This was written in 2005 for the ELT News website in Japan.
I’ll take it as given that I believe, as many others do, that the ultimate lesson is the one the teacher believes in. If she believes in it and presents it with enthusiasm, it will be effective. There are an infinite number of ways of teaching, and the teacher’s self-belief is paramount.
But tens of millions of people have learned English effectively through systematic approaches in course books. Balance that against Krashen’s example of a single Mexican waiter who “acquired” conversational Hebrew by working in a Jewish restaurant or the couple of dozen students in the research for the Natural Approach who “acquired more” via reading.
This summer (2005), I was teaching teachers from China, Hungary, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, France, Italy, Latvia, Russia and my opinion was reinforced that the key is learning how to teach the given material most effectively (and also that the average lesson was taught by a non-native speaker co-national, who had the best results) .
When I look at those countries which are most effective in teaching English, I first see a group who are very systematic. Germany, Holland, Scandinavia. Germany is generally more “structural” in approach than any course I’ve ever written, and a large percentage of Germans speak English very well indeed. You can dismiss this comparison because of the language similarity to English plus the availability of English TV channels in these countries. But add other notably successful countries – Poland, Hungary, Greece, Turkey and the language similarity factor decreases markedly. You can guess less in Hungarian than you can in Japanese. In contrast, the European country with the lowest level of student (and teacher) English was the one that (a) started teaching “real literature” in year three (b) bought about half the world’s supply of theory books.
Add recent research into psychosis of various kinds, where the main factor is “mystifying behaviour” by parents. Transfer that to “teachers” and you see why I advocate a systematic approach through a course book. A course book from a major publisher has been read by “readers”, piloted and edited. Many people have checked the text. Yes, it will have cliched (or rather tried and tested) techniques. After all, Shakespeare wasn’t the first person to use the words “To”, “be”, “not” and “or” but he did combine them rather effectively. Ditto “Make sentences with …” or “Ask and answer …”. I could defend “Find someone who …” till the cows come home. It leads to student interaction. Most books do it. Nothing wrong with it. The originality of any ELT book is most likely to lie in the contextualization, not the rubric for exercises.
I also find it odd that people think “ELT coursebooks are only successful because of the design, illustration and layout.” That’s what authors and publishers do (or should do). I’ve been known to write two pages of A4 as the art brief to six lines of dialogue. It’s half the job.
I had the same conversation several times in Japan about a currently widespread American textbook. (Not one of mine, OK, it was Interchange). Teachers said, “We do the speaking and listening, but ignore the rest. And it doesn’t work.” Well, maybe it WOULD work if you followed the logic, realised that it was “Balanced skills” and trusted it, and did it all. And then honed your teaching skills – your micro-skills – to use what is already there most effectively.