In Defence of Callan (and other behaviourist methodologies)

Like many TEFL teachers, I used to be an actor. And like most actors, I couldn’t get arrested and had to find a way to pay the bills. While working in a pub, one of my punters who worked for Callan School London suggested that I could make a good teacher and that one conversation propelled me into the world of TEFL.

For those unfamiliar with the Callan Method, it is not dissimilar to the Direct Method, Audiolingual Approaches or other behaviourist methodologies. Second language acquisition is seen to be similar to first language acquisition, which in turn is seen to be achieved through imitation and Skinner’s stimulus-response psychological theories. Rigorous repetition and non-stop drills dominate classroom time. I remember a sign in the classroom that said summarised the Callan Method quite perfectly :

‘Repeat Repeat Repeat.
Don’t think. Just Repeat.’

Teachers are expected to:

1. Ask set questions from the Callan book (1-7) and  nominate students to give the set answers to the questions. Each question is repeated twice.

2. Answer the questions with the students. For weaker students, the teacher would be one word ahead of the student.


Teacher: Where did you go yesterday? Where did you go yesterday?

(Teacher points her pen at the student she’s nominating)

Teacher: I…

Student: I…

Teacher: went…

Student: went…

Teacher: to…

Student: to…the shop…

Teacher: yesterday.

Student: yesterday.

At the beginning, all the student is doing is simply repeating what the teacher is feeding them. The idea is for the student to get to the point of being able to say the answers at the same time as the teacher after multiple repetition of the same question-answer set
over the next few days.

3. Speak quickly so that students get used to listening to the fast speed of speech in the real world.

4. Not try to explain grammar points. The grammar is explained through question-answer sets that are repeated.


Teacher: What’s the difference between the present perfect and the past simple?

What’s the difference between the present perfect and the past simple?

Student: We use the past simple when the action is finished and the time is finished.

We use the present perfect when the action is finished but the time is not finished.

The learning of grammar is seen to be linear and the Method prides itself in its ‘calculated and systematic’ approach to language learning. Students are taught more complicated grammar structures ‘step by step’ as they go along.

5. not explain lexis too much. Each student has a Callan book that contains translations of new words in their own language. New words are drilled on their own and then put in question-answer sets.


Teacher: Repeat ‘storey’.

Students: Storey

Teacher: If you fell from a one-storey building, would you die?

If you fell from a one-storey  building, would you die?

(Note: The teacher is also providing practice of the 2nd conditional, which they had previously learnt the rules of.)

Student: If I fell from a one-storey building, I wouldn’t die but I would be injured.

(Note: The student is also practising the word ‘injured’, which she has previously learnt)

6. Give writing practice in the form of dictations. Students check their spelling by looking at the same dictations in their books.

After one week of training, we were thrown into 8 hours of 50-minute lessons a day where we would drill the hell out of the students.  In the process, I lost my voice by the end of that week since I was asking and answering every question at break-neck speed for 8 hours every day. I worked at Callan for nearly 2 years, and was eventually roped in to do placement testing and FCE classes. I started to experiment with the lessons over time, breaking the rule of never explaining grammar points to the students and trying different ways of adapting the Callan books to enable more clarification of meaning and form to take place, but always looking over my shoulder to see if one of the directors might walk past and catch me deviating from the method. At the end of my time in Callan, I was
poached by another school, where I was allowed to explore other ways of teaching while still doing some Callan drilling for a quarter of my teaching hours.

After about 8 months, I decided that I liked teaching enough to make it a proper career, and proceeded to do the Celta course. It was then I realised that the Callan method was sneered upon and the butt of many jokes in the TEFL world. I kept my head down and tried the different approaches to teaching that were thrown my way, but all this time, never forgetting the things that Callan school had taught me.

