10 Flexible Language Teaching Approaches That Are Totally Approachable

Ever heard the saying, “There’s more than one way to crack an egg”?

For the flexible language teacher, that’s certainly the case.

They can deftly weave through the challenges of teaching like Jackie Chan.

They have a blast with any random props that happen to be in sight, and come up with new ideas at the drop of a hat.

Would you like to be so nimble and flexible that you can surmount any challenge that comes up in the classroom?

Would you like to be the teacher students turn to when they really want to learn?

Then you’ll have to be familiar with the tried and tested teaching approaches that have been in development ever since chalk was invented. In this post, we look at 10 of those. Use them right and be the best teacher that you can be.

But before we go into the approaches, we’ll first look into four distinct theoretical orientations for teaching language that back them up and bolster them.

How the Different Approaches Differ?

The approaches that will be presented here have overarching assumptions and philosophies that they’re based on.

In short, they are what they are because of a set of beliefs held by their proponents.

The different teaching approaches in this post can be classified into four theoretical orientations: structural, cognitive, psychological and functional.

Let’s look at each perspective briefly.

  • Structural

Structural approaches believe that language can be reduced to a learnable set of building blocks. There are rules, known as grammar and syntax, that govern how to combine these basic elements. These rules can be memorized to achieve a high level of proficiency in a language.

Some proponents would even go so far as saying that there’s a predetermined sequence in which a language should be learned. Grammar textbooks are the most commonly used material in this category.

  • Cognitive

The cognitive perspective in learning a language puts the learner smack in the center of everything. Cognitive approaches look to answer questions like: How can a language be effectively learned? How does one make a set of vocabulary words memorable and get them embedded in the long-term memory?

According to this kind of approach, the techniques, strategies and even the sequence of lessons are learner-led and can’t be predetermined. Learning a language is a conscious, rational, information-processing event.

  • Psychological

Here, language learning is seen through issues like learner motivation and predisposition, a location’s conduciveness to learning, teacher-student dynamics, stress levels, etc. Is the teacher supportive enough to the students? Is the classroom dynamic facilitating or inhibiting the acquisition of the language?

Many of the insights in this category are borrowed from counseling and social psychology.

  • Functional/Communicative

Functional approaches often emphasize spoken language over written language, and profess that language isn’t a set of grammar rules but rather a tool for communication. This has tremendous implications for the types of activities or the materials employed.

Anything that lies outside the ambit of passing on meaningful information is just unneeded complication. Communicative approaches often eschew grammar textbooks in exchange for speaking drills and question-and-answer interactions where students get a feel for what speaking the language in conversation is really like.

Now that we know the four broad categories that the approaches are based on, next we’ll discuss the approaches that can animate the events that happen inside the classroom.

Keep in mind that each activity may not fall neatly into one category. It may blend two or more of these categories. In fact, you might adopt one approach and add elements of unrelated categories to it!

Bottom line, don’t become strict about how these approaches are employed in the classroom, just be aware of what they are and how they’re best used.

10 Tried, Tested and Trusted Language Teaching Approaches

You’ll likely notice that the approaches have some interesting relationships with each other. They overlap, support, complement and even contradict each other.

It’s safe to say that no single approach can answer all of every teacher’s questions, so it’s in your best interest to be open-minded enough to try all of them and begin to see which one works best in which situations.

They all do have their own merits and minuses. It’s up to you, the teacher, to use the proper approach to get the job done given your unique classroom and assortment of students.

1. Grammar-translation Approach

This is the scene: A teacher stands in front of the class, telling her students to turn their textbooks to chapter four, “Verbs and Tenses.” She writes on the board the different ways of forming the past tense of verbs. She lists the general rules, and this list is promptly followed by—you’ve guessed it—the exceptions to the rules, those special cases that make grammar so exciting.

This is the classic way of teaching language. It began as a method to teach Latin and Greek and was generalized to teach any second language. The Grammar-translation Approach uses the students’ native language to teach the target language.

If you’re over 30, have ever learned language via the textbook or have spent many a night memorizing a list of 30 foreign words, you’ve experienced the Grammar-translation Approach.

Grammar and vocabulary are memorized rote. Plenty of written examples and drills are given where grammar rules are elegantly observed:

The dog is black.

The cats are cute.

The approach has strong structural underpinnings and the emphasis is on the correct use of grammar, regardless of the substance or context. The Grammar-translation Approach is best when the goal is for the students to read/write the target language, as well as appreciate its literature.

2. Direct Approach

Okay, turn Grammar-translation Approach on its head. What do you get?

Right. We have the Direct Approach. It’s a response to the Grammar-translation school and, this time, rather than the written form, the emphasis is on the spoken language and the development of oral skills.

