I find the term best practice troubling; and I say this as I wear my language instructor hat and my consultant hat. Full disclosure: I am working on TESL Ontario’s Directory of Best Practice Resources. The Directory is a compendium of online (and hard copy) high quality resources for adult ESL and FSL instructors and administrators. Please check it out: http://bestpractices.teslontario.org/ . In putting together our Directory, our team scoured the literature for descriptions of best practices in adult English teaching, and we talked to researchers, administrators, and exemplary teachers, to identify effective materials to meet learner and instructor needs.
The notion of best practice seems to be the term du jour. Every profession – from social work, to psychiatry, to the legal community – is concerned with identifying best practices in the field. I’m not saying that is a bad thing. Educators who care about their students should be committed to professional development. We should be looking for ways to improve our teaching practice by staying abreast of developments in the field and adopting effective pedagogical practices and resources to enhance our students’ learning. No problem there!
What bothers me is the notion of best in the term best practice. There is a finality to the phrase that implies that once we have labeled a pedagogical strategy or a specific resource as the best, our search is over. Once we employ a best practice, there is nothing more to do, nothing more to learn. But we know that this is simply not the case. Looking back in the annals of language teaching, we find the now defunct Grammar-Translation approach, The Silent Way and the Audio-lingual approach, with its commitment to drills and set phrases. The current standard is the Communicative approach, also called the Natural approach, based on Krashen’s (1983) theory of comprehensible input, in which language learning relies on meaningful interaction – natural communication – in the target language. Language scholar Dean Mellow (2002) advocates Principled Eclecticism, a set of pedagogical guidelines for categorizing, selecting and sequencing learning activities, that form a coherent, pluralistic approach to language teaching. Theories and methods evolve, with the expectation of improving on existing practices.
What are the recognized best practices in second/additional language teaching? Jim Cummins (2007) states three assumptions have traditionally formed the basic tenets of language teaching and still dominate the conversation regarding best practice: the target language should be used exclusively in the classroom, translation between a student’s first language and the target language should not be encouraged, and finally, in immersion and bilingual settings, the two languages should be kept separate. Cummins has challenged these assumptions using empirical data, pointing to new insights in applied linguistics and cognitive psychology that provide new understandings of the bi/multilingual brain. He has called on educators (and policy makers) to abandon monolingual practices and instead, capitalize on learners’ linguistic capabilities and implement instructional strategies that build learners’ language and academic skills in English and their home languages. More recently, the pedagogical practice of translanguaging, articulated by Ofelia Garcia and Li Wei (2014), echoes Cummins’s work; English learners are encouraged to build their entire communicative repertoires, so that all languages are welcome and employed in the classroom. Could translanguaging transform the way we teach English to newcomers or will it go the way of the Silent Way?
Instead of looking for a singular best practice, we should perhaps focus attention and research on effective practices. After all, experienced instructors draw from their extensive teaching toolkits to meet the needs of their learners. Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan (2012) use the terms best practice and next practice to describe innovation in the field of education. In their book, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, the authors advocate for a mix that incorporates best practices – existing practices that are widely accepted for their effectiveness – with giving instructors the freedom, space and resources to create next practices, innovative approaches that grow out of experimentation with new and existing practices.
Clearly, there is no best practice, method or resource in teaching, although it would be nice to find the magic bullet, wouldn’t it? I find there is a kind of beauty in our never-ending quest to find what works best – or should I say really well – with our students. It’s an on-going process of discovery and self-discovery that makes us co-learners, alongside our students.
Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée, 10(2), 221-240.
Garcia. O., & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, education, and bilingualism. Houndsmill, Basingtoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. Teachers College Press.
Krashen, S.D., & Terrell, T.D. (1983). The Natural Approach. Hayward, CA: The Alemany Press.
Mellow, J.D. (2002). Toward principled eclecticism in language teaching: The two-dimensional model and the centring principle. TESL-Electronic Journal (5)4, A1. Retrieved from: http://www.tesl-ej.org/ej20/a1.html
What is translanguaging? (July 26, 2016). EALJournal.org. Retrieved from: https://ealjournal.org/2016/07/26/what-is-translanguaging/
Julianne Burgess teaches English to newcomer youth at Mohawk College and is the Project Manager for the TESL Ontario Directory of Best Practice Resources. She is also a PhD student at Brock University.