English Language Teaching classroom observation  

Know your theory, but be practical too


The following is a report of an English Language Teaching (ELT) classroom observation. The classroom observed for the purposes of this report was a third year undergraduate class who studied in Bari, Italy. Due to the nature of the teaching environment, this report has two points of discussion. The first half of this report will focus on the use of the first language (L1) in an ELT classroom. Whilst, the second half of the report will focus on the use of the grammar translation method. The report will argue that whilst traditionally both of these teaching strategies have been frowned upon in the literature, they are still valued by the teacher, language learner and indeed the scholar.

Report focus 

I will begin the report by, first, describing the general atmosphere of the classroom. First and foremost, the classroom was an anxious free environment. This was demonstrated through the communicative nature that the class adopted; interesting and insightful discussions took place throughout the lesson. On the whole, interactions where mainly teacher fronted like that of typical classroom discourse (Van Lier, 1988). However, learner initiative was also present an example of this is how learners would question teacher comments. Whilst the majority of the discussion was teacher to learner, discussions also occurred between the learners themselves in the form of pairs and small groups. Despite the communicative atmosphere of the classroom, the main teaching strategy deployed was the grammar translation method. In light of the above comments, this essay will demonstrate how the grammar translation method can be used in conjunction with communicative language teaching (CLT) to create an effective communicative environment.

Description of the learners

At the time of the observation, the learners were third year undergraduates. English was just one aspect of their core degree. The learners also studied French and Russian as well as History and Italian literature. A number of the learners plan to use English in their future occupations, as the vast majority aspire to be translators. Therefore, their attendance is for both academic and occupational purposes.

On the day of the observation, 38 learners attended the lesson

Nearly all of the learners were aged either 19 or 20, but there were also a number of mature learners present in the classroom. The majority of these learners spoke Italian as their native language. However, other native languages were also present in the classroom, these are as follows:

Russian (one learner) and Spanish (three learners). 


One, two hour lesson was observed (see appendix two for typed observation notes and appendix three for handwritten observation notes). The observation was organised through a process of emails (see appendix four for anonymised emails between myself and the lecturer). The lecturer was comfortable with the observation being my main focus, but they requested that I was to participate during the lesson also. This was done in a number of ways. First of all, at the beginning of the class, learners were allowed the floor to ask any linguistic based questions; whilst they had a native English speaker they could ask. Learners asked about prepositional differences between Italian and English, as well as questions about English accents and dialects. At other times, I was also relied upon to contextualise elements of the source texts for the learners. Finally, I was also asked to comment on similarities and differences that occurred in the student's translations.


The first part of this report will focus on the use of the L1 in the classroom. Normally, the use of the L1 in an ELT classroom is prohibited, in this case Italian. 

This is because of the negative connotations attached to this approach (Prodromou, 2002). Moreover, in the early 20th century, the Direct Method stated that teachers should not exploit the relationship between the mother tongue and the learner's new language (Deller and Rinvolucri, 2002). However, Morris (2002) states that there is no problem with using the mother tongue, especially at the lower levels, despite stating this Morris (2002) also claims that at a more advanced level the need to use the L1 should disappear and teachers should encourage such disappearance. Despite Morris’s assumption these advanced learners still felt the need to communicate in their L1, even though they were encouraged to use the TL by the teacher.

As a result of this encouragement and the teacher fronted lesson approach, the majority of the classroom discussion was in English, the target language (TL). However, on occasion, learners asked questions and made comments in Italian. When learners did ask questions in their L1 the teacher would reply in one of two ways. The teacher would first ask the learner to repeat themselves in English. The teacher would ask, 'can you ask me this in English?’ and once the learner had replied ‘so you mean this?’ The use of questioning here is emphatic of teacher talk. Questions are the commonest types of utterances used in an ELT classroom (Sinclair and Coulthard, 1975; Wajnryb,

1992). Questions here are used to reinforce the learner’s understanding, and to ensure the appropriate question is being asked in the TL. The second way in which the teacher would respond to the use of the L1 was to simply answer the question in English. This difference in response could be due to the different learner levels present in the classroom, or an understanding that the learner is not yet comfortable with speaking the TL. The language classroom is often criticised for forcing learners to speak when they are not ready to do so (Lightbown and Spada, 1993). However, in this observation learners are allowed to remain silent, thus maintaining an anxious free environment. The teacher also uses different strategies demonstrating the awareness this teacher has for their learners. Another reason for the teacher’s use of the TL could be due to the fact that the teaching occurs in a multi-lingual environment e.g. there are Russian and Spanish native learners also present because of this, communicating in English may be the most appropriate choice for all the learners.

