direct method of teaching english

The Direct Method of Teaching English: Ideas, Explanations and Sample Lessons

No time to beat around the bush.

We’re getting straight to the point here.

First things first—the Direct Method (DM) is exactly what it sounds like.

You’re actually already familiar with the Direct Method of language learning—it’s how you learned to speak your native tongue. With a little bit of coaching, you can start to use it effectively in your own classroom.

So sit back, relax and read away, while I lay out for you what DM is and how you can use it effectively. I’ll also offer you a sample lesson that you can adapt for your own classroom.

The Completely Straightforward Guide to the Direct Method of Teaching English

What Is the Direct Method of Teaching English?

DM was developed in the late 19th century by language teachers who saw the language classroom as too often a place where students simply memorized translations of words and conjugations of verbs. If you’re like me, you’re nodding your head now—we’ve all been in that classroom!

While still in use today by organizations like Berlitz, and supported by research that shows its effectiveness, it was never widely adopted because it was perceived as being more challenging for teachers to use (and hence requiring more teacher training to get off the ground).

It actually isn’t that hard to use DM, but like all good teaching methods it requires well-planned lessons (but hey, you’re here in the first place because you’re a dedicated teacher who puts a lot of time and effort into planning great lessons, right?).

DM was developed by studying how children learn their native tongue. Think about how you learned to speak your first language. You listened to adults and older children, then started trying out language, using trial and error, action and reaction, to develop your speaking ability. This is the core idea behind DM—to replicate this natural language learning process.

  • Uses Only the Target Language. The first principle of DM is that we only ever use the language we’re teaching. The teacher never translates for students or lets them use a language other than English in the classroom.
  • Students Figure Out Rules Themselves. Because we aren’t translating for our students, we’re introducing language in context through action and interaction. We’re pushing students to think in English and to develop their own understanding of the rules of the language. For example, by hearing the teacher say “he is a student” to Ricardo, and “they are students” to Chris and Natalia, students start learning verb conjugations without creating diagrams or having patterns laid out for them.
  • Highly Active. Because DM doesn’t allow anyone in the classroom to fall back on their first language, it demands that teachers and students alike are active—acting, moving, drawing, pointing and touching—as they explore and learn English. This is also part of what makes it a natural process—think of how much listening and acting small children engage in before they begin speaking and using language.
  • Focuses on Speaking. Again, because it’s a natural method, DM typically focuses more on speaking and listening than on reading and writing. Having said this, there’s plenty of room for reading and writing in the DM classroom, as I’ll discuss later.

Strengths of the Direct Method

Okay, so now we know what the Direct Method is. The next question to answer is this: “Why should we use it?” 

The following list of strengths should give you a good sense of why it’s worth using, and when it’s most appropriate to use it.

  • Natural Learning. The first strength of DM comes from the fact that it’s a natural method; because it replicates how we learned our native language, it feels more intuitive to our students and allows them to learn English more deeply than other methods. (Note that for students who haven’t been taught in this way, it can be disorienting at first. Trust me, after a few days they’ll get used to it. This doesn’t mean that they won’t complain—DM often demands more of your students than traditional teaching.)
  • Improved Pronunciation. Because of its focus on speaking and listening, students who learn through DM typically develop improved pronunciation, along with confidence in speaking.
  • Thinking in English. In classrooms that allow students to switch back and forth between languages, thinking in English is discouraged; in contrast, a classroom that immerses students in English pushes them to do more thinking in English.
  • Real-world Skills. Although reading and writing are important skills, particularly in school, in daily life we simply speak and listen more than we read and write. It’s easy to see why speaking and listening are more important skills when we consider how many people have been able to find success despite being illiterate, versus how difficult life can be for those who cannot speak or hear.

DM isn’t perfect for teaching all terms and concepts.

Typically DM is easier to use with lower-level students, and becomes more challenging when tackling more abstract vocabulary and complex grammar at higher levels.

I remember a particularly frustrating DM lesson during which, no matter how many verbal gymnastics my teacher engaged in, I simply couldn’t understand that the word meant “usually”!

If you’re interested, you can see the strengths of the bilingual method laid out here. This method employs a mix of your students’ native language and English. When using English in the bilingual method, you’ll be using many, many elements of the Direct Method.

