Experimental teaching

Sekiyama shrine

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of teaching several classes, using a different form of methodology in each lesson. The purpose of these classes was initially to give demonstrations of various types of teaching to trainees but as it transpired, this was a process I learnt a lot from. I wanted to reflect a little here on the possible implications for teaching and for methodology research in ELT.At the outset, I should say that this was very much an ideal situation to undertake experimental teaching. Learners attended the class voluntarily, were multilingual, based in the UK, at CEFR B2 + level, had agreed to take part in experimental classes and there was no pressure on me to follow a syllabus or prepare learners for an exam. The only ‘imposed’ structure were the requests to see certain types of teaching from trainees but beyond that, I could teach whatever I felt was suitable for the learners. Blessed with this freedom, I jumped in. Below, I give a description of the lessons I remember best and then a reflection on the implications for teaching and research. The basic idea behind each type of teaching is given but if you want to find out more, I would suggest Richards and Rodgers (2001). This is a personal account and is intended to stimulate ideas rather than be a presentation of any empirical research.

1. Task -Based Learning (TBL)

Basic theory: Students benefit from tasks with a clear  outcome and will develop their interlanguage by attempting to make meaning when completing tasks. A focus on form should come after a task and be related directly to it. This could be , for example, listening to speakers at a higher level completing the same task as learners and then completing language awareness activities about some of the different forms used. They will attend to these forms after a task as they will be able to notice gaps in their own output, having attempted the same task. See Willis (1996) for more on TBL.

Context: Informal discussion amongst friends/classmates
Task: Students agree upon and present their top five pleasure in life
Form focus: Indefinite/definite and zero articles, ‘-ing’ form used as noun phrases
Text(s): ‘Pleasures’ (in translation) by Bertolt Brecht

Students were shown some pictures of a few things that are pleasures in my life e.g. watching football, tea etc. The word ‘pleasure’ was checked and written up. Groups were asked to make a list of five of their pleasures in life and to agree on their top five as a group then present these to the class. As they formulated the list, I circulated and fed in/corrected language as they needed it. The class then voted on the best list . Students were then asked to listen to the poem ‘Pleasures’ by Brecht (essentially a list of things he likes in life) and notice what was different from their lists. They could then read and double check this before feedback. We then undertook some language awareness work on the patterns of ‘-ing’ forms, and articles used in the text, formulated some simple rules of usage and compared this to students use of these forms in their initial lists.

This was by no means the first TBL lesson I have taught but it was interesting in a few ways. It certainly seems to be true that when learners are not told which forms to use they attempt a lot more language. It is also the case that a discussion task of this nature is ideal in a multilingual group of this type. It also seems logical that a focus on form should arise after a task to enable students to notice gaps in their own output, as Willis (1996) suggests. I wondered though how such a task might be undertaken in a monolingual context. Would students produce the same range of language or would they just use the minimum needed to complete the task? I am not aware of an extensive amount of research on the amount/variety of language students produce when undertaking tasks but there is some evidence that they can encourage students to ‘do the minimum’ ( e.g. Seedhouse 1999) and I think more research is needed in that area. Perhaps, in a monolingual context, there is more explanation of the purpose of TBL and encouragement to use the L2 needed, as Hamano-Bunce (2013) has suggested.


2. The silent way

Basic theory: Teaching must be subordinate to learning. Learners will learn more effectively if encouraged to actively participate in lessons and the withdrawal of the teacher’s voice will encourage this. The aim is not (of course) to turn lesson into a silent puzzle but to only offer minimal support in the form of the teacher’s input. The teacher has a very active role otherwise- monitoring, eliciting, helping learners to shape language etc See Gattegno (1972) for a more detailed description.

Context: Describing objects to people in shops when you cannot remember the name of something or describing objects which you cannot easily translate from L1

Task : Students have to describe an everyday object without naming it while others try to guess

Form focus: Lexical chunks to describe objects such as: ‘ You use it for ‘V-ing’, ‘It’s a bit like a + NP’ , ‘It’s this sort of shape’ etc

Common everyday nouns such as: paperclip, pin, colander, post-it note, stapler, sieve

At all times, there was minimal or no spoken teacher intervention and language was elicited by means of gesture and some written instructions. Students first produced the language fro the everyday objects. This was elicited by busing realia and by student producing a workable model of each. Once models were established, these were drilled and then written up (by learners). Students then listened to six descriptions of the everyday objects and agreed which referred to which object. They then re-listened, noting down the language used to describe the objects such as ‘you use it for cooking’. This was then checked and drilled before writing up. We then practised this with some drills- I held up the objects and students produced different chunks to describe it. Students then worked together to describe and guess everyday objects from pictures. Finally, we discussed when we would need to use this language – students came and wrote suggestions on the board following a prompt question.


