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.

e.g.

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.

e.g.

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.

e.g.

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.

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