Language teaching approaches and methods

Language pedagogy is the approach taken towards the approaches and methods used to teach and learn languages. These are some of the best and most widely used approaches to teaching a language, especially in an ESL or English as a Second Language and EFL or English as a Foreign Language classroom.

Language approach vs. method

Theoretical orientations of different language teaching approaches and methods

The different language teaching approaches have overarching assumptions and philosophies that they are based on.

In other words, they are what they are because of a set of beliefs held by their proponents.

The different teaching approaches in this article can be classified into four theoretical orientations: structuralcognitivepsychological, and functional.

  • Structural

Structural approaches believe that language can be reduced to a learnable set of building blocks. There are rules, known as grammar and syntax, that govern how to combine these basic elements. These rules can be memorized to achieve a high level of proficiency in a language.

Some proponents would even go so far as to say that there’s a predetermined sequence in which a language should be learned. Grammar textbooks are the most commonly used material in this category.

  • Cognitive

The cognitive perspective in learning a language puts the learner smack in the center of everything. Cognitive approaches look to answer questions like: How can a language be effectively learned? How does one make a set of vocabulary words memorable and get them embedded in the long-term memory?

According to this kind of approach, the techniques, strategies, and even the sequence of lessons are learner-led and can’t be predetermined. Learning a language is a conscious, rational, information-processing event.

  • Psychological

Here, language learning is seen through issues like learner motivation and predisposition, a location’s conduciveness to learning, teacher-student dynamics, stress levels, etc. Is the teacher supportive enough of the students? Is the classroom dynamic facilitating or inhibiting the acquisition of the language?

Many of the insights in this category are borrowed from counseling and social psychology.

  • Functional/Communicative

Functional approaches often emphasize spoken language over the written language and profess that language isn’t a set of grammar rules but rather a tool for communication. This has tremendous implications for the types of activities or the materials employed.

Anything that lies outside the ambit of passing on meaningful information is just an unneeded complication. Communicative approaches often eschew grammar textbooks in exchange for speaking drills and question-and-answer interactions where students get a feel for what speaking the language in conversation is really like.

Grammar Translation Method a.k.a. Classical Method

In this method, learning is largely by translation to and from the target language. Grammar rules are to be memorized and long lists of vocabulary are learned by heart. There is little or no emphasis placed on developing oral ability. This method is most commonly used in secondary education.

Proponents of Grammar Translation or Classical Method:

Karl Plötz and Johann Seidenstücker

Proponent(s):Theory of Language/ LearningCharacteristics:Teacher Role:Student Role:
Karl Plötz and Johann SeidenstückerLearning Theory:
Deductive learning is essential. First, the teacher gives rules explicitly then the rules are reinforced with examples and exercises.

Language Theory:
Language is for understanding the literature. Translation is the way to learn the language. Oral communication is not primarily important. Written language is superior to spoken language. Students also learn the structure of their own native language. Those who study a foreign language become more cultured and intellectual.
Learning is largely by translation to and from the target language.
Grammar rules are to be memorized and long lists of vocabulary learned by heart. There is little or no emphasis placed on developing oral ability.
Teacher is the strict authority. Classes are teacher-centered.
A student is the passive receiver of the new information.
The teacher starts the activities and directs them. The student is supposed to memorize the rules and the new vocabulary with her/his meanings in her/his native language.

Direct Method a.k.a. Natural Method

In this method, the teaching is done entirely in the language being learned. The learner is not allowed to use his or her original language. Grammar rules are avoided and there is an emphasis on good pronunciation. 

Proponent(s) Theory of Language/ Learning Characteristics Teacher RoleStudent Role

Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell (late 1970s and early 198
Learning Theory:
Inductive learning is essential. There is a direct relation between form and meaning. L2 learning is similar to L1 acquisition. There is a direct exposure to the target language.
Exposure of Long chunks in the target language. Learning occurs naturally.

Language Theory:
Language is for oral use. Each language is unique. There is a direct relation between form and meaning. No other language should interfere when learning a language.
It is learning by associating directly in English.
Lessons begin with a dialogue using a modern conversational style in the target language. Material is first presented orally with actions or pictures. The mother
tongue is NEVER, NEVER used. There is no translation

The teacher usually directs the interactions but he/she is not as dominant as in GTM. Sometimes acts like a partner of the students.
A student is an active participant.
Sometimes pair works take place. Even the teacher takes roles in activities.

Reading Approach

Proponent(s)Theory of Language/Learning Characteristics Teacher Role Student Role
Reading approach is a way to start teaching beginning readers.
It is based on cognitive theory originally conceptualized by Albert Bandura.
The priority in studying the target language is first, reading ability and second, current and/or historical knowledge of the country where the
target language is spoken.

