Have you heard that the audio-lingual method is dead?
Well, it’s not!
Just because there hasn’t been much buzz about it lately doesn’t mean it has ceased to be an effective teaching tool.
What was wrong with the audio-lingual method, anyway?
Maybe it was just the “method” part. While it has limited use as a complete language teaching system, it still has lots to offer in the modern language classroom.
So how can you make great use of audio-lingual method techniques in your class today?
Read on to see…
A Brief History of the Audio-lingual Method
Any quick search on the Internet will lead you to hundreds of explanations of the audio-lingual method (ALM). Most of those explanations will tell you that the ALM fell into disuse through a highly visible critique and general dissatisfaction with the outcomes of the method. But let’s take a closer look.
Though use of the audio-lingual method began with a perceived need to give troops basic survival communication tools before sending them to the front lines during World War II (our brave boys would have to be able to buy bread, interrogate prisoners, give orders, meet girls), the actual method rose from the work of structural linguists like Charles C. Fries and Robert Lado.
Basing their work on a combination of the study of English language structure and basic concepts of behavioral psychology, especially the work of B. F. Skinner, these linguists developed a method that focused on listening and speaking. Reading and writing were relegated to later stages of language study.
Although the results of the study of English structure were revolutionary, the creators of the ALM had little practical teacher training. The classroom techniques drew the attention of hard critics. This criticism would lead to an evolution towards different, more innovative methods of language teaching.
The fall from grace
At the time the audio-lingual method was being designed and put to use, linguistics as a science was in its infancy. Linguists were often at each other’s throats, and differing schools of thought arose. These led to diverse theories about what language is, how it is learned and how it should be taught. Debate on these important themes was often animated.
While structural linguists were taking language apart, listing its parts and figuring out how they were joined to create language, other linguists were more interested in the sources of language within psychology, its use and meaning. Naturally, many linguists tried to apply these theories to language acquisition and teaching.
Noam Chomsky, who belonged to a different camp than the structural linguists (his work on transitional grammar, for example, almost dismisses the concept of structure in language), wrote a landmark essay/critique of Skinner’s book “Verbal Behavior.”
Though this critique has been subsequently questioned, at the time of its publication it had an important influence on the development of schools of psychological thought (the essay is often considered a turning point towards cognitive psychology from behavioral psychology). Unfortunately, because the ALM based much of its pedagogy on Skinner’s behaviorist ideas, the method directly suffered from this harsh critique.
With the professional literature demeaning a key aspect of ALM teaching, it did not help that the actual methodology had flaws. Promised objectives were not met, students were dissatisfied with results and the linguistic community began to turn its back on the ALM.
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The Pros and Cons of the ALM
As with any “method,” the audio-lingual method probably suffered more than anything because it was just that: a method. When teaching is based upon “a systematic plan followed in presenting material for instruction,” that teaching can become dogmatic, leaving teachers little room for improvisation.
In the early days of the use of the ALM, structure, rules and procedures were closely monitored and practiced, in part to standardize the teaching process as well as to evaluate its effectiveness.
Those on the audio-lingual bandwagon pointed out lots of advantages. These include:
- Students practicing useful language from the very first class.
- Better pronunciation and increased participation as a result of the drilling exercises.
- The use of visual cues, which was thought to help develop vocabulary.
This emphasis on useful language, better pronunciation and visual cues makes students better able to understand authentic examples of the language such as real conversations or videos such as those available from FluentU.
On the other hand, critics felt that the method had these disadvantages:
- Too much attention placed upon the teacher, who was limited to presenting only mechanical aspects of language.
- The reduction of vocabulary in favor of structure.
The Continued Presence of the ALM in Modern Language Teaching
Despite language teaching drifting away from using ALM as a full method, the materials that were developed for classroom use are still valid and useful and you can find many available for your modern language class. Textbook developers have wisely continued to include the best of audio-lingual in printed language materials. These same materials abound online.
From everyday language dialogue to the use of structural substitution and transformation exercises, the legacy of ALM continues with us to modern-day language instruction.
Here we will discuss three basic ALM techniques which, leaving the “method” aside, you can readily adapt to your language classroom!
