The previous two articles in this series examined the elements that constitute a best practices ESL program and began looking at the components of a best practices curriculum. Today, we look at the differences between methods and approaches and the critical application of multiple intelligence theory, learning styles theory and learning strategies.

Methods vs. approaches

Best practices research distinguishes between methods and approaches and asserts that educators must have the flexibility to adapt their pedagogical approaches (and, as seen earlier, materials) as necessary in order to best meet their learners' needs, just as those approaches must reflect the philosophical beliefs and values of the educator.

For most researchers and practicing teachers, a method is a set of theoretically unified classroom techniques thought to be generalizable across a wide variety of contexts and audiences.

H. Douglas Brown observes that methods are "no longer the milestones of our language teaching" because they are "too prescriptive, indistinguishable from each other" in the later stages of language learning, cannot be empirically tested by scientific quantification to determine which one is best, and laden with "quasi-political or mercenary agendas of their proponents." David Nunan notes, "It has been realized that there never was and probably never will be a method for all."

According to Brown, a teacher's approach to "language teaching is the theoretical rationale that underlies everything that happens in the classroom. It is the cumulative body of knowledge and principles that enables teachers ... to diagnose the needs of students, to treat students with successful pedagogical techniques, and to assess the outcome of those treatments."

I.S.P. Nation and John Macalister agree: "What teachers do in the classroom is to some extent going to be determined by what they believe. The importance of examining the role that teacher beliefs play in deciding what happens in the classroom has been increasingly recognised in language education research." Therefore, teachers must be given the freedom to employ the strategies that best fit with their students' needs and their own philosophies.

"An approach is by definition dynamic and therefore subject to some tinkering as a result of one's observation and experience; and research in second language acquisition and pedagogy almost always yields findings that are subject to interpretation rather than conclusive evidence," Brown writes. A language approach is not "set in stone," but is a "dynamic composite of energies within a teacher that changes (and should change, if one is a growing teacher) with continued experience in learning and teaching. One teacher’s approach may ... differ on various issues from that of a colleague."

Rebecca Oxford concurs: "Teachers need to learn the specific techniques that have so far proven useful in strategy instruction with students of various cultures. They must learn that no method or technique fits every student, and a certain amount of tailoring and personalization is essential in helping students improve their language learning strategies."

One of the many reasons educators must be given the latitude, as Brown notes, to tinker with strategies and treatments in an effort to nurture student success is based upon what is now firmly incorporated into progressive pedagogy: multiple intelligences and learning styles.

Multiple intelligences, learning styles and learning strategies

Mary Ann Christison urges instructors to help students identify and reflect upon their own learning styles: "The more awareness students have of their own intelligences and how they work, the more they will know how to use that intelligence to access the necessary information and knowledge from a lesson."

In her chapter, "An Introduction to Multiple Intelligence Theory and Second Language Learning" in "Understanding Learning Styles in the Second Language Classroom," Christison provides lesson plans and MI inventories of which teachers may avail themselves when working to help students identify and apply their multiple intelligences and learning styles.

Nunan also advocates for helping students to identify their MI strengths and learning styles because it encourages learner autonomy. At the University of Hong Kong, Nunan developed and implemented a program "to sensitize students to their own learning styles and to help them develop strategies for coping with university-level study through the medium of English." Nunan explains that the University of Hong Kong is an "international, English-medium institution" and, as such, students receive the majority of their instruction in a language that is not their mother tongue.

"Many (students) have a double struggle: coming to grips with highly challenging intellectual content, and at the same time struggling with a language in which their proficiency may not be particularly high" even though the students have had years of English instruction in school, Nunan writes. However, "the instruction is often poor" and based in the "transmission" method.

Educators will recognize the transmission method as what Paulo Freire identified as the "banking" method of instruction. Just as Christison provides materials for instructors to use to help students identify their MI strengths and learning styles, so does Nunan.

For years, K.T. Gray, an instructor at Northern Virginia Community College, which has students "literally from all over the world," has used the Kolb Learning Style Indicator (KLSI) and Keirsey's Temperament Sorter to "discover and analyze their academic fields of interest ... and to investigate their preferred writing processes."

Likewise, Gray has employed the KLSI and KTSA with university freshmen in Kyrgyzstan, with Peace Corps trainees in Kazakhstan, and with Chinese Ph.D. students at the University of Minnesota. Gray notes that, in one of her typical community college classes of 25 students, "20 to 22 countries are often represented," so it is no surprise that just as there is great cultural diversity, there is also great variation in MI strengths and learning style preferences.

Learning strategies are as varied as individual students and as the cultures from which they come. It is so necessary to help students identify and appropriately employ their MI strengths and learning styles preferences, that there is an entire text — to which more than two dozen teacher-researchers have contributed — devoted to multicultural learning strategies, "Language Learning Strategies Around the World: Cross-Cultural Perspectives."

Oxford observes that strategies in many cultures are gender based, and "culturally-based beliefs and attitudes ... affect students' motivation and therefore their use of language learning strategies and their ultimate language performance." Myra and David Sadker years ago recognized the issues of gender bias in education, even in the classes of the most well-meaning (and often female) instructors. Clearly, there are many reasons to consider multiple intelligences strengths and learning style preferences as well as cultural attitudes and beliefs when teaching.

Multimodal instructional approaches are practical ways to address MI strengths and learning styles preferences. Nontraditional learners have increased in number, so the need to teach using approaches that encourage their success is necessary.

Pervasive educational technologies have made converting traditional materials into multimodal materials far more accessible and possible than ever before. Of course, the underlying purpose "for incorporating educational technologies into the curricula is unquestionably the desire to improve the engagement and learning of students."

As Dawn Birch, Michael Sankey, Roxana Moreno and Richard E. Mayer all observe, "Multimedia can be used to represent the content knowledge in ways that mesh with different learning styles that may appeal to different modal preferences."

Multimodal learning allows for instructional design to include visual and auditory elements. "The major benefit of (multimodal instruction), as identified by Picciano, is that it allows students to experience learning in ways in which they are most comfortable, while challenging them to experience and learn in other ways as well."

When concluding her article on theme-based learning of ESL students in Hong Kong, Chi Cheung Ruby Yang advises, "(Instructors) should be aware of the fact that there are learner differences even with the same grade level or the same class." Again and again, best practices teach us that one size does not fill all.

Best practices research incontrovertibly indicates that a curriculum that helps students identify and apply their MI strengths and learning styles preferences and provides multimodal instruction nurtures student success and contributes to learner autonomy.

In the next article, we will examine content-based instruction (CBI) and multiple instructional approaches.