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ESL Methods—English Language Teaching

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Jasmine is an online writer to enjoys writing about travel, art, inspirational quotations, health, and parenting issues.


English Language Teaching: Different Approaches

The field of linguistics and teaching in the 20th century is marked by the development of different foreign language teaching methods and approaches. Some have either no following or a small following and others are widely used.

Although modern foreign language teaching has adopted completely new methods, the work of language professionals in the period between 1950 and 1980 contributed significantly to scientific views in the field of second language teaching and learning.

Even when methods are not frequently used or have fallen into obscurity, they may offer useful insights into the general teaching methodology. Surely, modern teaching is also based on the elements derived from these methods.

What Is a Method?

Before we present the teaching methods and their classification, it would be useful to remember what method is in terms of its definition and application in classrooms. One of the most widespread definitions is a short statement that method is a plan for presenting a certain language material to be learned. It is agreed among linguists that it should be based upon a selected approach.

  • Yet, not all linguists actually agree on the use of the terms ‘’method’’ and ‘’approach’’. It seems that some linguists tend to cancel the term method; some hold that a certain method is actually an approach or that a certain approach is, in fact, a method.
  • Nevertheless, most linguists agree that a certain instructional system must be elaborated in relation to the objectives of teaching and learning. This means that the selection and organization of the content must be considered in terms of these objectives, task types and the roles of teachers and students.

Basic Classification of Methods

Basic classification of methods falls into three main categories:

(1) Structural methods: the grammar-translation method and the audio-lingual method (described below)

(2) Functional methods: situational language teaching (described below)

(3) Interactive methods (in alphabetical order):

  • communicative language teaching,
  • direct method,
  • language immersion,
  • natural approach,
  • proprioceptive language learning method,
  • silent way,
  • storytelling,
  • teaching proficiency through reading, and
  • total physical response (TPR).

Structural Methods

The Grammar Translation Method

This foreign language teaching method is a structural method based on the traditional (also called classical) method of teaching Greek and Latin.

  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, an adult was considered mentally prepared for the world and its challenges only if the person had learned classical literature of the Greeks and Romans and mathematics.

The Goal

The goal of the grammar translation method was to make learners able to read and translate literary masterpieces and classics and not speak a foreign language.

It stayed in schools until the 1960s (including American schools), but the evolving teaching methodology found many weak points of this method and it was consequently replaced with the audio-lingual and direct method.

Note: However, India, where a number of methods and techniques have evolved in foreign language teaching, this method is the oldest method of teaching and it is still in active use.


In this method, students strictly follow the textbook and translate sentences word for word in order to memorize abstract grammatical rules and exceptions and long bilingual vocabulary lists:

  • The teacher translates from the foreign language into the mother tongue and the students from their mother tongue into the foreign language.
  • Grammar points are presented contextually in the textbook and explained by the teacher.
  • The only exercised skill was reading but only in the context of translation.


Because of these limited objectives, language professionals found more disadvantages in this method than advantages.

  • Namely, it is thought to be an unnatural method because it neglects the natural order of learning (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).
  • It also neglects speech by placing very little or no attention to communicative aspects of the language. Therefore, students lack an active role in the classroom and as a result, they fail to express themselves adequately in spoken language.
  • Also, translating word for word is wrong because the exact translation is not always possible or correct. Moreover, translation is nowadays considered an index of one’s language proficiency.
  • Another disadvantage of this method is that it does not provide such practice to the learner that the person can internalize the patterns of a language to the extent to make it a habit.

Note: Language learning means acquiring certain skills, which can be learned through practice of listening, speaking, reading, and writing and not by just memorizing rules.

The Audio-Lingual Method

In the audio-lingual method, students are taught directly in the target language without using their native language. New words and grammar are explained orally in the target language.

Unlike the direct method, the audio-lingual method doesn’t focus much on vocabulary, but on static grammar drills. There is no explicit grammar instruction, just memorizing in form and practising a certain construction until it is used spontaneously.

  • The innovation, however, was the use of the language laboratory or lab (an audio or audio-visual installation aid). In this context, the teacher presents the correct model of a sentence and the students repeat it. The language lab stayed in use in modern teaching, especially to practice listening comprehensions. However, the students exposed to this method have almost no control over their own output and exactly this is in direct opposition to modern language teaching.

Its Origins

  • The audio-lingual method is also known as ‘’the army method’’ because of the influence of the military; this method is the product of three historical circumstances and the third factor of its birth was the outbreak of World War II. American soldiers were sent to war all over the world and there was a need to provide them with basic verbal communication skills.
  • In addition, the launching of the first Russian satellite in 1957 motivated the Americans to give special attention to foreign language teaching in order to prevent possible isolation from scientific advances in the world.
  • The other two circumstances include:
  1. the work of American linguists such as Leonard Bloomfield, who led the development of structural linguistics in the US (1930-1940) and
  2. the work of behaviourist psychologists (e.g. B.F. Skinner) who believed that all behaviour (language included) was learnt through repetition and positive or negative reinforcement.