3 Fresh Ways to Use the Audio-lingual Method in Your Class
1. Focus on Practical Pronunciation
The audio-lingual approach, based upon language structure, naturally treated the sounds of language as important building blocks for the creation of utterances, that is, meaningful strings of sounds.
All spoken languages are pronounced. Individual sounds can be isolated. In any language, there may be from 20 to hundreds of sounds. No matter how many sounds the language you teach employs, you will need to first have a basic understanding of what they are, how they are produced and how they work together to create utterances. Let’s look at how to gain that understanding and apply it to teaching.
Identifying the sound system
You don’t need to have a comprehensive list of all the sounds available for speaking the target language. It will suffice to help your students to first articulate, then recognize, the most basic sounds necessary.
Avoid using complex graphic representations of these sounds (don’t ask your students to memorize the IPA, for example). Instead, take advantage of readily recognized symbols that students use in their native language.
For example, both the voiced and unvoiced “th” sounds in English are articulated in the same way as the “z” sound in European Spanish. In early stages, before Spanish students see words written with “th,” you can transcribe the sound with a “z” for their notes, and they will make the sound you want. They will also remember it from those notes for home practice.
Also be moderate in the existence of similar sounds. The well-known “ship-sheep“ minimal pair in English, for example, does demonstrate the difference in meaning when a vowel sound is changed. On the other hand, though, if the context in the sentence indicates a woolly animal, it really doesn’t matter if the student has used the word for “boat” instead. So avoid being nitpicky with individual sounds when practicing sentences!
Using tongue-twisters to build articulation and strength
Though you can easily find minimal pair exercises online, instead of focusing on repeating single sound changes in words out of context (which is fine for a quick pronunciation warm-up!), your students will have much more fun working with complete sentences. So try well-known tongue-twisters in the L2.
In Catalan, for example, this one can bring giggles to your students:
Plou poc, però per al poc que plou, plou prou. (It rains little, but as little as it rains, it rains enough.)
This practices the articulation of the “l” and the “r” sounds.
Now, tongue-twisters are often kind of silly sentences that aren’t all that useful in everyday situations (just when would you suddenly state that a female shell vendor does business on the beach?). However, you can create your own twisters just by choosing a couple of sounds and finding useful words.
Everyday language is full of tongue-twisters—create your own!
2. Do Structural Drilling Exercises
As in many disciplines, the repetitive practice of basic constructs develops strength and agility for later improvisational work. In the audio-lingual method, this manifested itself in sentence structure drilling.
The use of the word “drill” is kind of an unfortunate leftover from the “Army Method” that gave way to the audio-lingual method. Using that word can make students tremble with fear or yawn with boredom. So though “drilling” is useful and valid, you might want to simply call the activity something like “sentence practice,” or even “extended pronunciation practice,” which in the end, it actually is.
Structural drilling is useful in lots of ways:
- It strengthens the vocal apparatus for future sentence production.
- It builds strong habits in structural manipulation.
- It settles automatic responses in everyday conversational exchange.
Where to find material to drill
The first place to look for practice material is the class textbook you are using. If there are no substitution-type exercises, there will certainly be basic sentences in any dialogue or exercise that you can adapt to any of the procedures described here.
How to do a drill session
The most basic type of sentence structure practice involves the substitution of a particular word with another that would logically be found in the same place in the sentence. In the simplest kind of substitution, the student simply replaces one word with the cue word provided by the teacher. No other modification will occur within the sentence.
In English, for example:
Teacher: I’d like a cup of coffee. Tea.
Students: I’d like a cup of tea.
Teacher: I’d like a cup of tea. Milk.
Students: I’d like a cup of milk.
Transformation practice involves slightly more complex substitution in which the change of one word requires modifications in other words. Subject-verb agreement may need to be reflected.
Again, in English:
Teacher: I eat breakfast every day. He.
Students: He eats breakfast every day.
Teacher: He eats breakfast every day. They.
Students: They eat breakfast every day.
In other languages, there may be adjective/noun concurrence.
In Spanish, for example:
Teacher: La puerta es roja. Libro. (The door is red. Book.)
Students: El libro es rojo. (The book is red.)
Teacher: El libro es rojo. Manzana. (The book is red. Apple.)
Students: La manzana es roja. (The apple is red.)
