The Audio Lingual Method: What It Is, Pros and Cons, and More

Have you heard that the audio-lingual method is dead?

Well, it’s not!

The audio-lingual method (ALM) is a behaviorist theory method of teaching foreign languages that focuses on repetition and grammar over vocabulary.

It also teaches the language in the foreign language rather than the students’ native one.

In this blog post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the audio-lingual method—including what it is, how to use it, pros and cons and more.


A Brief History of the Audio-lingual Method

Any quick search on the Internet will lead you to hundreds of explanations of the audio-lingual method (ALM).

Most of those explanations will tell you that the ALM fell into disuse through a highly visible critique and general dissatisfaction with the outcomes of the method. But let’s take a closer look.

How the Audio-lingual Method Began

The audio-lingual method began during World War II as a way to give troops survival communication tools before sending them to the front lines.

But the actual method as we know it today rose from the work of structural linguists like Charles C. Fries and Robert Lado.

They developed it to focus on listening and speaking. Much of their work was based on behavioral psychology—especially the work of B. F. Skinner—and studies of the English language.

Although the results of the study of English structure were revolutionary, the creators of the ALM had little practical teacher training. So the classroom techniques drew the attention of hard critics.

This criticism would lead to an evolution towards different, more innovative methods of language teaching.

Why the Audio-lingual Method Became Less Popular

When the audio-lingual method was being designed and put to use, linguistics as a science was in its infancy.

Linguists were often at each other’s throats, and differing schools of thought arose. These led to diverse theories about what language is, how it is learned and how it should be taught.

While structural linguists were taking language apart, listing its parts and figuring out how they were joined, other linguists were more interested in the sources of language within psychology, its use and meaning.

Naturally, many linguists tried to apply these theories to language acquisition and teaching.

Noam Chomsky—who belonged to a different camp than the structural linguists—wrote a landmark essay/critique of Skinner’s book “Verbal Behavior.”

Though this critique has been subsequently questioned, at the time of its publication, it had a significant influence on the development of psychological thought. In fact, the essay is often considered a turning point towards cognitive psychology from behavioral psychology.

Unfortunately, because the ALM based much of its pedagogy on Skinner’s behaviorist ideas, the method directly suffered from this harsh critique.

It also didn’t help that the actual methodology had flaws. Promised objectives were not met, students were dissatisfied with results and the linguistic community began to turn its back on the ALM.

The Pros and Cons of the Audio-lingual Method

In the early days of the ALM, structure, rules and procedures were closely monitored and practiced to standardize the teaching process and evaluate its effectiveness.

Those on the audio-lingual bandwagon pointed out lots of advantages. These include:

  • Students practice useful language from the very first class.
  • Better pronunciation and increased participation as a result of the drilling exercises.
  • The use of visual cues, which was thought to help develop vocabulary.

On the other hand, critics felt that the method had these disadvantages:

  • Too much attention was placed on the teacher, who was limited to presenting only mechanical aspects of the language.
  • The reduction of vocabulary in favor of structure.

How the Audio-lingual Method Is Used Today

Despite language teaching drifting away from using ALM as a complete method, the materials that were developed for classroom use are still valid and useful.

Textbook developers continue including the best audio-lingual practices in printed language materials. These same materials are also online.

From everyday dialogue to structural substitution and transformation exercises, the legacy of ALM continues with us to modern-day language instruction.

3 Ways to Use the Audio-lingual Method in Your Class

Now, let’s discuss three basic ALM techniques to adapt to your language classroom.

1. Focus on Practical Pronunciation

The audio-lingual approach treated language sounds as essential building blocks to fluency.

All spoken languages are pronounced. Individual sounds can be isolated.

In any language, there may be 20 to hundreds of sounds.

No matter how many sounds the language you teach employs, you first need to understand what they are, how they are produced and how they work together to create words.

Let’s look at how to gain and apply that understanding to teaching.

Step 1: Identify the Language Sound System

You don’t need a comprehensive list of all the sounds in the target language. Just start with the basics.

Avoid using complex graphic representations of these sounds (don’t ask your students to memorize the IPA, for example).

Instead, take advantage of readily recognized symbols that students use in their native language.

For example, both the voiced and unvoiced “th” sounds in English are articulated the same as the “z” sound in European Spanish.

In the early stages, before Spanish students see words written with “th,” you can transcribe the sound with a “z” for their notes, and they will make the sound you want. They will also remember it from those notes for home practice.

Also, don’t be nitpicky with individual sounds when practicing sentences.

For example, the well-known “ship sheep” minimal pair in English demonstrates how the meaning of a word can change depending on the vowel.

But if the context of the sentence already indicates you’re talking about a sheep, it really doesn’t matter if the student used the word “boat” instead.

Step 2: Use Tongue Twisters to Improve Articulation and Pronunciation

You can easily find minimal pair exercises online.

But instead of focusing on repeating single sound changes in words out of context (which is fine for a quick pronunciation warm-up!), your students will have much more fun working with complete sentences.

So try well-known tongue twisters in the second language.

In Catalan, for example, this one can bring giggles to your students:

Plou poc, però per al poc que plou, plou prou.
(It rains little, but as little as it rains, it rains enough.)

This practices the articulation of the “l” and the “r” sounds.

Now, tongue twisters are often silly sentences that aren’t all that useful in everyday situations. But you can create your own twisters by choosing a few sounds and finding useful words.

Everyday language is full of tongue twisters—create your own!

