No Contest! Challenging an old EFL instructional approach

Old approach

In analyzing the teaching method my colleagues and I have been using at a Thai elementary school (K-6), I find that the method has been ineffective, misleading and possibly counterproductive in helping our students develop conversational skills. Moreover, the lack of English progress we see in our students should be expected since our audiolingual style, which basically entails drilling context-specific whole phrases, does not foster meaningful communication (Terrell, 1982; Cook, 2001).

Cook (2001, p. 136), suggests several reasons why this approach could have been adopted: “The use of short dialogues, the emphasis on spoken language, the value attached to practice, the emphasis on students speaking… the importance of vocabulary control, the step-by-step progression, and so on.” Using the audiolingual method may give teachers a reliable structure to work within, but what appears to be ‘teaching’ is misleading, if the lessons (e.g. language for shopping, transport in native English locales) are useless out of context.

In our EFL context, our students have almost no external forces demanding spoken English outside of our weekly, one hour lessons. What is more, our lessons are compulsory, and given little to no apparent gain, I fear we may be nurturing notions of self-attributed failure that, if true, are unnecessary and terribly unfair. Cook (2001, p. 137) has referred to the audiolingual approach as a “fall back” for many teachers, again, because there is a framework and “teachers always know what they are supposed to be doing.” However, while the easiness of the method could be appealing to the often novice EFL teachers in Thailand (Wannabovorn, August 2006), what teachers are supposed to be ‘doing’ is helping students to learn.

New approach        

The fact that our students have little to no opportunity to practice English outside of our lessons, or their homeroom grammar instruction, means we need a learning strategy that suits that circumstance. Specifically, we need to show them how to interact with the language on their own. Therefore, helping them gain an interest in reading English would seem to serve that purpose. However, because our students are children (aged 5 to 12) and, as suggested, faced with limited opportunities to practice, ‘gaining an interest in reading English,’ should start with shared, guided and free-reading using leveled books.

Several learning strategies identified by O’Malley and Chamot(1987, in Ellis, 1994, p. 537 – 538) support this idea, including “contextualization,” “elaboration”, and “imagery” where new and old information can be related to visual concepts in a story; “delayed production” and “cognitive repetition” as students could listen or think more and, if preferred, speak less; “auditory representation” given the teacher’s native English speech; “questions for clarification,” which support the conversational purpose of our lessons; and “social/affective cooperation,” which could be achieved using a number of techniques including paired or small group work and “total physical response storytelling” (Cantoni, 2004, ¶ 1).  Other strategies that may surface are ‘guessing’ word meaning, which may build vocabulary (Huckin and Coady, 1999; Lawson and Hogben, 1996; Krashen, 1989), and ‘tolerating ambiguity’ or risk-taking (Wen and Johnson, 1997).

The latter idea is interesting because choosing to guess or take a risk contradicts the typically cautious behavior I have witnessed in my students, and generally in Thailand’s face-saving culture. With reading or listening to a story, the risk can take place in the mind, rather than spoken aloud or simply avoided. Einstein (in Moncur, n.d.) once said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” If that is indeed the case, getting our students to imagine and test their ideas (verbalized or not) about a story could be a worthwhile exercise.

Substance over style

Krashen’s idea of comprehensible input suggests that “we acquire language when we understand messages, when we understand what people tell us and when we understand what we read” (2004, ¶ 2). If this is true, selecting an appropriate reading program is crucial for this proposed change. Fortunately, the ‘Reading A-Z’ online program appears to be an ideal solution. Their website (see “history” at highlights the following:

…more than 2,400 downloadable books and thousands of teaching and learning materials. In addition to the K-6 market, Reading A-Z materials have found widespread use at a range of grade levels in special education and special needs, remedial reading, ESL, and ELL.

In this video, EFL kindergartners (most of them) are guided through a Reading A to Z story:

Krashen (2004) has made several recommendations for applying his ‘comprehension hypothesis,’ which include leveled readers, and surmises that “the only criterion for texts is that they be compelling” (Krashen, 2004, “Level 1”). The Reading A-Z books meet that criterion. Krashen also points out that “some reading can be done as sustained silent reading [SSR], as students become independent readers” (2004, “Level 1”). Campbell (1989, cited in Chow & Chou, 2000, p. 3) notes that “in order for SSR to be a success, the teacher has to read… teachers should comment upon, (sic) talk about books they read.” That suggestion would seem appealing to an EFL teacher (novice or otherwise) and it also shows another avenue for conversation to emerge. Anyway, choosing a reading program, such as Reading A-Z, over our current approach still offers our teachers, and those like ourselves, a reliable framework in which to work but, more importantly, it gives us all a far more meaningful job to do.


Cantoni, G. (2003). Using TPR-Storytelling to develop fluency and literacy in native American languages. Revitalizing Indigenous Languages. Retrieved June 18, 2007, from

Chow, P. & Chou, C. (2000). Evaluating Sustained Silent Reading in Reading Classes. The Internet TESL Journal, 4(11). Retrieved on April 30, 2007, from, V. (2001).

Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (3rd Edition). London: Arnold, co-published by Oxford University Press, New York.

Ellis, R. (1994). Variability in learner language. In The study of second language acquisition (p. 119-158). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Huckin, T. & Coady, J. (1999). Incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second language. Studies in second language acquisition. 21(2), 181-193. Retrieved on May 10, 2007, from EBSCO host electronic journals service

Krashen, S.D. (1989). We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: Additional evidence for the input hypothesis. The modern language journal. 73(4). 440-464. Retrieved May 10, 2007, from JSTOR Arts & Sciences III Collection database

Krashen, S.D. (2004) Applying the Comprehension Hypothesis: Some Suggestions. Presented at 13th International Symposium and Book Fair on Language Teaching (English Teachers Association of the Republic of China), Taipei, Taiwan, Retrieved April 28, 2007, from

Lawson, M.J. & Hogben, D. (1996). The Vocabulary-Learning Strategies of Foreign-Language Students. Language Learning. 46(1), 101-135. Retrieved on May 10, 2007, from EBSCO host electronic journals service

Moncur, M. (n.d.). Quotation #703. Retrieved on June 15, 2007, from

Terrell, T.D. (1982). The natural approach to language teaching: An update. The modern language journal. 66(2). 121-132. Retrieved May 3, 2007, from JSTOR Arts & Sciences III Collection database

Wannabovorn, S. (2006, August 20). Source: Karr case. ABC News. Retrieved on May 10 2007, from

Wen, Q. & Johnson, R.K. (1997). L2 Learner Variables and English Achievement: A Study of Tertiary-level English Majors in China. Applied Linguistics. 18(1). 27-48. Retrieved on June 15, 2007, from JSTOR Arts & Sciences III Collection database