foreign language teaching methodology

The Key Foreign Language Teaching Methodologies and How to Choose the Best for You

Why do you teach?

How do you teach?

Why do you teach the way you teach?

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 do?

If not, now is the time! And here’s why: If you know the history of how your 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 particular classroom.

The Foreign Language Teaching Methodologies That You Should Know

Grammar-translation

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 languages.

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” communication.

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.

Direct

The direct method, also known as the 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.

Audio-lingual

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.”

Immersion

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.

The quintessential TPR activity still used in modern foreign language classrooms today is Simon Says.

Communicative

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

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 theme.

Other Methods

Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) — There are a number of commercial products (PimsleurRosetta Stone, the Michael Thomas Method) and online products (DuolingoBabbel) 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.
  • Community Language Learning, where the instructor serves as a counselor rather than as an instructor.
  • Language analysis/awareness, a retrograde approach that concentrates on analyzing language data sets instead of actively using language in the classroom.

How to Choose the Best Foreign Language Teaching Methodology

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 the direct method.

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 that approach.

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!


Jonathan Ludwig has 25 years of foreign language teaching experience. He has successfully directed language programs, taught and mentored current and future teachers, and is always looking for new and exciting ways to engage and educate his 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 transcripts.

Top Apps for Learning Spanish

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.

Chinese Idioms with FluentU

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.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.

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