Finding the right TESOL approaches for your students

In the world of TESOL, more than anywhere else, there is more than one way to bake a cake. The teaching approaches and methodologies that we use are based on a huge amount of research that has been done over the years. This research has informed the evolution of many different ways of approaching the way we plan to teach different language items, so how do we know what is the best way of doing things for our learners? Here is an outline of 5 broad approaches which you can use to plan and teach according to the preferences and needs of your learners.

What is a teaching approach?

When we make a teaching choice, we base it on a set of assumptions about the language we are teaching and the learners in the class. This, in essence, is the basis of a teaching approach. For example, if we assume that learning is best achieved when students see what they are learning in a written text, then that will lead to us using one approach, whereas if we want our students to speak to each other and focus on the accuracy of what they are saying, we will need a different approach to enable that more effectively. So, an approach is a broad set of teaching principles based on assumptions about how our learners will best learn what we are teaching. The following approaches have been defined, tried and tested over the years, and have been found to be effective for given language points as taught with the specific needs of the learners in mind.

  • Deductive and inductive approaches

A common puzzle for teachers relates to how much support we should give our learners. If we spoon-feed too much, they will become reliant on our input and will not develop the confidence to speak out themselves, whereas if we expect too much of students, they may not have the tools that they need to progress effectively alone. The way we manage input (the presentation or introduction of new language and ideas) can be informed by this useful contrast in approaches.

A deductive approach to language is used in the more recognisable methods that are used to present new ideas to learners. It is the typically teacher-led presentation of individual items, introduced one by one at the beginning of the lesson, often accompanied by explanations of the forms being taught, followed by practice of the same language points based on what the teacher presented at the beginning of the class. Students typically apply a given set of criteria to apply the language based on the way that it was introduced to them initially. Deductive approaches require little cognitive processing other than selecting accurate forms to use, usually in standard gapfilling or multiple choice questions.

This approach is useful for the introduction of brand new forms which the learners have little to no experience with, or for complex items which are not easy to work out without some clear, explicit instruction given by the teacher first.

By contrast, an inductive approach requires more mental effort on the part of the learners, who are given very little direct instruction, but have to work out rules or language patterns for themselves, often based on examples of how the language can be used in sentences or texts. Although this requires more cognitive processing, the theory is that the more mental work that learners have to do as they learn, the more deeply new information sticks in their long-term memory. Letting students work things out for themselves is also more rewarding for them, and can give them more ownership over the language, and often results in braver trial-and-error activity from learners (an important part of language development).

Inductive approaches are useful for groups of students who enjoy puzzles and logical thinking, and more confident students who are ready to give things a go and are not afraid of getting things wrong (though inductive approaches used with intuitive language items can also develop this skill in less confident students, so should not be ruled out). Inductive learning is also useful when working with language which has been partially learnt by students before, or which they have seen a lot but may not fully understand. By looking at texts which contain idiomatic language, for example, a lot can be deduced from the context in which the target phrases appear, meaning that students can work out meanings for themselves without too much confusion. Of course, some amount of teacher support is still required to prompt learners in the right direction, and inductive approaches do carry the risk of falling flat, in which case, you may need to resort to more traditional methods as a backup. Nevertheless, this approach develops some important thinking skills, so give it a go and have faith in your students to navigate new language on their own.

  • Top-down and Bottom-up approaches

Another teaching choice arises when we think about using texts or listening recordings in class. Can we use a reading text to introduce new language, or do we need to teach it in isolation first, and then move on to in-text work? This is the essence of the top-down / bottom-up choice. Imagine a ladder where the top rung represents a whole text (an essay, a report or even a book), and the bottom rung represents a single word, or even a word ending. All the rungs of the ladder in between contain smaller and smaller units of language as you descend the ladder. As teachers, we need to choose where on the ladder we would like to start our lesson: is it useful for learners to focus on individual words and learn what they mean first, or can we present them with a text that contains all of those words, and ask them to deal with them in context? The former method of moving from words to phrases, to paragraphs and then texts, is a bottom-up approach. The latter, where students identify where items occur in a text, focus down to the sentence around the word, then look at the word itself, for example, is a top-down approach.

The choice of what level to begin at in our teaching depends on several things: as with the inductive/deductive contrast, we ned to think whether students have the tools (from the sentences and ideas around the words) to guess meaning from a whole text, or if there is very little clue as to how or why they are used, in which some specific pre-teaching is necessary in a bottom-up way.

A top-down approach can be used for vocabularygrammar or pronunciation features, and is useful in that it demonstrates exactly how target items can be used authentically and in real texts. It also has the same set of benefits as an inductive approach (as outlined above) in that learners have to process what they are learning more, based on other forms and their existing experience with the language, which is a key skill for dealing with written and spoken language.

Bottom-up approaches are useful for more deductive teaching, where the target items are tricky or irregular, and so difficult to work with instantly. However, the aspects of meaning and use that you teach prior to using the text can be designed to give students a deeper understanding of the language before they read, and can then reflect on how it is used based on those criteria. Again, there is no right or wrong approach, and both should be used in a course of study to develop the full language skill-set that we aim for in our students.

  • An Integrated skills approach

Finally, a good question to ask when planning to teach a piece of language relates to the four ways which it will be used and experienced by your learners. Ask yourself: in this lesson, will your learners hear the target language? Will they get a chance to see it used in writing? How much will they be using it in their own spoken language, and will they get a chance to write anything with it? An integrated skills approach assumes that if all four of these actions is covered in a language lesson, then learners are much more likely to retain and be able to use what you are teaching in the future.

A further choice comes from the order in which you decide to combine the skills: is it best to focus on reading first, then listening, or vice versa? A common principle is that listening comes before speaking, and reading comes before writing, but as with the top-down/bottom up and inductive/deductive approaches, it really depends on how your students prefer to do things and what they are prepared for at any given moment.

It can be difficult to cover all four skills in the space of a single lesson, but if you break these down and ensure that at some point there is some work in each of these areas in the week, or while the class is focusing on a specific topic, than this approach is happening to one extent or another.

An integrated skills approach is useful for classes who like a series of shorter activities in their lessons, or for two or three shorter lessons which can focus on the same topic. It also lends itself well to project-based learning, where research, writing and presentation activities can help to ensure that all the skills bases get covered.

Overall, there is no correct way to teach a given piece of language, but by considering the preferences and needs of the learners in your class, you have a lot of teaching principles to choose from, so be prepared to adapt what you are doing to fit what you are teaching, and your lessons will stay relevant and fresh for your learners.

Come and join one of our upcoming professional development workshops held reguarly throughout the year. TESOL taser workshops are free, while teaching skills workshops are $200 per session. As part of our committment to the English education industry, all EfA TESOL graduates may attend teaching skills worksops free of charge.

About the Author

Tom Garside

Tom worked as EfA’s former Director of Teacher Training, and has over 18 years of teaching and training experience in Europe, New Zealand and China. He holds a degree in Linguistics and French, Cambridge CELTA and DELTA qualifications, a Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL and an MATESOL. He previously trained teachers in Europe as part of the European Union Comenius teacher development project where he provided initial training for the Trinity CertTESOL and in-service training for native and non-native-speaker teachers in a wide range of teaching situations. He is the author of Tesol: A Gateway Guide for Teachers of English.

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