Grammar isn’t taught explicitly but is learned inductively by the students through repeated exposure to the spoken language. Activities like pantomiming, word-picture association, question-answer patterns, dialogues and role playing give the students the chance to figure out the rules for themselves. And good news for your students—there are no grammar drills or analyses of written sentences.

Oh, and by the way, only the target language is used in class. That’s a biggie. As teacher, you won’t use the students’ mother tongue to teach concepts. Listening and comprehension thus become central to this approach. There are no vocabulary lists to memorize, but there are a lot of words and phrases to listen for and become more familiar with.

All things considered, it wouldn’t be hard to understand why the Direct Approach has also been called as “The Anti-grammatical Method” and “Reform Method.”

3. Reading Approach

This is a very specific approach designed for a specific type of language learner.

The type of student that most appreciates this method probably never intends to interact with native speakers in the target language. She may be a psychology doctoral candidate studying German in order to understand the experts in her field. Or she may be a culinary student whose only desire is to make lots of delicious food and understand the French techniques in her gastronomie book.

A student like this requires only one linguistic skill: Reading comprehension.

So you do away with pronunciation and dialogues. Vocabulary words are learned in context. The little grammar that you teach must be oriented towards understanding a piece of reading. You need to teach elements like conjunctions, which nestles phrases and sentences together, and negation, which changes the meaning of a sentence by 180 degrees.

In the Reading Approach, learning a language is employed as a means to a higher end. This approach has both structural and functional underpinnings.

4. Audiolingual Approach

This approach is also known as “The Army Method.” At the height of the events in World War II, military personnel needed to learn the languages of allies and enemies alike as they swept through the fields of Europe and Asia.

The approach, which blossomed in the 50s and 60s, is all about structural patterns. Proponents believe that a language can be reduced to a basic set of sounds. Combine them and you have spoken words. Those words, when phonetically joined, become phrases and later become sentences.

Unlike the Reading Approach, the Audiolingual Approach gives higher priority to the spoken form than the written form. Classes are generally held using the target language.

Activities like role playing are dialogues are drilled into students until they get the pronunciations and rhythm right. And because Audiolingualism borrows from the behaviorist school of psychology, languages are taught through a system of reinforcement.

A single word like “Good!” with a pat on the back, a clap from the class, a star on her paper are some of the reinforcements used. (Side note: How do we know if something is a “reinforcement”? Answer: If it makes the students feel good about themselves or about the situation, then it is one.)

Mistakes on the other hand, are quickly, but gently corrected. The end goal is the forming of linguistic speaking habits through correct repetitions.

5. Communicative Approach

What good would it do any of your students if they know all the different ways of conjugating a verb but fail to communicate a coherent message?

Communication is essentially the rationale for language and the Communicative Approach seeks to develop those skills that enable students to meaningfully engage with each other.

Interactive activities are the hallmark of this approach. As the teacher, your responsibility is to give the students as much opportunity to give and receive meaningful communication as possible. For example, you can let students introduce themselves, share their hobbies using the target language. Instead of just presenting the language, you’re giving them a task that can only be accomplished by using the target language.

The difference between statements shared in a round of show and tell and those found in textbooks is that the former are much more meaningful to your students. They’re purposeful and in context—not a list of discordant sentences used to illustrate a rule of grammar. Authentic materials are used every so often.

A poster touting a concert or a flyer about some huge sale at a mall can be fertile ground for learning. In the Communicative Approach, students experience the target language as experienced by native speakers.

6. The Silent Way

Imagine a teacher who talks as little as possible.

You better believe it’s more than a fantasy. Proponents of this “alternative” approach believe that teaching too much can sometimes get in the way of learning. It’s argued that students learn best when they discover rather than simply repeat what the teacher said.

The Silent Way uses silence as a teaching tool. Your students might feel you’re giving them the silent treatment if you don’t keep things friendly and explain the process to them. You’re really encouraging them to do the talking themselves.

You’re encouraging learners to be independent, to discover and figure out the language for themselves. Learning the target language is therefore seen as a creative, problem-solving process—a engaging cognitive challenge.

So how does one teach in silence?

Well, because you talk as little as possible, you need to employ plenty of gestures and facial expressions to communicate with your students. You can also use props.

A commonly used prop option is Cuisenaire Rods—rods of different color and lengths. In an English class for example, you can pick up any rod and say, “rod.” Pick another one, point at it and say “rod.” Keep on repeating until students understand that “rod” refers to the objects in front of them.

Then pick a green one and say, “green rod.” With an economy of words, point to something else green and say, “green.” Keep on repeating until students get that “green” refers to the color.

7. Community Language Learning

It’s called Community Language Learning because the class learns together as one unit. Not listening to the same lecture, but interacting in the target language. The teacher’s role is that of a counselor, a guide, an encourager.

