In general an approach is viewed as an overall theory about learning language, which then lends it self to “approaching” language teaching and learning in a certain manner. A method is often viewed as a series of procedures or activities used to teach language in a certain way. A technique is usually seen as one activity or procedure used within a plan for teaching. The reality is, however, that language teaching professionals often find themselves in disagreement over these terms. Depending on how one is defining the term and the circumstances in which the term is being used, an approach may become a method or a method may become a technique. For this reason, we have decided to use approaches to describe all the ways of language teaching we present in our book. After our readers are introduced to these various approaches, they may decide for themselves how they wish to categorize them and how they fit into their syllabus.
So Which Approach Is Best?
There is no one best approach because the circumstances and needs of ESL students vary so greatly. To choose approaches that are the most appropriate for your students, you must take into account many variables. What are your students’ needs? Where will they use their English? Will they need their English for school? Will they need their English for work? What kind of work do they do? How old are they? How much time do they have to learn English? Have they studied English or another language before? How well do they know their own language?
Which Approach Is Best for Certain Groups?
Even within certain groups there may not be one best approach. Nonetheless, there are certain approaches that tend to be used more often with certain groups than others. For example, in K-12 many ESL approaches are similar to the language arts approaches used to teach language to native speakers. We have grouped those approaches in the Language Arts section. But just as communicative approaches are also used with native speakers learning their own language, so they are frequently part of the teaching pedagogy of K-12 ESL teachers. It is also important to understand that students in school must learn the English used in school. This is especially important for ESL students who arrive in the United States at an older age such as middle school or high school. You will find some appropriate approaches for these students discussed under the Academic/Professional section.
In the United States, there are programs available for various types of adult ESL students. Many stu-dents who have just arrived may find themselves in adult basic education ESL programs sponsored by the government. These programs often use some of the approaches discussed in the Adult Literacy section.
But such programs also make use of language arts approaches. In some cases, such as family literacy programs, both K-12 and adult basic education programs are involved in the same program. Other adult students are here as students in higher education or on a professional basis. Many of the approaches used for these students can be found in Chapter 5, “Academic and Professional Approaches.”
Why Do We Need to Know about Various Methods and Approaches?
Although there may be no single best approach, there are best approaches for particular circumstances, as we mentioned earlier. In addition, to be a professional and an effective ESL teacher, one must be aware of the different theories and approaches that have developed. Most effective teachers choose from a number of approaches, methods, and techniques to create a learning environment that fits the needs of their students. They put these approaches together to create a varied syllabus and an optimum learning experience. Sometimes this is referred to as selective eclecticism. It may also be referred to as an organic or integrated syllabus or curriculum. This does not mean that teachers can just put together a bunch of activities to create a plan. Good teachers must always consider what the results of these activities will be and how these will form a long-term, effective program to teach another language.
Aren’t Some Approaches Outdated?
Although it is true that some approaches become outdated as ESL practitioners find that they do not do a very good job of meeting either teachers’ or students’ needs, most have some strong points about them that tend to be borrowed to use with other approaches and thus have become a part of contemporary teaching approaches. In addition, there is a tendency in education for the popularity of approaches to swing back and forth. Thus, an approach that may be popular one decade may find itself out a favor in the next. This makes it all the more important that teachers be aware of the many approaches, with their strengths and weaknesses, so that they can use this knowledge to create an effective curriculum.