Review: Understanding Language Teaching: From Method to Postmethod – B. Kumaravadivelu

In the lead up to starting the MADPLE, I was reading a lot of things. One of the books that I read was Kumaravadivelu’s Understanding Language Teaching, and I think that this is going to be one of those books that sticks with me forever. In this review post, I’ll aim to cover what I got from the book, what I liked/didn’t like, and my thoughts on who should read it.

Three-sentence summary

Kumaravadivelu’s Understanding Language Teaching puts ‘methods’ in their place, putting forward a strong argument for the reason why teachers and language teaching in general should move towards the post-method condition. The book starts off with an overview of second language acquisition and how these factors need to be taken into consideration when considering methods (and tasks and activities), and then moves onto the examination of methods, their rationales and, ultimately, what they are missing. The book finishes with an ‘introduction’ to the post-method condition, what teachers and ELT professionals need to take into consideration and a number of strategies that practitioners can make use of.

Three take-aways

Before I get into my three (well, there are probably actually more than three 🙂 ) I should clarify that Kumaravadivelu means methods and approaches when he says ‘methods’.

  • There is so much more than just the method when we talk about methods: Most teachers look at methods and see a set of principles, procedures, rules, activities, tasks, paradigms, etc. that are supposed to work in every context and lead to the successful acquisition of a target language, but Kumaravadivelu shows us that there is actual a lot more than this. Methods are “idealised concepts geared towards idealised contexts” (Kumaravadivelu, 2006, p. 165), and in essence are created without ‘actual’ classrooms in mind. It’s interesting that Kumaravadivelu frames this as a method myth; namely the myth that methods are universal and ahistorical (i.e. without any historical perspective or context) – or another myth that states that methods have no ideological motivation. What this means, then, is that methods actually come from a source of power (generally anglophone, western contexts), fail to take into account any local knowledge or teaching practices, and are a tool for the marginalisation of not only periphery countries but also certain teachers. Some of the effects of methods include:
    • The continued support for monolingual approaches to language teaching and, therefore, the continued superior status of the ‘native speaker’ teacher.
    • The reduced agency of periphery countries with regard to implementation of certain methods that are applicable to their context and learning environments.
    • The view that the purpose of learning a target language is simply to be able to interact or as Kumaravadivelu (2006, p.167) writes, ‘culturally empathise, if not culturally assimilating with native speakers of English’.
  • Teachers already know about the inadequacies of language teaching methods: Right, so this is a little misleading, but hear me out. Kumaravadivelu writes that teachers may subscribe to a method – even to the point of being fervent followers. However, the reality is that (and research has shown this) what teachers do in the classroom is usually not a direct following of the method they are ‘using’, even if they say that that is what they do. Teachers know that the method they are working with is not entirely suited for their local teaching context – and it can’t be as it simply wasn’t created with that local context in mind. I feel like the quote below really sums this up and shows why we need to be very careful with what methods are shown to teachers in pre-packaged pre-service courses – or at least how they are presented.

“The artificial dichotomy between theory and practice has also led us to believe that teachers would gladly follow the principles and practices of established methods. They rarely do. They seem to know better. They know that none of the established methods can be realised in their purest form in the actual classroom primarily because they are not derived from their actual classroom but are artificially transplanted into it.”

