Monday, January 12, 2009

Does Method Matter?

By Lida Baker
Los Angeles, California, USA

A wise colleague of mine once said, “It doesn’t matter what method you use to teach a language. The only thing that matters is whether your students like you or not.” I don’t think he was advocating the total absence of any method, but my own experience partly supports the importance of having a teacher you trust and respect.

I learned Hebrew as a child in Israel. My family lived on a kibbutz and there was not another English speaker in sight. I was 8 years old and within two months I was speaking Hebrew fluently. Back in the U.S., I started learning Spanish in 7th grade. I had good–and a few great–teachers all the way through college. In middle school the teaching method was pure audio-lingual. By high school and college it verged into the direct method. In the advanced college classes we read literature and talked about it (in Spanish). I learned successfully using all these methods.

In college, besides Spanish, I studied French, Italian, and Arabic using the direct method. I was successful with French (great teachers at UCLA, small classes, well trained teachers), unsuccessful with Italian (evening course, 40 students, unskilled teacher who spent the whole class talking “at” us, no pair- or group work), successful with Arabic (fabulous, enthusiastic, skilled teacher who had us talking within weeks). Then after grad school, wanting to continue Arabic, I enrolled in a night class. A disaster! The teacher blatantly favored students who could speak a little and left the rest of us in the dust. It was so insulting I dropped the class and that was the end of my Arabic.

Then I took Dutch. It’s my parents’ native language and I was super-motivated to learn so I could speak to my cousins in Holland. But the teacher was dreadful. His method was a mix of Grammar Translation and telling us about his personal problems–in English. He made every female in the class squirm. I dropped that class as well and never studied Dutch again.

So, what does this rambling account prove? Method does matter, but so do other factors. Of the seven languages I’ve studied, I dropped three of them because the teachers were unskilled, inappropriate, or failed to motivate me. I think I can learn using any method, but the teacher had better be good!


Comment from Tim Lewis & Luz Elena Trelles
January 21, 2009 at 3:23 am

Hi Lida:

I am Luze a Peruvian ESL teacher. I live and teach in Perú and I have been using the AZAR books for over 10 years. I love them! They were recommended to me by an excellent American teacher who was working here for a while at an American school.

Well, I have a question about this method subject. What do you mean by direct method? Is that yours? Mine is audio-visual and I think it works perfect, but if there is anything better and would love to try it. I am always looking for ney things to improve my teaching method and make my classes easier to learn and fun.



Comment from Lida Baker
January 29, 2009 at 7:17 am

Hi Luze!

“Direct method” was the name for the way I learned French when I was in my MATESL program at UCLA more than 20 years ago. From the first day, the teacher spoke only French in class. Lessons were grammar-based. To present and practice the grammar, the teacher would ask questions in French and call on students to answer. Students wrote their answers on the board, and then other students read and corrected them. In this way all the language skills were practiced in every class.

Today this method is considered old-fashioned. Its main feature – the use of the second language at all times – is still the cornerstone of ESL teaching in the U.S., but most of the teachers I know use a communicative approach which emphasizes not only grammar but also vocabulary, pronunciation,language use, etc.

Now, let me turn your question back to you and ask what you mean by “audio-visual.” Is that a method or a set of techniques you like to use? Can you give some examples?

Best wishes,

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