Why is grammar-translation so persistent?

Today I’d like to share with you some questions and — possibly wrong — ideas I had last week, during our Delta preparation week. One day we were reviewing the development of methodologies in language teaching (from grammar-translation all the way down to humanistic approaches and so called post-communicative era) when I realised how most teachers in state schools here in Italy are still using grammar-translation as their main teaching method.

So the question followed almost naturally: why is grammar-translation so persistent? Audiolingualism seems to have disappeared (at least in my experience and in ELT), but grammar-translation is still playing a big part in children’s and teenager’s foreign language education in Italy. Why?I don’t think I have an answer, but I can venture to list some factors that I believe might have helped this approach to be still alive and kicking in 2016. You might agree or disagree, or have different ideas, which I invite you to add in the comments sections below.

  • Age and education: the vast majority of teachers who teach in state schools in Italy are over 40, with average age estimated to be around 51. I don’t want to imply that an older teacher can not be up-to-date and create great, communicative lessons — actually some of the best teachers I know are over 50! But what this probably means is that these teachers undertook their teacher training (if any) many years ago, and that this training wasn’t even specific for language teaching but very general about pedagogy and child development. As a result, they probably lack the theoretical background to try and experiment with other methodologies.
  • Class size: today teachers find themselves in front of 20-25 (if they are lucky!) children or teenagers, many of which might have no interest in learning English and might (or might not) only care about their final mark. To add more, teachers may not receive any support from the school, or be expected to maintain a certain discipline in the classroom (as in my experience in a primary school last year), which makes communicative activities very difficult to carry out at best.
  • Easy to manage and test: linked to the point above, grammar-translation exercises make it easier to maintain discipline in an unruly class and to “keep the children quiet” if required by the school. Furthermore, when it comes to testing, a nice gap-fill or translation exercise are easy and almost mathematical to mark, which is a relief for a teacher who is already struggling to cover the expected syllabus and collect a certain number of marks by the end of each semester.

Luckily this is gradually changing, teachers are getting some training on current methodologies and schools are recognizing the importance of communicative, flexible teaching. But it is still impressive to see how many students show me their textbooks, where visibly the only parts that have been studied in class are the grammar rules (and possibly vocabulary lists).

What’s the situation like where you teach? Do you still see a lot of grammar-translation? Why do you think that is? I’d be glad to hear your experience in the comments below.

Any thoughts?

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