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Foreign language teaching methods. communicative approach to teaching adult learners

The boundaries of countries all over the world are obliterated due to the development of globalization effect. Foreign languages are becoming very popular, especially the English one. A thousand years ago only about two million people spoke English. Now it became one of the most widespread and the most influential languages in the word. It is not surprising that a lot of attention is paid to its teaching. A wide variety of methods are known to exist in foreign languages teaching. They are Grammar Translation method, Direct method, Audio-lingual method, Community method, Silent Way, Suggestopedia, Total Physical response, and Communicative teaching.

Grammar Translation Method

Grammar Translation method was originally developed for teaching Latin. The main teacher’s goal was to teach the students to read and understand Latin texts so that they could translate them. One of the most surprising facts about this method is that it still exists in the teaching practice and if one attends a secondary school or one of the colleges he is likely to see the widespread use of this method.

Direct Method

By end of the late 1800s, educators felt quite frustrated by the results they obtained using Grammar Translation method and by limited number of techniques they could implement during their classes. But the most awful limitation caused by Grammar Translation method was its inability to develop communicative competence of students. The learners could read texts written in a foreign language, could translate them and could write, but speaking training was missing during the classes.

The main function that any language has is serving as a means of communication and this function was not paid any attention. That is why the experiments with teaching methods took place. Teachers began attempting to teach foreign languages in a way that was more similar to first language acquisition. So the Direct method appeared on the teaching stage.

The Direct method included techniques that were developed to address oral communication, natural use of foreign language and ability to think in the target language. This method got its name due to the fact that its followers were striving for associating new words and grammar structures directly with their meaning omitting native language translation.

The method became very popular during the first quarter of the 20th century, especially in private language schools in Europe where highly motivated students could study new languages and not need to travel far in order to try them out and apply them communicatively.

The main teachers’ goals were to teach to think in a foreign language and to teach to communicate using foreign language spontaneously. In order to help to link words and structures with their direct meaning teachers used pictures, miming, and objects.

Classroom instruction was conducted only with the use of target language. Only everyday vocabulary and sentences were taught. Oral communication skills were built up on question-and-answer exchanges between teachers and students. Both speech and listening comprehension were taught. Correct pronunciation and grammar were emphasized.

The Direct Method is a highly effective method, but it requires small class sizes, motivated learners and talented teachers in order to obtain good results.

But nowadays not only good communication skills are required but good knowledge of grammar and writing skills as well, and etc.

However, the Direct method is still used by English speaking volunteers who teach foreign language abroad. Due to the absence of any knowledge in the sphere of language of the country they come to they have to communicate and explain the material in the way they can do it, i.e. using only foreign language, pictures, realia, gestures, and creativity during their lessons.

The Direct method became an important step in the development line of foreign languages methods. This method was progressive. It was completely different from Grammar Translation one and it symbolizes a turning point to the right educational direction.

Audio-lingual Method

The next step in the development of foreign language teaching was creating Audiolingual method. It coincided with the World War II, when America became aware that it needed people to learn foreign languages very quickly. The "Army Method" was suddenly developed to build communicative competence in translators through very intensive language courses focusing on aural/oral skills. This in combination with some new ideas about language learning became what is known as the Audio-lingual Method.

Again the main goal of this method was to develop communicative competence in foreign language learners. But it was taught through drilling dialogues and speech patterns drilling and continuous repetition. The idea was to get the learners react automatically using learned patterns.

As for new material presentation it was always presented in a form of dialogues. Grammar structure was also taught based on the presented dialogues and memorized speech patterns. But what interesting about grammar presentation is that no explanation was provided. The students had to understand the meaning and the structure themselves.

A lot of attention was paid to pronunciation. Vocabulary was strictly limited and learned in context.

Native language could be used but it was very limited and teachers used it if they saw that there was not way out and students were really mistaken in understanding some notions.

Just as with the Direct method, the Audio-lingual method represents a major step in language teaching methodology that was still aimed at communicative competence.

Community Language Learning

In the early seventies, Charles Curran developed a new education model he called “Counseling-Learning”. The learners were viewed as “clients” and teacher served as a “councilor”. The teacher considered learners’ group as the whole organism, as one learner.