Note: The prevailing scientific methods of the time were observation and repetition, conveniently suited for teaching masses.

The primary concern of American linguistics in the first decades of the 20th century was languages spoken in the U.S. and linguists relied on observation in order to theoretically describe native languages.

  • The Pennsylvania project conducted in the period from 1965 to 1969 by Philip Smith provided significant proof that the traditional cognitive approach involving the mother tongue was more effective than the audio-lingual methods.
  • Other research also produced results which showed that explicit grammatical instruction in the mother language is more productive.
  • Since 1970, audio-lingualism has been discredited as an effective teaching method, yet, it continues to be used today, although not as the foundation of a course. It is rather integrated into lessons covered by modern language teaching methods.

The structural view of language was eventually replaced by the view presented in the oral approach. The philosophy of the oral approach consists in viewing speech as the basis of language and structure i.e. the basis of speaking ability.

American structuralists such as Charles C. Fries shared this view, but the British linguists (such as M.A.K. Halliday and J.R. Firth) went further and stated that structures must be presented in situations in which they could be used. Thereby, they opened the door to Situational Language Teaching.

An Example of a Functional Method

Situational Language Teaching

In applied linguistics, Situational Language Teaching is considered an oral approach developed by British linguists in the period from the 1930s to the 1960s. Its main principles are learning vocabulary and practising reading skills.

This approach (some linguists refer to it as a method) has a behavioristic background; it deals less with conditions of learning and more with the processes of learning.

These learning processes are divided into three stages:

  1. receiving knowledge,
  2. memorizing it by repetition, and
  3. using it in practice to the extent that it becomes a personal skill and habit.

Characteristics of Situational Language Teaching:

  • In theory, language learning is a habit-formation, which means mistakes should be avoided as they make bad habits.
  • Language skills are presented orally and then in written form as they are learnt more effectively that way.
  • The meanings of words are learnt only in a linguistic and cultural context.
  • There is a strong emphasis on oral practice, thereby this form of teaching still attracts the interest of many practically-oriented classroom teachers.

The view of this method was called into question by Noam Chomsky, who in 1957 showed that the structural and behavioristic approaches to language teaching were not right. He claimed that fundamental defining features of a language such as creativity and uniqueness of individual sentences were neglected by their application. He also believed that a learner must have an innate predisposition for a certain kind of linguistic competence.


thuraya on October 09, 2017:

Although I am MA student it is the first time to hear about this classification , quite thankful for this brief and useful explanation.

robin on June 01, 2017:

I am embarking on tutoring an adult in English language proficiency. I do have an elementary education degree, albeit somewhat ancient, and I am trying to decide how to approach the project. I will find out from the student what her needs and expectations are, but is it appropriate to use her language occasionally?

Anita Rai on May 01, 2013:

You're right. I was being sloppy with the language. Those aren't methods, as you rightly note.

Jasmine (author) on May 01, 2013:

Hi, I've just read the hub you wrote - great info about the Kaplan International Survey. What you've mentioned are actually teaching techniques used in the frames of the chosen teaching methods such as the audio-visual, suggestopedia, etc. A method is much more complexed and scientifically supported through experiments, research and theory. I use such a variety of teaching techniques adapted to different ages and modernized to fit the students' needs.

Anita Rai on April 29, 2013:

Very interesting hub. I just wrote one about a recent Kaplan International Survey which shows the most popular ESL teaching methods used around the world. Beatles songs, Obama speeches, and Mr. Bean TV programmes rate among the highest. I find them kind of questionable choices actually!

Jasmine (author) on October 23, 2012:

Learning your native language or mother tongue is a whole lot different than learning a second or foreign language. If you are raised bilingual, the difference is not that obvious, but in most cases children have better knowledge of the language spoken by the mother. Thanks for commenting!

SotD and Zera on October 23, 2012:

This is really interesting. It's kind of funny how much thought we have to put in to duplicate a natural process- we all learn language as babies, and then have to do a lot of tinkering when we're older to get it right again. Thanks for the read.


Jasmine (author) on July 29, 2012:

Hope you'll write a hub about the methods you use. Thanks for the comment, donmanual :)

donmanual from Playa del Carmen, Mexico on July 27, 2012:

As a spanish teacher, I know a lot of methods. Although your hub was very interesting to read. Thank you!

Jasmine (author) on June 29, 2012:

Thank you, Chandryclaire! The article still needs follow-ups about each of the methods.

Chandryclaire on June 28, 2012:

Awesome input!

samanthajae on June 15, 2012:

Hi Vox Vocis, thank you for sharing this very informative hub. I'm glad I found it :)

Jasmine (author) on May 22, 2012:

Thank you, Fabiana!

The Invisible Mom from California on May 21, 2012:

Great Hub!

