‘Have a nice weekend, Lucy,’ I said to our three-year-old granddaughter as we ended our WhatsApp chat. ‘I will,’ she replied as her finger moved across the screen to push the red button. As the call ended, I reflected on what I had heard. Not only was it grammatically, functionally, lexically and phonologically a perfect response, but in all my time teaching, I don’t think I ever heard a student give that response to something I must have said to classes hundreds of times. So how had Lucy developed the ability to reply in that way? Was it through exposure to the language through parents, teachers and friends? Does she have the deep grammar that Chomsky talks about and has acquired the language to express it? What was the meaning of what I said to her? Grammatically it is an imperative but functionally it is a sort of wish expressed by me for her – a bit like bon appétit in French. Whatever it was, she understood it and responded in the right way, definitely thinking in future terms and using the future we use for wishes and aspirations: ‘will’. How would you go about teaching such a language point, I thought, as I settled down to write this editorial, and, once again, the connections between my daily life and language teaching gave me some inspiration.
The theme of this issue is approaches, and I suppose to teach the expression used in my example a functional approach would be a possible start. Illustrate the situation and the relationship between the speakers, clarify the point in the conversation, elicit some possible things that grandfather and granddaughter might say and then practise the best ones or teach a new one. That’s a watertight approach, easy to illustrate without using the target language, quite a universal concept and a total of six words to drill. There is also lots of room for substitutions or alternative answers. But then I got to thinking, if I changed the first line to ‘Have a nice day’, with a barista talking to a customer, the answer would be very different. If someone wishes me a nice day, I’m not sure I reply that I will. Would a different approach work, lexical or grammatical? The point is we never know.
What I am saying is that the approaches we use are always going to vary depending on what we are teaching, why and who. The ‘a-ha’ moment for many of our learners comes outside the class, when, suddenly, they are using the language point naturally and fluently. What governs our approach are some ideals and ideas, values and beliefs about teaching and learning. I, for example, believe that teaching should be engaging and entertaining, serious but fun at the same time. There is no contradiction there, it works for me. I would not dream of trying to impose my approach on others. I believe in learner-centred teaching but there are times, emergency online teaching springs to mind, when that approach simply didn’t work as smoothly for me and my classes. I like students to use their brains in my classes, not be spoon fed, but, again, this is not always possible all the time.
Where I think there is a problem is the fact that most of our coursebooks follow a similar methodology: one based on an approach roughly aligned to CELTA- and DELTA-type courses. Grammar is often the key to a unit, that grammar is often carefully placed in reading texts or listenings, a grammar box explains the rules, the follow-up exercises explicitly practise the language point, and so on. That makes a lot of bricks, but what about the cement which holds it all together?
So I hope you enjoy this issue and take time to reflect on the activities and approaches you use. Remember, best practice should always take into account your experience and personality, always consider what your best practice is, not that of others. Look at the article about master teaching in this issue, the literature shows that among the key elements of good teaching are the ability to develop good relationships with our learners, the willingness to reflect on our practice in order to improve and having a positive self-image that enables us to deal with adversity and challenge. In terms of beliefs and principles to adhere to, these make a lot of sense. If summer is coming, have a good one! This is my fortieth editorial for the magazine and I’m proud to have referenced a three-year-old as my youngest contributor yet.