Only the grammar necessary for reading
comprehension and fluency is
taught. Minimal attention is paid to pronunciation or gaining conversational skills in the target language. From the beginning, a great amount of reading is done in L2, both in and out of class. The vocabulary of the early reading passages and texts is strictly controlled for difficulty. Vocabulary is expanded as quickly as possible, since the acquisition of vocabulary is considered more important that grammatical skill. Translation reappears in this approach as a respectable classroom procedure related to comprehension of the written text.
The teacher does not need to have good oral proficiency in language.A student is basically a reader.

Audiolingualism / Army Method

The theory behind this method is that learning a language means acquiring habits. There is much practice of dialogues in every situation. New language is first heard and extensively drilled before being seen in its written form. 

Key takeaways:

  1. Language learning is a process of habit formation.
  1. It is important for teachers to prevent student error since errors can lead to the formation of
    bad habits.
  2. Students should overlearn the sentence patterns of the target language.
  3. Positive reinforcement helps students to develop correct habits.
Proponent(s) Theory of Language/Learning Characteristics Teacher Role Student Role
Charles C. FriesLearning Theory:

Learning is based on the principles of Behaviourism. (Mim- mem approach).
Habit Formation is essential.

Language Theory:

Language is based on descriptive linguistics. Every language is seen as its own unique system. The system is comprised of several different levels. (i.e. phonological, morphological, and syntactic). There is a natural order of skills.
Listening, 2. Speaking, 3.

Reading, Writing. Everyday speech and oral skills
are important. Perfect pronunciation is required. Language is primarily for Oral Communication.
Structures are sequenced and taught one at a time. Structural patterns are taught using repetitive drills. Little or no grammatical explanations are provided; grammar is taught inductively. Skills are sequenced: Listening, speaking, reading and writing are developed in order.Vocabulary is strictly limited and learned in context.The teacher is like an orchestra leader. S/he directs and controls the language behavior of the students. T is a good model of the target language, especially for pronunciation and other oral skills. The differences between Sts’ L1 and L2 should be known by the teacher.A student is an imitator of the teacher as perfect model of the target language or the native speakers in the audio recordings.

Oral Approach/ Situational Language Learning

Proponent(s) Theory of Language/Learning Characteristics Teacher Role Student Role
Harold Palmer,
A.S. Hornby, and other British applied linguists from the 1920s
Theory of learning:

The theory of learning underlying Situational Language Teaching is a type of behaviorist habit-learning theory. It addresses primarily the processes rather than the conditions of learning. Frisby, for example, cites Palmer’s views as authoritative:
As Palmer has pointed out, there are three processes in learning a language – receiving the knowledge or materials, fixing it in the memory by repetition, and using it in actual practice until it becomes a personal skill. (1957: 136)
French likewise saw language learning as habit formation.
The fundamental is correct speech habits The pupils should be able to put the words, without hesitation and almost without thought, into sentence patterns which are correct. Such speech habits can be cultivated by blind imita- tive drill (1950).

Theory of language:

The theory of language underlying Situational Language Teaching can be characterized as a type of British “structuralism.” Speech was re- garded as the basis of language, and structure was viewed as being
at the heart of speaking ability. Palmer, Hornby, and other British applied linguists had prepared pedagogical descriptions of the basic grammatical structures of English, and these were to be followed in developing methodology. “Word order, Structural Words, the few inflexions of English, and Content Words, will form the material of our teaching” (Frisby 1957: 134). In terms of language theory, there was little to distinguish such a view
from that proposed by American linguists, such as Charles Fries.
Indeed, Pittman drew heavily on Fries’s theories of language in the sixties, but American theory was largely unknown by British applied linguists in the fifties. The British theoreticians, however, had a different focus to their version of structuralism — the notion of “situation.” “Our principal classroom activity in the teaching of English structure will be the oral practice of
structures. This oral practice of controlled sentence patterns should be given in situations designed to give the greatest amount of practice in English speech to the pupil” (Pittman 1963:

The theory that knowledge of structures must be linked to situations in which they could be used gave Situational Language Teaching one of its distinctive features. This may have reflected the functional trend in British
linguistics since the thirties. Many British linguists had emphasized the close relationship between the structure of language and the context and situations in which language is used. British linguists, such as
J. R. Firth and
M. A. K. Halliday, developed powerful views of language in which meaning, context, and situation were given a prom- inent place: “The emphasis now is on the description of language activity as part of the
whole complex of events which, together with the participants and relevant objects, make up actual situations” (Halliday, Mclntosh, and Strevens 1964:
38). Thus, in contrast to American struc- turalist views on language (see Chapter 4), language was viewed as purposeful activity related to goals and situations in the real world. “The language which a person originates … is always expressed for a purpose” (Frisby 1957: 16).

