ESL Methods - English Language Teaching

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 no or 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 elments 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,
  • suggestopedia,
  • teaching proficiency through reading and
  • total physical response (TPR).


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 of the grammar-translation method was to make learners able to read and translate literary masterpieces and classics and not to 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.

* However, in 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.

Characteristics of the grammar-translation method

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.

Disadvantages of the grammar-translation method

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 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.

Grammar Translation Method Video: positive and negative sides

* 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 on their own output and exactly this is in direct opposition with modern language teaching.

The origins of the audio-lingual method

  • 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 slodiers 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 inlude: (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.

* 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 were 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 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 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.


Situational Language Teaching

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

This approach (some linguists refer to it as a method) has 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 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.

Copyright © vox vocis. All rights reserved.

More by this Author

Comments 35 comments

Dave Mathews profile image

Dave Mathews 5 years ago from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA

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.

free online translations 5 years ago

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

Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

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.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 5 years ago Author

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

htodd profile image

htodd 5 years ago from United States

Great post..Thanks

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 5 years ago from Taos, NM

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.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 5 years ago Author

@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 :)

Bbudoyono profile image

Bbudoyono 5 years ago

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.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 5 years ago Author

@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.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 5 years ago Author

@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 :)

Ben kamau 4 years ago

That's a very good article

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

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

nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Leipzig, Germany

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.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

@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!

Kingsley O. Ugwuanyi (Nigeria) 4 years ago

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

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

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

Naveed ahmed janjua. 4 years ago

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.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

@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.

rmcleve profile image

rmcleve 4 years ago from Woodbridge, VA

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

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

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.

lirsky 4 years ago

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.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

@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.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

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

Fabiana03 profile image

Fabiana03 4 years ago from California

Great Hub!

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

Thank you, Fabiana!

samanthajae 4 years ago

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

Chandryclaire profile image

Chandryclaire 4 years ago

Awesome input!

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

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

donmanual profile image

donmanual 4 years ago from Playa del Carmen, Mexico

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

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago Author

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

SotD and Zera profile image

SotD and Zera 3 years ago

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.


vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 3 years ago Author

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!

Second Language profile image

Second Language 3 years ago

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!

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 3 years ago Author

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.

Second Language profile image

Second Language 3 years ago

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

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article