Quick guide to second language teaching approaches

The oral-situational approach

Originating in the 1920s and 1930s when linguists such as Harold Palmer and A.S Hornby took the direct method and from it developed a more scientific approach for teaching languages through an oral approach. It was well-established in Britain by the 1950s, although many teachers were still relying mainly on grammar-translation well beyond then. With the oral approach vocabulary is limited and based on frequency counts from the language being studied. Grammar is also selected and graded by difficulty and presented and practised principally through question and answer. It remains at the core of many courses which are structured primarily on the basis of structural complexity, beginning with the simplest and working through to the most complex.

In this approach, which became by the 1960s closely related to the situational approach (language presented in the context of real life situations, thus making it seem more relevant to learners), language is normally presented orally first, exploiting repetition, drilling and question-answer, then reinforced with reading and writing tasks. What results is a form of artificial classroom communication. Course books from this period made greater use of pictures as a basis for communication.

Grammatical rules and linguistic competence are induced through practice and with the aid of explanation. Nearly all teaching is done in the target language. Critics would say that this approach, whilst stressing the targte language, does not give sufficient emphasis to genuine communication so remains rather unmotivating.

The audio-lingual approach

Audiolingualism , a term first coined in 1964, took elements of the US army approach of the second world war, the post war oral approach emphasising drilling of grammatical structures and the insights of behaviourist learning theory. Dialogues and drills form the basis of this essentially oral method, so similarities with the British oral approach are apparent. Correct pronunciation, accuracy and mastery of structural patterns are stressed. Tape recordings and illustrations are used to support oral practice. A whole range of drilling types exist: repetition, replacement of one word by another, gap-filling, sentence transformation and so on. These practice techniques are commonplace today.

The emphasis is on acquisition through practice rather than analysis, although this may come after practice. Real communication takes a relatively small role, even less than with the Oral Approach. The linguistic theory underlying the method is that learning occurs through habit and repetition. The approach was well-suited to emerging technologies such as the language laboratory.

Critics would say that the approach was dull and repetitive, undervaluing real communication and the role of analysis.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)

From the 1970s this was a reaction against the oral-situational and audio-lingual approaches which, with their stress on grammatical structure, neglected the functional and communicative value of language. In its weaker form it is not unlike the Oral-Situational Approach, but offers greater opportunities for genuine communication (information gaps, pair work, problem-solving games etc). In its stronger from it abandons grammatical structure and relies on the idea that language will be picked up just by communication. In this sense it sounds rather like a direct method.

Course books reflecting this approach will stress the functions of language (e.g. apologising, persuading, arguing, negotiating) at the expense of detailed grammatical practice or analysis.
This approach maybe better suited to learners in a bilingual rather than school setting. One type of CLT is Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT) where the main focus is on creating purposeful, life-like tasks for students to do in class, again with a focus on meaning far more than grammatical form.

Critics would say the lack of focus on grammar and analysis is confusing to students and that the approach may suit some contexts better than others.

The natural/comprehensible input approach (CI)

Popular in the USA, this approach is based on the notion that the second language is acquired very much like one’s native tongue. What is required for progress is “comprehensible input”. If learners hear or read language they can understand, nature will take its course and competence will increase. By this approach it is even argued that focus on grammar and accuracy could hinder progress since it would be time taken away from the main goal of providing input. Focus on form, it is argued, can increase accuracy but will not aid acquisition.

The main focus with this approach would be on listening and reading for meaning, with relatively less emphasis on pattern practice and grammatical accuracy.

This sounds very much like the Direct Method as espoused at the turn of the twentieth century. In practice it is likely that teachers using a natural, “comprehension” approach have much in common with those who use a communicative or oral approach.

One branch of this approach is the Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) which has gained a fair bit of traction in the USA in particular.


This was the approach used in most schools up to the 1950s and beyond. It is based on no linguistic theory, but evolved from approaches used in the teaching of Latin. The second language is viewed as a system to be gradually mastered, from the simple to the complex, by analysis and translation.

Similarities and differences between the first and second language are stressed. The written language is prioritised and there is little or no emphasis on speaking and listening.

The aim is to build up a strong grammatical and reading knowledge of the second language. There is little attempt to get learners to internalise structures for oral use. It is approach which some learners find satisfying and used in small doses it may supplement other methods, especially if the emphasis needs to be on accuracy.

Students who learned by this approach often report that they are unable to cope with spoken language.


The twentieth century saw rapid developments in linguistic and learning theory. Each new approach to second language reflected the thinking of the time. No one method is best. Learners have varying strengths and preferences, settings vary (young pupil, older pupil, adult learner, business person, overseas student).

Today, in most settings, it is likely that a principled eclectic approach will be used, with the best elements of all the above methods. At the very least we safely say that for progress to be made a good deal of the target language needs to be heard, read and used. Focus on structure and accuracy usually assists progress and students like to have an understanding of how the language works.

Further reading:

Approaches and methods in Language Teaching. Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers, Cambridge, 2001 (second edition)