Situational Language Teaching is characterized by two major features:
• Focus on vocabulary and reading is one of the most salient traits of SLT. In fact, mastery of a set of high frequency vocabulary items is believed to
lead to good reading skills.
• An analysis of English and a classification of its prominent grammatical structures into sentence patterns, also called situational tables, is believed to help learners internalize grammatical rules.
In the presentation stage the teacher serve as a model (setting up situations) Then s/he becomes like the skillful conductor.S/he listens and repeats what the teacher says; responds to questions and commands.

Community Language Learning/ Counselling Learning in Second Languages

Key takeaways:

  1. Students are whole persons.
  2. People learn best when they feel secure.
  3. Students should have the opportunity to generate the language they wish to learn.
  4. The teacher should “understand” what the students are feeling
Proponent(s) Theory of Language/Learning Characteristics Teacher Role Student Role
Charles Curran (1976)Learning Theory: CLL advocates a holistic approach to language learning. “True human learning” is both cognitive and affective. This is termed “whole person learning”. A group of ideas concerning the psychological requirements for successful and “non- defensive” learning are collected under the acronym (SARD).

Security Attention &
Retention & Reflection Discrimination

Security: Students should feel secure to enter into a successful learning experience.
Classroom atmosphere, students’ relations with each other, teacher’s attitude to students all affect students’ feelings of security.
Attention: Attention is the learner’s involvement in learning.

Aggression: is to show what has been learnt for “self-assertion” like a child who tries to show what he/she has learnt. The child tries to prove the things he/she has learnt.

Retention: If the “whole person” is involved in the learning process, what is retained is internalized and becomes a part of the learner’s “new persona” in the foreign language. The material should neither be too old nor be too new or conversely too familiar. Retention will best take place somewhere in between novelty and familiarity. Reflection: Students need quiet reflection
time in order to learn.
The teacher reads the text for three times and the students relax and listen for reflection.
Students also listen to their own voice from the tape for reflection.

Discrimination: Students should discriminate the similarities and the differences among target language forms by listening to themselves and the teacher carefully. They should also listen to discriminate if what they say is similar or different from what the teacher says.

Language Theory: Language is for communication.
Language is for developing creative thinking. Culture is integrated with language. The focus shifts from grammar
and sentence formation to a “sharing and belonging between persons”. Language is what you learn and share with others.
Students should trust the learning process, the teacher and the others.
The language- counseling relationship begins with the client’s linguistic confusion and conflict. The aim of the language counselor’s skill is first to communicate an empathy for the client’s threatened inadequate state and to aid him linguistically. Then slowly the teacher- counselor strives to enable him to arrive at his own increasingly independent language adequacy. This process is furthered by the language counselor’s ability to establish a warm, understanding, and accepting
relationship, thus becoming an “other-language self” for the client.
Language Counselor

The teacher tries to remove the threatening factors in the classroom.
Even the teacher stands behind the students to reduce because the teacher’s superior knowledge and his existence are also threatening factors.
Language clients

Initially, the learner is dependent on the teacher. As s/he goes on studying the language he becomes more and more independent.

Silent Way

Key takeaways:

  1. Teaching should be subordinate to learning.
  2. Language is not learned by repeating after a model; students need to develop their own “inner
    criteria” for correctness.
  3. Errors are important and necessary to learning.
  4. It is the students who should be practicing the language, not the teacher.
Proponent(s) Theory of Language/Learning Characteristics Teacher Role Student Role
Caleb GattegnoLearning Theory: Cognitive Psychology is the basis. Language learning is not habit formation. It is rule formation. Language learning has a sequence from the known to the unknown. Students induce the rules from examples and the languages they are exposed to, therefore learning is inductive.