Now looking back, I’ve realised that perhaps there is a good reason why Callan still boasts of extremely high student numbers and why schools that claim to use the Callan method as a marketing tool seem to attract agents and students from all over the world. If you don’t believe me, try standing outside the Callan school on Oxford Street in London when the school bell rings, and count the hoards of students that stream out onto the streets. And that’s just one time slot out of the 12 that the school runs every day.

Okay, some of you cynics out there might say that there are still lots of people out there in the real world who believe that language learning is simply about imitation and rote learning, and that these misguided ones fall for Callan School’s claim that they can get students learning English in a quarter of the time. But before we get up in arms about this, let us first consider some of the arguments against the Callan Method.

1.       Rote learning isn’t everything. Students need to get cognitively involved in their learning process.

 This is absolutely true. But although rote learning isn’t everything, it is still something. Alongside the cognitive processing to aid language production, motor skills need to kick in at some point. We need to get to the point when we stop thinking about how a tense or
verb pattern is formed and use it instinctively.

Perhaps the Callan Method is the Lexical Approach of the 1960s. It saw language as chunks and by repetition, these chunks are acquired.

2.       Sentences are presented without a context.

I myself preach that context is everything in determining meaning and use in my teacher training courses.  Having said that, I remember times when I’ve tried to speak a language I’m not very good at, desperately trying to translate my thoughts into the language, and wishing I had stock phrases to do that with.  Learning ‘Callan-style’ would have given me the stock phrases to use in whichever context I needed them in, for as long as I know what they meant in English, I could pick and choose the phrases to suit the context.

 3.          We would never say sentences like ‘Have you got one ear?’

There are two sets of language being learnt here.

One being ‘Have you got + noun?’ and the other, the lexis ‘ear’.

These two chunks might not occur together frequently in real life, but the repetition of the structure enables students to substitute the noun ‘ear’ with any word they need depending on the context and conversation they find themselves in.

Despite agreeing with the logic of what I like to call the ‘Substitution theory’, I would prefer to present the structure ‘Have you got…’ with a noun that is more likely to occur with that structure.

4.       The Callan Method requires students to give long answers like, ‘No, I haven’t got one ear, I’ve got two ears,’ or ‘This isn’t a pen, it’s a pencil.’ This is unnatural. We usually say ‘No, it’s a pencil.’

 One could argue that students would naturally formulate short answers when using English outside the classroom anyway. So it’s better to get them learning to use negative and affirmative forms of the structures in the drills. That said, I tend to have students use
short answers and the like in communicative activities (see 6 below).

5.       Teachers shouldn’t repeat each question twice. It’s not how language works in real life.

Interestingly, Callan justifies this by saying that questions are asked once for students to grasp the content of the question, and once for students to pay attention to the construction of the question. Since Callan questions always use words and structures that students have previously learnt, there might be something to be said for how the repetition of questions can encourage the noticing of previously learnt structures.

6.       There is no real communication happening in the classroom.

Okay. I’ll give you this one. This, to me, is one of the huge flaws of the method. But if used in a communicative classroom, in and amongst discussions and other communicative activities, this method could have its use.

I am certainly not advocating the sole use of the Callan Method in the language classroom, but when used appropriately (I love using Callan method drills when getting students to remember and use irregular past tenses or helping students get used to forming negative
sentences with the dummy auxiliary ‘do’), it can add pace and energy to a classroom, bring my shy students out of their shell (especially oriental students who have done tons of grammar exercises in their countries but just don’t have the confidence to get those sentences out of their mouths), and encourage students to notice the chunks and patterns in the language.

After all, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

24 thoughts on “In Defence of Callan (and other behaviourist methodologies)”

  1. Well, well, well, Chia – you’re a dark horse! Callan, eh?

    I’ll come out of the closet as well – I trained in the Berlitz method once upon a time too.

    Direct methods & audio lingualism seem to work very well for some language learners (either in general or at certain stages of their development). My father in law is a good example, who thrived on English classes from such a school. Having said that, he also had lots of authentic use as well, with regular business trips to the UK and the middle east for weeks or months on end, so it is hard to say what contributed more to his development. But he ascribes it to the method (and he wasn’t paying for it, so it can’t be that!)

