S is for “Strategies”

7 03 2010

At the ELTONs awards ceremony in London this week, I had the good fortune to be seated next to Ingrid Freebairn. If you weren’t already teaching in the 70s and 80s, you might not know that Ingrid was one of the team that wrote  Strategies (what became known as ‘white Strategies’), published by Longman in 1975. Strategies was the first major course to espouse a functional (or notional-functional) syllabus. Up until then the structural syllabus – that legacy of audiolingualism – was still the reigning paradigm. A structural syllabus is a form-based syllabus, organized primarily according to criteria of structural complexity. So, you start with the verb to be, then the present continuous, then the present simple, and so on.  Strategies, by contrast, adopted a semantic organization, with unit headings such as Invitations, Ability, Polite requests, Recent Activities and Speculating about the past. In the words of the blurb on the back cover: “In these materials the criteria are primarily functional and secondarily structural.”

In adopting a semantic organisation, Strategies was instrumental in introducing the ‘communicative approach’ to a generation of teachers (including myself) who had been formed during the late-audiolingual era. Although still labelled “functional-notional”,  the approach that Strategies embodied  was communicative. It had to be, because, if you base your curricular goals around functions (such as Polite requests) or notions (such as Ability), you need a methodology that allows these meaning-driven goals to be realized in terms of classroom activity. You need role plays and dialogues. Moreover, you need activities that distract attention away from a focus on (grammatical) form and, instead, encourage a concern for meaningful interaction. So you need communicative games, information-gap tasks, and jigsaw activities. For someone like myself who had been trained mainly to elicit, drill and correct structural patterns, this radical shift in learning objectives and teaching procedures was truly revolutionary.

For that reason I have always had a soft spot for ‘white’ Strategies, and its subsequent re-packaging as the (more systematic and more colourful)  Strategies series (Starting… Opening… Building… Developing…). So, as we tucked into the ELTONs dinner, I happened to ask Ingrid what had inspired the concept behind the Strategies series.  While she did not quite echo my sentiment of  “bliss was it, in that dawn to be alive!”, she did confirm that the mid-seventies was an exhilarating time for methodologists and materials writers, where the sense of a sea-change was palpable, and where the publishers, too, were prepared to throw caution to the wind.

The original site of the University of Reading

What I hadn’t realized, until talking with Ingrid, was that the thinking behind Strategies was directly influenced by the work of David Wilkins, then at the University of Reading, where Ingrid had just completed a Masters degree. Wilkins was one of the chief architects of what would come to be known as the communicative approach: his seminal Notional Syllabuses, building on his work with the Council of Europe, would be published in 1976. In fact, when I got home and pulled down my copy of Strategies (long ago rescued from a recycling bin at IH Barcelona) I found that this connection is explicitly acknowledged:

From the work of David Wilkins we took as our starting point this quotation:

What people want to do through language is more important than the mastery of language as an unapplied system.

How come I had never noticed that acknowledgement before? More worryingly, what happened, subsequently, to reverse this sea-change – to make the structurasl syllabus the primary one again, and the semantic one only secondary? Why is it that “the mastery of language as an unapplied system” again takes precedence over its communicative purposes? What happened to the communicative approach?