Here’s what might happen in an innovative CLL class: Students sit in a circle. Because the approach is learner-led, there’s no set lesson for the day. The students decide what they want to talk about. Someone might say, “Guys, why don’t we talk about the weather?” That student will then turn to the teacher (who’s standing outside the circle) and ask for the translation of his statement. The teacher, acting as facilitator, will give him the translation and ask him to utter it out loud. She’ll guide his pronunciation at the same time. The class, listening to the teacher and student, are already learning from the interaction.

When the teacher is satisfied that the first student got the pronunciations right, she’ll deliver her statement to the group again. (There’s a recorder standing by to record the first line of conversation.)

After that, another student might chime in to say, “I had to wear three layers today.” She then turns to the teacher for help. The process is repeated until a whole conversation is saved in the recorder.

This conversation is then transcribed and mined for language lessons featuring grammar, vocabulary and subject-related content.

In this approach, the students work as a community—learning together and negotiating the lessons. Your role as a teacher is to encourage them to open up, participate in the discussion and contribute to the whole process.

8. Functional-notional Approach

The Functional-notional Approach recognizes language as purposeful communication. That is, we talk because we need to communicate something. There’s purpose and meaning behind the sounds that come out of our mouths.

In essence, we have verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives and so on in order to express language functions and notions.

When we speak, we do it to inform, persuade, insinuate, agree, question, request, evaluate and perform other “functions.” We do it to talk about concepts (“notions”) like time, events, action, place, technology, process, emotion, etc.

So a teacher’s first stop when using this approach is to evaluate how the students will be using the language.

For example, when teaching very young kids, you might want to teach them language skills that would help them communicate with mommy and daddy, or with their friends. So, you can teach them key social phrases like “thank you,” “please” or “may I borrow.”

When dealing with business professionals, a different syllabus would be in order. You might want to teach them formal forms of the language, how to delegate tasks, how to vocally appreciate a job well done. You could create role playing scenarios where students get a basic feel for typical workplace situations. For example, in a marketplace situation, you can teach functions like asking a question, expressing interest or negotiating a deal. Notions involved could be about prices, quality or quantity.

You can certainly teach grammar and sentence patterns, but they’re always subsumed by the purpose for which language is used.

9. Natural Approach

The Natural Approach takes its cues from how first language is naturally learned by children. That process is then simulated for teaching adults a second language.

Just as there’s a “silent period” when babies don’t utter a single comprehensible word, the Natural Approach gives time for learners to simply listen and absorb the language. Producing correctly pronounced words and phrases comes later in the learning curve. The emergence of speech isn’t a first priority. Listening comprehension is the priority.

So, early on in the process, students don’t need to speak at all. They have to observe, to read the situation, to guess the meanings of words, to make mistakes and self-correct, just like babies!

In addition, the Natural Approach sees a difference between “learning” and “acquisition.”

Learning a language requires textbooks, grammar lessons and rote memory. Acquiring a language only requires an immersive process of repetition, correction and recall. While other methods have teachers leading students in a choral pronunciation of words written on a board, the Natural Approach has the teacher bouncing a ball and repeatedly saying “ball.” She’s also showing them pictures of different kinds of “balls.” She has the class play a game with the object. Or she hides the object and says, “find the ball!”

The Natural Approach believes that the more the students lose themselves in the activity, the better their handle on the language will be.

10. Total Physical Response

Total Physical Response is an approach to language teaching where gestures, actions and movements play a vital role in language acquisition.

Remember when you were a kid and adults would tell you to do all kinds of things, like “catch the ball,” “pick up your doll” or “open your mouth”? Well, TPR is going back to those good old days.

TPR believes that when your students see movement and when they themselves move, their brains create more neural connections that make for more efficient language acquisition.

That’s why, when you teach TPR, you’ll be flailing your hands a lot, widening your eyes and moving your body. This isn’t so you can catch up on your exercise. This is to teach your students basic language skills.

After demonstrating several times what “jump” looks like, for example, you’d then ask students to perform the action themselves. Guess what, this won’t only invigorate them, but will also make the word “jump” so memorable they’ll find it very hard to forget.

Another pillar of this approach is that learning a language should be stress free. Pop quizzes and exams are dropped in exchange for fun activities like “Simon Says” where you ask students to perform actions like “close your eyes,” “raise your left arm” or “pick up the red ball.”

With TPR, it’s like having an ice-breaker all the time. Your class would be so fun that word will get around.


So those are 10 approaches that could serve as guides to your teaching endeavors.

Like I said, they do overlap and there’s not one method for the language teacher. You now have 10 roads to take.

My advice is, take all of them, and have a blast while at it. My hope is that you’ll positively impact your students through what has been outlined here.

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