Thornbury, S. (2017). Scott Thornbury’s 30 Language Teaching Methods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ISBN: 978-1-108-40849-3 (kindle), 978-1-108-40846-2 (paperback), 978-1-108-40848-6 (Google ebook), 978-1-108-40847-9 (Appleibook), 978-1-108-40850-9 (ebook)
US $13 (ebook), $14 (paperback)
While based on my post, “How to Write a Book Review for a Specific Journal,” this post will take a somewhat more casual approach, appropriate for a blog.
Many English language instructors take a circuitous route to their career. That was certainly the case for me, and most of us in academia have all sorts of interests other than the field in which we teach. I learned loads in my M.A. Philosophy program, but nothing that would prepare me for teaching English. So, when I found myself years into this career without the pedagogical knowledge required to be the kind of teacher I wanted to be, it was important for me that I honestly addressed my shortcomings. It was time to play catch up. In addition to going back to school, which I highly recommend, I also did some studying on my own, and that’s when I came across Scott Thornbury’s wonderful “30 Language Teaching Methods.”
The goal of academic writing is communication. The subject matter is often pretty difficult, so it’s important that the writer not add to that difficulty by making things harder than they need to be. The goal of the writer should not be to convince people they are smart by using overly long words and unnecessarily complicated jargon; but rather, the goal of the writer should be to explain complex things simply. Thornbury does this better than anyone else in the field.
Thornbury begins by addressing the question, “Another book about methods? I thought methods were dead. I thought we were now in a post-method era?” (viii) While Thornbury believes this, in part, to be true, his problem is not with methods, as such, but rather, with the search for the one true method. The one that will displace all those who came before it and rest atop the summit as the champion.
Thornbury has several reasons why teachers should continue the study of methodology. Firstly, new teachers need to begin somewhere. Thornnbury states, “One attraction of methods is that they offer coherent templates for generating classroom routines” (viii). Methods help answer such questions as, “Where do I start? What materials and activities should I use? In what order? To what end?” (viii). Secondly, a method which is particularly suitable to an instructor may work because it gives them confidence in what they are doing. They can start with this method as a guide, continually examining their teaching in light of their classroom, making the necessary adjustments.
Thornbury chooses to group the methods together by similarity rather than giving a historical overview. This is to “counteract” the modernist narrative that the history of methods is, “one of uninterrupted progress from ‘darkness to light,’” that “methods ‘die’ and no longer have anything to offer us” (ix).
Thornbury next gives an account of how he decided which methods to focus on in the book. He uses three criteria: (1) Their “strength of influence over time.” (2) “Their relative failure to gain wider acceptance, despite their intrinsic merits.” And (3) those which are “not classroom based” (ix).
This book is primarily intended for language teachers and particularly suited for those just getting started (or those, like me, who needed to play catchup).
This book is divided into six principle sections: Natural Methods, Linguistic Methods, Communicative Methods, Visionaries, Self-study Methods, and a section which looks Beyond Methods. For each method in each section, Thornbury begins with a Background before going on to address the questions, How does it work? Does it work? And What’s in it for us?
The first section is about Natural Methods. By natural, Thornbury means those “methods that are loosely characterized as being ‘natural’-in the sense that they replicate, or aim to replicate-the process by which first languages are acquired, or by which second languages are picked up without any formal instruction (p.3). They include Total Immersion, The Natural Method/Approach, The Direct Method, The Oral Method, The Reading Method, The Audiolingual Method, and Total Physical Response.
The second section covers Linguistic Methods. Thornbury labels them as such because, “They are driven less by theories of learning than by theories of language” (p.30). Rather than attempt to simulate natural learning, these methods put an emphasis on the intellectual struggle of learning a language. These methods include Explication de Texte (text analysis), Text Memorization, Grammar-Translation, The Lexical Approach, Text-based Instruction, and The Comparative Method.
Section three focuses on Communicative Methods. These methods shift their focus away from formal aspects of language to its communicative purpose. These include The Situational Approach, Communicative Language Teaching, Task-based Language Teaching, Competency-based Teaching, Whole Language Learning, Content-based Instruction, and Dogme ELT/Teaching Unplugged.
The fourth section is called “Visionaries” and focuses on methods associated with a particular individual. These individuals, “had a unique, even mystical vision of teaching, often combined with a charismatic teaching style” (p.82). These are: Community Language Learning (or Counseling-learning), Suggestopedia, The Silent Way, and Crazy English and the Rassias Method.
Section five focuses on Self-study Methods. These include: The Orientalists (self-taught polyglots with interests in comparative linguistics and Asian languages); Prendergast’s ‘Mastery System;’ Brand name Methods such as Assimil, Michel Thomas, and Pimsleur; Programmed Instruction: Duolingo; and Online Polygots.
In the final section, Beyond Methods, which serves as the conclusion to the book, Thornbury covers Principled Eclecticism, in which teachers choose, “Those techniques which are consistent with a coherent theory of language learning” (p.125). This is in contrast with simple eclecticism, where more of an “anything goes” approach is adopted (p.125). Accordingly, teachers are to choose those methods which not only are in line with a language learning theory, but which fit the needs of their particular classroom.
He ends with an explicit purpose statement for the book, “In the end, all methods are eclectic, in the sense that they borrow from, build on, and recycle aspects of other methods. Our understanding of how and why this happens, and how these same processes of appropriation and reconfiguration impact on our own teaching, is part of our ongoing professional development (p.126).
For Thornbury, experienced teachers are to treat good methods as tools in a toolbox, taking them out for the right purpose and at the right time. And just like with tools, some will see more use than others.
Analysis and Recommendation
Experienced teachers need look no further than to the memory of the time before their very first class, a time composed of equal parts optimism and trepidation, to understand the importance of methods.
As one reads through the book, they get the feeling that they are reading a lot of good ideas, all of which are claiming to do too much. Second language acquisition is a complex and nuanced field, and Thornbury property views each method as part of the greater conversation on how to best teach language. For example, he describes the Reading Method, one not often used globally, as a “useful counterbalance to the almost obsessive focus on spoken fluency” (p.21). Thornbury always tries to see the good in each method. He takes into account issues like why they developed when they did, who developed them, and where they developed. However, he does give pointed criticisms of the more questions methods (if not still taking it a little too easy on them). He states that the claims of the Silent Way, “are largely anecdotal” (p.96), and of Community Language Learning (CLL), “Even in its heyday, CLL was seldom subject to exhaustive methods comparison studies, and most of the success its proponents claim for it is largely anecdotal (p.87).” That’s the nice, academic way of saying that their claims are unsubstantiated. But he also goes on to say of CLL that, “Stripped of its quasi-mystical rhetoric,” that it, “still has a lot to offer,” before highlighting some of its contributions to the field.
This balanced approach is refreshing. For many of us, we started with an almost unwavering belief in the Communicative Method. The longer we taught, the more we saw a need for Focus on Form and the importance of pursuing a balance between fluency and accuracy. As we’ve continued to teach, we’ve read more, learned more, and taught more, ever fine tuning our techniques based on Second Language Acquisition Theory, who we are as teachers, who we are teaching, where we are teaching, and why we are teaching. This is the point of Thornbury’s book, and if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend doing so. If you’ve already read it, why not read it again? You may benefit from a nice refresher in methods. I know I did.
I hope you found this recommendation helpful.
Paul T. Johnson