Jasmine (author) on May 11, 2012:

You're welcome, Christine! I agree, students should get acquainted with teaching methods as well as teachers.

Jasmine (author) on April 30, 2012:

@lirsky: True. A good mixture of different foreign language teaching methods is always the best shot. Finally, as both a teacher and student, you can recognize the best performing ones.

lirsky on April 30, 2012:

That you for the information. It helps me a lot as a teacher and at the same time as a student who is taking up a master teaching. these methods in teaching is really useful, but let us always consider our learners in every method we use in teaching.

Jasmine (author) on April 24, 2012:

Thank you, rmcleve :) I'm a teacher by profession so I have to know these things. Also, I plan to write a series of hubs addressing each of the foreign language teaching methods separately.

rmcleve on April 23, 2012:

Wow! This hub was incredibly detailed and went above and beyond my expectations. You really know your stuff!

Jasmine (author) on March 09, 2012:

@Naveed: Thank you for your comment. I also believe that the direct method is very effective, especially when you teach new concepts and vocabulary. However, I also think that the use of native language in explaining grammar is more efficient than the inductive approach used in the direct method.

Naveed ahmed janjua. on March 08, 2012:

According to my opinion the most effective & purposeful method of language learning is direct method which enables a person to communicate,think & apply it directly in the social context if opportunity is available otherwise use it with classmates.

Jasmine (author) on March 06, 2012:

Thanks, Kingsley! My advice is to use interactive methods.

Kingsley O. Ugwuanyi (Nigeria) on March 06, 2012:

This is superb. I have been looking for this information. Just stumbling upon it now is quite exciting. Kudos!

Jasmine (author) on February 27, 2012:

@nifwlseirff: I can't agree with you more! Just like you, I also need grammar explanations in a language I completely understand first. Thanks for the commemt!

Kymberly Fergusson from Germany on February 27, 2012:

A good contrast of language teaching methods.

I have found (both as a student and a language teacher), that some methods work better depending on the individual learning style of the student. I found learning a language by immersion doesn't not work that well for me. When learning - the analytical side of me requires a grammar explanation before I can make a new sentence structure 'stick', no matter how many times I hear and repeat it.

Jasmine (author) on November 10, 2011:

@Ben kamau: Glad you found it helpful! Thanks for commenting :)

Ben kamau on November 10, 2011:

That's a very good article

Jasmine (author) on October 20, 2011:

@AureliaMilani: It can be said that interactive methods are in fact modern teaching methods, especially communicative language teaching. The latter is actually an approach to foreign language teaching (this varies from state to state).

Thanks for commenting :)

Jasmine (author) on September 11, 2011:

@Bbudoyono: That's an interesting program. I learned about a similar method applicable in teaching preschoolers on a seminar once. I applied it in kindergarten and kids were thrilled with this way of learning.

Bbudoyono on September 11, 2011:

When I learned English at high school I used to listen to BBC especially the program called 'pedagogical pop'. In the program we listened to a pop song then the teacher explained the meaning and the grammar. It was very interesting and it helped me a lot. Thanks for writing this hub.

Jasmine (author) on September 05, 2011:

@suzettenaples: A healthy combination of interactive methods is definitely the way to make the best of foreign language teaching and learning. This hub was intended as the first in a row about foreign language teaching methods (the basic article presenting the classification and short description of "outdated" methods). I still plan to write those articles :)

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on September 05, 2011:

I taught high school Spanish for 24 years, and I used the interactive method. The more interaction and Spanish conversation in the classroom the more it seemed to hold my students' interest and attention. Of course, we wrote compositions in Spanish and read short exerpts from literature and short stories in Spanish. I did do limited translations in class so they would at least learn the process. When I studied in Spain at the University of Salamanca, the professors taught us grammar by teaching all the verb tenses at the same time.(there are fourteen of them) It sounds complicated, but it's really not. In America, we teach all one Spanish tense, then move on to the next tense, and so on and it really is stilted. If we taught it as they do in Salamanca, I really think students would learn to speak, read, write and listen in Spanish easier and more quickly. I've retired from teaching, so I'm not up on the latest trends going on today in foreign language teaching.

htodd from United States on August 14, 2011:

Great post..Thanks

Jasmine (author) on July 08, 2011:

@Paul Kuehn: thanks for sharing your experience. I agree, the same methods work for me, too.

Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on July 04, 2011:

As a foreign language teacher and student, I have used all of the major teaching methods which you have brilliantly described in this hub. I made my most progress in learning Chinese by first learning with the audio-lingual method and then following it up with the interactive method. As an EFL and ESL teacher, my adult students have made the most practice using the interactive and situational method.

free online translations on January 18, 2011:

I think interactive method is the most effective as it allows you to practice your knowledges with native people.

Dave Mathews from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA on January 17, 2011:

As a person who is most proficient in English in grammar, and composition writing, I have often desired to try and help others who would need or desire help with such a difficult language, but I have never followed up with this idea.