The students sat around a table and their task was to create dialogues, to maintain communication on a certain topic. They told their teacher a phrase they wanted to be said to other students, teacher translated it for them. After that students pronounced these phrases or sentences and teacher tape recorded them. By the way, usage of a tape recorder is the main feature of this method. This technique “student says-teacher translates” is used over a considerable period of time, until the students are able to apply words in the new language without translation.

The method has some limitations. First of all, students shall have a high level of motivation, they shall want to know foreign language and to communicate using it. The second limitation is that the teacher must be fluent in both the target language and the students’ native language. This method is impossible to be used for large group of students, only for six or eight people.

Though the method has a number of limitations it still can be used in combination with other methods and techniques.

Silent Way

The name of the method says a lot about it. A teacher applying this method is limited in speaking. He shall stay silent as much time during the lesson as it is possible.

The techniques and materials used in this method include the following:

  • English sound/colour chart;
  • Word chart;
  • Fidel chart;
  • Teacher’s silence;
  • Peer correction;
  • Cuisenaire rods;
  • Self-correction gestures;
  • Structured feedback.

Cuisenaire rods (small rods of varying color and length) are typically used in this method to introduce vocabulary and syntax, along with colorful wall charts.

This method is quite unusual and it faced a lot of criticism at the time of its development. The method encourages the teacher to assume a distance that prevents him/her from providing direct guidance when at times such guidance would be helpful. Silence of the teacher can prevent students from hearing many active models of correct usage that they may find useful. In trying to create a less teacher-orientated classroom, many say that the Silent Way goes too far to the opposite extreme.


In the late 70s, a Bulgarian psychologist Lozanov introduced a new theory in teaching sphere. He strongly believed that students have a lot of difficulties while foreign language learning due to their psychological barriers, due to their fears of being unable to achieve anything in this field. Lozanov thought that because of these fears students do not use the whole their intellectual potential and the main teacher’s task was to help the students to relax and to make their mind work as hard as possible. The method Lozanov suggested became known as Suggestopedia the name reflecting the application of the power of “suggestion” to the field of pedagogy.

One of the most unique characteristics of the method was the use of soft Baroque music during the learning process. This music was used as a background during foreign language classes. Baroque music has a specific rhythm and a pattern of 60 beats per minute, and Lozanov believed it created a level of relaxed concentration that facilitated the learning process.

Another aspect that was different was surrounding atmosphere during foreign language classes. First of all, soft chairs were used, different pictures were fixed on the walls. On the whole, it was difficult to call the room where such lessons were conducted a classroom. The belief that learning process shall be facilitated in a comfortable and relaxing atmosphere was the main one in this method.

Teacher concentrated mostly on the content of students’ utterances not paying attention to their errors. In the classroom dialogues were studied, and the same dialogues were re-read again at home as a kind of home assignment.

The dim lighting, large comfortable chairs and music selections are not available to the majority of schools, and these environmental factors are certainly close to impossible for very large classes.

Total Physical Response

One of the primary objectives that was at the root of TPR development is to make studying relaxing and less stressfull. Asher thought that a natural way to accomplish this was to recreate the natural way children learn their native language.

New vocabulary and grammar structures are taught with the use of gestures and through actions. Teacher speaks most of the time presenting and at the same time showing new material. Students listen to the teacher, repeat actions and try to memorize new material. Students do not feel pressure to speak. They can be silent as long as they want. They will speak when they are ready to do it.

Whenever possible, humor is injected into the lessons to make them more enjoyable for learners. Spoken language is emphasized over written language.

Communicative Language Approach

All the methods described were methods that influenced or gave birth to new methods. Communicative Language Approach is believed to be the most mature method that covers all the methods described above and uses the best techniques in order to achieve the main aim – to get students know foreign language. It became very popular nowadays. And it works excellent in Europe and America. As for our country, we have to cope with our stereotypes connected with the learning process and with the prejudices about what teacher should and what should not do in the classroom.

As it follows from the name of this method it is directed at the communicative competence. If one attends classes where the method is used, he will not hear complicated grammar structures or difficult vocabulary. But it will be a mistake to think that Communicative approach is only intended for speaking development. Attention is also devoted to teaching reading, writing and listening skills as well.

