An Overview of Traditional Methods of Teaching and Practising Grammar Structures

A quick survey of the language learning process emphasizes the central role that grammar held, before the nineteenth century, in the learning of a new language. Learners used to study rules of grammar and consult dictionaries in order to learn new words and meanings.

Providing an overview of various methods in language teaching, Diane Larsen- Freeman observes that the Grammar – translation method was first used in the teaching of the classical languages – Latin and Greek. At the beginning of the 20th century, the method was used for the purpose of giving students insights into foreign language literature, as well as in teaching language. The grammar rules were learned deductively and the main goal was to enable students to translate accurately from one language into another and, once that stage got attained, they were considered successful language learners (Larsen-Freeman, Techniques and Principles… 11). Little emphasis was placed on the communicative side of the language learning process and the roles assumed in the classroom were traditional: the teacher controlled all of the activities and classwork was highly-structured.

The Direct Method appeared towards the end of the nineteenth century as a reaction against the restrictions of the Grammar-translation method. The method refrained from using the learner’s native language and students were obliged to perceive meaning directly – no translation being allowed. Consequently, the goal of instruction became one’s learning how to use a foreign language in order to communicate, by learning first how to think in the target language. Although the teacher directed the class activities, the students were expected to speak a lot, relating the grammar they were studying to visual aids. The method was based on everyday situations or topics, and grammar was taught inductively, having learners find out rules, upon being given examples in the target language. However, the accurate sentence was still the main objective of the language class.

The critics of that method said that it “offered innovations at the level of teaching procedures, but lacked a thorough methodological basis” (Richards, Rogers 13). Audiolingualism, or the Audio-Lingual method, was derived from the Direct method and it was based on the behaviourist belief that language learning implied the acquisition of a set of correct language habits.

Unlike the Direct method, whose aim was teaching vocabulary, the Audio-Lingual method focused on practising grammar drills until the pattern was produced spontaneously. At the same time, this method treated the use of native language in the classroom in a similar way to the Direct method: students were not allowed to use it and, consequently, they were taught the language directly. The language was also extensively considered at the level of the sentence, and patterns occured most naturally within the context supplied by the teacher, not in real-life context. The teacher still directed and controlled the language behaviour of the students, without providing grammar rules. Students had little or no control on their own output; when errors occured, they were immediately corrected by the teacher, while providing the expected response was followed by positive feedback – principles which are in direct opposition to the actual communicative language teaching.

A variation of Audiolingualism is the Presentation- Practice- Production model, a traditional activity sequencing pattern, which placed the language in situational contexts. In the initial presentation phase (P1), the teacher highly controlled the teaching/learning process: firstly he/she introduced a situation which contextualized the target structure, then the language was presented. In the Practice phase (P2), the teacher still controlled the students, checking the correct understanding of the items presented in P1. The aim was to achieve accuracy through drills (the same as in the Audio-lingual method), which became the most common type of practice activity. In the Production phase ( P3), the teacher aimed at increasing the level of fluency of the students, who were supposed to use the language autonomously in activities, such as personal opinions, discussions, debates, problem-solving activities, role-plays and information gaps.

Critics observed that this teacher-centred method was unlikely to characterize the process of human learning, which was rather random and, therefore, not much controlled by a teacher. Alternatives to this model would soon appear. In 1982 Keith Johnson promoted the “deep-end strategy”, aimed at encouraging students’ immediate production: during the Production phase, the teacher sees if there are any problems with students’ use of the structure being taught and goes back to the corresponding stage to clarify any misunderstandings.

In 1998 Harmer provided a different trilogy of teaching sequence elements, called ESA: Engage, Study and Activate. He thought that motivating students first would increase the efficiency of their learning. Students were expected then to address either inductively or deductively the form of a structure or lexical item and, thus, realize how it was constructed. During the last stage, students did not practise particular language patterns but used all of the language that they knew.

The quest for the best methods influenced the process of teaching and the trends that appeared throughout the 20th century. However, no method has been found to be superior to the others or to suit all teachers and students alike.