Here, the learner’s need to speak in their L1 could be due to several reasons. One of the most prominent reasons is that the teacher is a native Italian. The use of the L1 is more motivating and less alienating; it also fosters a good relationship between the learner and teacher (Cook, 2010). In this observation there is indeed a good relationship, as the teacher is freely able to switch teaching strategies based on the learner that they are communicating with. Another reason could be that the learners were not able to think of a suitable translation, and therefore referred back to their L1 to obtain clarity. Or, that the grammar point was too linguistically complex for the learners to explain in English.

This is where both this classroom and other ELT classrooms could develop

In recent years, there has been an emergence of scholars who are in favour of a cross-lingual teaching approach (Cook, 2010). In 2009, Cook conducted a qualitative research study which asked learners, via questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, what they thought about the use of the L1 in the classroom. Cook (2009) found that the use of the L1 was viewed positively. Therefore, from the results found in Cook's study and the learner’s use of their L1 in this observation, it can be argued that both this classroom and other classrooms should expand upon their teaching strategies to encompass a cross-lingual teaching approach.

Whilst there is a call for cross-lingual teaching, ELT classrooms should not return to their monolingual roots. Cook (2010) believes it could endorse the use of the grammar translation method. However, in this classroom the TL was used in conjunction with the grammar translation method.

The grammar translation method was developed in the 18th Century (Brook-Lewis, 2009) and was an offspring of German scholarship (Richards and Rogers, 1986). It dominated language teaching in Europe from 1840-1940. Despite its popularity at the time, the method was used as a point of convenience for teachers, who were not able to speak the TL (Lindsay and Knight, 2006, p15). Since the Reform Movement led by Wihelm Vietor (Kelly and Bruen, 2015) the popularity of the grammar translation method has indeed declined.

However, in the past decade there has been a revival of the use of the grammar translation method (Schjoldager, 2004; Cook, 2009; Lems, Miller and Soro, 2010; Kelly and Bruen, 2015). Moreover, a new wave of advocacy for the grammar translation method has emerged (Malmkjær, 1998; Butzukamm and Caldwell, 2009; Cook, 2010, 2013). The revival of the grammar translation method is not without changes though. Scholars have argued that the use of the grammar translation method compliments the direct method (Gonzalez-Davies, 2004). Gonzalez-Davies (2004) states that several of the concepts associated with the grammar translation method are also central in CLT. This is because the idea of what translation means has changed over the past decade. Cook (2010) states that the term translation is not easy to define. Furthermore, in his book Translation in Language Teaching he offers several different definitions of the term translation. This essay will define translation as a: 'communicative process which takes place in a social context,' (Hatim and Mason, 1990, p.3 cited in Shuttleworth and Cowie, 2014, p.21), in an attempt to move the study of translation away from its grammar translation roots and into a more communicative future. 

In this classroom learners were asked to translate the Italian poem 'tutti I colouri,' as part of their homework 

At the beginning of the lesson learner's volunteered their translations. Once three learners had volunteered their translations, a discussion followed on the differences and similarities between the translations. Learners discussed the different translation strategies used. In summary, most of the lexis and syntax used by the learners was very similar. However, where differences did occur they were discussed in a great amount of depth. The use of translating poems and indeed lyrics demonstrates an advanced awareness and a heightened level of communicative skills (Failoni, 1993).

Furthermore, learners in this classroom had both written and spoken communication skills. In this observation, learners were required to translate in the spoken form as well as the written i.e. translate aloud. In order to do this, the course book, Linking Wor(l)ds by Sara Laviosa, was utilised. The course book is frequently used on the syllabus and requires learners to translate a variety of passages from a diverse number of genres. Moreover, as learners were expected to translate a variety of different texts from the course book, they were enhancing their vocabulary and knowledge of English discourses by doing so. As such, learners in this classroom have the ability to discuss syntactical and lexical changes in both the spoken and written form of English. In this classroom translations have been used communicatively, as there was a constant flow of discussion in the classroom. Furthermore, as stated in the first half of this report, the majority of the classroom discussion took place in English. This demonstrates that the grammar translation method and the use of the TL can coincide harmoniously. Translations occurred in both the written and spoken form demonstrating how the learners are communicative in both forms of the language. 

Therefore, perhaps the word communicative should be adapted to the learner's need. The learners in this classroom, desire to be translators. As such, their idea of communicative would be more focused on the written form of the language, as opposed to other occupations, like that of a pilot who would need to speak English communicatively. 

 To conclude, for decades and even centuries the use of the mother tongue has been prohibited in the English Language classroom. 

The classroom observation in this report certainly does correspond to this precedent. However, this report argues that the mother tongue can and should be used in a cross-lingual teaching approach, both at an advanced and lower level. That being said, this report does not support a resurgence of the traditional grammar translation method. Instead, this report demonstrates that the grammar translation method can be used in a communicative environment if it is appropriate for the learner's needs. This report argues that the written form of a language is just as communicative as the spoken form, and the goal of a communicative lessons should take into consideration what the learner is learning the language for.