Kumaravadivelu, 2006, p.166
  • Everyone (and thing) has a role to play in post-method pedagogy: Any post-method pedagogy needs to take into account many things – Kumaravadivelu labels these post-method parameters. He also talks about post-method indicators which are, in simple terms, the learners, teachers and teacher educators that find themselves in language learning and teaching environments. He argues that these need to be thought f and seen as organising principles for context-sensitive pedagogy. Let’s break these parameters and indicators down a little further.
    • The parameter of particularity: This states that any post-method pedagogy must “be sensitive to a particular group of teachers teaching a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of gaols within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular sociocultural milieu” (Kumaravadivelu, 2006, p.171). A lot of particulars there. In essence, any post-method pedagogy cannot be the one-size-fits-all that methods preach.
    • The parameter of practicality: This focuses on “teachers’ reflection and action” (p.173), and relates to teachers’ personal theories which are interpretations and applications of professional theories, i.e. those developed by ‘expert theorists’. What Kumaravadivelu puts across to the reader here is that teachers need to be able to teach in their own context, and as such, context-specific knowledge has to emerge from their everyday practice – this must then lead onto their own theorising and development of their personal theories through their practice. Basically deriving theory from practice.
    • The parameter of possibility: This is a more abstract parameter in my mind, and it relates to the power and dominance relations and realities that are present within society and the classroom, as well as language ideology and learner identity. In short, we cannot ignore the socio-cultural realities that “[influence] identity formation in the classroom nor can [we] afford to separate the linguistic needs of learners from their social needs” (p.175).
    • The post-method learner: A post-method learner has as active and meaningful role in their language learning journey. They are empowered and helped to be autonomous. What is interesting is that Kumaravadivelu writes that academic autonomy is only one aspect; liberatory autonomy is another, and it refers specifically to developing learners’ abilities to “recognise socio-political impediments that prevent them from realising their full human potential, and by providing them with the intellectual and cognitive tools necessary to overcome them” (p.177).
    • The post-method teacher: The post-method teacher is autonomous and involved in continuous self-development. They use their prior knowledge of the world as well as their pedagogic knowledge to develop learners. They also engage in reflective practice and are able to identify how such reflection impacts their practice, as well as “evolve a coherent pedagogic framework consisting of core principles that are applied across teaching situations” (p.180). This knowledge then will eventually lead teachers to developing their own personal theories of practice. This seems like a big thing to do all on our own, but in actual fact teachers are not supposed to do it all on their own – rather, we are supposed to have the help of teacher educators.
    • The post-method teacher educator: Teachers and learners have fairly big roles to play in post-method pedagogy – but what about teacher educators? Well, as you’ve already probably guessed, Kumaravadivelu writes that teacher educators need to “create conditions for prospective teachers to acquire necessary authority and autonomy that will enable them to reflect on and shape their own pedagogic experiences, and is certain cases transform such experiences” (p.182).

What I liked

  • Kumaravadivelu holds back no punches: He really goes after methods, and attacks the thinking behind them. I felt myself thinking ‘why hadn’t I questioned this before?’ quite a lot. I suppose the other thing that makes this point something I really like is that he does it with plenty of solid rationale behind his thinking. This isn’t simply a ‘stop using/teaching/disseminating methods’ book; rather, this is a ‘here is the problem, here are the reasons why it’s a problem, and here are a number of solutions’ book.
  • A new way of thinking about methods: Kumaravadivelu writes that methods fall under one of three categories: language-centred, learner-centred or learning-centred (see below). What is interesting is that he draw links between them all and leads to the fact that they are all inadequate in that they are all, even with their differences, similar in the they cannot be wholly applied and do not really take into account all aspects of learning (e.g. acquisition, linguistic needs, social needs, etc.). I thought this was fascinating – especially with regard to how similar some of these supposedly different methods are!
    • Language-centred: In these methods, the primary focus is on form, ‘language’ is important, structures are taught/learnt (deductively or inductively), learning is see as linear, teaching is generally teacher-led, and they are generally based on behavioural psychology. An example method from this category would be Audiolingualism.
    • Learner-centred: These methods are based on Chomskyian, Hymesian and Austinian linguistics and they see language as a system, very similar to language-centred methods. Learners’ cognitive capacity mediates teacher input and learner output, and learning is seen as additive, rather than linear. These methods are ‘product’ oriented, and one example of a learner-centred method is Communicative Language Teaching.
    • Learning-centred: These are very similar to learner-centred methods; however, in these language is learned only in relation to its use. The importance of grammar is minimised and incidental is central. These are input-oriented, often with little priority given to output. Meaning is central, although there is also a low priority for negotiation of meaning between learners. An example of this method is the Natural Approach.
  • There is a solution – and we’ve know about it for a while: Kumaravadivelu interestingly writes that he is sceptical about eclecticism, although I think that this book was written before the coming about of ‘principled eclecticism’ which is in essence evidence-based teaching. What he does propose, however, is a number of post-method pedagogic models that we can use in the post-method world. I won’t go through them all, but I will highlight his own – Kumaravadivelu’s Macro-strategies for Language Teaching / Pedagogic Wheel. What he lays out is a set of ten macro-strategies, i.e. “plans derived from currently available theoretical, empirical, and pedagogical knowledge related to L2 learning and teaching” (p.201); that is, ” a broad guideline based on which teachers can generate their own location-specific, needs-based micro-strategies or classroom procedures” (p.201). The macro-strategies are:
    • Maximise learning opportunities
    • Facilitate negotiated interaction
    • Minimise perceptual mismatches (i.e. differences in teacher perception and learner perception)
    • Activate intuitive heuristics (i.e. providing enough support and information for learners to be able to use their own minds and tricks to solve problems – I view this as one aspect of scaffolding)
    • Foster language awareness
    • Contextualise linguistic input
    • Promote learner autonomy
    • Ensure social relevance (i.e. we need to be aware of the “societal, political, economic, and educational environment in which” (p.207) the class takes place)
    • Raise cultural consciousness (Kumaravadivelu writes that this means developing learners’ global consciousness and viewing them as a “cultural informant” (p.208) – meaning that they both learn about the world but also contribute their knowledge of the world).
  • The book is relevant today – even if it was written fifteen years ago: There is a whole lot in this book that teachers teaching now need to read. I think a lot of it is common knowledge, but not often spoken about – but still, everyone should read at least the main points from this book.