As Rodgers observed in 2001, theories of second language acquisition (SLA) are linked to different design features of language instruction, including objectives, current syllabus, teachers and students with their respective roles, motivation, materials, choice of activities, etc. (Rodgers, Language Teaching…). Rodgers called the period between 1950-1980 “The Age of Methods”, as during that period a number of methods prevailed, all descending from the Situational Language Teaching Method, which developed in the United Kingdom, or from the Audio-Lingual method, which appeared in the United States. These alternatives were: the Silent Way, Suggestopedia, Communicative Language Learning and Total Physical Response.

The Silent Way method does exactly what it says: uses silence to a great extent as a method of teaching. In examining the ways in which we acquire our first language, Caleb Gattegno, the founder of the method, concluded that learning by discovering and creating the language is superior to just merely remembering and repeating what has been previously taught. Language is not learned by repeating after a model and the role of the teacher is rather to provide materials for the students’ work with the language, than to explain notions or correct them. Although pronunciation is worked mostly on from the very beginning, there is also focus on the structures. Grammar rules may never be supplied “in order to develop their (the students’) proper criteria of rightness, correctness and adequacy” (Gattegno 28). Students are taught functional language since the goal is the ability „to use the language for self-expression” (Larsen- Freeman 64). Evaluation is carried out by observation. As Harmer noticed, the Silent Way triggered most different responses: some considered the teacher’s silence as working like a barrier rather than an incentive, while others encouraged this way of learning, deeming it a challenging experience, during which the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing were practised from the very beginning (Harmer, Practice…62).

Suggestopedia is a teaching method developed in the 1970s by Georgi Lozanov and it seeks to help learners eliminate psychological barriers to learning. The learning environment needs to make students feel relaxed and comfortable, consequently, low lighting and soft music in the background are used to “de-suggest” the emotional barriers students bring with them to the class. The teacher plays the central role during the engaging phase, presenting the dialogue, while the students follow the target language dialogue and check the translation in their native language, which is to be found next to the written text. In the activation phase, the students playfully practise the new material through activities such as dramatizations, games, songs and question-and-answer exercises.

The Community Language Learning Method, originally developed by Charles A. Curran, emphasizes the sense of community within the students group. The teacher encourages interaction between students and helps them overcome their fears of failure alongside the learning process. The students’ native language is used in order “to build a bridge from what they know to the unknown”, with the aim of increasing their security level. They are encouraged to reflect both on the language and their language experience, through a method that is teacher-student centred rather than teacher-centred or student-centred. Special attention is paid to error correction: the teacher repeats correctly what the student has said incorrectly. Language learning becomes a dynamic and creative process which takes place in a positive environment based on trust, relationship and cooperation between the students and the teacher (Larsen-Freeman 96).

The Total Physical Response method, developed by James Asher, professor of psychology, is based on the coordination between language and body movements. Students demonstrate their comprehension by carrying out the commands given by the teacher. The teacher does not use the students’ native language in the class, but he/she gives commands, often creating amusing situations because the main goal of the learning process is to enjoy the experience. In the initial stage, the teacher models the language, acting out the commands. Students learn by observing the teacher’s actions and then performing them by themselves. When students are ready to speak, they take over the role of the teacher, giving commands to their colleagues and teacher. In the early stages, the teacher corrects only the major errors, yet once the students advance, minor errors are also corrected. This method seems to be most useful for beginner students, due to the more advanced students needing full communication situations in order to develop their abilities to use the foreign language.

Books Larsen-Freeman, Diane. “Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching”, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
Richards, Jack, and Rogers, Theodore. “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching”, Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001
Gattegno, Caleb. “Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools. The Silent Way”, New York: Educational Solutions Worldwide. Inc., 2010
Harmer, Jeremy. “The Practice of English Language Teaching” 4th edition. London: Pearson Longman ELT, 2007
Scholarly articles in internet databases
Rodgers, Theodore. “Language Teaching Methodology”, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, (2001) 8 July 2016

prof. Simona-Dorina Aldea

Școala Gimnazială Aurel Mosora, Sighișoara (Mureş) , România
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