Language Theory: Languages of the world share a number
of features (e.g. every language uses subject, object; every language has adjective, adverb, verb …etc.) However each language is unique. Language is for self expression (to express thoughts, perceptions, ideas and feelings). “Cognitive Coding” helps learners learn the language. “Colour rods” and “Fidel Chart” are used for cognitive coding.
A Silent way lesson typically follows a standard format. The first part of the lesson focuses on pronunciation.
Depending on student level, the class might work on sounds, phrases, or even sentences designated on the Fidel chart. At the beginning stage, the teacher will model the appropriate sound after pointing to a symbol on the chart. Later, the teacher will silently
point to individual symbols and combinations of symbols, and on monitor student utterances. The teacher may say a word and have a student guess what sequence of symbols compromised the word.
The pointer is used to indicate stress, phrasing, and intonation. Stress can be shown by touching certain symbol more forcibly than others when pointing out a word. Intonation and phrasing can be demonstrated by tapping on the chart to the rhythm of the utterance. After practice with the sounds of the language, sentence
patterns, structure, and vocabulary are practiced. The teacher models an utterance while creating a visual realization of it with the coloured rods. After modelling the utterance, the teacher will have a student attempt to produce the utterance and will indicate its acceptability. If a response is incorrect, the teacher will attempt to reshape the utterance or have another student present the correct model. After a structure is introduced and understood, the teacher will create a situation in which the students can practice the structure through the manipulation of the rods. Variations on the structural theme will be elicited
from the class using the rods and charts.
The teacher is a technician or an engineer who facilitates learning. Only the learner can do learning. The teacher is aware of what the students already know and he/she can decide the next step. The teacher is silent. Silence is a tool because teacher’s silence gives
the responsibility to the student. Besides teacher’s silence helps students monitor themselves and improve their own inner criteria.
Students should make use of what they already know.
They are responsible for their own learning. They actively take part in exploring the language.
The teacher works with the students and the students work on the language. St-st interaction is important. Sts can learn from each other.

Suggestopedia / Suggestology

Learning is facilitated in a pleasant, comfortable environment. The more confident the students feel, the better they will learn. Communication takes place on two planes. When there is a unity between them, learning is enhanced. The means of activating the material should be varied and playful.

Proponent(s) Theory of Language/Learning Characteristics Teacher Role Student Role
Georgi LazanovLearning Theory: People use 5-10% of their mental capacity. In order to make better use of our mental reserves, limitations need to be desuggested. Students should eliminate the feelings that they cannot be successful and thus, to help them overcome the barriers to learning.
Psychological barriers should be removed.
There are six principle theoretical components through which desuggestion and suggestion
operate and that set up access to reserves.
Authority: People remember best when
the new information comes from a reliable authoritative source. Infantilization: Authority is also used to suggest a teacher- student relation like that of “parent-child” relationship. In the child’s role the learner takes part in role playing, games, songs and gymnastic exercises that help the older student regain the self confidence, spontaneity and receptivity of the child. Double-planedness: The learner learns not only from the instructions but also from the environment. Physical features of the classroom are important.
Intonation: Varying intonation of the presented material helps to avoid boredom. T should present the material
with different intonation patterns. Correct intonation patterns should be emphasised.
Rhythm: Materials presented with varying rhythm and tones are more interesting.
Concert pseudo- passiveness: Materials presented with varying rhythm, intonation, and tone should be accompanied by music. Music should have sixty beats in a minute. Baroque concertos work very well for this purpose.

Language Theory: Lazanov does not articulate a theory of language. However, according to this method communication is a two-plane process.
Language is the first of the two planes. In the
the second plane, there are factors, which influence the linguistic message (e.g. the way one dresses, non-verbal behaviours that affect the linguistic message).
The approach was based on the power of suggestion in learning, the notion being that positive suggestion would make the learner more receptive and, in turn, stimulate learning. Lozanov holds that a relaxed but focused state is the optimum state for learning. In order to create this relaxed state in the learner and to promote positive suggestion, suggestopedia makes use of music, a comfortable and relaxing environment, and a relationship between the teacher and the student that is akin to the parent- child relationship.
Music, in particular, is central to the approach. Unlike other methods and approaches, there is no apparent theory of language in suggestopedia and no obvious order in which items of language are presented.
Teacher is the authority.
Learners learn better if they get the information from a reliable authority.
Students must trust and respect that authority.
A student plays a child’s role (infantilization). S/he adopts a new identity (new name, job, family…etc.) As s/he feels more secure, s/he can be less inhibited.

Total Physical Response

TPR works by having the learner respond to simple commands such as “Stand up”, “Close your book”, “Go to the window and open it.” The method stresses the importance of aural comprehension and the importance of kinesthetic learning. 

Key takeaways:

  1. Meaning in the target language can often be conveyed through actions.
  2. Retention is enhanced when learners respond physically.
  3. Feelings of success and low anxiety facilitate learning.
  4. Listening comprehension comes first. Students will speak when they are ready.
Proponent(s) Theory of Language/Learning Characteristics Teacher Role Student Role
James J. AsherLearning Theory: There are three hypotheses:

A) Innate Bio- program: There exists a specific, innate bio- program for language learning,
which defines an optimal path for first and second language development. Children develop
listening competence before they develop the ability to speak. They make “a blue-print” of
the language first.
They develop “a cognitive map” of the
language during listening process.