    I don’t dismiss Callan or Berlitz or their ilk because they are founded on or are in line with discredited theories of language learning (we should bear in mind that Berlitz pre-dates behaviourism a la Skinner.) But I do take issue with their refusal to see the good in other approaches – a form of pedagogic fundamentalism. Like most of us, they seem to be moderating their position as they get older, but its their propietorial nature that I have a problem with. Sound pedagogy should be as little subject to patent or copyright as DNA.

    Of course, that is precisely what some criticise teaching unplugged for, so is this a case of (me) the pot calling the kettle black, I wonder? 😉

    1. Ah…all our secrets are coming out of the closet now, are they? ; )
      I totally agree with you, Anthony. Mindless adherence to one method, and one method alone, can be detrimental to both the development of the students and the teachers…
      And yes, I have heard critics of Dogme accuse us of being dogmatic to our approach…
      But to me, Dogme is ‘Improvised Principled Eclecticism’ (therefore the name of my talk) and as the label states, it is all about using what works of different methods and approaches and whipping up something that works for our learners as and when needed. I hope that critics of Dogme will one day be able to see that Unplugging is not a method as such…perhaps an approach…

  2. Interesting post, Chia. Cool that you’ve had the opportunity to experience different teaching methods/styles/techniques and chosen to combine the most effective elements of each, rather than sticking, dogmatically, to one.

    As a guy of a certain age I can bear witness to the fact that the ‘old’, learning by rote technique (now considered child abuse in many schools, I think) did, without doubt, produce large numbers of articulate students. Of course, at some point an ‘understanding’ of various grammatical constructions is needed, but much of this, it seems to me, is implicit in the very nature of the phrases/sentences being repeated.

    Back in the day, subsequent, additional study enabled those so inclined to further develop and exploit this ‘understanding’ at a more conceptual level. I think my point is that everyone started from a basic ‘how’ rather than any consideration of ‘why’.

    On a (tenuously) related note. Many years ago I learned Morse Code (a now outmoded communication ‘language’ based on sequences of short and long tones). It never occured to me to ask why certain long/short combinations had been selected to represent specific letters, I simply learned them – by constant repetition. Very quickly I discovered that it was as easy to memorise whole words and common phrases as it was to constantly focus on individual letters; eventually, using the code became second nature.

    1. Yes, Mike. Academics and writers seem to often criticise an existing methodology in order to put forward their own, and through the years, rote learning techniques have suffered quite a bit of abuse in the process of making more communicative approaches look good by contrast. But I stongly believe in not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. My psycholinguistics lecturer once said, ‘A method/approach is only as good as the teacher who applies it’…and I couldn’t agree more…

  3. Hello Chia,

    A long time ago in the dim and distant past I worked at a chain of language schools in Japan which used the direct method and ‘pre-written’ lessons. I think there is definitely something to be said for an intense period within a class where learners get their tongues (and perhaps memory) around language chunks, phrases or natural patterns. In fact this can even be incorporated into a “dogme” style lesson where you would use the scaffold language provided to in response to the learners emergent language.

    In fact this happened today in a class (IGCSE as a 2nd language) I noticed that in communication the learners were repeatedly making the classic German – English direct translation mistake “We’ll meet us next week” We’ll see us soon” After putting various sentences they’d produced up on the wb we looked at them and changed them to “We’ll meet each other next week” “We’ll see each other soon”. Then I wanted some “controlled practice” or what Scott T refers to as “practiced control” of this language. So I quickly wrote a short dialogue including a couple of naturally occurring “each others” in it. Drilled in the standard way and then did “disappearing dialogue” which is always fun. 10 mins – then back to task.

    So this is very useful as an activity built into a lesson, but I don’t think I’d like to return to teaching in the way I did all those years ago in Japan with non stop “listen and repeat” !