What I didn’t like

  • Difficult terms with very little definition: For the most part, when Kumuravadivelu introduces something, he generally explains it or gives a clear example. However, there are certain terms (e.g. form-based modifications) that took me a long time to understand, and this was after going outside of the book to find out the meaning. I do think that this book would have been just a little more accessible if there were some clearer definitions provided.
  • TBTL wasn’t considered as a ‘method‘: This is not so much a negative point and much as it is a point with which I feel needed more expansion. Kumaravadivelu writes that he does not consider “TBLT as [an] independent language teaching method” (p.96) because of how difficult it is to define what a task is. He gave examples of how tasks could be language-, learner-, or learning-centred, and so it was difficult to put TBLT into a category. I do feel, however, that since the book was written much work has gone into the defining of ‘task’ (see Ellis, 2020, for example) – so much so that I feel we have a much clearer definition (although work still is being done) of what a task it. Also, I view this as perhaps a good thing – doesn’t this show how versatile TBLT is? I am interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Applying to practice

You might think that this book, being ‘theory’, has little practical value. I completely disagree. For one thing it has made me reconsider my perspective on pretty much everything method- and approach-related. With regard to what I plan to do with this information, I have written here below what I feel could be good uses:

  • Awareness raising with teachers: As a teacher educator, I feel that now I have an even greater responsibility to ensure that teachers have a clearer understanding of the implications of methods and approaches, as well as the realities that are present within the classes, namely that if one follows a method they are likely to find out that there is something that doesn’t ‘work’ in the future.
  • Guiding principles: Kumaravadivelu’s pedagogic wheel is a brilliant set of guidelines that I can use to ensure that my teaching is effective, relevant and inclusive. I have no doubt that I will continue to read over this years into the future.
  • A push to teach and train in an informed manner whilst taking into account more than just my perspective: This has really made me aware of how different social contexts require different approaches. I think this will have a big impact on how I deliver training sessions externally. I often train teachers around Spain and Portugal online, often taking for granted that their teaching contexts are similar to mine. I really need to get them to consider their contexts and what is really appropriate based on research AND their experience.

Who should read this book?

  • Teachers with a few years under their belts: I don’t think a first-year or even a second-year teacher will benefit a lot from this book, simply because I feel they need to have taught in a number of contexts first to be able to draw on that experience while reading. This being said, teachers with two or more years are likely to get a whole lot out of this – at least from parts 2 and 3.
  • Trainers/Teacher Educators: In my mind, a must for trainers, both for in-service and pre-service courses. Actually, perhaps even more so for pre-service as we often push a certain set of methods and approaches on new teachers (for a whole load of reasons I know – don’t shoot me, I’m not trying to destroy the system, only asking that we reconsider certain aspects) and this may have potentially damaging and lasting effects on teachers and learners.

Final notes

This book was a great read. Difficult to start as you need to go through a lot of SLA theory, which if you have not read any before you might find a little heavy. This being said, parts 2 and 3 are incredible. I know that there are other books out now on principled eclecticism, and as such I need to read them as well – when I have time! I do feel like this is own of those books that has really shaped how I think as both a teacher and a trainer, and I highly recommend it 🙂

Book details

Book title: Understanding Language Teaching: From Method to Postmethod

Author: B. Kumaravadivelu

Pages: 258

ISBN: 0805856765

Amazon affiliate link (Spain)

References

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006). Understanding Language Teaching – From Method to Postmethod. New Jersey: Routledge.

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