Language Teaching Methods: An Overview

What is the best teaching method for learning English?

According to academic research, linguists have demonstrated that there is not one single best method for everyone in all contexts, and that no one teaching method is inherently superior to the others.

Also, it is not always possible – or appropriate – to apply the same methodology to all learners, who have different objectives, environments and learning needs.

Applying the most appropriate method for that learner’s specific objectives, learning style and context.

An experienced professional language teacher always adopts the Principled Eclecticism approach, deciding on the most suitable techniques and applying the most appropriate methodology for that learner’s specific objectives, learning style and context.

Methods of teaching English have developed rapidly, especially in the previous 40 years. As a language learner, training manager, or teacher, it is important to understand the various methods and techniques so that you are able to navigate the market, make educated choices, and boost your enjoyment of learning a language.

An Overview

Each teaching method is based on a particular vision of understanding the language or the learning process, often using specific techniques and materials used in a set sequence.

The main methodologies are listed below in the chronological order of their development:

  • Grammar Translation – the classical method
  • Direct Method – discovering the importance of speaking
  • Audio-lingualism – the first modern methodology
  • Humanistic Approaches – a range of holistic methods applied to language learning
  • Communicative Language Teaching – the modern standard method
  • Principled Eclecticism – fitting the method to the learner, not the learner to the method

 
Timeline showing the evolution of English teaching methods from 1900 to today
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What are the Differences?

Each method has a different focus or priority, so let’s look at what this means in practical terms in the classroom.

The more common methods have a link to a separate page with more details and an explanation of how they work, including the most common method currently used – Communicative Language Teaching:

 

Method Focus Characteristics
Grammar Translation
Written literary texts
Translate from English into your native language
Direct Method (also called Natural Method)
Everyday spoken language
Student learns by associating meaning directly in English
Audio-Lingual Method
Sentence and sound patterns
Listening and speaking drills and pattern practice only in English
Cognitive Code Approach
Grammar rules
English grammar rules deduced and then understood in context
Humanistic Approaches – 4 popular examples:
- The Silent Way
Student interaction rather than teacher
Teacher is silent to allow student awareness of how English works
- Suggestopedia
Meaningful texts and vocabulary
Relaxed atmosphere, with music; encourages subliminal learning of English
- Community Language Learning
Student interaction
Understanding of English through active student interaction
- Comprehension Approach (Natural Approach, the Learnables, and Total Physical Response)
Listening comprehension
English speaking delayed until students are ready; meaning clarified through actions and visuals
Communicative Language Teaching
Interaction, authentic communication and negotiating meaning
Understanding of English through active student interaction; role play, games, information gaps
Content-based, Task-based, and Participatory Approaches
What is being communicated, not structure of English
Content based on relevance to students’ lives: topics, tasks, problem-solving
Learning Strategy Training, Cooperative Learning, and Multiple Intelligences
How to learn
Teach learning strategies, cooperation; activities vary according to different intelligences

Based on Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (Oxford University Press)

Modern Teaching Methods

As mentioned above, the modern language teacher doesn’t follow one rigid method, but applies the Principled Eclecticism approach – fitting the method to the learner, not vice versa.

This means choosing the techniques and activities that are appropriate for each particular task, context and learner, with a focus on motivation and helping learners become independent and inspired to learn more.

The explanation of Principled Eclecticism also includes a useful ten-point guide for teachers and language students on the best teaching and learning techniques.

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  • Jiao Yang Wang

    which method is easy to teach for a new teacher?

    • http://www.tjtaylor.net/english/ Alex Taylor – TJ Taylor

      I wouldn’t approach this based on which method is the easiest, but rather which one is best for our students.
      The Principled Eclecticism approach mentioned above is actually the most difficult, as the teacher needs to have a good understanding of all the various methodologies, their pros and cons, and how and when to apply each technique.
      The table above is a good start, however, and I’d recommend clicking through to read more about each method.