I have taught using silent way influenced techniques before but never this particular type of class. Students responded well to this lesson and seemed to enjoy it a lot, with a lot of unsolicited favorable comments about the class afterwards.  Perhaps the element of novelty helped here but I also think this could be important with learners of this level. Given that intermediate learners have had a lot of English classes and that we know how important motivation is  in second language learning (see Dornyei 2001 for an example) there is probably a greater need at this level for some different styles of lessons, even things which are slightly off the wall at times.  Beyond the novelty, and this seems crucial at this level, I  also think that learners were challenged  because they could not be passive and had to try hard to formulate/re-formulate the language. One weaker aspect of CLT is that learners can ‘opt out’ of certain communicative activities of just do the minimum to complete them and I suspect that intermediate level learners become aware of activities where they can get by with  minimal effort.

I also felt that this type of teaching is  hard work for the teacher. Choosing to withdraw the support of your voice and intervention means you have to work a lot harder than in a  ‘standard’ CLT class, by using gestures and using learners to build a good model of language. In some ways that is good but it also requires a lot of commitment from a teacher. There is also a need for a lot of care – nobody wants a lesson which quickly turns into a frustrating puzzle for learners and sometimes you have to intervene by saying something. And of course you need to have faith that your learners can do it with less intervention from you!  As this was only one class, I was also left wondering if there is any evidence that the silent way works better than other forms of teaching? There are plenty of arguments for it in theory but what about evidence in the form of simple methods comparison studies? I have looked for these and simply could not locate any. Perhaps somebody can point me towards something I have missed here.

3. Total Physical Response (TPR)

Basic theory: Learners (and particularly beginners) benefit from comprehension of language without the pressure to speak. The teacher gives instructions and learners show understanding through physical movement . At a basic level this might be following commands such as ‘stand up’.  This creates a memory trace and helps learners remember new language more easily, which will over time also lead to the ability to speak a second language. See Asher (1969) for more detail.

Context: Understanding a video giving a spoken recipe for cauliflower cheese https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mY6aHzprsCU

Task: Following instructions in the correct order, showing awareness of some differences between a written and spoken recipe.

Form focus: Recipe collocations such as ‘Grate the cheese’. ‘grated cheese’ , stir the mixture’ etc Common food nouns such as ‘grater’, ‘cauliflower’ and ‘colander’

Students were not asked to speak throughout the entire class. I first pre-taught some lexis used in the recipe. They showed understanding by pointing to and touching the correct pictures. For example, the teacher says ‘cauliflower’ and the students touch that picture. Next, students showed understanding of the collocations by showing the action e.g. ‘grate some cheese’.  Students then had to watch a video telling them how to cook cauliflower cheese and put the recipe in the correct order. Finally, we looked at a written version of the same recipe (taken from the food section of the BBC website http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/358608/cauliflower-cheese) and learners had to show how the written and spoken version were different. They did this by circling differences on a large projection of the written recipe.


Before I began this lesson, I was concerned that it might be a little easy for intermediate level learners. It seems that TPR is generally best suited for low levels and indeed it was originally designed for students beginning to study a second language. Many of the studies detailing its success are focused on early levels of proficiency (see Asher 2009 for a review of several studies). Despite these reservations, I felt the lesson was enough of a challenge for the group and it was interesting to see the relief on some faces when they realised they did not have to talk! This is perhaps another weakness of CLT – it is inevitable that we put pressure on students to speak and at times they are just not ready to do so. It is acknowledged  in the literature on SLA (see Ellis 2008, for an example), that learners generally have a silent period in their L2 but I have never found this to be recognised  in elementary courses I have taught.

I was  also left wondering how you could extend this type of teaching further at this level. How could we use  TPR to teach more abstract language  to B2 + level learners? It would be interesting to know if a course has ever been developed at this level which makes use of TPR. This would also be an interesting avenue for research – the extent to which TPR can help to develop interlanguage at B2+ levels.


Overall, teaching these classes was an interesting and enjoyable experience. It is certainly liberating to teach learners whilst free of the normal constraints such as an imposed syllabus and pressure to pass tests. The methodology of a class is only one variable in the learning process but it is interesting to consider the impact it can have on other variables, particularly motivation. For learners, different methodologies other than those are very familiar with may enhance this and this would be an interesting area to research as most would agree that motivation is a key factor in SLA. For example, it would be relatively simple to ‘track’ learners’ motivation via questionnaires and interviews as they experience different types of teaching. It also seems that challenge is something which impacts upon teacher motivation. We all know that teaching should be a process of constant change where we seek to improve lessons each time we teach. But we also know that it is easy to fall into familiar routines, especially under the pressures of planning a lot of classes. Teaching in these ways  pushed me as a teacher and as a result I felt I taught better classes. Experimenting with different types of teaching should not just be reserved for a slot on the DELTA but where possible, a regular thing. A good school would encourage risk taking and experimentation of this type and allow teachers freedom to test things out,  as Underhill (2013) talks about in relation to International House.  Obviously, such experimentation could also lead to research in the form of experimental studies and/or action research.