    1. Absolutely, Steph. I incorporate the techniques I learnt from Callan school into my Dogme classes all the time. It makes for good ‘controlled practice’ and class-spirit-building…if that makes sense. But you’re right, I wouldn’t like to return to teaching in that way at all…But that doesn’t mean I am not going to steal techniques and ideas that I can now implement in my classrooms when necessary…

  4. My main problem with Callan and similar methods is that it is a quick fix. It looks at first glance like it is working wonders and in a few short lessons the students are speaking English like native speakers, but the problem for me is that it goes no further than that. ; It’s the used-car showroom of language learning: looks good on the outside but there’s no substance to the language underneath.

    This is backed up by the fact that Callan is only suitable for beginners. The moment a student needs to use language more inventively they need to move on to another method of learning. Callan just doesn’t work at higher levels.

    Drilling is fine in some contexts, but as the sole provider of information it is dull for the teacher and the student, stifling for the student and a great way for them to lose interest in language learning.

    1. I agree with the fact that Callan is more suited for lower level students (I would stretch it further and apply its suitability to pre and low intermediate students too). And without opportunities for students to, as you say, use language more inventively, or to communicate real meaning, the Callan Method does fall short. And you are absolutely right about the fact that doing nothing but drilling as the sole provider of information could result in an extremely boring and stifling class. But as with all methods and approaches, using it judiciously, in corporation with other techniques, is key, isn’t it?

      1. Oh, I agree. I’m a great believer in the Eclectic Approach to language teaching and stealing from everyone to give students what is best for their particular situation. And definitely in that amoury is the Audio-Lingual Method.

        My problem here with the Callan method is that in its purest form it doesn’t allow for other methodologies to be mixed in (your prowling supervisors see to this).

        Sure, teach drills, but don’t dress them up in some kind of trademarked manner and pretend they are the Holy Grail of language teaching which cannot be deviated from.

  5. The first few years of my career in EFL were almost identical to yours, Chia, if you read Berlitz for Callan, so I know where you’re coming from.

    I think all the points you make (pro and con) are fair but I’d like to add two more:

    IMHO, Audiolingualism works as a product because it’s simple. You turn up and you see what you get. No secrets, no obscurity, no weird stuff. That’s all there is to it. And as you say, there is some real pedagogical content.

    My real objection to Berlitz is the business model. It works as a franchise always works: They charge the earth, invest nothing in HR or materials, pay very poorly and made huge profits for the owners. Think McLanguage.

    1. McLanguage indeed. I was paid £6.50 an hour when I was working there. A year’s loyal service meant a glorious 30p per hour increase. Pay was never inflation adjusted. Well, I really should be grateful. £6.50 per hour was better than the £5.80 per hour that some of the older members of staff were paid because they were on an older contract…And £6.50 per hour was definitely better than the £5.50 per hour I was paid at the pub I was at pre-TEFL….

  6. I learned English by going to a school that had all these drill-to-death techniques, but no translation, really zero, it was a RULE; and the lessons were developed based on situations. So, basically the method was: watch the situation (12 slides + tape) 3 times, then slide by slide the teacher would play the tape, explain key words and some grammar, but not too deeply, and we’d repeat individually and chorally. That done with all the 12 slides, we’d listen again a couple of times, then again with no images, then repeat again, then we would say the whole dialogue by heart.


    but not finished yet.

    Now we have a set of about 7-10 drills, basically to practice the grammar structure, but they were also on tape, and mostly of the substitution kind.
    After that, some ‘real’ conversation practice, with more open-ended questions; but still with a good number of display questions.
    All that could take up to 4,5 hours (3x 1,5, we had two lessons a week). After that we’d see the conversation in print and also the grammar rules in more detail. Yes, til now no written form! Then dictations and a heavy load of homework that started with gap-fills and ended with compositions.

