fluency. Teaching a air-traffic controllers whose English could cause or prevent an aviation catastrophe? Focus on accuracy.
Which Method is Best?
In his e-book Big Questions in ELT Scott Thornbury quotes Allwright, Prahbu and Kumaravadivelu in saying that method teaching is “dead” and that we are now in the “post-method era.”
Over the decades many methods and lesson frameworks have been put forward in the Communicative Approach, creating a set of tri-nominal acronyms: PPP, TTT, TBL ARC etc
On the surface, these frameworks seem very distinct: in PPP the lesson begins with a teacher-led presentation and model of the language, while in TTT the learners begin by completing a task or a test.
However, if you delve a little deeper, what you find is that all of these are comprised of the same three elements:
- Learner Use
- Learner Discovery
- Learner Practice
What varies is not what is involved but rather the order of these three elements. In a Task-Teacher-Task approach, the order is: 1 – 2 + 3 – 1; in PPP the order is: 2 – 3 – 1; in Guided Discovery: 2 – 3 – 1
So, if all of these frameworks are based on the same language learning system, then why do lessons and teachers vary so much in their delivery and success?
It seems to be that the difference between a successful lesson and an unsuccessful one lies rather in the finer details of each stage, namely: procedure and delivery.
Whether it is a Guided Discovery or a PPP lesson, when you’re at the stage where the learners come into contact with the model of the Target Language, if you begin by putting it on the whiteboard, then drilling the pronunciation, looking at how it can change and then move on to asking them ‘what does it mean?’, you’re setting the learners up for failure. In fact, that procedure flows in the exact opposite direction to natural language acquisition, whereby children:
- become acquainted with the notion
- they understand the context it is in
- they learn how to make the sounds which represent the notion
- they learn how to read and write the notion
Just to exemplify this, if you’ve had any contact with children, you may have seen a young child standing in the kitchen making all the efforts it can to make noise and somehow its parents understand this incomprehensible sound to mean ‘juice.’ The parents say the word ‘juice’ to their child, almost drilling it. Later in their development, they get their lips round the word and they can march into the kitchen and quite confidently say ‘juice’. Later on when they go to school, they learn to read and write.
It seems all this really just brings us back to square one – the mantra of modern day communicative language teaching: keep it real. Teachers are already very good at keeping tasks and topics real – don’t just teach them lists of vocabulary for shopping, actually set up a role-play and get them using the functional exponents. Now we need to bear in mind the language learning cycle and consider whether we are flowing with the natural order of language acquisition or going against it.