This method is aimed at withdrawing a fear learners experience when they face speaking.

David Nunan lists five basic characteristics of Communicative Language Teaching:

  1. An emphasis on learning to communicate through interaction in the target language.
  2. The introduction of authentic texts into the learning situation.
  3. The provision of opportunities for learners to focus, not only on the language but also on the learning process itself.
  4. An enhancement of the learners’ own personal experiences as important contributing elements to classroom learning.
  5. An attempt to link classroom language learning with language activation outside the classroom.

Teachers who implement this method usually instruct with the use of target language, but they can translate from time to time where students need or benefit from it.

Communicative competence is the desired goal. Teachers help learners in any way that motivates them to work with the language.

First of all students learn to speak a foreign language, then to think in it. Drilling, isolated grammar structures and materials are not paid too much attention. They are replaced by games, peer communication, interactive discussions, cohesive content, and etc. As this method is striving for creating a foreign language atmosphere around a student, a cultural aspect plays a big role in it. That is why authentic texts and materials are used in order to get a learner involved in a foreign community as much as possible.

Referring to adult learners auditory, it is possible to conclude that this method will be useful and suitable for them.

Malcolm Knowles identified the following characteristics of adult learners:

  • Self-directness;
  • Life knowledge
  • Goal-orientation;
  • Relevancy-orientation;
  • Respect necessity.

This method is for independent and selfdirected students, who can participate in classes planning and direct themselves throughout the course. Materials used in this method must relate to students’ own lives. Changing texts and materials regularly keeps learners interested.

Spontaneous and improvised practice helps to make minds more flexible and inspire confidence in coping with new situations.

Moreover, taking into consideration the fact that the vast majority of motivation adult people have when they start learning foreign languages is directed at communication development strongly supports the use of this method.

It is very important not to be restricted to textbook, teachers shall not feel that textbook must be used from cover to cover. Usage of visual stimuli is important to provoke practical communicative language.

The focus is not upon listening and speaking but upon using language to communicate and to learn.

Classroom Implementation

Little research has been done to indicate how to use this method in the classroom especially with adult learners auditory, but some literature does exist on the subject.

Fundamentally it is important to establish an appropriate physical and psychological atmosphere in the classroom.

Instructors must be dedicated to the belief that oral communication is important for learning. The psychological atmosphere should be one in which students feel comfortable for their learning.

There is a number of techniques and materials typically used within the boundaries of this method. They are:

  • Authentic materials;
  • Scrambled sentences;
  • Language games;
  • Picture strip stories;
  • Role play.

Many authors have suggested creative activities for involving students in various kinds of talking exercises. Drama, role-plying, puppetry, debate, formal reporting, and etc. were described in their books.

The teacher’s role in the classroom is “facilitator”, whereas the student’s role is “communicator”.

Methods of assessment

As for evaluation that is applied by a teacher, student’s fluency plays a big role. However, errors are thought to be natural in the learning process and they do not play a big role while evaluation.

A students’ performance shall be assessed due to effective use of language in different social situations. A students’ performance includes the speaker’s hearer’s ability to accomplish tasks with language, the ability to communicate and interpret intentions, knowledge of the functions that language can serve; the strategies that can be used to accomplish each function.

Teacher should create suitable emotional environment, encourage and support students, show them that their efforts are evaluated. Adult learners need to feel a respect towards them, as the students of other ages, so when assessing their performance it is of utmost importance to take care of their feelings.

When teaching adult learners any teacher shall pay attention to a number of peculiarities of the learning process and based on the gained information shall choose the best method that will help to facilitate the process and will help to attain students’ needs and achieve their goals.

It should be added to what has already been said that use of methods in isolation seems to be impossible. It is more efficient to choose and concentrate on one of them at the same time implement some best techniques from the other methods.



  1. Knowles, Malcolm. Self-Directed Learning. Chicago: Follet, 1975.
  2. Knowles, Malcolm. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing, 1984.
  3. Larsen, Diane. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  4. Rogers, Alan. Teaching adults. Open University Press, 1986.
  5. Canadian Social Science. Key Elements in Conducting Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Vol.5 No.2. April 2009.
  6. Lee, J.F. and VanPatten, B. Making communicative language teaching happen. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

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