Situational Language Teaching

This was an approach to language teaching developed by British applied linguists between the 1930s and the 1960s.  This oral approach has shaped the design of many widely used EFL textbooks and courses.   Two of the leaders in the development of this approach were Harold Palmer and A.S. Hornby.  What they attempted to do was to develop a more scientific foundation for an oral approach than was used in the Direct Method.

The main characteristics of the approach were:

  • language teaching begins with the spoken language. Material is taught orally before it is presented in written form.
  • L2 is the language of the classroom
  • New language points are introduced and practised situationally
  • Items of grammar are graded with simple forms being taught before more complex ones
  • Reading and writing are introduced once a sufficient lexical and grammatical basis has been established.

It was the third point that became the main feature of the approach in the sixties and it was then that the term situational was used increasingly in referring to the oral approach.

The theory of learning underlying this approach is a type of behaviourist habit-learning theory.  As Palmer pointed out ‘ therre are three processes in learning a language; receiving the knowledge, fixing it in the memory through repetition and using it in practice’ (Hornby 1957)

Like the Direct Method, Situational Language Teaching adopts an inductive approach to grammar.  The meaning of words or structures is not given through explanation but induced from the way the form is used in a situation.

An example of the typical structural syllabus around which situational teaching was based is:

  • 1st lesson                    This is/That is                       book, pencil, ruler
  • 2nd lesson                  Those are/These are            chair, picture, door
  • 3rd lesson                   Is this…?/Yes it is                watch, blackboard etc

The syllabus was not therefore a situational syllabus in the sense that this term is sometimes used (i.e. a list of situations and the language associated with them).  Rather, a situation refers to the manner of presenting sentence patterns.  The practice techniques consisted generally of guided repetition and substitution activities, including chorus repetition, dictation, drills and controlled reading and writing tasks.

The teacher serves as a model setting up situations and models the new language for the students to repeat.

Choral substitution drilling: – there is a box on the table, there is a bag on the table, there is a noun on the table, there is a noun on the noun etc.

Learner Role:

  • In initial stages learner is simply required to listen and repeat what the teacher says.
  • Respond to questions and commands
  • Learner has no control over the content of the learning

Teacher Role: (3 fold)

  • Teacher serves as a model, setting up situations in which the need for the language is created.
  • Skillful conductor – drawing the music out of the performers (students) – (Bryne 1976)
  • Skillful manipulator – using questions, commands and other cues to elicit correct sentences.

Instructional Materials

  • Dependent both on textbook and visual aids.  Visual aids can consist of wall charts, flashcards, pictures.  The visual element together with the carefully graded grammatical syllabus is a crucial aspect of Situational Language Teaching.
  • The textbook should only be used as a guide to the learning process.  The teacher is expected to be master of his textbook (Pittman 1963)

All notes taken from ‘Approaches and Methodologies in Language Teaching’ Richards and Rodgers, Cambridge University Press