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The British oral-situational approach

Cours Illustré de Français 1

Henry Sweet*, an English philologist and phonetician, was one of the founders of what is now referred to as the Reform Movement, a new way of teaching modern languages early in the twentieth century, an era which would become littered with methodological alternatives to the grammar-translation approach. Sweet, like Gouin in France, believed that speech was more important than the written word and that languages should be taught primarily using the spoken word. this was unusual for the time.

One approach which subsequently developed was not a "direct method" as such, but an adaptation of it - a "structured direct method", if you like. Jack Richards and Theodore Rodgers, in their book about approaches and methods**, label it the British oral-situational approach. It was no doubt used by a number of teachers in the first half of the twentieth century, but came to prominence in the 1960s with the publication of Marc Gilbert's best-selling text book series Cours Illustré de Français. That book was used in many schools into the 1970s, being usurped by the Longman Audio-Visual French course and, alter, books more in the communicative mould. I was taught with that course and used it briefly as a teacher when I began my career in 1980.

What were the features of this approach?

The syllabus was essentially grammatical, but largely avoided translation and assumed careful selection and gradation of target language input. It was strongly teacher-led, discouraged formal explicit teaching of grammatical structures, preferring the notion that students would pick up rules from the skilled presentation and practice provided by the teacher. The approach was also situational in that structures would be practised within a meaningful situational context, for example, family life.

Central to the approach was (and is) the use of repetition and question and answer in the classroom, along with contextual clues such as gesture, realia such as classroom objects and visual aids. The written text remained central. Pair and group work were allowed for but unusual. Structured drilling via QA should precede freer practice. The approach retained a connection with grammar-translation in that it was primarily structural rather than communicative, but there was clearly a strong communicative element. It differs from naturalistic and project-based (PBL) approaches in its greater emphasis on language form (grammar).

Does research support the use of this type of oral approach? Well, to the extent that natural acquisition requires considerable meaningful input in the target language, then yes. And there is theoretical and research support (skill acquisition theory) for the view that conscious practice of structures and vocabulary leads to internalisation of rules. In a sense you might see it as a possible "third way" for language teachers - that's how I like to view it anyway!

Children learning their mother tongue do not acquire language in this fashion though. Experience suggests, however, that structured practice does lead to progress and that the oral approach works with many learners.The criticism levelled at it is that it is insufficiently focused on meaning, so potentially boring for most students who are not very interested in grammar-style teaching. Proponents of the approach might say that its success, as with all methods, depends on the quality of the delivery and that focus on grammatical form benefits acquisition. There is research support for that last claim.

The principles of the oral approach are used, often instinctively, by teachers who did not explicitly learn it. Nowadays, in this "post-methods" era, as it is sometimes referred to, many teachers adopt a pragmatic approach mixing elements of the oral, communicative, natural, audio-lingual and grammar-translation approaches. This probably makes sense, particularly in view of the fact that research into second language learning is still in its early days and that students may learn in different ways. In our book The Language Teacher Toolkit  Gianfranco and I examine the oral approach and skill acquisition in some detail. It also forms the basis of some of the lessons I describe in detail in my forthcoming book Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher (published on August 28th by Routledge).

* The Practical Study of Languages (1899), Dent, London.

** Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2001) Jack Richards and Theodore Rodgers, CUP, Cambridge.


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