The last question is probably the hardest to
explain, maybe even to yourself.
Is it because that’s how you were
taught? Is it because that’s how you were taught to teach? Or is it for
some other reason?
Have you ever sat down and
seriously thought about why you teach reading,
writing, speaking, listening and culture the way you
If not, now is the time! And
here’s why: If you know the history of howyour subject
has been taught, you’ll be able to choose the best methodological approach to
teach your own students.
It’ll also give you the flexibility
to change approaches when any one method fails to address
your students’ needs at any time—even in the middle of a lesson!
So let’s get started with the main foreign
language methodologies, and then consider how to choose the best for your
The Foreign Language
Teaching Methodologies That You Should Know
Have you ever studied Latin?
Ancient Greek? Sanskrit? Linear B? If so, you
probably used the grammar-translation methodology. You read grammar rules, or
they were explained to you; you translated sentences and later paragraphs from
and into Latin; you read Cicero or Caesar or Vergil, and you translated the
texts into English—which you probably read aloud in class. You also learned
more complicated grammatical constructions through these readings and
translations. Alas, you never learned to speak, although, to be fair, it would
be hard to practice speaking when there are no more native speakers of these
For the longest time, this was also the
approach used for teaching modern foreign languages. An instructor in a
teacher-centered classroom would explain a grammatical rule in the native
language, translation exercises would follow, perhaps preceded by some
fill-in-the-blank or verb conjugation or noun declension work. Speaking, when
it occurred, was in the context of completing these exercises orally and might
consist of only a word or a phrase. There was no attempt at “real”
How might a grammar-translation classroom be
set up? You give your students a brief passage in the target language; you
provide some new vocabulary and give your students time to try to translate the
passage. There would be some new material included in the passage, perhaps a
new case, a new verb tense or a more complex grammatical construction. You
explain the material to your students as you work through the passage
with them. After, you give your students a series of translation sentences or a
brief paragraph in the native language, and they translate it into the target
language for homework.
The direct method, also known
natural approach, is in many ways the opposite of the
grammar-translation method. In this classroom, the native language is strictly
forbidden, and grammar (grammatical explanation) is
de-emphasized in favor of induction, where students are supposed to figure out
rules for themselves. Students are encouraged to speak at all times, making
this the ultimate in student-centered classrooms.
In theory, students would learn the foreign
language naturally, as they learned their native language as a child, and automatic
responses to questions would become instinctive. The focus would always be
on natural language, and habit formation was the key to learning. When
students made mistakes, teachers would gently correct them. When they used
the language correctly, they were praised. In this way, students
were supposed to be able to determine a grammatical rule for themselves.
While the ideas were interesting, in practice
this was a short-lived theory due to the proven lack of success of teaching L2
grammar through induction and schools not being able to provide a
fully immersed environment.
What might a direct method or natural
approach activity be? It could be as simple as a teacher asking questions,
with the students answering, either followed by correction or praise. It could
be an instructor reading a passage aloud, giving it to her students, and then
having them read it aloud, so that through repetition and correction, students
would understand in the same way that children learn patterns through having
their parents read to them. Or it could be asking students to write a paragraph
in their own words, again with correction or praise to follow.
The theory behind audio-lingualism is that
language learning requires learning habits. Repetition is the mother of all
learning. This methodology emphasizes drill work in order to make answers to
questions instinctive and automatic. New forms are first heard by students,
with written forms coming only after extensive drilling. The language used for
these drills is based on what is required for practicing the specific form; it
might or might not be natural.
An example of an audio-lingual activity is
a substitution drill. The instructor might start with a basic sentence,
such as “I see the ball,” after which she holds up a series of pictures through
which students substitute “ball” with each new picture. Another possibility is
a transformation drill, where the instructor says, “I read a book,” which the
students change into, “I don’t read a book.”
Full Immersion is difficult to achieve in a
foreign language classroom, unless you are teaching that foreign language in
the country where the language is spoken, and your students are studying all
topics in the target language. This would mean your students are truly
immersed in the language as well as the culture for twenty-four hours a day.
For example, ESL students have an immersion
experience if they are studying in an Anglophone country. In additional to
studying English, they either work or study other subjects in English for a
complete experience. Attempts at this methodology can be seen in foreign
language immersion schools, which are becoming popular in certain school
districts in the United States, and in bilingual education settings. The
challenge with the former structure is that, as soon as the student leaves the
school setting, he or she is once again surrounded by the native language.
An incredible way to help
bring language immersion both to your classroom and to your
students outside of school is with FluentU‘s online immersion program.
FluentU provides a curated library of real-world video content—including
movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—at levels from complete
beginner to native.
Every word is carefully annotated so that
learners have plenty of support (if they need it). You can even click on a word
to see how it’s used in other videos across the site. Perhaps the most
interesting part of FluentU is its “learn mode,” which takes videos
and turns them into language learning lessons. The lessons are fully
personalized, so the student’s learning history is taken into account when
presenting questions. FluentU’s algorithm sets students up for success by
teaching them based on what they already know.
Total Physical Response (TPR)
Total physical response, or TPR, emphasizes aural comprehension. For
example, students are trained to respond to simple commands: stand up, sit
down, close the door, open your book, etc. This first step can later be expanded to storytelling, where students act
out actions described in an oral narrative, thus demonstrating their
comprehension of the language.
TPR activity still used in modern foreign language classrooms today
is Simon Says.