2. Do Structural Drilling Exercises

Repetition leads to progress. And in the audio-lingual method, this manifested itself as sentence structure drilling.

Structural drilling is beneficial in many ways:

  • It strengthens the vocal apparatus for future sentence production.
  • It builds strong habits in structural manipulation.
  • It promotes automatic responses in everyday conversations.

Where to Find Material for Drills

The first place to look for practice material is your class textbook.

If there are no substitution-type exercises, there will undoubtedly be basic sentences in dialogues or exercises that you can adapt to any of the procedures described here.

How to Do a Drill Session

To master basic sentence structure, students need to practice making their own sentences with different words.

To make this a practice drill, you’d start by making a sentence yourself. Then, give the students a word to replace the subject with. After they’ve reworded the sentence, give them another one. Keep going until you’re done with the drill.

In an English class, this drill might look something like this:

Teacher: I’d like a cup of coffee. Tea.

Students: I’d like a cup of tea.

Teacher: I’d like a cup of tea. Milk.

Students: I’d like a cup of milk.

You can also do this with more complex sentences where words like pronouns must be replaced.

For example:

Teacher: I eat breakfast every day. He.

Students: He eats breakfast every day.

Teacher: He eats breakfast every day. They.

Students: They eat breakfast every day.

In other languages, there may be adjective/noun concurrence.

In Spanish, for example:

Teacher: La puerta es roja. Libro. (The door is red. Book.)

Students: El libro es rojo. (The book is red.)

Teacher: El libro es rojo. Manzana. (The book is red. Apple.)

Students: La manzana es roja. (The apple is red.)

You repeating the sentence produced by the students serves a couple of purposes:

  • The teacher can correctly emphasize the students’ problematic sounds or articulations.
  • The repetition reinforces listening skills, allowing students to recognize the sentence they just pronounced immediately.

When and How Often to Do Drills

Drilling can become a regular activity, both as a vocal warm-up and an introduction to particular structures or vocabulary that will be the theme of the class.

An entire hour of drilling might be something you would consider once or twice during a semester. But it shouldn’t be the basic structure of your class.

One criticism of drilling in the audio-lingual method was that overusing it in class led to boredom, even though it produced automatic responses.

So this exercise probably shouldn’t take more than 10-15% of class time.

3. Use Dialogue Practice

Dialogue is the natural next step in language production.

Structural linguists found that many conversational exchanges followed basic structures that can be studied and learned.

Everyday dialogues are probably the most familiar leftovers of the original audio-lingual method.

Most language textbooks include dialogue material and exercises. They’re often the first thing in a lesson unit.

What Kinds of Dialogues to Use

Dialogues can fall into many different categories. But for this article, I’m going to limit them to just two:

  • Standard everyday dialogues. This is the type of verbal exchange we tend to repeat throughout our daily lives. They include basic greetings and farewells, shopping dialogues and information requests.
  • Improvisational dialogues. These may begin standard, but they’re unpredictable because of the personal interaction of the people speaking. These may include debates, discussions, arguments and opinion sharing.

Standard Everyday Dialogue Practice

An everyday dialogue can originate from your previous sentence structure practice.

You may present this dialogue in several ways—a printed handout, pictures, sock puppets, repetition exercises—whatever suits your teaching style.

These dialogues should be kept short and sweet, with each student having three to five sentences to produce.

For example:

S1: Good morning.

S2: Hello.

S1: How much are the tomatoes?

S2: 35 yen a kilo.

S1: Oh! That’s cheap! I’ll take three kilos.

S2: Good. That will be 105 yen.

S1: Here you are.

S2: And here’s your change. Thank you.

S1: Thank you! Goodbye.

S2: Goodbye.

In this dialogue, it’s pretty evident that a simple substitution can be made: tomatoes changed to pears, yen changed to euros, 35 changed to whatever price seems right.

This type of exchange can also be expanded by giving S1 a shopping list and S2 a list of prices.

Add props, and you have yourself a role-play.

The same exercise can be done for buying train tickets, sending a package by post, asking for directions to a local monument, etc.

The exchange structure should remain standard as a confidence builder, while the content of the exchange can be changed with simple substitutions.

Improvisational Dialogue Practice

These dialogues give students a theme and more freedom to use the language. The presentation of these dialogues will also be a little more complex.

Some ideas to keep in mind:

  • Have character cards prepared beforehand. Include basic character information on these cards to help students imagine their point of view in the dialogue. Giving them names, attitudes and specific instructions about their opinion will keep the focus on what they need to say rather than why they are saying it.
  • Practice the vocabulary first. Any discussion will include specific words. Have a short list of useful vocabulary prepared, and use those words in pronunciation and structure exercises as a warm-up activity.
  • Make a dialogue scheme. It helps significantly if students can see a mind map of how the dialogue may develop. Sketch on the board the basic structure of the dialogue, highlighting options like where the conversation may go if one says “yes” while the other says “no.” Give useful fragments for different parts of the dialogue, like “I don’t think so” or “I agree, but…”
  • Work in pairs. This type of dialogue will need your close attention and aid. Divide your group into pairs and set them to work on creating their dialogue based on the information you’ve given them. While they work in pairs, you can move around the room and give personal attention to each pair.


As you can see, once the strict imposition of a “method” has been removed, the material developed within the audio-lingual method can be incredibly effective in any class at any level.

Start with the above steps.

Then, by looking into the materials available to audio-lingual method teachers, you can continue to find more fantastic techniques to expand on and use in your classroom.

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