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(c) Alexander Sokol, Riga, 2000, contacts@thinking-approach.org


Here we do not conduct a thorough analysis of various approaches to language teaching, but rather consider how close the currently used approaches can bring us to the resolution of the key contradictions of the language learning and education in general.


Structural (grammar based) syllabus

It is one of the oldest currently used approaches to language teaching, however still popular among quite a number of teachers. The structural curriculum presupposes the "inventories of grammatical items and grading them as to the level of difficulty. The assumption behind most grammatical syllabuses seems to be that language consists of a finite set of rules which can be combined in various ways to make meaning. It is further assumed that these rules can be learned one by one, in an additive fashion, each item being mastered on its own before being incorporated into the learner's pre-existing stock of knowledge." (Nunan 1991, p.29)

Unfortunately, despite the seeming feeling of progress the students may have when completing a grammar exercise on a certain theme, the given approach leads us very far aside from the key problem. It does not even resolve the initial contradiction on the level of grammar as being able to use each grammatical item separately does not equal grammar competence as a whole.

Moreover, instead of preparing students for the future, the structural syllabus often pulls them back to the past forcing to acquire the language models which have been dated since Latin stopped being the first foreign language taught in Europe. (see Lewis 1986)


Functional-notional syllabus

The Functional-notional syllabus appeared as an alternative to the structural syllabus. Its basic principles to syllabus design are described in Threshold level English (van Ek and Alexander 1980):

Components of the syllabus:

  • The situations in which the foreign language will be used, including topics which will be dealt with

  • The language activities in which the learner will engage

  • The language functions which the learner will perform

  • Topics, and what the learner will be able to do with these

  • The general notions which the learner will be able to handle

  • The specific (topic related) notions which the learner will be able to handle

  • The language forms the learner will be able to use

  • The degree of skill the learner will be required to display
(Nunan 1998, p.58)

We may see that we again have a description of what should be learnt. Inventories of functions in functional-notional syllabuses are not different from inventories of grammar items. Thus, the problems are the same - being able to perform a certain function does not equal language competence as a whole.

Moreover, functions themselves are often trivialised. The content of most materials is devoid of all the aspects of our lives which make them real: sex, violence, disagreement, real negotiation between opposed viewpoints, misunderstandings, etc. () English language teaching materials present a largely non-problematic, bland, uncontroversial view of life. (Maley 1999, p.3)

Does it help to prepare our students for the future?


Learner-centered curriculum

Ideally, in a learner-centered system, content should be derived through a process of consultation and negotiations with the learners, the principal consideration being the communicative needs of the learners.
(Nunan 1998, p.55)

Agreeing that learners needs are essential to any teaching, there nevertheless arises a question if learners are always able to identify their future needs. Even supposing that they do, it is obvious that the variability of language situations even under identified topics is almost unlimited and what is important will largely depend on the situation. Thus, we come to the initial contradiction again:

In order to guarantee the ability to deal with every language situation we must teach students all possible functions/real world tasks as no transfer of skills may be guaranteed, but we cannot teach them all possible functions as it would be an impossibility as lists of common everyday tasks are endless.

Moreover, if we follow an almost sacred attitude to learners wishes, will it ever be possible to create a 'futures curriculum' in our largely consumer society where hardly anyone is inclined to make long-term investments in the future?


Comprehensive Input (Natural Approach) by Krashen and Comprehensive Output Hypotheses

A central article of faith in Krashen's model is the belief that comprehension is the only factor necessary for successful acquisition.
(Nunan 1998, p.82)

An alternative to the comprehensive-input hypothesis is the 'the comprehensive-output' hypothesis by Swain, which stresses the importance of giving learners the opportunity of practising the target language.
(Nunan 1998, p.82)

Unlike the previous strategies, both of the above approaches are not aimed at grading the curriculum trying to find 'the most important' language to teach. They also make the classroom communication much more real. However, there is another extreme - almost no attention is paid to smaller elements of the language system as they are not considered to be essential for successful language acquisition. Thus, students are deprived of the knowledge of language resources they may need to employ to find a better solution to this or that language problem.

Neither of the approaches is concerned with the content of the material used for teaching. Language acquisition is the only purpose stated. It does not lead us aside from the initial contradiction of education, nor, however, brings us closer to its resolution.


Task Syllabus

Despite the original emphasis on the process of performing the task rather than the result, the task syllabus often fails to be an alternative to functional-notional syllabus it tends to replace.

Examples of tasks - painting a fence, dressing a child, filling out a form, buying a pair of shoes, making an airline reservation. In other words, by "task" is meant hundred and one thing people do in everyday life.
(Nunan 1991, p. 45)


It claims that classroom tasks are close to real world tasks. However, real-world tasks seem to be understood in a rather narrow way - just functional use of language in certain circumstances. And even if students master to do hundred and one everyday thing, it does not prevent them from getting stuck on one hundred and the second. Thus, the initial contradiction remains unresolved again.

Unfortunately, we have come to a rather sad conclusion:

None of the existing approaches brings us to the resolution of the key contradictions of language learning and education.




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21 Nov 2000