The communicative approach is
the most widely used and most widely accepted approach to classroom-based foreign language
teaching today, and in many ways, is a culmination of those approaches and
methodologies that appeared before.
It emphasizes the learner’s ability to
communicate various functions, such as asking and answering questions, making
requests, describing, narrating and comparing. Task assignment and problem
solving—two key components of critical thinking—are the means through which the
communicative approach operates.
Unlike the direct method, grammar is not
taught in isolation. Learning happens in context; detailed error correction is
de-emphasized in favor of the theory that students will naturally develop
accurate speech through frequent use. Students develop fluency through communicating
in the language rather than by analyzing it.
A communicative classroom
includes activities through which students are able to work out a problem or
situation through narration or negotiation, and thus establish communicative competence.
Thus some activities might include composing a dialogue in which the
participants negotiate when and where they are going to eat dinner, creating a
story based on a series of pictures or comparing similarities and differences
between two pictures.
Task-based learning, a refinement of the
communicative approach, focuses on the completion of specific tasks through
which language is taught and learned. Language learners use the language that
they know to complete a variety of assignments, acquiring new structures, forms
and vocabulary as necessary.
Little error correction is provided. In this
type of learning environment, three- to four-week segments are devoted to a
specific topic: ecology, security, medicine, religion, youth culture, etc.
Students learn about a specific topic, step-by-step, using a variety of
resources, with each unit culminating in a final project such as a written
report or presentation.
Activities are similar to those found in a
communicative classroom, but they are always based around a single, specific
Computer Assisted Language
Learning (CALL) — There
are a number of commercial products (Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, the Michael Thomas Method) and
online products (Duolingo, Babbel)
which are generally used by independent language learners. These fall
under the CALL method, though some—with careful preparation—have been used in
tandem with traditional classroom instruction.
Reading Method — Sometimes graduate students or researchers
will only need to learn how to read scholarly articles in a language, so they
learn through the Reading Method, where enough grammar is taught to make it
through a standard article in their field. Students do not work on speaking or
listening comprehension; rather, they concentrate on building up a large
reservoir of specialized vocabulary.
There are also a number of lesser-used and
lesser-accepted methodologies, including:
- Suggestopedia, where the learning environment is made as
relaxed as possible so students’ brain are able to soak up language.
where the instructor serves as a counselor rather than as an instructor.
retrograde approach that concentrates on analyzing language data sets instead
of actively using language in the classroom.
How to Choose the Best Foreign Language
Now that you know a number of methodologies
and how to use them in the classroom, how do you choose the best?
While there are always those
programs that insist upon a mandatory methodology, doing great disservice to
students and teachers alike, you should always try to choose those
methodologies and approaches that are most effective for your students. After
all, our job as teachers is to help our students to learn in the best way for them—not for us,
not for any researcher and not for any administrator.
Did I say methodologies and
approaches? Plural? Yes! The best teachers choose the best methodology and the
best approach for each lesson or activity. They aren’t wedded to any particular
methodology. Rather they use principled eclecticism, freely moving between
lessons, tasks, methodologies and approaches, almost seamlessly.
Have you ever had to teach a
grammatical construction that only appears in written form? And then had your
students practice it by writing? Then you’ve used the grammar-translation method.
Have you ever talked to your students in question/answer form, hoping that they
will pick up the grammar point that you are trying to teach? Then you’ve used
Have you ever repeatedly drilled
grammatical endings, or numbers, or months, perhaps before showing them to your
students? Then you’ve used the audio-lingual method. Have you ever played Simon
Says? Or given your students commands to open their textbook to a certain page?
Then you’ve used the total physical response method. Have you ever
written a thematic unit on a topic not covered by the textbook, incorporating
all four skills and culminating in a final assignment? Then you’ve used task-based learning.
If you’ve already done all of
these, then you’re already practicing principled eclecticism.
The point is: The best teachers make use of
all possible methodologies and approaches at the appropriate time, for the
appropriate activities, and for those students whose learning styles require
The ultimate goal is to choose the methods
that best fit your students, not to force your students to adhere to any
particular or limiting methodology. Remember: First and foremost, it’s always
about our students!
And One More Thing…
To give your students an
immersive, interactive learning experience, you’ll love using FluentU in
your classroom. It’s designed to get students familiar with foreign vocabulary
in a fun, friendly, totally approachable way. FluentU makes it possible to
learn languages from music videos, commercials, news, inspiring talks,
cartoons and more.
With FluentU, your students will
learn the real language—the same way that natives speak it. They’ll hear
their new vocabulary words in context, spoken naturally and casually. Every
student is guaranteed to find videos they love to watch, and you’re guaranteed to
find videos that meet your teaching needs. FluentU has a very wide variety of
videos (browsable by category and level), as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you
tap on any word to instantly pause the video and see an image, definition,
audio and useful examples. Now native language content is easily within the
reach of any student, at any skill level, thanks to the interactive
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video
with FluentU’s unique Learn Mode, which asks questions based on what each
student already knows. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the
word you’re learning.
Plus, FluentU always keeps track of
vocabulary that your students are learning. It uses that information to
give students a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and
examples just for them.
You can organize chosen videos into
“courses,” name your courses and assign them to your students for homework or
in-class activities. They can each sign in using nothing but a secret password
that we bestow to you, the teacher.
Then you can track their progress
individually and as a group. How many videos and activities have they
progressed through? What percentage of the exercise questions are they getting
right? You’ll be able to see all this information and more.