Traditional and Modern Methods of English Language Teaching

As the brief exploration of the history of language has pointed out, knowledge of a language comes from the acquisition of that language system, along with all its components: phonetics, grammar and vocabulary. With Latin being reduced to a dead language, social evolution and the various challenges in education brought forward languages like French and German, which consisted of complex forms and functions. The linguists of the nineteenth century (Claude Marcel and Francois Gouin) anticipated the countless changes that would impact teaching and learning and developed their theories on the workings of cognitive activity of students and their intellectual potential. Thus, considering the freedom of teaching and the great number of methods, there are numerous ideas that can contribute to effective acquisition of language by students and motivate them in this process.

The concept of method refers to the actual manner of teaching. Richards and Rodgers, in their book Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching define the term method as being an overall plan for the orderly presentation of language material, no part of which contradicts, and all of which is based upon, the selected approach. An approach is axiomatic, a method is procedural. Within one approach, there can be many methods… This comes to emphasise that the approach represents the level at which all the assumptions and beliefs regarding language learning are mentioned, whereas method stands for the level at which theory is put into practice, where the actual choices about the skills to be taught are made.

So, it is necessary to have a review of the most significant approaches in the development of teaching English methodology in recent history so as to have a better understanding of the development of language teaching in general, and grammar teaching in particular.

The most commonly used traditional method of teaching is undoubtedly The Direct Method. It is the method most of us are familiar with, as countless middle-aged people nowadays recall being taught in the manner of a ‘military drill’, which is not as far-fetched an idea as it seems. It was first developed in France and Germany at the turn of the twentieth century to assist soldiers on the war front to effectively communicate in a second language.

The Direct Method of teaching English, which is also known as the Natural Method, underlines the idea that only the target language should be used when teaching a new language that the students are trying to learn. Its main focus is improving oral communication and it is taught by means of repetitive drilling. The inductive method is used when teaching grammar and students are left to pick up the rules from the teacher’s oral presentation.

Nevertheless, the abundance of methods used in teaching languages requires a more thorough analysis. Here are the most commonly-uesd methods that have shaped the manner in which languages are taught all over the world, as presented by Jim Scrivener in his book Learning Teaching:

a. The Grammar-Translation Method

The Grammar Translation Method is one of the more traditional methods, which dates back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, offering an insight into the grammatical rules in the process of translating from the second to the native language. It is still the predominant method of language learning in some cultures.

The use of this method relies on students spending a lot of time reading texts, translating them, doing exercises and tests. The position of grammar in a lesson using the Grammar Translation Method can be described as follows: long elaborate explanations of the complexities of grammar are given; grammar provides the set of rules for joining words together, and instruction focuses on the form and inflection of words; little attention is paid to the content of texts, which are treated as grammar meant for analysis.

In addition, as Brown stated in his book Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy ‚ in the case of using this method long and detailed explanations of the intricacies of grammatical rules and forms are supplied for students to memorize and apply the syntactic rules to other examples.

The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that grammar maintains an important position. However, its contribution to language learning has been limited, since the focus is not on speaking and listening in real-life situations, but on the language system itself, failing to generate the engaging nature in a grammar lessons. In spite of its wide use in some parts of the world nowadays, it is necessary to find new methods that provide innovations in language teaching.

b. The Audio-Lingual Method

The Audio-Lingual Method first appeared in the 1940s and the leading method in foreign language teaching in the 1950s and 1960s in an attempt to fill the gaps left by the Direct Method. Its techniques and activities continue to have a strong effect in many classrooms. It mainly focuses on listening to model dialogues, followed by drills and repetition, without the active involvement of the teacher.

The Audio-lingual Method, like the Direct Method, is an oral-based approach. It was equally based on linguistic and psychological theory, one of its main premises being the scientific descriptive analysis of a wide assortment of languages. At the same time, according to Skinner, in the Audio-Lingual Method, grammar is most important for the student; the teacher drills grammar, the student must repeat grammar patterns after the teacher.

With all its popularity, this method did not promote communicative ability as it paid more attention to learning by heart and drilling, while disregarding the role of context and real-world usage in language learning in general and in grammar in particular.

Thus, as a result of Noam Chomsky’s theoretical attack on language learning as a set of habits, the Audio-Lingual Method is in rare cases the choice of teaching method today.

c. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) or Communicative Approach

Developed in the 1970s, mainly as a reaction to the formal, dull and repetitive exercises used under the Audio-lingual Method, Communicative language teaching (CLT), also referred to as “communicative approach’’, is an approach that most contemporary teachers would subscribe to as it focuses on interaction both as a means and as an end in the process of  learning a language. The core belief in using this method is that learners will naturally acquire the language so long as they take part in meaningful communication. As Larsen-Freeman point out, in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), grammar is taught as a means to help learners convey their intended meaning appropriately. The teaching of grammar can be managed either deductively or inductively but focuses on meanings and functions of forms in situational context and the roles of the interlocutors.

In Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), the teacher does not spend as much time on the structures of the language. He uses more time to encourage the learners to use the language. It frequently happens that communication activities such as games and puzzles, which are usually carried out in pairs or group, are recommended in teaching with little or no correction or intervention during the activity.
We can therefore conclude that grammar can be taught both inductively and deductively in Communicative Language Teaching. It is fact that some learners acquire new knowledge when they are provided with the context and then are presented with the grammar rules afterwards while others require the rule in order to comprehend the reasoning behind for the new grammatical structure. Its effectiveness comes down to the point of grammar that the teacher chooses to present.

d. Total Physical Response (TPR)

TPR (Total Physical Response) is a method devised by Dr. James Asher, using physical movement to react to verbal input in order to reduce student inhibitions and lower their affective filter. It allows students to instantly react to language without spending too much time thinking what to say. This helps in the case of shyer students and reduces their anxiety and stress. It is highly useful and recommended in the case of beginner and lower-level students. This method is oriented towards a grammar-based view of language. Asher states that most of the grammatical structure of the target language and hundreds of vocabulary items can be learnt from the skilful use of the imperative by the instructor.

In terms of grammar usage, TPR encourages learners to use grammar in their every-day lives, helping them gain the basic knowledge of a foreign language.

From all the above-mentioned methods, we can observe that throughout the history of language teaching, the ways in which teachers have approached the teaching of foreign languages have been subjected to enormous changes. Each method has its own sets of strengths and weaknesses, providing a ‘recipe’ for various practical classroom ideas and procedures. Using the right method in the right situation depends on various aspects related to the type, level and number of students in a classroom, at a particular time.  Considering the content and the purpose of the lesson, teachers may choose to combine methods in a lesson as long as they meet the requirements of that class and are affective in their grammar teaching.

A great number of teachers nowadays would admit that they do not follow one particular method. While the methods themselves are useful in different situations, teachers prefer adapting them to their particular classroom situations. An integration of methods is a more likely scenario to be encountered in a modern language classroom.


prof. Alexandru-Florin Oprean

Școala Gimnazialp Horea, Cloșca și Crișan, Brad (Hunedoara) , România
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