B) Brain Lateralisation: The brain has two main parts: left hemisphere, and right hemisphere
, which have different learning functions. If both hemispheres are activated, learning is more

C) Stress (an affective filter): Stress intervenes between the act of learning and what is to be
learned. The lower the stress is, the greater the learning becomes.
Language Theory: Language is primarily oral. It is just like the acquisition of native language. Learners first listen (silent period), then oral production starts. Oral communication is
crucial. Skilful use of imperatives by the instructor can be helpful for the acquisition of many vocabulary items and grammatical structures. Asher views the verb and particularly the verb in the imperative as the central linguistic motif around which language use and learning are organized.
James J. Asher defines the Total Physical Response (TPR) method as one that combines information and skills through the use of the kinesthetic sensory system. This combination of skills allows the student to assimilate information and skills at a rapid rate. As a result, this success leads to a high degree of motivation. The basic tenets are:

Understanding the spoken language before developing the skills of
speaking. Imperatives are the main structures to transfer or communicate information. The student is not forced to speak, but is allowed an individual readiness period and allowed to spontaneously begin to speak when the student feels comfortable and confident in understanding and producing the utterances.
Initially, the teacher is the director of all student behaviour. In the later stages, the teacher is being directed.Initially, students are the followers of the teacher.
Usually after ten to twenty hours, of instruction some students will be ready to speak the language. At this point they start to direct the teacher.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)

The focus of this method is to enable the learner to communicate effectively and appropriately in the various situations she would be likely to find herself in. The content of CLT courses are functions such as inviting, suggesting, complaining, or notions such as the expression of time, quantity, and location.

Key takeaways:

  1. Teaching should be subordinate to learning.
  2. Language is not learned by repeating after a model; students need to develop their own “inner
    criteria” for correctness.
  3. Errors are important and necessary to learning.
  4. It is the students who should be practicing the language, not the teacher.
Proponent(s) Theory of Language/Learning Characteristics Teacher Role Student Role
Canale and Swain (1980); Haliday (1973);
Hymes, D. (1971)
Learning Theory:
Little is known about the learning theory of “The Communicative Approach”. Activities that involve real communication promote learning.
Language that is meaningful to the learner supports the learning process.

Language Theory: Language is for communication. The goal of language teaching is to develop “communicative competence”. Using the language appropriately in social contexts is important and communicative competence should be acquired.
Communicative language teaching (CLT) is an approach to language teaching that emphasizes learning a language first and foremost for the purpose of communicating with others.The teacher is a facilitator of his/her students’ learning. He/she is a manager of classroom activities.
He/she acts as an advisor and monitors students’ performance.
A student is a communicator. S/he is engaged in negotiating meaning actively. S/he is responsible in managing her/his own learning.

Eclectic Approach

Proponent(s)Theory of Language/LearningCharacteristicsTeacher RoleStudent Role
Larsen- Freeman (2000) and
Mellow (2000)
Theory of Language Language is based on structures which are used to convey meanings, which perform functions.
Theory of Language Learning
We see language learning as a combined process of structural and communicative activities.
Eclecticism involves the use of a variety of language learning activities, each of which may have very different characteristics and may be motivated by different underlying assumptions. The use eclecticism is due to the fact that there are strengths as well as weaknesses of single theory based methods. Reliance
upon a single theory of teaching has been criticized because the use of a limited number of techniques can become mechanic. The students, thus, cannot get benefits of learning. Relativism
i.e. to emphasize the context of pedagogical situations is also criticized because it leads towards dissimilarities rather than similarities between teaching contexts. The use of eclecticism does not mean to mix up different approaches randomly. There must have some philosophical backgrounds and some systematic relation among different activities. Usually it is
recommended to mix structural approaches with communicative use of language.
Here we are adopting the role of teacher roughly equal to CLT. We
consider teacher as a facilitator: who facilitates the learner, as a guide: who guides the students, as a slightly higher rank official: who uses his authority to
conduct the class and make the process of teaching and learning systematic.
Learner is seen by us as the center of teaching learning activities. His participation is very important. So teacher will always try to involve the learners. As well as the learner’s role in class should be cooperative and
they will be allowed to communicate, self correct each other and ask questions about the substance provided for teaching learning activities.


Brown, D. H. (1987). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. New Jersey: Printice Hall Regents.

Celce-Murcia, M. (1991). Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. (pp.3-10). Boston, Massachusetts: Heinle & Heinle.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1993). Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J. C. & Rodgers, T. S. (1990). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching: A description and analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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