The Oral Approach and Situational Language Teaching
Few language teachers in the 1990s are familiar with the terms Oral Approach or Situational Language Teaching, which refer to an approach to language teaching developed by British applied linguists from the 1930s to the 1960s. Even though neither term is commonly used today, the impact of the Oral Approach has been long lasting, and it has shaped the design of many widely used EFL/ESL textbooks and courses, including many still being used today. One of the most successful ESL courses of recent times, Streamline English (Hartley and Viney 1979), reflects the classic principles of Situational Language Teaching, as do many other widely used series (e.g., Access to English, Coles and Lord 1975; Kernel Lessons Plus, O'Neill 1973; and many of L. G. Alexander's widely used textbooks, e.g., Alexander 1967). As a recent British methodology text states, "This method is widely used at the time of writing and a very large number of textbooks are based on it" (Hub-bard et al. 1983: 36). It is important therefore to understand the principles and practices of the Oral Approach and Situational Language Teaching.
The origins of this approach began with the work of British applied linguists in the 1920s and 1930s. Beginning at this time, a number of outstanding applied linguists developed the basis for a principled approach to methodology in language teaching. Two of the leaders in this movement were Harold Palmer and A. S. Hornby, two of the most prominent figures in British twentieth-century language teaching. Both were familiar with the work of such linguists as Otto Jespersen and Daniel Jones, as well as with the Direct Method. What they attempted was to develop a more scientific foundation for an oral approach to teaching English than was evidenced in the Direct Method. The result was a systematic study of the principles and procedures that could be applied to the selection and organization of the content of a language course (Palmer 1917, 1921).
One of the first aspects of method design to receive attention was the role of vocabulary. In the 1920s and 1930s several large-scale investigations of foreign language vocabulary were undertaken. The impetus for this research came from two quarters. First, there was a general consensus among language teaching specialists, such as Palmer, that vocabulary was one of the most important aspects of foreign language learning. A second influence was the increased emphasis on reading skills as the goal of foreign language study in some countries. This had been the recommendation of the Coleman Report (Chapter 1) and also the independent conclusion of another British language teaching specialist, Michael West, who had examined the role of English in India in the 1920s. Vocabulary was seen as an essential component of reading proficiency.
This led to the development of principles of vocabulary control, which were to have a major practical impact on the teaching of English in the following decades. Frequency counts showed that a core of 2,000 or so words occurred frequently in written texts and that a knowledge of these words would greatly assist in reading a foreign language. Harold Palmer, Michael West, and other specialists produced a guide to the English vocabulary needed for teaching English as a foreign language, The Interim Report on Vocabulary Selection (Faucett et al. 1936), based on frequency as well as other criteria. This was later revised by West and published in 1953 as A General Service List of English Words, which became a standard reference in developing teaching materials. These efforts to introduce a scientific and rational basis for choosing the vocabulary content of a language course represented the first attempts to establish principles of syllabus design in language teaching.
Parallel to the interest in developing rational principles for vocabulary selection was a focus on the grammatical content of a language course. Palmer in his writings had emphasized the problems of grammar for the foreign learner. Much of his work in Japan, where he directed the Institute for Research in English Teaching from 1922 until World War II, was directed toward developing classroom procedures suited to teaching basic grammatical patterns through an oral approach. His view of grammar was very different from the abstract model of grammar seen in the Grammar-Translation Method, however, which was based on the assumption that one universal logic formed the basis of all languages and that the teacher's responsibility was to show how each category of the universal grammar was to be expressed in the foreign language. Palmer viewed grammar as the underlying sentence patterns of the spoken language. Palmer, Hornby, and other British applied linguists analyzed English and classified its major grammatical structures into sentence patterns (later called "substitution tables"), which could be used to help internalize the rules of English sentence structure.
A classification of English sentence patterns was incorporated into the first dictionary for students of English as a foreign language, developed by Hornby, Gatenby, and Wakefield and published in 1953 as The Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English. A number of pedagogically motivated descriptions of English grammar were undertaken including Ë Grammar of Spoken English on a Strictly Phonetic Basis (Palmer and Blandford 1939), A Handbook of English Grammar (Zand-voort 1945), and Hornby's Guide to Patterns and Usage in English (1954), which became a standard reference source of basic English sentence patterns for textbook writers. With the development of systematic approaches to the lexical and grammatical content of a language course and with the efforts of such specialists as Palmer, West, and Hornby in using these resources as part of a comprehensive methodological framework for the teaching of English as a foreign language, the foundations for the British approach in TEFL/TESL — the Oral Approach — were firmly established.