The official website of educator Jack C Richards

Difference between an approach and a method?


Submitted by Sara from Iran

What is the  difference between an approach and a method?

Dr Richards responds:

All instructional designs for the teaching of a second or foreign language draw on a number of sources for the principles and practices they advocate. For example, they generally make explicit or implicit use of:

  • A theory of language: An account of what the essential components of language are and what proficiency or competence in a language entails.
  • A theory of learning: An account of the psycholinguistic, cognitive and social processes involved in learning a language and the conditions that need to be present for these processes to be activated.

The theory of language and language learning underlying an instructional design results in the development of principles that can serve to guide the process of teaching and learning. Different instructional designs in language teaching often reflect very different understandings of the nature of language and of language learning. The particular theory of language and language learning underlying an instructional design, in turn, leads to further levels of specification. For example:

  • Learning objectives: What the goals of teaching and learning will be.
  • The syllabus: What the primary units of organization for a language course will consist of.
  • Teacher and learner roles: What roles teachers and learners are expected to play in the classroom.
  • Activities: The kinds of classroom activities and techniques that are recommended.

When an instructional design is quite explicit at the level of theory of language and learning, but can be applied in many different ways at the level of objectives, teacher and learner roles and activities, it is usually referred to as an approach. Communicative language teaching is generally regarded as an approach, because the principles underlying it can be applied in many different ways. Teachers adopting an approach have considerable flexibility in how they apply the principles to their own contexts. When an instructional design includes a specific level of application in terms of objectives, teacher and learner roles and classroom activities, it is referred to as a method. With a method, there are prescribed objectives, roles for teacher and learners and guidelines for activities, and, consequently, little flexibility for teachers in how the method is used. The teacher’s role is to implement the method. Audiolingualism, Total Physical Response and Silent Way are examples of methods. The era of methods, in this sense, is often said to have lasted until the 1990s, by which time, researchers and applied linguists had shifted the focus to teachers and the process of teaching, rather than methods. The researchers suggested that while teachers may draw on principles and practices from approaches and methods they have studied or been trained in, once they enter the classrooms and develop experience in teaching, their practice is much more likely to reflect an interaction between training-based knowledge, knowledge and beliefs derived from the practical experience of teaching and their own teaching philosophy and principles.