  • Jiao Yang Wang

    Thanks for your answer, I don’t know why you say that audio-lingualism is the “first modern methodology” ?

  • Hayman

    I am confused by the terms – ‘methodology’ and ‘approach’. Don’t they have the same meaning? Could u explain the difference?

    • http://www.tjtaylor.net/english/ Alex Taylor – TJ Taylor

      There is a difference between the 2 terms, though I admit the article doesn’t always use them well or clearly.
      There can be many methods under the umbrella of an approach.
      An approach is an idea or a concept, whereas a method is the procedures to turn that idea into reality in the classroom.
      A good example is the humanistic approach, an idea, which gave rise to various methods (4 of the most common are listed above).
      I hope that’s clearer.

  • Paul Hudson

    “According to academic research, linguists have demonstrated that there is not one single best method for everyone in all contexts.”

    In other words, data has shown that it’s random. There is no superior method. Then what’s the point of the Principled Eclecticism method if it only tells us to use a method we thing might work best. I bet that research into the effectiveness of Principled Eclecticism is bound to show no correlation with improved learning too.

    The newer approaches and methods have tried to accommodate learning styles and personalities, but the amount of time or exposure to productive and receptive skills of a language will always be varied for each learner.

    From my experience, the amount of time learners have seems to be the only true factor in language acquisition. We already know through research that it takes 8-9 years of English studies for students to become academic proficient. The difference between a native language speaker and second language learner is time. The difference between an elementary and a pre-intermediate learner is the amount of quality time spent on learning English.

    To give some perspective, given enough time, or an infinite amount of time, a monkey that is randomly typing on a typewrite will write all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays and 154 sonnets, word for word!

    • http://www.tjtaylor.net/english/ Alex Taylor – TJ Taylor

      “Not one single best method for everyone” is not the same as “it’s random” – it means that we can’t use the same method for everyone and expect excellent results.

      Instead, we need to personalise how we teach based on the student’s stage of life, objectives, motivation and aptitude for languages, their native language, personality – and yes – how much time they’ve spent learning English.

      Because ‘time studying’ is easier to quantify than aptitude or personality doesn’t mean that it’s the only factor, though I agree that the quality and frequency of time spent studying is incredibly important.

      Principled Eclecticism isn’t included in the table of methods above – this is because it’s an approach rather than a method (something I’ve talked about more in another comment here).

      It takes pieces and techniques from the various methods, which are then applied based on the teacher’s judgement.

      For example, young learners normally learn best with the Total Physical Response method; in my experience absolute beginners who need survival English and can’t do an intensive course benefit most from the Audio-Lingual method mixed with a Lexical approach, but only until they reach an A2 level; for extrovert personalities we borrow many of the techniques from the Communicative method, etc..

      This Principled Eclecticism approach does have disadvantages of course, mostly because it’s not ‘standardised’ and relies on each teacher’s judgement and their evaluation of each student. And that’s before we consider large groups of students with different needs.

      However, being difficult doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it – after all, we owe it to our students.

      • Paul Hudson

        ‘it means that we can’t use the same method for everyone and expect excellent results.” – I hope that this has long been the case, which aided the development of new or alternative approaches and methods.

        It has long been understood in academia that teachers should carter to learner styles, especially is our modern fast-paste societies with students that have short attention spans. Every communicative method course that I have studied instruct ESL teachers to adopt their learner styles and ages. Therefore, after learning that studies have shown that there is no difference in increase learning in comparing older methods to newer ones is quiet surprising.

        • http://www.tjtaylor.net/english/ Alex Taylor – TJ Taylor

          I’m not entirely sure I’ve understood your comment, but that newer methods are necessarily more effective than older methods is still not the exact meaning of that quote.

          Unfortunately catering to the individual and adapting teaching style accordingly is, sadly, a relatively new concept – just think of the many ‘method’ schools with a one-size-fits-all approach.

          Everyone is looking for the best method to learn English, and the simple answer is that there is no simple answer. At least not one that is universal and applicable to everyone. This is the core message of this article.

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