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The Appropriate Methods for Teaching ESL

Updated on August 2, 2012

Jennifer Teacher in Action

Me, teaching teachers at the 2012 Seoul KOTESOL Conference.
Me, teaching teachers at the 2012 Seoul KOTESOL Conference. | Source

ESL Methodology

There are a number of methods used to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). Various considerations must be made when deciding which approach is best for your teaching contexts. While some (most) of these methods go in and out of favor, it is best not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That is to say, you do not need to disregard a given method because it is currently out of favor. Chances are, there was a reason why it was once popular in the first place. By critically examining different methods, you can consider which aspects of each would work in your classroom.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I have merely compiled the most common or well-known methods of teaching ESL.

Audio-Lingual Method

The audio-lingual method will be familiar to most, if not all, second language learners. This method relies on drilling and repetition, focusing almost solely on accuracy over fluency. The goal is to create good language "habits", as in, automating speech.

Students practice using the language by repeating phrases over and over. If you have seen the movie Love Actually, you have seen Colin Firth in a huge language lab where each student was repeating phrases without any interaction with anyone else. That is the audio-lingual method at its most heinous (in my opinion).

Although it is currently out of favor in Western countries, it is still the standard in many parts of the world. It is probably still the standard even in the Western countries which consider it to be outdated and inefficient, simply because it is the easiest for teachers to prepare for and it is how most teachers learned foreign languages themselves.

To go back to the above example of the language lab where each student worked independently, hopefully you can see the drawbacks. Namely, language is too rich and varied to get far memorizing stock phrases. People in real life rarely do language learners the favor of speaking slowly and enunciating clearly, as voice actors do for language CDs. Not to mention, there is no one there to let you know if you are correctly pronouncing what you hear.

Not a Result of the Audio-Lingual Method

More Likely Results of ALM

Grammar Translation

This method has students study their second language by comparing it to their first. As you may guess, translating written texts features heavily. Grammar Translation also relies on practice exercises, tests, and essay writing. In contrast to the Audio-Lingual Method, the focus is on reading and writing, rather than listening and speaking (repeating).

However, this method, too, has fallen out of favor, because it does not lead to fluency in a second language. It creates a strong awareness of similarities and differences between two languages, but not natural speakers/ users of a second language.

A Humorous Look at GTM

The Communicative Approach

Communicative Language Teaching, including Task-Based Learning, is the current darling of the ESL world, although there tends to be broad variation in how it is put into practice. At its "purist", CLT has minimal teacher interaction or TTT (teacher talk time).

Students learn the language by completing tasks which require them to communicate with their classmates. The definition of "task" can be used broadly here to include just about any activity which requires student interaction to complete. You can read more about that here.

Clearly, the focus is largely on fluency, although accuracy can improve through CLT tasks. Depending on the teacher, there may or may not be a language focus included in the lesson. If there is, the teacher should create one on the fly, based on actual errors which the teacher overhears during the task.

Realistically, there are certain errors which could be predicted and planned for. More beneficially, in my opinion, the pre-task portion of the lesson should activate students' existing vocabulary and include a review of useful language and grammar forms.

Although this method is currently very popular, it could fade as it gets watered down to make preparation or standardization, such as in mass-produced text books, easier.

Task-Based Learning in Action

TPR: Total Physical Response

TPR is a great way to get Very Young Learners (VYLs) and lower level Young Learners (YLs) involved in ESL classes in a way that is non-threatening for them. Total Physical Response gets kids moving around the classroom as they follow the directions given to them by their teacher.

The teacher uses gestures and, over time, increases the complexity of their language while introducing new vocabulary. Students are not required to do much, if any, speaking until they are ready. Although many people assume you can only use commands with TPR, I have included two videos demonstrating using the method to teach the alphabet and for storytelling.

Clearly, there are limits to what one can learn this way, but it is a good way to start VYLs and YLs off in a new language.