The teacher repetition of the sentence produced by the students serves a couple of purposes:
- Through this repetition, the teacher can emphasize correctly any sound or articulation the students have shown problematic.
- The repetition reinforces the listening aspect of language, allowing students to immediately recognize the sentence they have just pronounced.
When and how often to drill
Drilling can become a regular activity, both as a vocal warm-up and an inductive introduction to particular structures or vocabulary that will be the theme of the class. On the other hand, an entire hour of drilling might be something you would consider once or twice during a semester, but should probably not be the basic structure of your class.
One criticism of the “drill” in the ALM was that it may have produced automatic responses, but that its overuse in class led to boredom and eventual reduction of student attention. So this type of exercise should probably be limited in time, not involving more than 10 to 15 percent of a class period.
3. Use Dialogue Practice
The natural next step in the construction of language, from sound through sentence, is dialogue, the exchange of information between two or more people. Structural linguists found that many conversational exchanges followed basic structures that can be studied and learned.
Everyday dialogues are probably the most familiar leftovers of the original audio-lingual method. Most modern language texts will include dialogue material and exercises, these often being the principle presentation text in a unit, especially in texts aimed at language use rather than language study for examination.
What kinds of dialogues to use
Dialogues can fall into many different categories. For this article, I am going to limit them to just two:
- Standard everyday dialogues, or that type of verbal exchange that we tend to repeat over and again throughout our daily lives. These will include basic greetings and farewells, shopping dialogues and information requests, among others.
- Improvisational dialogues, or those that may begin standard but which will be unpredictable because of the personal interaction of the people speaking. These may include debate, discussion, argument and opinion sharing.
Standard everyday dialogue practice
An everyday dialogue can grow easily from previous sentence structure practice. You may present this dialogue in any number of fashions, from a printed handout to pictures, from sock puppets to repetition exercises—whatever means suit your teaching style.
These dialogues should be kept short and sweet, each student having three to five sentences to produce. For example:
S1: Good morning.
S1: How much are the tomatoes?
S2: 35 yen a kilo.
S1: Oh! That’s cheap! I’ll take three kilos.
S2: Good. That will be 105 yen.
S1: Here you are.
S2: And here’s your change. Thank you.
S1: Thank you! Goodbye.
In this dialogue, it is pretty evident that simple substitution can be had: tomatoes changed to pears, yen changed to euros, 35 changed to whatever price seems right. Students can also be encouraged to use different greetings and farewells that they know or have recently learned.
This type of exchange can also be expanded by giving S1 a shopping list and S2 a list of prices. Add props and you have yourself a role play.
The same type of exercise can be done for buying train tickets, sending a package by post, asking directions to a local monument, etc. The structure of the exchange should remain standard as a confidence builder, while the content of the exchange can be changed with simple substitution.
Improvisational dialogue practice
These types of dialogues, which naturally lead to more complex role play, offer a theme to students and allow them more freedom in using language. The presentation of these dialogues will necessarily be a little more complex as well.
Some ideas to keep in mind:
- Have character cards prepared beforehand. These cards, with basic character information, help students to imagine what their point of view may be in the dialogue. Giving them names, attitudes and sometimes specific instructions about their opinion will keep the focus on what they need to say rather than on why they are saying it.
- Practice the vocabulary first. Any discussion will include specific words. Have a short list of useful vocabulary prepared, and use those words in pronunciation and structure exercises as a warm-up activity.
- Make a dialogue scheme. It helps a lot if students can see a mind map of how the dialogue may develop. Sketch on the board the basic structure of the dialogue, highlighting options like where the conversation may go if one says “yes” while the other says “no.” Give useful fragments for different parts of the dialogue, like “I don’t think so” or “I agree, but…”
- Work in pairs. This type of dialogue will need your close attention and aid. Divide your group into pairs and set them to work creating their dialogue based upon the information you have provided them. While all are working in pairs, you can move about and give personal attention to each pair.
As you can see, once the strict imposition of a “method” has been removed, the material developed within the audio-lingual method can be quite useful in any class at any level.
Other areas where the ALM developed material include error correction, rewards for work well done and an emphasis on oral and aural study.
You can start with the above, and by looking into the kinds of materials available to ALM teachers, you can continue to find even more great techniques to expand on and put to use in today’s language classroom.
Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into Teacher Training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.
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