    Man, that was some gym! I studied with this method from age 9 to 18. The last 2 or 3 years were more relaxed, there was even Seinfeld every once in a while, but with dictation afterwards of course.

    The product of this method: I got my first teaching job when I was 17. (same with three cousins of mine), and modestly, I think I have a decent accent for a brazilian who had never lived abroad until 8 months ago.
    But of course, many of my peers didn’t survive that long, and some finished the course with me but didn’t achieve a very high level of fluency.

    Later on I taught for 3 years with this method. Nowadays, I wouldn’t do it, no way; it’s really boring for the teacher; and they wouldn’t pay me what I deserve; because you know, this kind of method was also designed for ‘anyone’ to teach, all the models are on tape (now on dvd! super), and the teacher’s guide is very comprehensive.

    But just like you, I learned some good stuff with audio(visual)lingualism.

    (sorry for the enormous comment 🙂 )

    1. Hey Willy, don’t apologize for long comments! Comment away!
      Still quite astounded by the number of us Dogmeticians who came from Audiolingual approaches! Unbelievable! ; )
      I’m loving these revelations!

      From the sounds of it, your school’s method sounds a bit like a humanistic Suggestopedia-influenced version of the Direct Method. Definitely more context than the Callan Method.

  7. I don’t know if any establishment that exhorts it’s clients not to think should be thought of as a “school”; nor the people who work there thought of as “teachers”.

    1. Diarmuid,

      I really think that the sheer lack of thinking is what appeals to some people. They want a sergeant-major, nothing else. Life is simpler if you become the ingredient in the sausage factory.

    2. My wife studied at Callan in London, and she really enjoyed it. It really works well when both teachers and students are putting in a good effort, almost like a high (or Zen-like flow) when they are learning well together. To me the purpose is to build up the huge resource of language examples that all fluent speakers have in their subconscious, and which we draw on to express ourselves. The speed of interaction bypasses the critical mind, which just gets in the way for this kind of task (like speed reading). My knowledge of most of the grammar that is taught to EFL students is limited to “that sounds right” or “that sounds wrong” — but that is all I need as an educated user of this language. No fluent speaker consciously constructs sentences using remembered grammar rules. It becomes instinctive, and that is the true goal of the process. So what is the shortest route to get a student to that point? I think Callan is/was a very valid attempt at that shortest route (although I dare say that it could be improved upon).

      1. I have taught the Callan Method for 8 years and had a lot of non English students pass through my school. I now use Callan up to stage 8 (Book 4) and then switch to a combination of “New English File” + Reading out loud from Poetry, plays and modern novels.
        1. Callan is excellent for the majority of beginners and quickly gives confidence and fluency. These are the backbones of a language because the way to learn it is to use it. I encourage my students to read everything they can find and to utilise the listening skills they acquire in Callan to listen to the people they meet and hear in the media.
        The only grammar I drill hard is 5 basic parts of speech, auxiliary verbs and time concepts. The latter are applied in quite different ways in some languages, e.g. Chinese.
        I am Celta qualified, have a B. Ed. in English and other teaching / training qualifications and have been teaching since 1974. I have had my own school for 8 years and have, to date, taught: Polish, Czech, German, Lithuanian, Japanese, Chinese, Swiss, French, Spanish, Brazilian, Portuguese, Italian and Chilean students.
        I am not boasting, simply stating my background for expressing an opinion.
        I have had a few “failures” who have struggled with both Callan and traditional methods. They were primarily students who had a very poor academic experience in their home country and who did not utilise and practice what they had learnt.
        Jim is absolutely right; language is used instinctively and Callan gives a fast effective way of becoming an instinctive user of the language.
        Alan’s concerns regarding “a sheer lack of thinking” is a comment on someone who has the vocabulary and structures to think with. Callan gives those basic tools and is then not so good at the independent thinking part.
        No I do not work for Callan. I do get put out by people judging something of which they have no real knowledge.
        It takes about 12 to 18 months of active teaching to really become a proficient Callan teacher.

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