TPR Training Video

TPR Phoncs: Silly and Fun

The Silent Way

The final method discussed here is not widely used, but I include it to show that accuracy exercises are possible with minimal TTT (teacher talk time). Rather than have students listen and repeat, the teacher creates a visual which the students then describe. To do this, the teacher has Cuisenaire rods, blocks of various sizes and colors, and pronunciation charts posted on the wall.

I have strong doubts about this method's efficicacy in the long term, but I do think it could be useful to create awareness of correct pronunciation. I also think that it is a non-threatening way to get older beginners involved.

The Silent Way

Methodology and You

As you can see, there are many ways to teach ESL. There are a number of methodologies not even mentioned here, but they are less common, perhaps with the exception of the Silent Way. However, you should not see each methodology as complete or perfect/ terrible. Each method has aspects which could make it more or less useful in your classroom.

You should consider your students and their needs, as well as their expectations in the classroom, when considering which methods to use. For example, you may think task-based learning is the best thing since sliced bread, but if your students are used to a very teacher-centered classroom, they may think you are just being lazy. On the other hand, while those same students may expect the Audio-Lingual Method, it is unlikely to be the most beneficial for them. Mixing and matching methods can help you meet their expectations for what should happen in a language classroom while improving the efficiency of their language learning.

What Methodologies do You Employ in Your Classroom?

Submit a Comment

  • Jenniferteacher profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Seoul

    I have to deal with students using their first language, as well, even when they could easily say something in English. I try not to be the English police, but I will take the personality of a class into consideration when making my lesson plans.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    I agree that there are different stages of language acquisition when each method is most useful. I use ALM quite a bit with my beginners simply to get them used to producing English sounds in a non-threatening situation in which they are not responsible for producing meaning. This is especially helpful for shy students. They often understand the language better than their classmates but are too timid to speak until they're sure they can say things correctly. The teachers in the classes above me use this method sparingly and usually as a warm up for freer interaction.

    I would love to jump on the task-based band wagon. However, since most of my students speak the same language, I find I spend a lot of time policing to keep them from slipping into conversing in their first language.

  • Paul Kuehn profile image

    Paul Richard Kuehn 

    6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

    This is a very useful and interesting hub. I have employed all of the methods you nicely present with different degrees of success. One thing that is important is to immediately grab the attention of your students with audiovisuals and then make the lesson very enjoyable. Students love it if they are playing a game while they are learning. Voted up and sharing.

  • Jenniferteacher profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from Seoul

    dwachira, I think ALM is useful for beginner students-- when they are learning phonetics and making stock phrases automatic, I just think it loses its effectiveness as those students get more advanced.

    As Wesley suggests, taking ALM material and adapting it to a "real" conversation can make it more useful.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    This is very interesting and informative! Yes, since English is the current Lingua Franca of the world, it is imperative for the world to know English (as well as other native English speakers knowing other languages.) There are numerous ways for students to learn a second language as you have noted. Clubs at schools that drill students to only speak in their newly learned language (I.e. English) so they may become more fluent in it. Another good theory too look into is the Theory of Linguistic Relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This theory basically portrays how different words may have different meanings in different languages and cultures. Perhaps we should start teaching Linguistic Relativity in English and other language classes?

    On the note of the Hub, I highly enjoyed this! I voted up and interesting. Also sharing! Well done!

  • dwachira profile image

    [ Danson Wachira ] 

    6 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    At the Education teaching college, we used audio-lingual methods to learn about phonetics and language use and i found it to be a very effective learning method. This is a useful article, voted up and useful.

  • Wesley Meacham profile image

    Wesley Meacham 

    6 years ago from Wuhan, China

    Voted up, interesting, useful and shared.

    I rarely think about these kinds of things. In most of my classes I try to use whatever material I'm working from to have a conversation with my students. Usually the material comes from an ALM lesson that they've been working on alone before the class and I just try to make the lesson points more personal/interesting.


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