Components of a Direct Method Lesson

Okay, so we’re on the same page about the strengths of DM. But how do we actually plan a successful DM lesson?

  • Warm Up. Warm-up activities are useful no matter how you’re teaching, but they’re particularly important when using the Direct Method because your students need encouragement to be active, to get up on their feet, to shout out in English and to be willing to make mistakes. The ideal warm up will be physically active, quite vocal (I have had many neighboring teachers ask me to quiet my class over the years) and will refresh your students’ memories about the previous lessons.
  • Introduction of Material. After warming up, the teacher introduces new material, one term or phrase at a time. For example, I might introduce the phrases “how are you?” and “I am happy / sad / angry,” by acting out the different feelings and showing pictures while I speak.
  • Modeling. The teacher then models how to use the phrases. Use students in pairs to help acting things out as necessary while doing this. Begin by having the class ask you “how are you?” and model picking a card. Show the feeling image to the students, and then answer the question while acting out the feeling. Next, ask a pair of students “how are you?” and let them pick a card that they will then act out while answering.
  • Check for Understanding. You can see how this is built in throughout the process. As students try out the phrases, and act out the feelings you will be checking for understanding throughout. Move from pairs to different groupings of students—have the first row turn to the second and ask them “How are you?” and let the second row answer while acting out the feeling they have chosen.
  • Guided Practice. Guide pairs of students as they practice asking and answering these questions. You can point to a picture that will determine their answer, or could have them pick a picture out of a stack of pictures.
  • Independent Practice. Let students wander the room, ask one another “how are you?” and choose their own answers, acting out the feelings while they speak.
  • Closure. Finally, end the lesson by moving to reading and writing, putting the phrases on the board, letting students write them down and drawing pictures to help them remember the meaning. You can incorporate a final check for understanding in many ways—for example, you might ask individual students how they’re doing as they leave the classroom, and let them answer while making faces at you.

A Sample Direct Method Lesson

This sample lesson teaches students the phrase “where are you going?” and the response “I am going to (school / the grocery store / the library / the doctor).”

Warm Up

Why not start with a song?

In one of my current classes we’ve been learning different verses from the song “The Wheels on the Bus” each day (here are the lyrics) and singing the verses we know. Visual aids are a great help here—so I show a picture of the bus and then a picture of a wheel which I spin around and around as we sing, repeat and act out “the wheels on the bus / go round and round.”

If you’re warming up with a children’s song like this, be creative, pretend to hold a baby as “the baby on the bus / goes “wah wah wah,” and be sure to cry loudly on the “wah”s!)

If you’re teaching older students, then choose a pop song that they know and love to practice with!

Introduction of Vocabulary / Phrases

Since my students have been singing about a bus, I’ll now take the bus for a ride around the classroom to introduce our vocabulary: “where are you going?” “I am going / We are going to school / the grocery store / the library / the doctor.”

I’ll have printed pictures and post them around the classroom ahead of time, so that I can use the images and take the bus to the different places.

Modeling

As in the example of teaching feelings, after introducing the vocabulary and phrases I would model asking and answering the question, gradually involving more and more students in the modeling—first they might ask me where I’m going or point to the destination they want me to go to, and then pairs of students might hold the bus and answer the question.

Practice

As we broaden our practice, I would hand out pictures of all four places to my students so that they can practice asking and answering in pairs, perhaps choosing their own answers and pointing to them, or choosing for each other by pointing and making them answer the question.

How to Extend This Lesson

There are many ways to extend this lesson. We might close with me writing the names of the places on the pictures themselves, and then having the students add them all to their notebooks. We might learn more place names and create a “classroom city” for students to navigate, and then focus on not where they are going but how to get there, learning directions and how to give them.

Or we could label places on maps of our town or our school (if we learn the names of different classrooms and subjects).

We could learn ordinal numbers (first, second, third), and ask students to move from place to place in a particular order—maybe one student is the bus driver, and has to take other students to their destinations and drop them off in order….

As you can see, with a little planning, there are many great ways to use DM in the ESL classroom, and doing so can help you engage your students and strengthen their speaking, listening and even thinking (in English) skills!

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