References (* indicates open-access article)

Asher, J.J. (1969). The total physical response approach to second language learning. The Modern Language Journal, 53(1), 3–17.

Asher, J. J. (2009). The total physical response (TPR): Review of the evidence. Retrieved from: http://www.tpr-world.com/review_evidence.pdf *

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and researching motivation. Longman.

Ellis, R. (2008). The Study of Second language Acquisition (Second Edition).Oxford University Press.

Gattegno, C. (1972) . Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools – The Silent Way. Educational Solutions.

Hamano-Bunce, D. (2013)    A Framework for the Creation of Task-Based Courses for First-Year Students at Asia University. CELE Journal, 21, 103-141. *

Richards, J,C and Rodgers , T.s. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press

Seedhouse, P. (1999). Task-based interaction. ELT Journal, 53 (3), 149-156.

Underhill, A. (2013). International House and its unique atmosphere of practice. IH 6oth conference. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7YwVQ_SEfk *

Willis, J.(1996) A Framework for Task-Based Learning. Longman.


About chrisjones70

Senior Lecturer in TESOL/Applied Linguistics at the University of Liverpool. All views and posts here are my own. Twitter : @ELTResearch

4 responses to “Experimental teaching”

  1. Lee Bale says :

    Hi Chris,

    It’s interesting that you managed to teach using The Silent Way with such an advanced group of students. I think that taking different approaches is useful to help us as teachers see what other types of tasks might be useful.

    Loosely related, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of teacher talk time (TTT) and how it can be used productively to get the most out of learners when they are undertaking different types of tasks in class. I think that to use TTT and the silent way effectively, teachers need to appreciate when and where teacher talk can be most productive.

    Without getting into the ‘post-method era’ debate, I’m a firm believer in the idea that there is a lot of value in taking different approaches to lessons and using ideas from lots of different methods/approaches. Horses for courses, so to speak. I think the problem with single studies advocating a specific ‘way’ is that they may have had success with a particular group of learners in a particular context for a specific amount of time, but any claims need to be considered in how they might apply to our specific contexts. Personally, I’m never really sure if I’m actually doing what I think I’m doing. Often I think I’m taking a weak task-based approach, presenting language items in a lexical way with a pre-established context but often wonder if an observer would categorise my teaching and choice of tasks under the same banners that I do.

    Sometimes, I just think that there is effective teaching and ineffective teaching and that choices need to be balanced to ensure a variety of task-types are used throughout a lesson cycle to ensure that the learners are sufficiently engaged for the duration of the course. What this means to teachers and learners obviously varies massively depending on a multitude of factors such as context, age, previous experience, ‘level’ etc..

    Thanks for this post. Always good to experiment and I guess to a certain extent that variety is the spice of life.



  2. chrisjones70 says :

    Thanks for the comment Lee. Yes, teacher talk is important as a source of input I agree and I would not advocate using something like the silent way all the time. With these learners, the novelty and the fact it was a challenge did seem to motivate them a lot. The point I’m making is that B2 + level students have had a lot of classes and to extent can be fatigued by ‘standard’ CLT classes, thus lowering motivation. Some variety (conducted in a principled way, rather then a ‘it’s Tuesday so I’ll go for some Suggestopedia’ type approach (!) can help to increase motivation. This also applies to teachers of course. Experimenting should be a continual process and not confined to courses such as the DELTA.
    You are right that methods-comparison studies are always limited to a specific context and it would of course be impossible to find a definitive best method for all situations. Having said that, studies in (say) Japan or the UK do tell us about the effectiveness of methods in that context and in itself that has value. Once we have a series of studies, we can conduct a meta-analysis and draw larger conclusions from a body of evidence.Personally, I find these type of reviews very helpful as they look at a great deal of evidence and draw conclusions form it. I’ll post one or two references in a moment.

  3. chrisjones70 says :

    The studies below may be of interest:
    Scherer, A., & Wertheimer, M. (1964). A Psycholinguistic Experiment in Foreign Language Teaching. New York: McGraw Hill. — An old but very large methoids-comparison study.

    Spada, N., & Tomita,Y. (2010). Interactions between Type of Instruction and Type of Language Feature: A Meta-Analysis. Language Learning, 60 (2), 263–308. —— A more recent review

  4. Stephen Dodd says :

    Hi Chris,
    I’ve never understood why schools can’t offer all these approached and let the students decide which is best?

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