Principled Eclectisim

Teacher and students in classroom
Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

A few years ago I was introduced to principled eclecticism as a means of establishing ESL/EFL class objectives. Basically, principled eclecticism refers to the use of various teaching styles in a discriminating manner as required by learner needs and styles.

Applying Principled Eclectisim

While this "loose" approach may sound either ideal or simplistic depending on your point of view, it requires a basic grasp of some of the principle schools of thought as a means of getting an overview of issues directly related to satisfying learners' needs.

In a nutshell, the application of principled eclecticism proceeds by first addressing the issue of learners' needs and styles. Once these two basic elements have been evaluated, the teacher can develop a needs analysis which can then be used to develop the course syllabus.


  • Interlanguage Skill: A scala of languages that fit the level of the student's language skill at any moment. In other words, there are many levels of speaking a language each of which can be sufficient for a given student.
  • Comprehensible Input: Originated by Krashen, the core of this idea is that if we do not understand the input we cannot learn.
  • Negotiation of Meaning: Interactional hypothesis that states that learning comes about in the moment of exchange between a native speaker and a non-native speaker.
  • Product Oriented Approach: The accumulation of bits and pieces of a language (for example, learning tenses and doing exercises based on correct tense usage).

    Example Cases

    The following two cases give examples of the process involved in applying this approach to different types of classes.

    Class 1 Needs and Styles

    • Age: young adults from 21-30
    • Nationality: class of German students located in Germany
    • Learning Styles: college educated, familiarity with product oriented approach to learning a language, widely traveled and familiarity with other European cultures.
    • Goals: First Certificate Examination at end of course
    • Interlanguage Skills: all students can communicate in English and accomplish most common language tasks (i.e., completing day-to-day tasks in a native speaker society, telephone, expressing viewpoints, etc.), higher level complexity such as writing essays, expressing complex arguments in fine detail is next desired step.
    • Course Duration: 100 hours


    • As the First Certificate Examination is the goal of the course and there is a limited number of hours, the course will have to often employ a deductive (i.e., teacher centered, book learning) approach in order to complete all the grammatical tasks required by the examination.
    • Students are very familiar with traditional learning approaches such as grammar charts, drill exercises, etc. In this case, awareness raising concerning basic language patterns will not be necessary. However, as the students are quite young and most fresh out of college, they may have to be helped to understand and accept more innovative (i.e., inductive) approaches to learning (i.e., role-playing for improving speaking skills, general class discussions with little or no correction) as they are probably used to more goal oriented study situations.
    • As the First Certificate Exam includes many authentic materials, students will benefit greatly from exercises that focus on the negotiation of meaning. This negotiation of meaning is a type of interactional learning that comes about in the moment of exchange with a native speaker context that requires the learner to "negotiate meaning" thereby expanding his language skills.
    • Objectives of the First Certificate Examination will be the overriding factor in the determination of class activities. In other words, activities based on Neuro Linguistic Programming may not be desirable as this approach to teaching focuses on a "holistic" learning method, which, unfortunately, may not provide all the bits and pieces required to complete the examination exercises such as sentence transformation.
    • As the course duration is limited and the objectives are many, there will be little time for experiments and "fun" activities. Work needs to be focused and principally goal oriented.

      Class 2 Needs and Styles

      • Age: immigrant adults from 30-65
      • Nationalities: a variety of countries
      • Learning Styles: most of the class has had little secondary education and has not studied languages formally
      • Goals: Basic ESL skills for everyday usage and job aquisition
      • Interlanguage Skills: basic tasks such as ordering a meal and making a telephone call are still difficult
      • Course Duration: 2 month intensive course meeting four times weekly for two hours


      • The approach to teaching this class is dictated by two principal factors: need for "real world" skills, lack of background in traditional learning styles
      • Pragmatic functional English is of prime importance. Luckily, the course is intensive and provides the perfect opportunity for intensive role-playing and "real world" game activities.
      • As students are immigrants and a native speaker environment is at hand, teaching can also take place by bringing the "real world" into the classroom and/or - even more preferably - taking the classroom out into the "real world".
      • Low level English skills mean that comprehensible input will play a great role in the success or failure of the class. Considering the low level of interlanguage skill, students desperately need the teacher to help them by filtering experiences into a comprehensible form so that they may make sense of situations that are too difficult if faced on a strictly "authentic" level.
      • Learning by process will be of great importance. The positive side of low-level education is that students are not attached to traditional learning methods such as grammar charts, exercises, etc. The use of holistic learning approaches can be very effective as students will not have any pre-conceived notions about what learning should be like.

      More ESL articles